With 2023 coming to a close, many plan sponsors have shifted their focus to planning for the new year ahead. Among the many topics to address, one in particular stands out as critical to success in 2024—education & financial wellness.
When thinking about education and financial wellness, it is natural to only consider employees and plan participants. In fact, a recent survey by JP Morgan shows that employee education and wellness is the number one issue on the minds of plan sponsors today.1
However, in planning for 2024, plan sponsors should extend their education and wellness priorities beyond employees and participants to include themselves—the fiduciaries who serve as stewards of the retirement plan. By building well-rounded participant and fiduciary education programs, plan sponsors will better advance the wellness objectives of all parties involved with retirement plans.
Participant Education Planning
Why Participant Education Is Important
The reasons for increased urgency among employees surrounding financial education and wellness are many and varied, including high inflation, market volatility, and the COVID pandemic, among others. But all result in poor retirement confidence and preparedness. According to BlackRock, only 56% of workplace savers feel on track for retirement, and only 21% are very confident that they will have enough savings to last through retirement.2
With little conviction in their ability to retire—much less retire comfortably—workers are turning to their employers for help. In a recent study by Morgan Stanley, 89% of U.S. employees “said their companies need to improve on helping them understand how to maximize their financial benefits.”3 And, if employers are either unwilling or unable to do so, workers will vote with their feet. According to the same Morgan Stanley survey, 93% of respondents “view retirement planning assistance as a priority when choosing where to work.”
As the battle to attract and retain talent continues, it is imperative that plan sponsors take these employee considerations into account when planning for 2024. Offering participant education programs that advance retirement planning objectives and support financial wellness represent a relatively affordable and highly effective method of addressing these acute employee pain points.
How to Deliver Participant Education Sessions
As plan fiduciaries, participant education can be a tough line to straddle. In your role, it might not be prudent to provide explicit, personalized advice to plan participants. However, delivering high-level, educational lessons and perspectives on a variety of planning subjects is permissible.
With this gray area comes potential liability. For this reason, it is often helpful for plan sponsors to have a specialized, qualified financial advisor lead training sessions. Simply making someone available to answer questions that are not specific to an individual’s financial situation can be valuable. For participants, they receive access to an expert, while for plan sponsors, they may limit liability by outsourcing these responsibilities to a prudent expert.
How to Plan Participant Education Sessions
Unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all approach to participant education and financial wellness implementation exists. What is most important is that you as a retirement plan sponsor align your programming to best suit your plan participants’ needs. Key considerations to evaluate include, but are not limited to, modality (in-person or virtual), the type of presentation (general education vs. one-on-ones, or both), and who is best equipped to lead the session (company representative or advisor).
The primary takeaway is that education programs are extremely flexible, and many different options exist. However, it is crucial to recognize that the more comprehensive and specifically customized to individuals the programs become, the higher the burden to ensure it is appropriately selected, qualified experts who are delivering the service to your participants. Engaging with a specialized retirement plan advisor like DBR Fiduciary Plan Solutions can help you think through what is best for your participant and employee populations.
Fiduciary Training Planning
Why Fiduciary Training Is Important
While retirement plan sponsors are evidently putting in the effort to better educate their employees and participants, sponsors tend to pay much less attention to their own education as fiduciaries. This is problematic for many reasons. But the most tangible reason is that bearing the responsibilities of a fiduciary introduces meaningful liability—both personally and organizationally.
Despite these risks, few fiduciaries even understand what it means to be a fiduciary—or that they even are one! According to the JP Morgan Study, only 55% of plan sponsor respondents answered that they are a fiduciary, even though each of them has fiduciary responsibilities. This result indicates a significant gap in fiduciary training.
Proving that you as a fiduciary—and your retirement committee as a whole—understand your obligations according to regulatory body standards and court proceedings can materially reduce liability. And conversely, a failure to do so can increase risk. Such was the case for New York University. In a widely publicized appeal to the original 2018 case, the judge determined in 2021 that the plan’s fiduciaries did not sufficiently understand their responsibilities or even know how to make proper decisions, leading to a citation.4
The NYU case served as a recent warning shot to the retirement plan sponsor community. Yet, fiduciary training remains in the back of most plan sponsor’s minds. What will happen if the DOL’s auditors appear at your door to ask, “Do you know what you are doing as a retirement plan fiduciary?”
Fiduciary training is critically important to ensuring all members of retirement committees uphold their duties and to mitigating both individual and organizational liabilities. Proper documentation of training will further strengthen your standing should any claims be made against you or the plan you serve. Specialized retirement plan advisors like DBR Fiduciary Plan Solutions can help both with the delivery of training and with the implementation of processes to effectively document any training sessions.
How to Deliver Fiduciary Training Sessions
Despite the common goal of understanding fiduciary duties (and liabilities), it can be helpful to work with an expert advisor to develop a concrete education plan since the material is rooted in regulatory guidance and court decisions. The plan should be tailored to the committee’s composition, team roles, existing knowledge, and any gaps that must be filled. For example, if there has been little turnover on a committee and regular education has been received, then general education might not necessarily be a priority. Instead, an advisor could tailor his or her training to the gaps that exist.
Fiduciary training can also serve as a reset each year. After completing an education session, the committee can come together to review existing policies, procedures, and governance practices to ensure they remain appropriate and do not need to be updated. Without education, these necessary or otherwise beneficial updates might go undetected.
How to Plan Fiduciary Training Sessions
Most commonly, plan sponsors use turnover as a catalyst for scheduling fiduciary training sessions. This turnover can come within the retirement plan committee, HR staff, or among other key executives. Consolidation, such as plan-level or corporate mergers and acquisitions, often serves as another catalyst.
However, proper fiduciary training does not—and probably should not—require a catalyst. It is generally best practice to receive ongoing education for even long-standing committee and team members. Establishing a regular schedule is therefore helpful, as it ensures you uphold fiduciary duties to the best of your ability.
Putting it All Together
Employee education and financial wellness are rightfully top of mind for today’s retirement plan sponsors, and they should be important components of 2024 planning. After all, educating and facilitating the wellness of your greatest asset—your team—can help to improve hiring and retention. Importantly, employee wellness has also been shown to positively impact business results via improved productivity and morale.5
When planning for 2024 participant education initiatives, it is important to not overlook fiduciary training. Incorporating an effective fiduciary training program can not only help fiduciaries manage the plan more prudently, but it can also meaningfully reduce liability. With greater confidence that both employees and plan fiduciaries are properly educated, retirement plan sponsors will be well-positioned to achieve their wellness goals for 2024.
32022 Morgan Stanley State of the Workplace Study
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Steven J. Kaczynski, Jr.
CFA®, AIFA®, CPFA®, MST, MBA