"Good grief. I bet Mom is going to be front and center in the delivery room, too."
This is how I responded to our newest HR call center representative after she recounted a recent meeting with an employee. The employee will be having a baby within the next few months. She was taking advantage of a one-on-one meeting with our HR expert to talk about FMLA, disability benefits, enrollment changes and pay administration during a leave of absence. Sometimes our employees will bring their spouse or significant other to such a meeting. This one did not. Instead, she brought her mother. (Thankfully, she was kind enough to let us know in advance that she planned to have mom in tow.) And, in the words of the HR rep, mom was blunt, direct and quite demanding.
Allow me to rewind. My 22-year-old stepson, Jon, graduated from college in May and landed his first "real" job. Shortly thereafter, he asked his dad and me to help him with the benefits enrollment process.
We all had different plans. Dad wanted to get the enrollment completed. Jon wanted to get the parental sit-down over with. And I wanted to learn and absorb as much about this company's benefits as I possibly could. Sure, this was a chance to help Jon with his choices. But you don't get free benchmarking like this every day, and I was interested in everything from plan design to employee premium to Web design and communication tools.
Jon logged onto his company's Web portal and began to flip through, past, and then back to various screens at a frenzied pace. It didn't last long. Jon's access didn't allow him to enroll. About a week later, Jon was back. We assumed our positions in front of the computer. Once again, we whizzed through, past, and then back to various screens. Within minutes, Jon was done, and he and his father were on to the next thing, which probably involved ESPN.
As for me, I bemoaned the fact (quietly and to myself) that it was over so soon. We only skimmed the surface, and I learned very little about the benefits he'd just waived and/or elected.
Since then, I've spent some time reflecting on what I'd just learned about new employee enrollment influences and behavior. Here are eight things I've been thinking about:
1. Prior to this experience with Jon, I couldn't understand employees who either enrolled in something or didn't enroll in something and then later seemed completely clueless about their choice and/or its impact on their pay or claims processing. The phrase "You never told me about that!" has taken on a whole new meaning.
2. Motive means everything. Jon's a bright young man. But he wanted to invest the bare minimum of time and effort in this process. If I did, in fact, retain more than he did from the experience, it's not because I'm smarter or that I have a better memory. I was simply more motivated to absorb and learn as much as I could about his company's program. His dad was motivated to help him make smart, cost-efficient choices. (Jon was motivated to get out of the chair in the middle.)
3. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has an impact. I mean, duh, we know that, right? But I was quick to help Jon assess his premium and out-of-pocket costs for individual coverage on his health plan compared to the cost of keeping him as a dependent on his dad's plan since he's not yet 26. But his dad and I work for the same company, so it's my plan that's absorbing a dependent who is arguably another employer's responsibility. I try to make myself feel better about this as a parent by charging Jon for single coverage under our plan. But as a plan administrator ... well, what can I say?
4. The education/communication experts aren't kidding when they tell us to assume new employees know very little about investing and 401(k) plans. I didn't want to patronize Jon by overexplaining things like company match, asset allocation, default investment, or stocks and bonds. But he didn't know where to begin when he was prompted to select a deferral amount and type (pretax, after tax or Roth.) Our primary advice was to contribute to the full amount of the company match in an age-appropriate target-date fund.
5. Even if an employee knows very little about benefits concepts, he may not read the attractive and easy-to-understand descriptions you provide. It's discouraging. We work so hard to be clear and concise, to equip and inform. I was hoping all but the most thankless and apathetic employees would meet us halfway. Now, I'm not so sure.
6. I've been reading recently about how younger employees are more interested in defined benefit pension plans based on a need for security and a desire to retire at a young age. Jon wasn't nearly as enthused about the pension plan as his dad and I were. I didn't burst a vein or anything - but it was close. Unfortunately, I don't know a darn thing about how it works.
7. The only thing Jon bought (via payroll deduction) was vision coverage - something my company doesn't offer and our employees frequently request. Hmmm ...
While I'm feeling so clever, how are we going to communicate and reach our new employees (and maybe their parents) in ways that meet their needs and expectations? More critically, how are we going to parent our kids so they need us a little less?
Alas, I have seen the enemy, and I am it. Good grief, indeed.
Contributing Editor Cindy Bucher is a senior benefits analyst for a Midwestern financial services company. She and her team serve more than 2,500 active employees and 650 retirees, as well as their families. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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