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First Match

Underground Conversations

Thursday, November 6, 2014
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A growing number of people I know consider employee benefits discussions to be ... uninspired. I hold a mixed opinion.

I believe what limits intriguing dialogue in this space is that we -- largely -- whisper our skepticism and less-than-popular opinions in lobbies and private meetings instead of on public platforms.

For me, benefits and benefits design are about much more than defined-contribution versus defined-benefit retirement plans. They can showcase a company's brand -- and its personality -- through a unique combination of organizational design, industrial psychology and behavioral-economics techniques.

The most confident HR leaders I know talk openly about their benefits experiences, including what approaches worked for them, along with what didn't and what might. Janet McNichol, the HR director at the Rockville, Md.-based American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, writes an open and honest blog about her triumphs and failures -- and that includes her benefits programs. And some events -- such as the Human Resource Executive® Health and Benefits Leadership Conference and a few of the World Congress forums -- feature speakers and panelists who discuss letdowns as openly as successes. But we need to do more.

Why? First, we may die from sheer boredom or frustration if we simply pat each other on the backs publicly. Secondly, while some HR executives share with me that honest revelations about their benefits experiences would mean career suicide, if you don't initiate these dialogues, others who work for your company will.

Case in point: the Wellness Underground, a group of wellness professionals questioning how employers dabble in health and wellness initiatives. I recently reached out to them privately to make certain they were credible and to appreciate their need to be anonymous. I can tell you they are who they say they are: a small collection of mid-career wellness professionals from various parts of the industry who "want to be constructively disruptive to traditional workplace wellness."

And, as it turns out, they're not that different from the HR executives who are afraid to engage in honest, public discussions about their benefits failures. For now, they choose to be anonymous because they're worried about the impact of what they're saying on their current jobs as well as on their future careers. My concern is their need to discuss their interests, well, underground. Perhaps it's because the leaders and executives who are ahead of them in their careers have not led the way by engaging in above-ground dialogue.

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Can any good come of public discussion?

I think the ALS #IceBucketChallenge sheds some light on that. Whether you've taken part or not, chances are you know more about ALS now than you did prior to the public conversation.

I will issue you a different kind of bucket challenge. Let's each commit to at least one public conversation about an under-discussed benefits topic. It can be at an internal meeting, on social media or on a conference stage. Perhaps this commitment will help drive younger leaders to come out from the underground and join us.

< Carol Harnett, an expert in the field of employee benefits, can be emailed via http://about.me/carolharnett.

 

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