Saturday, August 10, 2019

Plan Sponsors Are From… Mars?

Do plan sponsors really know what participants want?

Back in the early 1990s, there was a very popular “self-help” book on relationships titled “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” The basic premise, of course, was that men and women have different means and styles of communication – that, in essence, they might as well be from different planets (hence the title).

It suffers, as most such works do, from over-generalizing (to say the least – the hidden points system ostensibly maintained by each gender struck me as truly bizarre, even in the 1990s) – but it no doubt stimulated some relationship conversations, and if it opened some of those doors – well, that’s a good thing.

The relationship between plan sponsors and participants isn’t generally fraught with the same layers of complexity, but every so often a survey comes out that makes me think otherwise.

The latest was a report by American Century which surveyed (separately, but both during Q1 2019) 1,500 respondents between the ages of 25 and 65, currently working full-time outside the government and 500 defined contribution plan decision makers.

The survey found that only a small minority of plan participants (14% of those ages 25-54) wanted employers to "leave them alone" when it came to help with retirement savings – about half the number that plan sponsors thought felt that way. And, according to the survey, more than 80% of participants wanted at least a "slight nudge" from their employers (though, let’s face it, plan fiduciaries might well be reluctant to go too far).

On target-date funds, some 40% of responding employers felt that investment risk pertaining to market movements was the most important factor in target-date investments – while a comparable number of employees were more concerned about longevity risk (in fairness, investment risk wasn’t far behind).

Speaking of investments, nearly all – 90% - who either already offered or were considering offering ESG investments thought their participants would be interested (and why wouldn’t they), while two-thirds of sponsors say their retirement plan advisor is currently or should be recommending ESG solutions.

However, only 37% of participants actually expressed some interest in ESG options – and we’ve seen plenty of industry surveys (including the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s, among others – and that interest, not surprisingly, was apparently at least somewhat dependent on performance comparable to the average product. Ultimately, American Century found that while sponsors believed that 88% of workers were at least somewhat interested in the option, fewer than 40% actually were.

Sometimes the disconnects aren’t even between different parties; the American Century survey found that 82% of plan sponsors believe it was at least “very important” to measure how ready employees are for retirement – and yet only 46% formally did so.
Over the years, we’ve seen similar “disconnects” in the benefit priorities, availability of retirement income options, and, in fairness, we’ve also seen disconnects between what individuals say they would do – and what they seem to actually do given an opportunity. Not to mention those between plan sponsors and providers – and yes, between plan sponsors and advisors.

There are, of course, any number of rational explanations for those apparent gaps. We can be reasonably sure that these surveyed plan sponsors and participants aren’t coming from the same place - literally. We also know that different industries, and different employers, and even different geographic locations seek to hire and attract different kinds of workers – who are, in turn, motivated and attracted by different things – which they may or may not choose to share with their employer.

Sometimes people are more inclined toward openness with an anonymous survey – which may present option(s) they hadn’t even considered. And sometimes, of course, they’re “led” by questions designed to produce a certain outcome. Plan sponsors glean their sense of their workforce from any number of sources with a wide range of reliability – everything from personal experience, to industry surveys to the headlines in the press…to the inevitable “squeaky wheels” that (too?) often darken the door of HR with their latest complaint and/or suggestion.

That there are different perspectives should come as no real surprise – and, if the occasional survey highlights some apparent discrepancies in priorities, well one hopes that should spur some constructive consideration and engagement.   

Because, ultimately, what matters isn’t what “planet” you’re coming from – but that you’re speaking the same language.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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