American Express plays employee engagement card

American Express is deploying a cross-functional strategy to engage employees with their benefits.

Case study: Benefits support lifestyle choices at American Express

The choice and flexibility available within American Express’ benefits package holds strong appeal for Carrie Brightwell, global learning and development manager at the credit card firm. “The key attraction for me is you can shape your benefits and tailor them to suit your lifestyle,” she says.

Brightwell is one of the organisation’s remote workforce, which she says enables her to achieve optimal work-life balance. She also credits this with helping her to remain healthy. “If I want to go to an exercise class at 12 noon, then come back to my desk later, then I can.”

The on-site gym and free fitness classes available at the company’s Brighton office also help her to pursue a healthy lifestyle.During the four years she has spent with the company, Brightwell has made use of a number of the other benefits on offer. She is a member of the defined contribution pension scheme, and has made use of health checks and the employee assistance programme.

Meanwhile, the ability to purchase additional holiday through the firm’s flexible benefits scheme, FlexExpress, has enabled Brightwell to fulfil one of her ambitions. “Because I was able to buy extra holiday, I have been able to make a dream holiday, travelling around Thailand for four weeks, a reality,” she says.


American Express is deploying a cross-functional strategy to engage employees with their benefits, says Debbie Lovewell

The most successful employee benefits strategies are often a melting pot of ideas and concepts taken from other business areas, industries and disciplines. Sports psychology, for example, has long been extolled as providing valuable business lessons for the workplace.

Breckon Jones, director of benefits, health and wellness, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at American Express, explains: “A lot of the principles of sports psychology apply even more to the workplace. A common thread is around motivation: what motivates people, and what motivates people to make choices when it comes to benefits?

“What motivates people to do a good job, to work for a particular company, or to change their health behaviour? It’s the same for athletes, it’s the same for executives, it’s the same for anyone.”

This idea of cross-functionality and incorporating elements and ideas from one area into another resonates throughout American Express’ reward and benefits package. Its benefits team places a strong emphasis on working together to create a visible link between the benefits for which they are responsible. This enables the organisation to raise awareness of the benefits it provides and helps employees to see how different perks can be used in conjunction with each another to provide maximum advantage for employees.

Sarah Perkins,employee health and wellbeing manager at American Express, says: “The challenge is, while we have naturally engaged people, we are trying to be a bit more targeted and creative in how we target the disengaged people, so [we are] really trying to tap into different levels of motivation and interest. Any opportunity to talk about what we are doing, we will, whether it is related to benefits or other business elements.”

A series of financial education seminars American Express held in conjunction with the Money Advice Service between May and July, for example, included a section on the benefits available to employees. This covered its flexible benefits scheme, Flex Express, voluntary benefits plan, Smart Spending, and employee assistance programme (EAP), as well as an explanation of how employees can use these to make their money go further.

Boosting awareness

Boosting employees’ awareness of the benefits they receive is currently a major focus for American Express’ reward team, and the workshops are just part of this campaign. Jonathan Sparham, benefits manager, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), says: “Last year, a lot of people were not aware they had life assurance with the company and were paying for life assurance outside, which cost a lot more than the free benefit or what they could opt up to get through Flex Express. It’s keeping that awareness going.”

Jones adds: “When we have our enrolment windows for our flex programme or do exit surveys and we ask employees what they think about our healthy-living programme, invariably we find that, despite all the communications we do, they still say ‘I wish we had a bikes-for-work scheme’ or ‘I wish we had an EAP’, so that’s where the [need for] increased awareness comes in.”

To a lesser extent, the economic climate is also influencing this strategy. Jamie Green, global benefits analyst at American Express, says: “Because there isn’t the money to add benefits or to enhance existing benefits due to austerity measures, our corporate guideline really is to try to promote what we’ve got, especially in the bigger markets.”

Branding is key to American Express’ internal benefits communication strategy. It uses an overarching global brand across its international benefits schemes, adapted to suit local markets. Jones says: “We make adaptations for language and cultural nuances. It’s worked really well when we’ve rolled it out. I go to different countries and see the posters and the look and feel for different programmes. [I] can’t read the language, but you know it is part of the same thing.”

Branding continuity is equally important, which is why the organisation has linked its internal benefits communications to its external branding and marketing. Communications around its annual flexible benefits enrolment window at the end of last year, for example, drew heavily on the company’s television advertising campaign at the time and its branding ‘Be a traveller, not a tourist’. Using the same look and feel as the external campaign, which featured cartoon rockets, American Express’ benefits team adapted the slogan to read ‘The journey to your benefits’.

Jonathan Marsh, benefits manager for EMEA at American Express, says: “The timing was great, because the American Express television adverts were going on at the same time as the Flex Express ones. So employees were seeing that logo at home advertising American Express, then they have got the same thing coming to work.”

These communications were subsequently replicated for the organisation’s flexible benefits programme in Singapore.

Regular newsletter

American Express produces a regular internal health and benefits newsletter to further promote benefits across its workforce. In the UK, this has a quarterly theme and is sent out to staff on a monthly basis. A quarterly global edition is also in circulation.

The newsletter is formatted to resemble a mini Twitter feed, containing hyperlinks to take staff to further relevant information. American Express uses the click-through data behind these links to track the topics of interest to its employees and help it tailor its benefits package accordingly. “Sometimes we feel the things at the top are read more than the ones at the bottom, but that’s not actually true,” says Perkins. “We can see that. If people want to read it, they will find it.”

Employee benefits and communications usage data helps the benefits team to identify areas to focus on. The rationale for introducing its recent financial education seminars is a case in point. It was based on the fact that four of employees’ top 10 information downloads available through the organisation’s UK employee assistance programme (EAP) were related to financial matters.

The business case for a global EAP was fuelled by the potential value of the usage data that could be gathered from it, providing an insight into the mass psychology of staff.

Before introducing the global EAP in 22 countries in EMEA, plus several in Latin America and Japan, Asia-Pacific and Australia last year, American Express offered a version of it just in the UK and France. Jones says: “We have really positioned [the EAP] in our marketing and communications as being a tool to plan for the future. So it is not just there as a reactive tool if something goes wrong; it is much more proactive.”

The Greek economic crisis is a recent example. Perkins says: “When the issues over there came to a head, we made sure there were additional EAP services on the ground. We worked with local vendors to make sure it was all in local languages with local contact numbers. It’s about looking externally and seeing how to evolve what we are doing internally.”

Operating a centralised international benefits strategy is a new concept for American Express, which historically allowed local HR and procurement teams to govern their own benefits plans according to broad guidelines. It rolled out a new international reward strategy in 2011 which saw the appointment of a single global broker, Mercer. Green explains: “One of the aims of using a global broker is to try to make sure everyone is aligned and adheres to corporate policy. Using one broker means we get much better oversight of what is going on in each market.”

The organisation has also introduced a global benefits database to aid this oversight. “In the past, we had lots of different repositories for different information, but now we have just got one, which makes a big difference in terms of oversight,” says Green.

The advantages of this centralised international strategy include enhanced governance, harmonisation and cost savings. It also led to American Express winning the category for ‘Most effective reward or benefits strategy for staff based outside of the UK’ in the Employee Benefits Awards 2012.


Career histories

Jonathan Marsh, benefits manager for EMEA, took on his role recently, although he has worked for American Express for six years. For the past three years, he has worked on a global integrated HR and payroll system, and on change management, training and communications. Before that, he was a compensation and benefits analyst.
Before joining American Express, Marsh was an HR manager with BT Group for 10 years, after which he moved across to the pharmaceutical sector.

Sarah Perkins, employee health and wellbeing manager, UK, has worked for American Express for around 18 months, and is responsible for the organisation’s health and wellbeing programmes.
Before joining the company, she worked in healthcare communications for a number of pharmaceutical firms.

Jamie Green, global benefits analyst, has worked for American Express for around 18 months. He joined the organisation from global commodities firm Cargill, where he held an international benefits role. Before that, he was at Nestl™ UK, where he worked as a project manager on pensions software.

Jonathan Sparham, benefits manager, EMEA, has worked for American Express for two years. He is part of the retirement planning team, so is heavily involved with auto-enrolment and pensions activities.

Previously, he spent two years at Unilever, where he was involved in global mobility and sales. He has also worked in HR outsourcing in Spain, as well as working for Proctor and Gamble for seven years. Of these, he spent about two years as a compensation and benefits manager and five years in a global mobility role.

Breckon Jones, director of benefits, health and wellness, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), joined American Express about two years ago. His role initially focused on health and wellbeing, but was extended just over a year ago to encompass all benefits. He is responsible for 22 countries in the EMEA region and also works on projects on a wider international basis.

Before joining American Express, Jones worked for Unilever for four years, focusing on health, safety and wellbeing for the UK and Ireland.


American express at a glance

American Express was founded in the mid-1800s as an express mail business in New York.

It first moved into the financial services market in the 1880s by launching a money order business. This was then extended to include travellers’ cheques.

American Express’ card business was launched inthe 1950s, and it has built on this ever since.

Today, it is one of the world’s largest card issuers by purchase volume. Alongside charge and credit cards, its product range also includes pre-paid reloadable cards and gift cards. It also operates a travel business.

As at 30 December 2011, American Express had 97.4million cards in force, with $822 billion in annual purchase volume across these. Meanwhile, its annual report showed its net income for 2011 rose by 22% year on year to $4.9 billion.

American Express has about 62,500 employees worldwide, with operations in more than 130 countries.


The benefits

Pension scheme
• Two defined benefit (DB) schemes, closed to new entrants.
• Stakeholder scheme with 3% employer contribution if an employee does not contribute. Employee contributions matched up to 6%.

Healthcare and wellbeing
• Employee assistance programme (EAP).
• Private medical insurance (PMI) for all employees.
• Health cash plan.
• Wellness programme and coaching.
• Free on-site fitness classes.
• Health screening and free on-site health checks.
• Smoking cessation support.
• On-site and off-site physiotherapy.
• Bikes-for-work scheme.

• Global peer-to-peer recognition scheme.
• Long-service awards.

Work-life balance/family-friendly policies
• Childcare vouchers.
• Subsidised football coach training and football clinic for employees’ children.
• Sabbatical programme.

Other benefits
• Give-as-you-earn charitable giving.
• Pre-retirement courses.
• Holiday trading.
• Season ticket loans.
• Subsidised support for running events.
• Professional membership reimbursement.

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