Effective Retirement Plan Communications

My blog post entitled "Simplifying Retirement Planning Communications" resonated with readers. It's no surprise that there are still discussions about how best to improve the information provided to participants. Given the amount of litigation alleging lack of transparency, sponsors are wise to offer understandable documents that can be used by employees and retirees to make financial decisions. According to "Improved Retirement Plan Communication Can Boost Confidence" (Plan Sponsor, December 15, 2016), it's not just content but the delivery format as well. Companies are adding more retirement readiness tools to their websites, even if participants are sometimes slow to take advantage.

Financial literacy is another issue that challenges employers and participants alike. Even when adequate information is available, the recipient may be unable to digest product descriptions or performance reports. In his write-up entitled "401(k) Communication Challenges," Dr. Richard Glass bemoans the low rate of financial literacy and its negative impact on saving. His take is that defined contribution plan sponsors "have not recognized that the participants' sense of distrust and their lack of knowledge can easily create a mindset that is conducive to inaction." He uses target date fund disclosures to exemplify his view that more should be done to put participants at ease and thereby motivate them to better prepare for life after work. His suggestions include the following:

  • Don't sugar coat the issue of risk but instead make it known that no product is free of uncertainty;
  • Emphasize that calculations are based on assumptions;
  • Hold "educational sessions that explain to participants why arriving at the assumptions involves a lot of crystal ball gazing and why, in spite of that fact, assumptions still have to be made" for purposes of forecasting; and
  • Supply "gap analyses that show participants how many years they can expect to receive their targeted inflation-adjusted incomes at their current contribution rates."

I agree that strengthening financial literacy is essential although I am not particularly sanguine about getting everyone quickly up to speed on concepts such as diversification and risk measurement. That's not to say that employers should look the other way. To the contrary, they should act even though some organizations will have to do more work then others. As I explain in another blog post, grade 12 proficiency in reading and math is abysmally low in the United States. Anyone who gets hired with a poor grasp of such basics may struggle with learning even elementary investing ideas. See "Employers Worry About Skills Gap That Impacts Bottom Line" (January 7, 2017).

Despite the fact that companies spent nearly $71 billion in 2015 on training, chances are those expenses will increase. Realistically, shareholders and taxpayers may have little choice but to foot the bill for further education of anyone not yet able to understand what it means to save now for later on. The Aegon Retirement Readiness Survey 2016 finds that "[A]round the world, many workers are heavily reliant on government benefits and are not saving enough to adequately fund their retirement income needs." Obviously there is no time like the present to prioritize thrift and prudent investing.

Simplifying Retirement Planning Communications

For many people, retirement planning tends to be an exercise in frustration. Some complaints focus on numbers that seek to dazzle without enlightening. Others call out language that is overly long, complex and ambiguous. The author of "HR communications falls short" (Benefits Pro, November 10, 2015) references a Davis & Company survey that validates employee angst as follows:

  • About compensation, only one out of four persons were satisfied with documents they received;
  • Regarding benefits, only fifteen percent said they were adequately apprised; and
  • Nearly ninety percent of survey-takers said they had not been provided sufficient intelligence about performance management.

These results are not good news for anyone. Shareholders are paying a company's staff to convey important information to retain and attract talented workers. If that's not happening, money is being wasted and that erodes enterprise value. It's likewise problematic for active employees and retirees. Without meaningful instructions and data, they are ill-equipped to make decisions about how to save and select benefits. As a forensic economist, I've worked on multiple matters that addressed the frequency, magnitude and clarity of participant communications. It's a real issue and costly when the task of communicating is done poorly.

Unfortunately, even when arguably clear and copious guidance is made available by an employer, some may resist reading and/or asking questions. As former Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Clements points out in "Don't Bother Reading This" (November 18, 2016), certain persons are focused on today and not tomorrow. He adds that others "want to believe in magic" even when evidence about investment returns suggest otherwise. Finally, he bemoans the association of "sophistication with complexity." (As an aside, I don't agree with Mr. Clements that complexity is "usually a ruse to bamboozle." However, I do acknowledge that complex economic arrangements require a thorough vetting of the risk-return tradeoff).

If my experience teaching on an investment cruise a decade ago is any indication, there are signs that financial empowerment through education is alive and well, even for those who learn on their own. Based on questions and comments I received, it was clear that the audience had a strong sense of what risks they were willing to accept and what they hoped to avoid. Admittedly, these were mostly small business owners who had grown and prospered over the years by understanding that doing one's homework is necessary to survive.

While investment uncertainty is, by its nature, something we all face, it is always prudent to gauge risks ahead of time, to the extent possible. Employers and policy-makers who want to help others improve their financial literacy can contribute in multiple ways. Joanne Sammer advocates in HR Magazine for a "whole portfolio" focus that encompasses all savings and retirement vehicles owned by an employee and his or her spouse. See "Helping Employees Plan for Retirement" (March 1, 2014). Based on my work in the benefits world, I suggest other prescriptions to consider as follows:

  • Listen to what your constituents tell you they need to know.
  • Understand the composition of your labor force since not every demographic cohort absorbs information in the same way.
  • Become adept at storytelling to make retirement planning relatable.
  • Make it easy for employees and retirees to ask questions and receive answers in a timely fashion.
  • Get creative with snappy visuals and relevant technology tools that encourage knowledge-gathering.
  • Monitor engagement patterns and revise your communications protocol as often as needed. 

Whenever I think about getting my message out, I reflect on something a former doctoral professor shared with his students. Taking some liberties since I don't recall his exact words, he required us to distill pages of terse text and equations into a single sound bite that a lay person could understand and care about. This drive to motivate the recipient to pay heed is undeniable. As Ryan T. Howell said in his Psychology Today article entitled "Less Is More: The Power of Simple Language" (September 20, 2012), concentrate on the problem consumers are trying to solve.

Applied to retirement planning, what's the end goal? For millions of people, the answer is not so much about having X amount of money in the bank but more about satisfying life goals and having "enough" to make things happen.

Emojis and Workplace Communications

In case you missed the party invitation, July 17 is World Emoji Day. There's even a snappy anthem if you feel like dancing and singing to celebrate this annual event. A Twitter search using the hashtag #WorldEmojiDay reveals favorites by country such as the yellow sad face (US, Canada, UK), red heart (Italy, France, Japan) and blue musical notes (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia). Interestingly, these emoticons are showing up in workplace communications on a regular basis.

According to "Nine perfectly reasonable reasons to use Emoji in a business context," the use of tiny images is said to add intimacy to otherwise impersonal messages, allow readers to "infer your mood and level of humor" and enliven "boring" presentations or corporate reports. Atlantic Magazine editor Bourree Lam explains in "Why Emoji Are Suddenly Acceptable at Work" that adding the popular happy face emoji can lessen the negative impact of "toneless" text that is typically interpreted in a negative way. Business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore suggests senders should err on the side of caution by avoiding anything that depicts anger or romance. Client communiques should be formal.

My take as an investment risk governance expert is to play at home and not at work. Although I have inserted a smiley face or two during my career, my view (and that of many others) is that retirement plan communications are serious transmissions. Whether documenting fiduciary, investment and operational policies and procedures or giving instructions to employees about what to consider before signing up for benefits, there is a need for precision. Major lawsuits have centered on whether disclosures are sufficiently adequate. Binding regulations require transparency. Those in charge of implementing, monitoring and revising retirement plan decisions are ill-equipped when goals, restrictions and material facts and circumstances are vague.

I can't imagine a scenario where a happy face, pencil, bag of money or other type of cartoon clarifies versus confuses. Can you?

National Institute of Pension Administrators Workshop About Fiduciary Issues

In a few weeks, on April 27, Dr. Susan Mangiero will address the Connecticut chapter of the National Institute of Pension Administrators ("NIPA"). The educational workshop entitled "Impact of Final DOL Fiduciary Regulation" will address topics such as service provider due diligence and plan participant communication from an economic perspective. Interested persons should email clawton@retirewelltpa.com with questions or to register.

According to the NIPA website:

"The National Institute of Pension Administrators (NIPA) is a national association representing the retirement and employee benefit plan administration profession. It was founded with the idea of bringing together professional benefit administrators and other interested parties to encourage greater dialogue, cooperation and educational opportunities. NIPA’s goal is to improve the quality and efficiency of plan administration.

From its beginning in 1983, the founding concepts and specific purpose of NIPA is to educate and train plan administrators. NIPA started as an outgrowth of an eight person work study group. It is now a 1000-member national organization. NIPA's educational forums include courses, workshops and seminars focusing on the various aspects of plan administration."

We hope to see you there.