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Butler on Benefits

McDo’s and McDon’ts of Financial Education

When it comes to employee communication — especially on a topic as complex as finances — there is no fast-food version that suffices.

September 12, 2013
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I have a confession, and it’s a risky one in today’s wellness-focused workplace: I love cheeseburgers. I’d eat them daily if my wallet and waistline would allow. While I’m especially partial to gourmet varieties — Kobe beef, artisanal cheese and so on — I’ve been spotted at a drive-thru ordering by number more than once.

I note the distinction to acknowledge there’s a time, place and appetite for both types. Still, when it comes to employee communication — especially on a topic as complex as finances — there is no fast-food version that suffices.

I suspect this is a lesson leaders at McDonald’s learned the hard way this summer when its attempt to offer employees financial education went over like a lead balloon.
In the company’s budget guidelines, which were distributed to workers whose salaries average slightly over minimum wage, employees were advised to allot $20 per month for health care, $600 for rent and $150 for a car payment. It’s not clear how employees were supposed to fuel the car, heat their modest apartment or eat — the budget listed $0 for any of those items.

The budget also accounted for $955 per month from a second job (or perhaps income from a spouse, partner or roommate) to supplement the slightly more than $1,000 from the first job. However, for a single wage-earner, CNBC analysts said such a scenario would involve a person working more than 60 hours per week at minimum wage, or $12 an hour for 40 hours.

There’s one thing right and a few things wrong with what McDonald’s did. The fast-food giant made an apparently genuine attempt to help workers grasp basic budgeting, which is something few employers do. Kudos to them for making the effort.

The company went wrong, however, in offering an unrealistic one-size budget to cover diverse employee needs and circumstances as well as failing to put that budget in the context of other financial considerations: its benefits programs, for one, and how to save, for another.

It took a drive-thru approach to financial education. Not to mention that it missed major opportunities to emphasize key messages around retirement planning and benefits decision-making.

Creating and communicating effective “Kobe beef and artisanal cheese” financial education takes much more time and consideration. Unlike McDonald’s, I won’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach, but here are a few general guidelines:

Make it easy to participate. After-hours seminars, when the last thing folks are thinking about is a workplace event or have to arrange child care to attend, is a nonstarter. Even lunch-and-learns, where it’s difficult for spouses (who are often financial decision-makers) to attend are less than ideal. Instead, consider an online program or give employees and families access to making an appointment with a financial counselor at a time that’s convenient for them.

Tie-in related workplace events and/or programs. Does your company celebrate National Employee Benefits Day or America Saves Week? Or, host a wellness fair where you can connect physical and financial health? These are tailor-made opportunities to promote your benefits and link them to sound financial habits. Of course, annual enrollment is another great time to tie-in financial communication, as employees’ primary consideration when selecting benefits is cost and affordability.

Ground communication in reality. The biggest problem with the McDonald’s budget is that it required such a stretch of the imagination to make it feasible for the average employee. Maybe he rents a room, not an apartment. Maybe he eats all of his meals at McDonald’s, so that’s why there’s no budget for food. Seriously?

Of course not. Real people don’t live that way. HR/benefits pros know the golden rule is crafting programs that care for a whole person. Just as golden, though, is keeping in mind a real person — not a hypothetical one with a car that doesn’t run on gas — and crafting programs and communications for them. What are your employees’ financial priorities, goals, concerns, obstacles? Communications need to speak to those, or your program is over before it even starts. If only the Golden Arches had followed the golden rule, the result may have been mastery, rather than worthy of mockery.

Kelley M. Butler is the editorial director at Benz Communications, an HR/benefits communication strategy firm. Prior to joining Benz, Butler spent 11 years at Employee Benefit News, including seven as editor-in-chief. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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