Guest opinion – Mark Childs, director of Total Reward Solutions

Mark Childs, director of Total Reward Solutions, looks at paternalism in the workplace.

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It has become commonplace to criticise or apologise for benefit plans which are underpinned by a paternalistic philosophy. This is understandable in a culture which increasingly emphasises individual responsibility. Furthermore, it is difficult not to sympathise with employers which have become frustrated by rising costs and a lack of employee appreciation of company-funded benefits’ worth.

Reward practitioners are encouraged to design programmes which align to business strategy and deliver benefits that employees value. Gone are the days when people in high places would decide what was good for everyone and employers are now showing an impressive capacity to listen to individual preferences, for example, through employee opinion surveys. The result of this listening has been to accelerate the growth of flexible benefit plans and encourage the use of total reward statements to test employee perceptions of cost and value, and in turn, validate reward strategy.

The question which most of us prefer to avoid (because it is difficult to answer) is whose responsibility is it when employees make benefits decisions which prove not to be in their long-term best interests? For example, the member of a defined contribution pension plan who makes overly cautious investment decisions in their 20s or, a married employee with a non-working partner and dependents who opts out of a spouse’s pension benefit when a flex plan is introduced.

Our reaction against paternalism has caused us to stand back from interfering, observing that an employer’s commitment to care for staff is now very different from in previous generations. Many benefits plans, for example, still contain echoes of nineteenth century working practices, assuming that any working staff will be the sole breadwinner, and will live to an average age of 40 and most likely will only work for one organisation ever. Today, however, households are more likely to have a dual income, where staff may live to around 80 years and only pass through a company for a few years before moving on to another organisation.

Throughout my working life I have, like most HR professionals, been routinely confronted by employees wanting me to offer an opinion on the most appropriate benefit plan decisions – especially where investments are concerned. Similarly, my experience is that many employees plainly do not understand the long-term implications of the choices which are before them. This creates a dilemma for those of us who feel we have to influence and, by extension, protect those who need to be saved from their worst excesses. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that it is not the employer’s place to provide financial advice or assume responsibility for a decision which rests primarily with the individual.

The balance to be struck is in a new paternalism. For the employee, this requires individuals to accept the accountability which accompanies personal decisions. For the employer, it means gladly and confidently accepting a much greater responsibility for employee education. The benefits environment feels over-regulated and there is insufficient incentive for fund managers to be proactive in employee education, for example, in low margin stakeholder pensions. Similarly, successive governments have proved timid in benefits reform and are inevitably broad-brush in the legislative solutions they bring.

So unless employers willingly assume responsibility for staff education there appears to be no one else in the system to fill the gap. It must be underpinned by an understanding that employees will only spend part of their working lives with an organisation, which inevitably requires shifts in concept such as a migration from company pension schemes to retirement savings. However, it is an approach which fulfils a responsibility to those who work in our organisations and we assume it with a sense of privilege, not apology.