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4 Things Plan Sponsors Are Scared of – and 3 More They Should Be

Halloween is the time of year when one’s thoughts turn to trick-or-treat, ghosts and goblins, and things that go bump in the night. But what are the things plan sponsors are scared about?

Getting sued.

Plan sponsors will often mention their fear of getting sued, and little wonder. The headlines are full of multi-million-dollar lawsuits against multi-billion-dollar plans, and if relatively few actually get to a judge (and those that do are decided in the plan fiduciaries’ favor), they nonetheless seem to result in multi-million-dollar settlements. Oh, and not only has this been going on for more than a decade, the issues raised are changing as well.

As a plan fiduciary, you can still be sued of course; and let’s not forget that that includes responsibility for the acts of your co-fiduciaries, and personal liability at that (see 7 Things an ERISA Fiduciary Should Know).

That said, those cases seem to involve a rather small group of rather large plans. Most plan sponsors won’t ever get sued, much less get into trouble with regulators, of course. And those who do are much more likely to drift into trouble for things like late deposit of contributions, errors in nondiscrimination testing, or not following the terms of the plan.

Changing recordkeepers.

Any plan sponsor who has ever gone through a recordkeeping conversion knows that, however smooth the transition, and regardless of how much better the experience on the new platform is, moving is a lot of work. And, as with relocating your home, the longer you have been in a particular location, the harder it seems to be. Knowing that, it’s little wonder that many plan sponsors make those changes only under a duress of sorts, forced by poor service, a lack of capabilities, (relatively) high fees, or more than one of the above.

And that, of course, means that the transition, however badly needed or desired, will likely be rougher – and take longer – than desired (see 3 Things Plan Sponsors Should Know About Changing Providers).

Offering in-plan retirement income options.

While surveys suggest that plan participants are interested in the concept of retirement income solutions, and other surveys indicate that plan sponsors are concerned about participants’ abilities to manage their retirement income flows, there has been little movement in the addition to current plan designs, nor little indication that participants, given access to that option, are quick to embrace it. Plan sponsors remain concerned about the cost and operational implications, not to mention an extension of their fiduciary responsibility to a product that is neither required nor requested.

That said, new legislation has been introduced that might at least mitigate some of those concerns – were it to become law (see also, 5 Reasons Why More Plans Don’t Offer Retirement Income Options).

The ‘squeaky’ participant.

We’ve all heard (and likely experienced) the response to that squeaky wheel that every organization has, and that every plan sponsor fears, or at least dreads. Other than sheer human inertia, there is perhaps no more powerful force in freezing proposed plan changes in their tracks than concerns about the response that this individual (and the individuals whose attention they always seem to garner) might wreak on those responsible for those changes.

We all know who they are. We all know what they do. And yet they continue to be a force to be reckoned with in many organizations.

And 3 They Should Worry About

Now, arguably most of the foregoing concerns are overblown – they loom larger in the abstract than they should in reality. But loom large they do. But what about the things they should be “scared” of, but often aren’t?

Their personal liability

Most of the aforementioned concern about being sued seems borne from a concern about the damage – both reputational and financial – to their organizations. While that is certainly a well-founded and rational concern, plan fiduciaries, particularly plan sponsors, often seem oblivious to the reality that their liability is personal.

You can, of course, buy insurance to protect against that personal liability — but that’s likely not the fiduciary liability insurance that most organizations have in place. And it may not be enough.

Participants not having enough money to retire

For much of their existence, workplace retirement plans have been, and been viewed as, voluntary affairs. The focus of plan sponsors was to provide benefits that served to both attract and retain valued workers, and the retirement savings program was high on that list. A variety of discrimination tests served to provide incentives to encourage a certain rate of participation, while others worked to either foster a certain rate of deferrals, or brought with them the pain of restraining the contributions of the more highly compensated. Despite those, encouragements the focus was almost always on the amount of contribution going in, not the amount of income that would eventually come out.

That has begun to shift in recent months amidst the growing evidence that workers, fearful of outliving their savings, are contemplating extending their working careers (the data still suggests that such notions are aspirational compared to the realities) at a point in time where the costs to the employer – both out-of-pocket and organizationally – of that employment are problematic. Moreover, there is a growing sense that concerns about retirement security while employed have costs of their own on productivity, as well as health – which contributes to the costs of things such as absenteeism, etc.

Enter a growing focus on what has been termed “financial wellness” that encompasses not only a focus on financial security post-retirement, but also in taking the steps ahead of retirement that allow individuals to successfully build toward that day. It is perhaps too soon to describe this as a “fear” – but it is a concern, and a growing one for attentive plan sponsors.

Not having the knowledge of a prudent expert

ERISA’s “Prudent Man” rule is a standard of care, and when fiduciaries act for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits, they must act at the level of a hypothetical knowledgeable person and must reach informed and reasoned decisions consistent with that standard. The Department of Labor notes that “[l]acking that expertise, a fiduciary will want to hire someone with that professional knowledge to carry out the investment and other functions.”

Indeed. Because, when it comes to the former, most people do – and as for the latter, many still don’t.