All posts by Kristen Frasch

More Bad News on 401(k) Front

Seems the 401(k) red flags just keep waving. This latest report from Ben Steverman on the Bloomberg.com site — based on U.S. Census Bureau research — shows a whopping two-thirds of Americans aren’t putting money into any defined-contribution plans.

That’s right. Based on this research, which relies on tax data instead of surveys (as in the past), only about a third of workers are saving in a 401(k) or similar tax-deferred retirement plan.

What’s more, it now appears — using this new research methodology — that only about 14 percent of employers offer retirement plans at all! How can that be? As the report explains:

“Census researchers Michael Gideon and Joshua Mitchell analyzed W-2 tax records from 2012 to identify 6.2 million unique employers and 155 million individual workers, who held 219 million distinct jobs. This data produced estimates starkly different from previous surveys.

“For example, previous estimates suggested more than 40 percent of private-sector employers sponsored a retirement plan. Tax records uncovered a much bigger pool of small businesses, showing that, overall, just 14 percent of all employers offer a 401(k) or other defined-contribution plan to their workers.”

Bigger companies, the researchers say, are the most likely to offer 401(k) plans, and since they employ more people than small firms, they skew the overall number of U.S. workers who have the option. Gideon and Mitchell estimate that 79 percent of Americans work at organizations that sponsor a 401(k)-style plan. In the words of the report:

“The good news is that’s more than 20 points higher than previous estimates. The bad news is that just 41 percent of workers at those employers are making contributions to such a plan — more than 20 points lower than previous estimates.”

But should we all be trying to shepherd employees into 401(k)s? Earlier posts by me on this site suggest that’s a very good question. This one from January finds the creators and supporters of the retirement-savings vehicle now lamenting their creation. None of them imagined the vehicle would replace pensions, leaving workers struggling to ever contribute enough to their 401(k)s to retire comfortably.

As Herbert Whitehouse, a former human resource executive for Johnson & Johnson and one of the earliest proponents of the 401(k) for employees, tells the WSJ in that post, he and others were hoping and assuming back in 1981 — when the 401(k) was in its infancy — that the savings approach would be a kind of supplement to company pensions.

They did not imagine the idea would actually replace pensions as employers looked to cut costs and survive during subsequent downturns. As Whitehouse puts it in the WSJ story:

“We weren’t social visionaries.”

Then there’s this post a little later in January presenting the opinion of benefits expert Larry Sher, who thinks there’s even more corrupt and wrong with the savings vehicle than its merely replacing pensions. He blames the people who’ve had skin in the 401(k) game all along, who’ve been reluctant to give up their own benefits of the system — a system that forces employees to shoulder more responsibility and stress.

The chief concern of policymakers, employees and even some of the employers that have embraced the 401(k) concept, Sher says, “can be summed up as the total shifting of risks to employees — the risks that they won’t save enough, the risk that they will use the savings for non-retirement purposes, the risk of unfavorable investment results — culminating in inadequate retirement savings and the prospect of outliving such savings.”

Meanwhile, some states and cities have introduced local individual retirement accounts designed to encourage workers to save by requiring employers to either offer a retirement plan or automatically enroll their workers in the state- or city-sponsored IRAs.

The U.S. House of Representatives, however, voted to rescind those rules on Feb. 15, citing the IRA plans’ unfair competition to the financial industry. If the GOP-controlled Senate and President Donald Trump sign off on the move, all such auto-IRA plans would be placed in jeopardy, leaving people in the lurch once again. As Steverman writes:

“Whatever the outcome, any effort to get workers to save for retirement faces a daunting challenge: Can Americans spare the money? Student debt and auto loans are at record levels, according to Federal Reserve data released Feb. 16, and overall consumer debt is rising at the fastest pace in three years.

“Retirement is an important goal, but many Americans seem to have more pressing financial concerns.”

Firing Someone over Politics

With conflict between President Trump supporters and detractors still at a fiery pitch, and with his protested inauguration still in the rearview mirror, this recent post on the Littler site might prove helpful.

In it, a boss in Sacramento, Calif., is asking the San Francisco-based employment law firm whether an employee can be fired, or at least disciplined, after the boss “saw one of my employees on the local news the other night participating in a political rally over the weekend.”

“Can I at least institute a policy prohibiting this kind of behavior going forward?” the boss asks.

Well, it all depends, Littler’s Zoe Argento writes, “on the employee’s location, the legality of his conduct, the employee’s contract, the nature of your business and the characteristics of the individual.” But best advice: Probably not a good idea and tread very carefully.

There are some state laws that prohibit employers from taking adverse action against employees because of their off-duty lawful political activities. So know your state’s laws on this. According to Argento:

“In California, employers may not coerce employees, discriminate or retaliate against them, or take any adverse action because they have engaged in political activity. Similar prohibitions exist in other states, including Colorado, Louisiana, New York, South Carolina, and Utah. Connecticut actually extends First Amendment protection of free speech to the employees of private employers. Some of these laws provide exceptions for public or religious employers or for off-duty employee conduct that creates a material conflict with respect to the employer’s business interests. Under such laws, and absent some exception, the proposed termination or demotion of this employee because of his lawful, off-the-clock political activity would be illegal.”

Also, Argento points out, at least three states — California, Louisiana and Colorado — prohibit employers from adopting any policy, rule or regulation that forbids or prevents employees from engaging or participating in politics or from running for office.

On the federal level, she says, firing or disciplining workers who engage in rallies, protests, marches or any other polticial activity could run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act, which provides that “employees shall have the right … to engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection.” She continues:

“The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted this provision to mean that employees may organize as a group to “improve their lot” outside the employer-employee relationship. Employees’ participation in political advocacy would therefore be protected if it relates to labor or working conditions. Such advocacy can include contacting legislators, testifying before agencies or joining protests and demonstrations. If the means used are not illegal, an employer would generally be barred from retaliating against employees who participate in these political activities outside the workplace.

“Depending on the nature of the activities your employee engaged in and his role in your organization, it may violate the NLRA to penalize him. If the employee participated in a rally concerning sick leave, minimum wage, or immigration reform, for example, that conduct would likely be protected.”

Argento signs off with some sound practical advice, that a decision to terminate or discipline an employee “should be based on an objective assessment of both the individual’s job performance and your business needs.” She writes:

“If the employee is otherwise a solid performer, and if his behavior does not interfere with the operation of your business, an adverse employment decision may be difficult to explain, undermine morale in your workforce, and, on balance, have more negative than positive results.”

Rule of thumb, she signs off, “proceed with caution” before penalizing employees for lawful, off-duty poitical activities, whether they’re frustrating to you or not.

Travel Ban Would Impact Many

Though President Trump’s travel ban has been frozen indefinitely, a decision made Thursday by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, it’s still worth noting how many organizations would be affected should Trump proceed successfully in appealing the decision to the United States Supreme Court. He has vowed to do just this, according to the New York Times report linked above. (More recently, on Friday, he said he is now considering rewriting the immigration executive order in question.)

Whatever we end up with,  a survey of 261 companies by the Seattle-based Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) — conducted just a few days after Trump signed the order restricting entry to the U.S. by travelers from seven majority Muslim countries — reveals more than a third (36 percent) of organizations would be impacted by the travel ban. Another 21 percent were still scrambling to make that determination at the time of the poll.

Within a week of the signing of the executive order, nearly 100 companies — including many of the largest global-tech organizations such as Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix and Uber — responded by joining in the filing of a brief in support of a lawsuit against the travel ban filed by the state of Washington. It was that lawsuit that was at the heart of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision Thursday.

In its release about the survey, i4cp describes the responses as very mixed:

“While some respondents lauded the executive order for protecting the safety of employees, others drew attention to its potentially negative impact on the recruiting and motivation of a diverse, inclusive global workforce, a clear illustration of the polarization of views and reactions.”

Some respondents reported they are simply unsure of the impact of the travel restrictions because of a “lack of transparency in their global contract workforces, which are managed by vendors,” the release states.

Human resources, however, was the predominant responsible party (at 41 percent) for managing internally anyone affected by the ban, followed by legal, 7 percent; CEO, 6 percent; other senior executive, 5 percent; and security, 1 percent. (Other responses included don’t know, 10 percent, and other, 30 percent.) As i4cp states:

“Often, [HR’s lead] is in conjunction with legal teams responding to the needs of individual employees.”

In a few cases, companies reported having multifunctional “SWAT” teams in place responding to the situation. And nearly a third said they are providing legal assistance to affected employees and their families.

Of course, these were the actions in place when the ban was in place. No doubt things have returned to normal since the freeze and its being upheld in appeals court. But should Trump succeed at the Supreme Court level, these challenges would be back on employers’ plates immediately. Would be wise to stay poised to help these employees — and clearly, there are a lot of them — once again if need be.

Fix STEM Gap by Making Science Fun

Anything that encourages and inspires the mastery of science in this country raises my interest. I come from a long line of scientists who — aside from being brilliant heroes of mine — always found ways, and time, to give back to schools and students to encourage a love of science.

My late dad, an oceanographer, told me more than once that the key to the math and science problem in America (i.e., not enough college graduates entering the workforce with science, technology, engineering, and math mastery and career plans) is that too few schools are making STEM fun. How can you be inspired by something that     isn’t at least a little bit fun?

Which is why this release about the 11th Annual Arizona Regional Science Bowl held Saturday before last caught my eye and had me reading on, not just about Arizona’s competition, but the national one as well, the one that all regional meets feed. There’s even a National Ocean Sciences Bowl. Not sure my dad knew about that one. He would have loved it.

Organized and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy since its inception back in 1991, the National Science Bowl follows a quiz-show format, with a buzzer system in place for contestants to signal their answers. Students compete in teams starting in their regional middle- and high-school competitions with the goal of getting an all-expense-paid trip to the national bowl if they win. This year’s national event takes place in Washington from April 27 through May 1. (Here’s a video from last year’s national competition in case you’re as curious as I was.)

My sense of it after reading up on both the regional and national events is this bowl idea sounds far more exciting, engaging and competitive than most other organized attempts to instill the love of science in tomorrow’s workforce. It also sounds fun.

I guess you could say it feels like the difference between a health-risk and body-mass assessment and a wellness program that gets participants truly engaged and enthused.

At a time when employers, particularly those in tech-reliant industries, are bemoaning the dearth of STEM-educated job candidates (consider what we’ve written here on HRE Daily and on HREOnline.com, for instance), it makes a whole lot of sense for businesses to support these regional bowls, and our national one.

Not only are you helping your high-tech talent-pipeline, you’d also be doing something very nice for your reputation as a community/U.S./future-workforce supporter.

Make Those Vacation Plans Today

Just a heads up that, if you’d like to join forces with the Entertainment Benefits Group and Project: Time Off in encouraging employees to take all their vacation time, today (Tuesday) is the day to get them poring over their calendars.

Both groups have joined together in a Jan. 31 “call to action” for more American workers to get a “jumpstart on planning their vacation,” according to this release from the EBG. In the words of Brett Reizen, president and CEO of EBG:

“[Our] mission is to bring fun and happiness to people’s lives by providing employees nationwide direct access to special offers on top travel and entertainment products across the country. Living in a work-driven culture where vacation and time off is essential, we embraced the chance to … foster work/life balance, boost employee happiness and increase productivity in the workplace.”

(EBG, a U.S. corporate travel and entertainment benefits program, will support the initiative by providing employers and their employees access to exclusive offers on premier travel and entertainment experiences through its corporate programs division — TicketsatWork, Plum Benefits and Working Advantage.)

PTO’s release on the big day tomorrow is full of some stats from a recent survey it conducted that you might find interesting — if not alarming — such as:

“Americans leave 658 million days unused each year. The single-most important step workers can take is to plan their time off in advance. Yet less than half — 49 percent — of households set aside time to plan the use of their vacation time each year.”

Also, according to the PTO research, 51 percent of those who plan their vacation took all of their time off, where just 39 percent of non-planners did, and 69 percent of planners took a week or more of vacation time, where just 46 percent of non-planners did.

We’ve posted our own vacation red flags and statistics for employers here on HRE Daily, including the huge number of “under-vacationed” employees and some of the reasons for it, such as the fact that others in the workplace — managers and co-workers — tend to shame vacation-takers.

If reading up on the merits of enforcing or, at least, encouraging the taking of all allotted vacation time, consider these additional stats from PTO’s research:

  • The time spent planning correlated with greater happiness in nine categories, including:

    • 85 percent of planners report they are happier with their relationships with their significant other, compared to 72 percent of non-planners.
    • 69 percent of planners, compared to 60 percent of non-planners, report being happy with their relationships with their children.
    • 81 percent of planners say they are happy with their financial situation, compared to 71 percent of non-planners.
    • 90 percent of planners are happy with their professional success, compared to 82 percent of non-planners.

Now, whether taking vacations led to this increased happiness and success or happy, successful people are the ones more likely to take all of their vacation time is unclear.

What is clear, to me anyway, is employers have nothing to lose and a lot to gain, including in employee productivity and engagement, by making sure employees are getting out of the office as much as they’re entitled to.

Pay Equity for Lower Ranks Only

We’ve been focusing, along with the rest of the media, on gender pay equity and wage gaps for some time now. (Witness searches on  this HRE Daily site and our magazine website, HREOnline.com, alone.)

But this latest study from the Academy of Management that’s going into the February issue of the Academy of Management Journal shows something we’ve never reported on: the fact that women managers foster pay equity between the genders, but only for low-ranking employees.

The study, based on actual manager-subordinate reporting relationships in 120 branches of a large U.S. bank, takes into account two different approaches to combatting pay inequity. One consists of pay formalization, which seeks to minimize personal biases by mandating the use of detailed written rules to determine compensation. The other, less formalized approach, looks to the increasing number of female managers in the workforce, and the power they wield to set pay.

According to an email I received on the study:

“… both formalized and less formalized approaches to pay equity come into play in each locale, with employee annual bonuses being awarded on a highly formalized basis but branch managers, almost half of them women, having considerable leeway in determining employees’ base salaries. Thus, [researchers had] a rare opportunity to compare the efficacy of formalized and less formalized approaches in achieving pay equity between men and women workers — specifically, how this is affected by manager gender.

“Unsurprisingly, the paper finds little or no gender gap in the formalized segment of pay — that is, in the amount of annual bonuses, standards for which are spelled out in detail by the company. In contrast, there was significant gender inequality in the less formalized component of pay, base salaries, which constituted the lion’s share of compensation, with greater imbalance occurring on average under male managers than under women.”

Yet, in the words of the study,

“Concluding that female managers redress inequality is incomplete because once organizational level is taken into account, it becomes evident that female managers only reduce inequality for employees at the lowest-level organizational position of teller.”

So … as the study paints it, controlling for a host of relevant factors, female tellers in branches headed by women had base salaries that were about the same as those of male tellers; yet, female tellers in branches headed by men had base salaries about 7.5 percent less than male tellers.

In sharp contrast, women’s wages for all other positions ranged from 4 percent to 13 percent less than those of men holding the same job, regardless of whether the branch was headed by a man or a woman.

What accounts for the fact that women branch managers eliminated the gender pay gap for female tellers but not for higher-status female employees? Does this confirm the “queen bee” effect, which contends that women who have been successful in male-dominated contexts try to keep other women from getting ahead? Mabel Abraham of the Columbia University Business School, the study’s researcher and author, answered this for me:

“Any suggestion that this is a queen-bee phenomenon would be purely speculative. It just as likely is a matter of women showing an extra measurer of concern for lower-income workers. The value of the research lies elsewhere — in highlighting a nuanced approach for organizations in striving for gender pay equity.”

What are employers and their HR leaders supposed to do with this new information? In Abraham’s opinion:

“In order to develop appropriate strategies for reducing gender pay inequality, organizations must concurrently consider the potential role of both female managers and the level of the employee they oversee.”

More 401(k) Bashing, and a Fix

I posted here earlier this month about a provocative Wall Street Journal piece in which the creators and early adopters of the 401(k) retirement-savings vehicle lament the revolution they started.

Their point: They had no intention of watching the concept turn into the sole — and highly inadequate — savings receptacle for employees.

Now, on the heels of that, comes this piece on the October Three site by benefits expert Larry Sher taking that discussion even further, to a whole lot more wrong with the defined-contribution approach and the people who support it — i.e., the people with skin in its game. As Sher writes:

“For instance, the government tried, unsuccessfully so far, to nudge DC plan sponsors to give participants some sense of how much life annuity their account balances might be able to provide. The push-back was immediate and severe from stakeholders in the DC system.

“Some objected on technical grounds —  the annuity estimate could vary widely depending on a number of assumptions including life expectancies, market interest rates and inflation. Others viewed this initiative cynically, believing that it was just a first step toward mandating annuity availability in DC plans, thus leading to the prospect of huge sums of assets shifting from mutual funds and other asset managers to insurers.”

The chief concern of policymakers, employees and even some of the employers that have embraced the 401(k) concept, Sher says, “can be summed up as the total shifting of risks to employees — the risks that they won’t save enough, the risk that they will use the savings for non-retirement purposes, the risk of unfavorable investment results — culminating in inadequate retirement savings and the prospect of outliving such savings.”

To mitigate the problem of employees dipping into their funds for non-retirement purposes, he suggests employers impose greater restrictions on such withdrawals. Of course, he also writes,

“The best way to close this loop would be to provide a core company contribution for everyone — not just for those who are willing or able to save.”

Here’s one of my favorites of Sher’s points:

“And perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of a DC-only retirement system is the fruitless attempt to make employees into competent investors. Even if investment education works to an extent, the idea of employees spending time, probably mostly work time, to figure out how to best navigate the investment markets is an exercise in futility.

“When someone is sick they go to a doctor, not to medical school. Investment professionals have gone to investment school — a crash course in investments does little, or no more, than give employees a false sense that they know what they are doing. It’s like self-diagnosing a medical issue based on information on WebMD.

“The response from the DC world is default investments, such as target date funds. That helps but it still leaves employees vulnerable to temptations to time the market and apply their [inadequate]knowledge to making investment choices. Inevitably, the result is wide disparity in outcomes among plan participants — those with better outcomes being the better, or more likely luckier, investors.”

Sher’s solution to this DC mess is to establish a combination of a type of cash balance plan with a “market-return,”  so interest is credited based on real-market investment returns rather than high-quality bond yields. He calls this the MRCB. Here’s how it would work, according to him:

“The MRCB will provide much better cost control than a typical CB design — because account balances will tend to move in tandem with the plan’s assets, and regardless of changes in market interest rates. The employer can tune the degree of investment risk it is willing to share with employees by providing more downside protections, possibly in exchange for retaining a portion of the upside investment returns.

“By providing some of the employer benefits through an MRCB, the employer is accomplishing all of the goals that the government and some employers are trying to achieve by changing DC plans to be something they are not meant to be. Employer pay credits would automatically be provided to all participants — no dependency on employee contributions. There would be no diversion of the benefits during employment — no loans or withdrawals. Annuities would be provided directly by the plan — thus avoiding the extra cost of retail-insured annuities.

“Yes, that means the employer retaining some long-term longevity risk — but even that is controllable by how the factors are set and managed over time to convert accounts to annuities. The MRCB typically would allow employees to elect lump-sum distributions upon termination or retirement [equal to account balances, with spousal consent], although the ability to elect lump sums can be restricted by plan design to the extent the employer considers that to be desirable.”

And where would such an approach leave the 401(k)-DC plan? In Sher’s words:

“Just where it should be –as a short-term and supplemental long-term savings vehicle … “

not the only show in town.

Death to the HR Business Partner?

Someone recently shared this post on LinkedIn by Tom Rommens, who describes himself as “Passionate about HR.” I guess passion, then, would explain his headline: Would Somebody Please Kill the HR Business Partner?

His point, which I thought interesting enough to share, is that calling the HR leader of an organization a “business partner” doesn’t support the notion that “HR has become or will have to become part of the business itself. So,” he writes,

“we will have to kill the HR business partner … as a concept; please don’t hurt the actual people.”

Rommens mentions Dave Ulrich, Rensis Likert Professor of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group in Provo, Utah, a good bit, primarily because he coined the term HR Business Partner in his long-running argument that HR professionals enable the business strategy through human resources. As Rommens puts it,

“I know it’s all semantics, but words do have their influence. I think it’s not accurate to call them partners. A partner is somebody who has a — positive, even interwoven — relationship with someone else but stands next to that other. Nobody calls the CEO a business partner; we don’t even consider the top IT guy to be one. [So why HR?]”

I reached out to Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, HR speaker and consultant, and HRE‘s HR Leadership columnist, for her take on this. Semantics, she says, is precisely what’s at issue. “Ah, another debate about semantics and HR,” she told me. She went on:

“It reminds me of the almost theological debate on whether the profession was ‘personnel’ or ‘human resources,’ followed by ‘people and/or ‘human capital.’ While I know that words can matter, I think sometimes there’s too much debate and focus on the words, rather than the concepts and information the words are trying to convey.

“In short, I don’t feel strongly about the debate — I do agree that the focus should be on HR’s role as an integral part of the business, without worrying about the label of ‘business partner.’ While [Ulrich] uses the term, he does it while describing a role that’s an integral part of the business. That’s where I’d rather see the focus.”

How strongly does Meisinger feel about the overuse of semantics arguments and buzz phrases in the HR profession? You be the judge. In her words:

“To the extent that it gives some HR professionals a greater sense of status — ‘I’m a partner in this endeavor, and my input/contribution is just as important’ — it might be helpful.

“But please, if they tell me they have to be a full ‘business partner’ to be sure they get ‘a seat at the table,’ I’ll go running and screaming into the night!”

401(k) Creators Lament Creation

A most interesting regret highlighted in the Wall Street Journal on Monday! (Subscription required.) Seems the handful of champions of the 401(k) retirement-savings vehicle now see the errors of their ways. Or the vehicle’s ways, anyway.

None of those mentioned and quoted in the compelling piece foresaw that the 401(k) would essentially replace pensions. And they see this as quintessential to the demise of the overall retirement picture in this country, and employees’ inabilities to save what they need.

We’ve certainly written our fair share of stories raising major red flags about the state of retirement and workers’ diminishing abilities to retire at all — both here on this HRE Daily site and in our magazine and on its website, HREOnline.com. But this is the first time any of us have heard from the horses’ mouths — the authors and early promoters of the savings vehicle — that they had no intention to launch and herald it as the nation’s sole retirement receptacle, if you will.

Ted Benna, a benefits consultant with the Johnson Cos. and one of the first to propose the vehicle back in 1980 — ergo his nickname, the father of the 401(k) — puts it this way in the piece:

“I helped open the door for Wall Street to make even more money than they were already making. That is one thing I do regret.”

Herbert Whitehouse, a former human resource executive for Johnson & Johnson and one of the earliest proponents of the 401(k) for employees, tells the WSJ that he and others were hoping and assuming back in 1981 that the savings approach would be a kind of supplement to company pensions.

What he and his co-horts didn’t imagine, he says, is that the idea would actually replace pensions as employers looked to cut costs and survive during subsequent downturns. As he puts it in the story:

“We weren’t social visionaries.”

The story is also rife with recommendations from today’s experts on how best to fix the problem and help employees save for retirement according to what they will actually need.

But as Benna tells WSJ,  he doubts “any system currently in existence” will be effectual for the majority of Americans.

A sad treatise, and no sadder than for those millions of Americans still in the workforce who can’t retire.

Empty Nesters’ Emptying Coffers

Full disclosure: I’m a softy when it comes to helping my grown kids. I frequently find myself opening my wallet more than I should, especially during this “giving” holiday. Not that they ask for it, just that I see needs in these lives I cherish, always have, and am probably quicker than most to contribute to the cause.

So I’ve been nagged ever since I came across this release from the SUM180 site about this study by the Boston College Center for Retirement ResearchDo Households Save More When the Kids Leave Home?

The answer to that question appears to be, in the words of SUM180, “not as much as you might think.”

Carla Dearing, the online financial-planning service’s CEO, doesn’t mince words in suggesting why empty nesters are only able to sock away 0.3 percent to 0.7 percent more than they were able to when they had much bigger bills and children in school.

“Among the explanations [are] empty nesters’ continued financial support of adult children,” she says. “Picking up their grown kids’ expenses — student loans, insurance, auto payments, smartphone bills — is a generosity those who have not yet saved enough for retirement can ill-afford.” She goes on to stress that:

“Those in their 50s — typically — are ideally positioned to accelerate their retirement savings: They’re at the peak of their earnings, the mortgage is paid and the kids are finished with college and out of the house. As this is possibly their final chance to ensure their retirement is financially stress-free, directing more into retirement savings must be their top priority.”

OK, I get that. I have been upping my 401(k) contributions fairly regularly. And I’m not picking up my grown kids’ living expenses as a matter of course. But oh is it ever hard to turn my back on those unforeseen needs in their stressed-out lives and the little lives they’re now raising. Yet that’s what Dearing is telling me to do. Get more selfish about my own survival. As her release says:

“Think of it as putting the oxygen mask on your face first. It may feel counter-intuitive, but, after all, your security in retirement is something your children want for you, too.”

I don’t think I’m alone in this baby-boomer weakness, fallacy, foible … call it what you will. And I do think it’s a problem specific to us boomers, not just because of where we are in our lives as parents, but because of where our heads are as parents as well. We’ve always wanted everything for our kids. We’ve always been willing to do everything in our power to see them not just make it, but succeed. How can we now dial this back and take better care of our own retirements? And is there something HR leaders can do to help this along in the workforce?

I put these questions to Dearing. She had some suggestions and observations worth sharing and thinking about:

“Too many boomer parents have a hard time drawing the line when it comes to helping their grown kinds financially, even when their own financial security is at stake. Helping your employees address this issue can have a big impact on their financial wellness, but it’s tricky. Dealing with money is always emotional; this is particularly true when family is involved.

“From an HR leader’s perspective, the challenge is to help employees make decisions about money and their children from a place of clarity and strength, rather than uncertainty and emotion.”

Here’s what she suggests, not just for boomers, but as talking points for the employers trying to help them:

“First, break through the emotional fog with real information. Give employees access to tools that help them get a handle on their own financial situation. You can encourage your employees to read books or attend workshops about communication and boundaries, you can keep trying to ‘educate’ parents about the importance of saving for retirement versus supporting grown kids financially, but in my experience, nothing beats real information for helping parents draw the line with their adult kids financially.

“The truth is, ‘putting on your own oxygen mask first’ is much easier when your eyes are wide open about your own financial shortfalls. When employees have a clear understanding of what they, themselves, need to regain control of financially, their priorities can naturally self-correct. Real information takes the guesswork out of the question, eases the emotional pressure and gives parents a rational framework for deciding whether they can truly afford to help.

“Second, bring the language of business to conversations with grown children about money. Chances are, your employees already know how to navigate business conversations with skill, tact and resolve. Show them that they can apply the same principles to financial conversations with their kids, and that this can go a long way toward defusing the emotion involved and arriving at sound decisions as a family. Some specific tactics worth sharing:

  • If a child wants to borrow money, the parent or parents should set up a meeting dedicated to discussing the loan and nothing else. Keep the meeting free of distractions such as household chores or family activities.

  • The parent or parents should maintain a businesslike tone and attitude throughout the conversation. If a child wants a loan, the parents should require a repayment schedule and an interest rate that they can be happy with.

  • Practice makes perfect. Saying no to one’s kids may never get easy, but it will get easier as they get used to approaching financial conversations in a rational, businesslike way.

“Let me close with a story that I think illustrates these two points. My client, a woman age 49, had a business that was doing fine, but not great. As we worked on her financial plan together, she realized two things: 1) Looking hard and honestly at WHY her business was underperforming, she was forced to admit that her son, the business’ controller, was not the best person for the job, and 2) She had a limited window of opportunity — 10 more years — to save and prepare for retirement. These realizations gave her the push she needed to finally give her son 12 months’ notice. Her son received plenty of time to transition elsewhere and she was able to start growing her business into the source of retirement income she needed it to be.”

Though I’m not running a business, therefore thankfully don’t have to think about firing one of my own kids, I do think having more resolve to “just say no” when my giving spirt goes into overdrive needs to be a New Year’s resolution. Or maybe it’s time to sit down and have that financial talk with them (though I think I’ll wait till after the holidays).

After all, I’ll be handing my retirement reality over to them one day. We should all be on the same page.