Passing the Buck

If you're asking employees to manage their own benefits, you could be asking for trouble.
Magazine Contributor
2 min read

This story appears in the May 2005 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

By now, you've heard the phrase consumer driven being used to describe health care, Social Security and other plans. But it might be better to use the phrase employee driven.

From health plans to retirement plans, employers are passing more and more paperwork on to their employees in areas that used to be the exclusive domain of HR and outside professionals. It raises the question: Are employers asking employees to manage too much of the work experience? And what are the risks?

Employers benefit from lower fees and fewer penalties by having employees manage various plans on their own. Take Health Savings Accounts, which allow employees to manage their health-care dollars. The employee--not the employer--is subject to a financial penalty if too much money is contributed to the account within a calendar year.

But there are costs to consumer-driven plans that could overshadow the transfer of liability. Because consumer-driven plans tend to be low-margin products for insurers, employees will be pushed online, where they'll spend work time deciphering their benefits. And that means less productivity on the job. "Employees have to do more," says JoAnn Laing, president of Information Strategies Inc., a Fort Lee, New Jersey, marketing information company.

The prospect of more paperwork isn't sitting well with employees. When Information Strategies surveyed 5,000 managers and employees in December 2004 to gauge the effect of consumer-driven health plans on worker satisfaction, it found 31 percent of employees are uncomfortable with the requirements and education being offered under the consumer-driven plans, and 41 percent indicated they were receiving very little education regarding tools and programs. "Twenty-two percent said they're not complaining loudly because they're afraid of losing the benefits," Laing says. "But they're feeling put upon, and it demands more of them."

Employers have to recognize employees' differing perspectives, says Susan Battley, leadership psychologist and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting in Stony Brook, New York. Employees over age 40 who are used to a paternalistic view of health-care and retirement plans will need more guidance than younger employees. "It can affect people differently based on whether they've had to adapt to this new environment," Battley says. She suggests employers offer resources ranging from a knowledgeable employee on-site to a toll-free number and online checklists.

Employers who ignore employee grumblings about the amount of work they're asked to do to manage their benefits will ultimately pay high prices in hidden costs. Do so at your own risk.

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