Benefits Column

Diversity and Benefits

The definition of diversity in the workplace has expanded beyond race and gender. As a result, opportunities are opening up for HR leaders to tailor employee-benefits design and communication. But proceeding with caution is necessary.

Monday, August 30, 2010
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About 10 years ago, I was required to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory and participate in a program where we focused on ways to leverage our differences and similarities.

The facilitator initially reviewed the 16 personality types. I still recall the feeling in the pit of my stomach when she got to my style -- ENFP -- and several people quipped, "Why would we ever hire someone like that?"

I handled the moment as I usually do -- with humor -- but was reluctant to post my type on my office door, as we were encouraged to do.

I didn't realize this was a diversity-related experience until I recently spoke with Joe Gerstandt, a Omaha, Neb.-based inclusion, innovation and leadership facilitator, who explained that there are different types of diversity: identity, cognitive, affective and behavioral. Cognitive diversity embraces different thinking styles and perspectives, including personality types such as ENFPs.

To be honest, I feel awkward including my story within the context of the more traditional racial and gender inequities, but Tanya Odom, a diversity and inclusion consultant and coach based in Washington, tells me that my experience allowed me to build empathy and to understand what it feels like to be "the other."

We certainly have gaps to bridge with race, gender, ethnicity and disability employment.

In August, we celebrated the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution giving women the right to vote and, in July, we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Yet, women currently receive about 80 percent of what men earn and there are 38-percent fewer individuals with disabilities of working age employed than those without disabilities.

Still, we have made enough progress in considering our differences that we can acknowledge other areas of diversity.

"While some companies are underrepresented with people of color in their workforces, they are also underrepresented with people from Gen Y [or Millennials]," says Hartford, Conn.-based Raymond Arroyo, chief diversity officer at Aetna, "and that can be as important as other aspects of diversity."

Aetna has 15 types of employee-resource groups so far, including gender, faith-based and teleworkers networks. It's part of Arroyo's vision to leverage a tribal strategy where people can relate to people like themselves.

Arroyo says that "employees who participate in ERGs are more engaged, more satisfied with their jobs and like their bosses better ... . They also attract and retain more employees like them and [create] new business opportunities within their respective groups."

Dan Arkins understands first-hand the advantages of networks for employees with similarities. He leads a newer type of diversity group for MetLife: veterans.

"MetLife found out we had a surprisingly large number of employees who were veterans," says Arkins, regional director of disability at MetLife and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, who co-chairs a veterans' employee-resource group at the New York-headquartered insurance and financial-services company.

This focus helps MetLife with their recruitment and retention of both able-bodied and disabled veterans. "Our local inclusion-action team for veterans allows for an easier transition from the military to civilian world ... . MetLife benefits by gaining employees who have experience leading with creativity and making tough, quick decisions," he says.

Diversity initiatives have a role to play in benefits as well.

"The more diverse our population, the more difference in how they use benefits," says Andrés Tapia, chief diversity officer and emerging workforce consulting leader at Hewitt Associates in Lincolnshire, Ill.

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Tapia notes that a Hewitt study of 401(k)-savings behavior of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and white employees revealed quantifiable race and ethnic differences in behavior.

Even after controlling for factors such as age, salary and job tenure, it found that African-American and Hispanic workers participate in plans less often, save at lower rates, make more conservative investments, are less likely to use the Internet and withdraw from their 401(k) plans more often.

Hewitt recommends plans be designed to decrease the likelihood of default when an employee leaves the job and to increase communication and education to help workers make wise choices.

In last month's column, Fran Melmed advocated for open-enrollment meetings tailored to address the needs of niche employee audiences. But caution is needed, says Christina Broxterman, a benefits attorney in Atlanta with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart.

Broxterman says benefits personalization is possible, but employers need to be mindful of general discrimination issues as well as compliance with legislation including the healthcare-reform act, HIPAA, GINA, ADA and ERISA.

HR executives also need to be aware of the tax issues that may result if only higher-paid associates choose richer benefit options offered by the organization.

"More and more employers are exploring ways to expand the benefit options available to employees," Broxterman says. That requires a better focus on employee communication and illustrations on how those options fit into an employee's needs.

Most employers stop short, however, of recommending a particular benefit option to workers, and HR leaders who make recommendations are walking a fine line between employer and fiduciary.

Such recommendations may also open the company up to "exposure in the event an employee finds the benefits to be lacking in the [employer-recommended] choice," she says.

While benefits personalization may be ideal, HR leaders need to proceed carefully with both plan design and communication. But that shouldn't stop them from forging new frontiers with the benefits offered.

"In today's world," Tapia says, "you cannot be a successful HR executive unless you are a diversity practitioner."

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett.

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