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8/1/16 3:26 PM

Unclaimed Property Mojo: How to Get People Engaged and Processes Running Smoothly

by Jon D’Amato

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Most companies know they are only as good as the people who run them, from frontline staff to executive leaders. In the unclaimed property world, it’s worth taking some time to understand what can be done to enhance the efforts of unclaimed property management and process teams.

A company like MarketSphere can take on many unclaimed property tasks for you. However, even with outside help, the more engaged and confident your staff, the more successful, efficient and effective this important business function will be within your organization.

Putting some thought into the motivation and preparation of your staff can save considerable amounts of time and money — especially for companies with large amounts of unclaimed property.

Understanding the Challenges Faced by Unclaimed Property Staff

The challenges of unclaimed property management and processing span all levels of employees in your organization.

  • The complexity and potential financial ramifications of escheatment laws can catch senior management completely unaware.
  • Unclaimed property and escheatment compliance requirements can be overwhelming for finance and accounting managers.
  • Clerical staff are often held accountable for day-to-day due diligence and reporting tasks in addition to all of their regular jobs — and sometimes they aren’t given the training they need to really understand what they need to do.

To make matters worse, unclaimed property has a higher profile than in times past. This is, in part, because states are auditing more. With increased enforcement, companies must understand their risk profile in order to be able to determine how to handle their unclaimed property reporting obligations, both retroactively and for the future. But that’s easier said than done if no one in your organization has the experience they need to carry out the job, or if there is not enough time to do it right.

Some holders have an unwillingness to recognize the importance of unclaimed property in the operation of the company. Unfortunately, unclaimed property is not escapable. It’s a necessary evil. If ignored, it can truly become a problem.

Many finance or accounting professionals who are assigned to unclaimed property compliance have either never heard of it before or have thought of it as a small checkbox on their list of things to do.

It could be easy to overlook the seriousness of potential unclaimed property liability or believe it’s the state’s responsibility to communicate with your company about unclaimed property and to believe ignorance excuses misreporting.

In fact, unclaimed property might give you no headaches at all until you are targeted for audit. Then, as many organizations have discovered, it can become a serious headache with far-reaching repercussions.

The solution to most of these problems begins with people — placing the right people in the right roles to manage your unclaimed property, and then providing your unclaimed property team with the tools and resources they need to do their jobs well.

Members of Your Unclaimed Property Team

First, let’s look at who the members of your unclaimed property team are likely to be. Some of the most important players include:

  • Knowledgeable accounting or finance staff members and managers who know the records systems
  • IT personnel who understand the technology
  • An unclaimed property “champion” to help you get the message to higher-level executives
  • Executives who are responsible for related expenditures
  • C-level leaders who need to be informed of potential impact to the firm
  • Legal staff and/or outside attorneys, to set up policies and support your organization in the event of an audit
  • Outsourced unclaimed property specialists to share knowledge and take on part of the burden, so your staff can focus on other core business objectives

Now, think about what it must be like for personnel who have not worked with unclaimed property before to suddenly be assigned this task. It’s certainly true that unclaimed property can at first seem simple — aren’t we just tallying up stale-dated property and turning it in to the states?

Due to complex and varied laws among the states, as well as continual changes in legislation, unclaimed property management and legwork can be much more complicated than expected. It’s even worse if team members don’t have the tools and support they need to do their jobs efficiently.

Let’s look at the challenges of unclaimed property from a personal point of view — from the point of view of your staff. Difficulties include:

  • Stress and confusion of learning the complexities of unclaimed property legislation and reporting
  • Prioritizing time to stay educated on the ever-changing reporting requirements of 55 jurisdictions
  • Creating and maintaining an unclaimed property program that includes areas of the business that previously have had little or no exposure (e.g., payables, receivables, payroll, benefits, securities, rebates, gift cards, merchandise credits, suspense accounts, etc.)
  • Understanding which properties need to be reported and which properties can be categorized as exemptions; ensure the company is not over or under reporting
  • Difficulty of using outdated records systems to find and isolate stale-dated properties
  • Frustration of maintaining an unclaimed property program with other core business objectives
  • Hindrance of learning a business function for which there is little formal training available

Provide Support to Get Your Unclaimed Property Team on Track

Unclaimed property team members are people too! A little consideration and support can go a long way to not only helping your staff become more knowledgeable and skilled in managing unclaimed property, but also understanding why things are being done the way they are and feeling motivated to help.

In a best case scenario, unclaimed property team members become proficient at this job and begin to find unique ways to create more efficiency and effectiveness for the benefit of the company. Also, once unclaimed property policies and processes are running smoothly, risks and negative impacts shrink.

Support provided to unclaimed property team members usually falls into one of the following categories:

Teambuilding. The companies that most successfully assimilate unclaimed property into their day-to-day management begin by forming an unclaimed property management team. There are many benefits to forming a team — not all that different from the benefits of forming any other team. Team members can share knowledge and support one another when there are gaps in knowledge, when people take time off and when there are spikes in the workload.

Look for team members with solid process skills and specific unclaimed property experience, as well as general skills, such as detail orientation, organization and communication. Especially if team members will be requesting data from other business units, it’s helpful if they are respected and trusted by their colleagues.

Workflow. Make sure team assignments are clear and specific. Assign project coordinators to each task or category of tasks, and ensure that team members’ assignments align efficiently with each other. Laying the groundwork in this way will reduce the team’s stress and increase their motivation and confidence.

Create streamlined processes for assigning and carrying out work. If you’re just coming into compliance, your team will first undertake special projects to get your systems in order. Each project should belong to a staff member or outside advisor who is best suited to act as a project coordinator for the task.

Contingency plans. Anticipate employee turnover. It’s important to cross train a number of employees, so they are prepared to assist one another and even take over IN the event one of the team members is missing.

The most important contingency plans are those you put in place to support your team during an audit. Start now to avoid having to pull things together quickly under pressure. The consequences of neglecting preplanning can be too great!

Build support. It’s no mystery that working hard — especially within a complex discipline such as unclaimed property — is all that much harder if leadership does not support or at least understand the challenges being faced by your team.

Get decision makers on board to support system changes, staff allocations, professional services and new processes, as well as approving the budgets to support these functions. This will not only increase motivation and loyalty of your unclaimed property team members, but also can save your organization a great deal of time, money and headaches in the long run.

Outsource to the experts. It’s not possible for your staff to instantly learn everything they need to know to properly fulfill unclaimed property reporting requirements. Even if you have experienced unclaimed property personnel on staff, there are still functions of unclaimed property management that are most efficiently handled by expert unclaimed property specialists outside of your company. Make sure you find advisors who use a consultative style, and work with you as a business partner, to enhance your staff’s ability to minimize their unclaimed property processes, while ensuring and maintaining the integrity of the program rather than simply taking orders and delivering services.

In our experience with hundreds of clients, it has been proven that the cost of outsourced services often is not that much more in the long run than trying to accomplish processing in-house. In addition, the amount of experience gained by your outside advisors can be invaluable for setting up systems, identifying potentially damaging conditions, and especially handling the complexities and frustrations of an unclaimed property audit.

Policies and procedures. One of the best ways to support your staff is to give them the knowledge and resources they need to help control the confusions and complexities of unclaimed property. Begin by establishing clear, efficient policies and procedures to minimize the effect of unclaimed property. Consider publishing an unclaimed property handbook staff can use as a reference. This can be especially valuable in transferring responsibility during turnover.

Include standard calendars to control compliance activities during each reporting cycle. This will help staff anticipate upcoming deadlines, as well as help them understand priorities at a glance and make it easier to explain potential risk and costs to decision-makers. All of these measures and more like them can save time and money by making the process smooth, so no effort is wasted and you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.

Tools. Make sure staff has the tools they need to create an effective unclaimed property and escheatment infrastructure. This includes building secure, transparent, and accurate data capture and analysis systems to support specific unclaimed property compliance needs. Work with IT to sort data, keep it clean and move stale-dated accounts to separate repositories, where they can be managed more easily.

Specialized unclaimed property software can greatly reduce the burden on staff. These dedicated programs provide many options to fit your organization’s unique needs, from automatically identifying stale-dated property to calculating potential liability in the event your organization is selected for audit.

Training. The ROI of training has been clearly proven over the many years we have worked with unclaimed property holders of many sizes from a wide variety of industries. Even if your staff works with unclaimed property advisors like those at MarketSphere, basic training in unclaimed property is a must to ensure your team members are effective.

It’s difficult to find formal training in this area. Look for workshops, webinars and seminars in related industries, such as tax law and accounting. Work with your human resources department to create specialized training that might include internal seminars taught by your outsourced experts. An ongoing benefit of this is custom training specifically to help your team members operate as effective liaisons with the unclaimed property specialists.

Increasing Unclaimed Property Staff Knowledge

As time goes on, it’s important to continue providing resources to help unclaimed property team members grow with the unclaimed property industry. This means increasing knowledge of your unclaimed property staff as changes are made in legislation and precedents are set through litigation.

Here are some additional ways to help your team members increase their understanding of the inner workings of unclaimed property:

  • Association websites (UPPO, NAUPA, COST and others)
  • Webinars
  • White papers and e-books
  • Regular blogs and newsletters
  • Interaction with unclaimed property professionals who have extensive experience (online forums, conferences, outsourced unclaimed property specialists)
  • Exclusive training from your professional unclaimed property specialists

In addition, make allowances for staff to share with one another regularly. This might include monthly meetings, weekly updates, team memos and shared materials.

Support Your Unclaimed Property Staff, and They Will Support You

Unclaimed property management can be a thankless job sometimes, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a painful job. Implement supportive actions like those within this white paper to let your unclaimed property team know you’ve got their backs.

Help them gain the tools they need to do their jobs well. Help them get their unclaimed property mojo! In the end, your motivated unclaimed property team will be able to do what it takes to support the organization.

Topics: Best Practices, Staffing