While you might suspect that the employees at BlackRock, Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, were retirement planning masters in their own personal lives, it turns out they’re mostly just normal people who need a little expert help (and motivation) of their own to get the numbers right and the savings committed.

The irony of BlackRock’s situation was not lost on Katie Nedl, head of global benefits for the firm – which employs approximately 5,800 in its U.S. operations. But rather than repeat what passes for financial education at most companies – periodic, poorly attended webinars and an occasional flurry of impersonal emails – BlackRock opted to create a full-orchestrated financial wellness program, integrated with a user-friendly, one-stop-shopping online benefits platform.

And to help put that knowledge into action, BlackRock employees also have free access to financial guidance from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, who administers BlackRock’s $3 billion worth of 401(k), equity compensation, non-qualified deferred compensation and HSA plans. Employees can talk on the phone and get a personalized financial outlook on a number of topics, plus general advice.

The result is a level of engagement that other companies could only wish for: Some 90% of employees who enrolled in a health plan with company seeded HSA accounts, which rolled out this year, have now contributed their own money to the accounts. Participation in 401(k) and other savings vehicles is also far ahead of the curve – with more taking advantage of the company’s stretch match (50% of the first 8% of employee contributions).

And BlackRock is not alone; many other companies, especially those proffering their financial expertise to the greater world, have recognized a need to get their own employees on the same page with similar financial wellness programs (see below).

“It’s part of the age-old problem: How do you get people to fully understand the uniquely generous benefits they have?” Nedl notes. “We have some very professional employees, but they might not be up-to-date on certain topics, and we want to give them the opportunity to walk in as a fully informed consumers. We also have to consider wellness as a whole, including both personal and financial wellness.”

Nedl says much of the inspiration for BlackRock’s branded Financial Wellness Learning Series came from the kinds of campaigns the company provides to its external client base, one of which asked the simple question, “So, what do I do with my money?”

“That was exactly what I needed to communicate to the employees, as well,” she says. “So we worked to continually weave that into all of our other [benefits] programs, until the employees saw it as one big picture.”

Three pillars

Emphasis was placed on access, learning and expertise as the three pillars of the financial education platform, with seminars that helped to broaden knowledge on topics often beyond the reach of even much of the company’s already very financially literate employee base, such as tax planning or the subtleties (and long-term financial advantages) of refinancing your home. Retirement planning, personal investments, college savings plans and financial protection through life insurance and DI benefits have also been discussed at length. “We try to make everything as transparent as possible to employees, and to speak colloquially on all these topics,” Nedl adds.

By making the content event-driven, Nedl says the company was also able to avoid overloading the curious by giving them access to everything at the same time. Employees’ easiest access to the program comes through their internal web portal, MyHR@BlackRock, with communication and messaging tied into the financial wellness program.

In 2012, a special enrollment window tied to a seminar promoting voluntary benefits, produced a 200% jump in sign-ups. And Nedl is most proud of her recent experience with the company’s new HSA offering, which was the best-attended session of the entire 2013 series. By positioning the HSA as not just a cost-control measure for health-related spending but as part of a much larger extension of their 401(k) accounts and a fundamental tool in savings and investment, Nedl says the first-time HSA enrollment and participation "exceeded expectations."

Efforts have also been made to include employees’ families in their major financial decisions. “We’re trying to expand our audience so we mail home a lot of the material, aware that the best decision-maker on these subjects may not be you,” Nedl notes. “And we invite spouses to attend learning sessions, and track the attendance through email – we’ve seen much greater traction via our webinars. That’s made it easy for HR and it also acknowledges how busy our employees are.”

Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s recent Workplace Benefits Report suggests that 70% of employers surveyed have been amping up their efforts to provide more personalized retirement-savings education to their employees, with more emphasis on planning for health care costs and the broader, day-to-day notions of managing debt and budgeting.

Model for others

Steve Ulian, head of institutional business development with BofA Merrill Lynch, says the cooperative project with BlackRock demonstrates a successful model other companies can adapt in getting their employees to see their benefits as a holistic package that requires some more active choices and personal involvement.

“Before the financial meltdown, benefits were pretty siloistic – not necessarily a collection of those basic five services, but more a ‘check the box’ kind of thing,” he says. “As plans got bigger and better, employees have started to view that differently. They’re asking themselves, ‘what will make, or break, my financial future?’ If there’s any silver lining to it, they’ve also started to ask their employers to help them understand how it all works.”

He also echoes Nedl’s assertions that even financial industry insiders are ripe for some professional financial advice of their own. “There’s an assumption that more-educated financial professionals are instinctively into all of this, and that’s totally untrue,” he notes. “And as the economy improves, companies are going to be looking for ways to attract and retain talent, so improving their benefits packages will become more important – as will explaining those benefits.”

Vanguard teams with HelloWallet for financial education

As another example of a well-known financial firm addressing the personal financial well-being of its employees, investment management giant Vanguard has opted to use the online resources of the HelloWallet system to provide some guidance in their own budgeting and retirement planning.

In Vanguard’s case, HelloWallet – which amalgamates an employee’s budget details and then provides a holistic interpretation of what the worker is doing right (and what they’re needlessly blowing their hard-earned paycheck on, each month) and offers some solid advice on channeling the money in the right direction.

By tracking their debt and their spending and savings behavior, HelloWallet is able to steer participants in the right direction, as well as giving them insight on the way that their company sponsored benefits (such as HSAs, FSAs and 401(k) offerings) can also help them save money for the long term and provide some additional in-pocket cash every month.

HelloWallet’s advice is impartial and highly transparent; Vanguard said it then supplies the proprietary investment advice and offers its employees managed accounts and financial planning services to get them on the right path.

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