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5 Things Plan Sponsors Don’t (Always) Do — But Should

There is frequently a difference between doing all that the law requires of a plan sponsor and doing everything that could be done.

Here are five things that plan sponsors don’t always do — but should.

1. Have a Plan/Plan Investment Committee.

ERISA only requires that the named fiduciary (and there must be one of those) make decisions regarding the plan that are in the best interests of plan participants and beneficiaries, and that are the types of decisions that a prudent expert would make about such matters. ERISA does not require that you make those decisions by yourself — and, in fact, requires that, if you lack the requisite expertise, you enlist the support of those who do have it.

However, having a committee for having a committee’s sake can not only hinder your decisions — it can result in bad decisions. Make sure your committee members add value to the process. (Hint: Once they discover that ERISA has a personal liability clause, casual participants generally drop out quickly.)

2. Keep Minutes of Committee Meetings.

There is an old ERISA adage that says “prudence is process.” However, an updated version of that adage might be “prudence is process — but only if you can prove it.” To that end, a written record of the activities of the plan committee(s) is an essential ingredient in validating not only the results, but also the thought process behind those deliberations.

More significantly, those minutes can provide committee members — both past and future — with a sense of the environment at the time decisions were made, the alternatives presented, and the rationale offered for each, as well as what those decisions were. They also can be an invaluable tool in reassessing those decisions at the appropriate time and making adjustments as warranted — properly documented, of course.

3. Have an Investment Policy Statement.

While plan advisers and consultants routinely counsel on the need for, and importance of, an investment policy statement, the reality is that the law does not require one, and thus, many plan sponsors — sometimes at the direction of legal counsel — choose not to put one in place. Of course, if the law does not specifically require a written investment policy statement (IPS) — think of it as investment guidelines for the plan — ERISA nonetheless basically anticipates that plan fiduciaries will conduct themselves as though they had one in place. And, generally speaking, plan sponsors (and the advisors they work with) will find it easier to conduct the plan’s investment business in accordance with a set of established, prudent standards if those standards are in writing, and not crafted at a point in time when you are desperately trying to make sense of the markets. In sum, you want an IPS in place before you need an IPS in place.

It is worth noting that, though it is not legally required, Labor Department auditors routinely ask for a copy of the plan’s IPS as one of their first requests. And therein lies the rationale behind the counsel of some in the legal profession to forego having a formal IPS; because if there is one thing worse than not having an investment policy statement, it is having an investment policy statement — in writing — that is not followed.

4. Remove ‘Bad’ Funds from the Plan Menu.

Whether or not the plan has an official investment policy statement (IPS), plan sponsors are expected to conduct a review of the plan’s investment options as though they do. Sooner or later, that review will turn up a fund (or two) that no longer meets the criteria established for the plan. That’s when you will find the true “mettle” of the investment policy; will the plan sponsor/committee have the discipline to do the right thing and drop the fund(s), or will they succumb to the very human temptation to leave it on the menu (though perhaps discouraging or even preventing future investment)? Oh, and make no mistake — there will be someone with money in that fund. Maybe even a senior executive. Still, how can leaving an inappropriate fund on your menu — and allowing participants to invest in it — be a good thing?

5. Monitor Providers on a Regular Basis.

In some sense, we all “monitor” the performance of our plan provider all the time. Is the website available when people try to access it? Do checks and statements arrive on time? Are the balances displayed accurate? The reality is that, for most of us, no news is seen as “good” news. After all, if the answer to any of the foregoing questions was “no,” we’d not only know about it, we’d be complaining about it (after fending off our own set of complaining phone calls). Plan sponsors have a very full-time job dealing with a myriad of things that are “broken” — why go looking for trouble?

At least once a year — no matter how well things are going — it’s worth determining if your plan has access to the new services that have come online since you converted; that you are getting the advantages of the most current thinking about costs and fees; and how your plan’s participation, deferral, and asset diversification stack up. And yes, even with a reliable provider, you may have to ask.

Beyond that, every three to five years (sooner if there are problems, of course), plan sponsors should go through a formal request for information (RFI) or request for proposal (RFP) process—on your own, or with the help of an adviser (who undoubtedly has more experience with such things).

Two other things to keep in mind: First, if you are a fiduciary, and you feel that you lack the expertise to make those decisions, you will of course want — and, in fact, are expected — to hire someone with that professional knowledge to help.

Secondly, while fiduciaries are often reminded of the things they shouldn’t do, recent litigation trends suggest that they’re just as likely to get sued (if not more so) for failing to do something they should be.