Increasing 401(k) enrollment among Black and Hispanic employees – Financial Planning

Financial advisors and employers seeking to boost enrollment in retirement plans and benefits among Black and Hispanic workers must first change how they engage with them.

In a webinar held Feb. 23 by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, experts said employers and advisors working with them can tap into vast potential from the gains in business that come from a workplace that recruits, retains and promotes the best talent. In order to help lift the concerningly low levels of financial literacy and significant wealth disparities among historically excluded groups, though, employers should drop the traditional approach to workplace financial education, said advisor Lawrence Smith of Dallas-based ELS Vision Wealth Management.

For example, rather than setting up tutorials about the stock market, they ought to host a discussion of how their employee benefits tie into Social Security, according to Smith. Instead of holding a meeting about long-term retirement planning, they should create one about building financial independence, he said.

“It’s the same concept, but it means something different,” Smith said. “And that concept actually came from listening to African American participants and Hispanic participants about what are their concerns and what do they need, so that we can then have different topics.”

At some employers where Smith’s team manages the retirement plans, a conversation about “investment planning” might draw about 20 participants, he added.

“But if I do another seminar based upon the concept of, ‘How do you balance the things such as budgeting today with your long-term goals,’ we don’t even have any more spaces for anybody to sit,” he said. “So listening to what the people have and their issues that they’re having and actually addressing those issues is a great way for employers to get participants more engaged.”

EBRI, an industry research organization, spoke with more than 2,000 American workers aged 21 to 64 last July through 20-minute online interviews that included nearly 1,250 Black or Hispanic employees. On the whole, they were less likely than white workers to give their employers high ratings for “efforts to improve worker wellbeing,” said Lisa Margeson, the managing director of external affairs with Bank of America’s retirement research and insights team. As the moderator, Margeson asked the panelists how employers can get better grades.

After the national wave of protests after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, employees have the same higher expectations as customers, according to Kameka Grady, associate vice president of marketplace and community diversity with Lincoln Financial Group.

“People expect you to understand some of the social constraints and social issues that they’re dealing with. Not that they expect you to solve it, but they at least expect you to be able to have empathy,” Grady said.

That could translate to the increasingly popular employee resource groups, other internal focus groups or working with third-party organizations.

“Using an organization that represents that marginalized community is a great way to show your employees that you understand and that you want to connect with them and that you want to understand,” Grady said. “Black and Hispanic workers want the same thing that every worker wants. We all want autonomy. We all want to be appreciated, to be represented, to contribute, to know that you’re valued and that you matter. And so I think, to any extent that an employer can demonstrate to all of their employees that you are truly the greatest asset, I think that will lead to greater productivity, retention, recruiting and overall adoption of an employer’s efforts.”

The words and representation mean a great deal to existing and prospective employees, according to Smith, who pointed out that he’s one of only 1.8% of CFPs who are Black. The methods of starting conversations about inequality that may be uncomfortable for some and adjusting the types of programming offered to employees have borne out results like a 220% jump in participation of a university-sponsored plan managed by Smith’s team, he said.

“Now that there’s language that’s being used and language that they understand and trust that the person that’s actually advised them has given them the right direction, those things benefit,” Smith said. “It actually makes more participants decide to be involved, which fits into our passion, which is to make sure that we are developing a new generation of wealth and a new culture that has access to that wealth. And that’s a good thing for everybody involved.”