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Ethics in Total Rewards |

The Beneficence of 'Knowing What's Best'

Beneficence” is an ethical concept and is used across many industries in organizations’ codes of conduct. The basic idea is to maximize a person’s well-being and to minimize harms. In medicine, physicians have a moral obligation to use their specialized skills and knowledge to act on behalf of the good of patients and to minimize the harms of disease, injury and mistreatment.

Like a physician with her patient, an organization may act with beneficence as it pertains to its workers. While that doesn’t necessarily mean the employer is obligated to provide discretionary benefits to its employees, the same general principle applies: to maximize well-being and minimize harms, even where no benefit plans are available.

Beneficence can be achieved through employer-sponsored benefits programs, but it is not dependent on them. A company could find no economic benefit in offering health insurance as far as increasing productivity, reducing turnover, or filling jobs, for example, but can still treat its employees with respect by helping them find coverage in a public marketplace. A decision not to provide group health insurance alone does not mean the organization is failing to meet moral obligations.

Although the decision to offer benefits is not necessarily an ethical dilemma, there are certainly ethical issues in how to administer benefits programs — one of which is providing autonomy to employees.

Certain workforce trends like increasing cost of healthcare and an aging population combined with concerns about the long-term viability of public retirement programs are directly related to benefits. Despite these macro trends, employees tend not to participate optimally in benefits programs for which they are eligible. In fact, studies consistently show workers are underutilizing retirement accounts, health savings accounts and disability insurance, often because they do not properly understand how they work or what advantages they provide.

Employers and rewards professionals know this from experience. And like a physician working with a patient, they are in position to tell employees what to do, provide expert recommendations and proactive education, or maybe even go as far as to make decisions on their behalf.

But we tend to reject the notion of being paternalistic and overly involved in employees’ individual benefits choices. Instead, we use tools like automatic 401(k) enrollment, open enrollment communication campaigns, and, in some cases, access to free or discounted financial advice —to nudge people in the right direction without force.

The “nudge” approach shows respect to an employee’s individual autonomy: a person’s right to choose, even if they make the wrong choices. The best medicine for bad decision-making is to provide resources and education for employees to make the right choices with their benefits. Being too prescriptive doesn’t help; providing knowledge and information is better, especially since organizations are no longer “employers for life.” Accordingly, the benefits picture for anyone can change quite frequently throughout a career.

Is an employer being “unethical” by not offering common benefits plans to employees? If an employer does offer benefits to employees, do you agree that it has certain obligations to share information and give advice about how to use them effectively?

Brock Meyer Bio Image

Brock Meyer is a compensation consultant with a background in moral philosophy. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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