As an ERISA Risk Management Consultant for Lockton Financial Advisors of Los Angeles, Rick Unser knows a lot about retirement planning. Until recently, Unser couldn’t claim that same depth of expertise in broadcast media — but that was before he took up podcasting.

Amid a wealth of podcasts on wealth management, Unser has discovered a niche in exploring employer perspectives on retirement planning. Since February, he’s produced 26 episodes of “401(k) Fridays,” a weekly show about employer-sponsored retirement plans that’s designed to help “enhance fiduciary protection, streamline plan operations and improve participant retirement readiness.”

“So much of [retirement planning] is [viewed] through a fairly narrow lens,” Unser said. “‘If we have good investments, everything else is fine.’ As regulations continue to move down, it’s a much more complex world out there.”

Employers who don’t consider how their plans are constructed can leave themselves open to a lot of concerns beyond simple rates of return on investment or participation numbers. Lawsuits about the reasonableness of plan fees are increasingly common, for example, when employers fail to monitor their service providers or understand the ways their plans are constructed.

“Just because you have good plan investments, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be protected from a lawsuit,” Unser said. “[Fiduciary duty] is broader than [that].”

To guard against such risk, Unser recommends that employers start by recognizing the multiple constituencies at work when a retirement plan is constructed. Most employers form a committee that can include representatives from finance, HR, or some other strategic arm of the company, but it’s important to note that “not everybody does this as part of their day job,” he said.

“Sometimes people are getting asked to sit on retirement committees and they’ve never done that before,” Unser said. “It may be the first time the company has a retirement committee. They get together and go down the path their providers lead them down.”

Expanded thinking
In such an environment, planners often focus on investment subjects because that’s where their comfort lies, Unser said. Because the health of a retirement plan may be improved by more specific and foundational strategies — fee benchmarking, inter-generational participation, member communication — he foresees a need for greater exposure to such ideas than the typical roundtable may yield.

“With the podcast, I’m trying to extend this to general thinking and thematic elements that people might have,” Unser said. “For someone who’s interested in that topic, they’re going to have a better idea about how to create game plans, and why it’s important.”

Plan design, philosophy and communicating with participants must all be aligned to create the best possible outcomes for employees, Unser said. Frustratingly, from his perspective, understanding about 401(k) plans is neither widespread nor deep enough given the number of factors that can contribute to the success or failure of a plan. Building in features like automatic enrollment and fund targets can help bolster the health of a plan, and, perhaps as importantly, of employees’ relationships to their company as well.

“Sometimes I think employers out-think the room,” Unser said. “A lot of times you get employers who aren’t going to be aligned with what’s going on in their workforce. The farther they go down that path without saving, the harder and harder it is to catch up. There’s a huge segment of the population that just cannot get over the inertia from not being in the plan to being in the plan.”

Source of insight
Of course, Unser believes that a benefit adviser can be one of the key sources of insight in the effective design and maintenance of a retirement plan. From thought leadership to the ability to navigate anticipated regulatory issues, the value of working knowledge and information is what can help a retirement plan thrive in a changing market. Tapping into that expertise is part of what Unser believes is “the duty of leadership.

“It’s undeniable that the workforce of the future is going to have to rely more than any point in the future on their own savings and their own work in order to make a successful transition into retirement,” he said. “To do that, employers are going to need a good leader as a benefits adviser who’s going to help them understand the trends, the tools, the resources they need.

“Having the knowledge, the courage of conviction, that bravery in business to take a position that’s not necessarily the consensus; being able to stand up to the criticism and some of the doubts, and guide that organization to a better outcome, I think that’s a critical role of an employee benefits adviser,” he said; “helping employers, in a time of change, create better outcomes.”

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