Recently, companies ranging from Chobani to Verizon to Chipotle have realized that improving workers’ financial wellness not only benefits employees, but also improves business outcomes — productivity to customer satisfaction to innovation.
The creation of financial wellness initiatives is an innovative step forward, but there’s a tool companies already have that can help prioritize employee financial security for no additional cost — the financial advisor.
The move from the defined benefit plans of the late 1940s and 1950s (pension, annuity, etc.) to defined contributions such as 401(k)s and 403(b)s transferred the responsibility and the investment risk mainly to the employee. Financial advisors stand in a unique position to help change the quality of worker’s lives and improve commercial outcomes at the same time.
Companies can help employees continue their financial journey by offering the opportunity for financial advice in addition to different financial concepts, investments and insurance vehicles. Currently, financial advising is often an underutilized resource. HR departments bring in vendors to present 401(k) platforms, but employees know little about where their money is going or why.
Take my own experience. I started out my career at a larger-sized company with a 401(k), but retirement was far from my mind. I did the minimum default option and thereby short-changed my financial future. My advisor-self wishes that 25-year-old me had someone there to guide him toward a holistic, tax-efficient retirement plan.
In addition to the above tried-and-true retirement plans, fiduciaries can help employees consider complementary financial vehicles that may make better long-term sense. Every employee is unique and deserves an individualized and solid retirement plan. A fiduciary can help create that plan as part of their service. A cookie-cutter, tax-deferred savings plan coupled with Social Security or other pension may still handle the “heavy lifting,” but vehicles may actually create a more efficient path to the household’s unique financial reality. Even investors who feel that they don’t have enough money to start can benefit from one-on-one care.
Employers have both commercial and ethical reasons for stepping up with financial advising. After years of treating employees as costs to be minimized, many companies are waking up to the need to attract talent and build up their “employer brand.”
With some creativity and attention to what employees need, retirement benefits can become an important differentiator in the talent marketplace. Companies attract and retain talented people by investing in them wisely. Throughout the business world, significant amounts are spent on 401(k)-matching and related benefits, but the take-it-or-leave-it offer can be unnecessarily limiting. By offering financial advising, employers help their people put those resources to good use. This more individualized and personal relationship builds company loyalty and incentive in employees.
Financial advising can maximize the impact of what the company already spends on its employees. Pamela Najera, the former head of the Arizona Chapter of the National Safety Council, points out that “with the right education [from a good financial advisor] and the support from upper management, you are creating an atmosphere of security.”
There’s also a moral imperative for companies to make sure people are managing the risk of defined contribution retirement plans wisely. Caring companies take care of their employees. Benefits plans have largely shifted from being completely handled by the employer, but employees still have limited knowledge around the ins and outs of their financial health. Simply put, they don’t know what they don’t know. By encouraging them to work with a knowledgeable, dependable advisor (a fiduciary), employers can help open their employees’ eyes to a wide variety of financial vehicles that can ensure a secure future.
This kind of care is something that all fiduciaries — who by definition are obligated to have the employee first and foremost in mind — should be willing to do. Companies that already offer financial advising as a free side benefit should strongly encourage (not require) each employee to have an initial on-site, face-to-face meeting with a fiduciary to go over the employee’s specific circumstances and plan. Opting out or using a different advisor would be entirely at the employee’s discretion.
Companies that offer a vendor-managed 401(k) plan without financial advising can work with the vendor to offer the face-to-face option. Most vendors are likely to do this at no added cost because of the potential to complete a financial plan. Even companies (usually smaller) that offer no retirement benefits can consider bringing in an advisor to encourage employees to plan for their futures.
It’s important to remember that companies can utilize financial advising in a holistic way, starting slowly and building momentum as people begin to make sense of their options. Ideally, this advice can be offered year-round, not just during the benefit enrollment period.
Employees will gain a new-found appreciation of what their employer offers while also understanding the big picture in terms of their own financial future. When fiduciaries go the extra mile, whether it’s by knowing clients’ names and particular circumstances or being available by phone and offering specific time to meet with clients, they can change people’s lives and help ensure more loyal, productive and innovative employees. It’s not a high-tech innovation, but it’s a profound one.
Aaron Schram is a fiduciary and wealth management advisor in Scottsdale, Arizona, affiliated with the Raymond James network.