From heading up human resources for a celebrity chef to managing employee benefits at the world’s largest asset manager, Jennifer Lee, has seen it all. In her current position as global head of benefits for BlackRock, the 20-year HR veteran approaches new challenges communicating with the company’s 13,000 employees. She spoke to Employee Benefit News about how targeted communications has helped improve 401(k) plans, among other aspects to employee benefits. This interview has been edited and condensed.
EBN: You had a pretty conventional career path after college in management consulting before changing course and working for celebrity chef Bobby Flay. What was that like and how did it help you land your position at BlackRock?
Jennifer Lee: I will say that working for a celebrity chef [as head of HR] was definitely a pivotal experience for me. I really enjoyed learning and operating in a start-up, highly entrepreneurial culture, which was a very different experience from anything I’d experienced professionally. In many ways, Bobby’s organization was a great place for me to be before coming to BlackRock. Despite our size, BlackRock retains a strong founder-led culture which is extremely entrepreneurial and encourages all employees to have a voracious appetite to learn and grow.
EBN: What are you focusing on the most right now?
Lee: Recently, our team has been very focused on conducting a holistic, strategic review of our global benefits offerings. We’re in the midst of rolling out a firm-wide survey to understand how employees feel about the benefits we offer at BlackRock. We’re also undertaking in a global benefits benchmarking exercise to see where our offerings stack up against companies in the financial services and technology industries. Once we’re able to analyze our survey and benchmarking results, we’ll hold targeted focus groups to get additional feedback from our people.
And to understand how our people use our benefits programs, we’re doing a financial review and summary of the full scope of our benefits spend, and evaluating utilization against each program. Our hope is that all these efforts will help us evolve, and ultimately offer the most progressive, competitive benefits packages around. This should further enhance our ability to attract and retain world-class talent.
EBN: How often are you communicating with employees?
Lee: We strive to communicate with our employees at many touchpoints over the course of the year, through webinars, email communications, our Intranet, and in-person orientations and meetings. This communication ramps-up during the fourth quarter, which is when our annual enrollment process occurs. This is also when we drop our Total Rewards booklet, which has really evolved over the years into a compelling, highly visual piece that our employees can engage with both on- and offline.
EBN: Tell me more about the booklet.
Lee: This past year, in the U.S., we launched a new version of our Total Rewards booklet — our annual overview of all benefits offered. We decided to drop physical copies on every employee’s desk; this boosted engagement with the online version of the book, available on our Intranet. And we changed our approach to the way we presented content, moving to a more highly streamlined package, using more charts, and more colors to make it less wordy and more readable/engaging. We received rave reviews on the booklet and many employees praised it for clearly drawing their attention to benefits they weren’t previously aware of. The link to the Total Rewards booklet is also clearly discoverable on our Intranet, so people can easily access it electronically.
EBN: You mentioned BlackRock’s Intranet a few times. Tell me how it aids benefit communication at your company.
Lee: We use many different channels to communicate about benefits to our workforce: Our intranet, which often features helpful tips and “Did you know?” articles, firm-wide or, increasingly, targeted emails, visual aids such as banners across the bottom of more than 200 TVs in common spaces around the firm and desktop screen savers featuring calls-to-action around things such as open enrollment. For seminal moments in time like open enrollment, we also host webinars to guide our people through the process and help answer any questions they may have.
EBN: So you’re starting to target employees.
Lee: Our communications have historically been firm-wide — that is, communicating in a broad way to our entire employee population. Communications to subsets of our employee base are also still fairly broad. This has been somewhat effective; however, we are learning that the more targeted our communications and messaging, the more effective we are in terms of driving action or behavior change.
EBN: Have you done anything differently to change the way employees hear about their benefits/HR things?
Lee: In the past, we generally sent out broad email communications about a specific topic, such as making sure everyone understands the company’s match to their 401(k) contributions. We witnessed some resulting positive change from this particular communication —in terms of employees upping their own contribution to maximize the company match — but not as much as we would have liked.
At the end of 2016, we decided to do a targeted 401(k) communication only to those who hadn’t maximized their contributions and who thus could be getting more out of the match contributions available from BlackRock. We called this campaign “Get the Most from the Company Match.” We were pleasantly surprised that our response rate for the targeted email was higher than previous communications — and most importantly, many recipients took action, going into their 401(k) accounts and changing their own contribution to maximize the BlackRock match.
EBN: What is the biggest challenge with benefit communication?
Lee: Engaging our employees amid the high volume of email they already receive over the course of a typical day is definitely a dynamic we’re highly aware of, and working to improve. The biggest challenge is making sure our employees read our communications alongside the many emails they receive in general.
Employees understand our communications, but we’re also focused on inspiring them beyond understanding and toward taking action. Often, this means having them proactively access the benefits information we’re attempting to educate them on. Historically, we’ve used more of a “push” communications philosophy — and now, we’re pivoting to start creating a two-way dialogue with our workforce, so they can best engage with their benefits and so we can best meet their evolving needs.
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