Decision makers behind compensation, employee benefits and retirement savings strategies have always had a significant, historic and sometimes underrated impact on how society functions. When some people have more opportunities for, or fewer barriers to, savings or caring for healthcare needs, a wealth and wellness gap is created and exacerbated.
In a spring 2021 Aon survey of 262 human resources professionals across Canada, nearly every respondent acknowledged the importance of inclusion and diversity (I&D) objectives. Such principles have had the greatest impact in recruitment and retention policy, resetting philosophy and procedures in outreach, staffing, onboarding, career progression and management. But for many organizations, applying I&D to benefits design remains the next frontier. Most survey respondents admitted they’re not quite sure where to start.
Here, we offer new data and insights on the progress of Canadian companies in promoting an inclusive future of work by incorporating I&D practices in retirement and benefits planning. We also present a framework of best practices for employers and a road map to get started.
Key Survey Findings
- Many organizations feel that their retirement (74 percent) and benefits plans (62 percent) are meeting the needs of their diverse workforces.
- 50 percent of respondents don’t know what positive impacts their diversity initiatives have made overall in their workplaces.
- 75 percent of organizations plan to review some aspect of their benefits and retirement programs from an inclusion and diversity perspective in the near future.
- More than one-third of respondents have partnered with an advisory organization specializing in inclusion and diversity.
Moving Beyond Good Intentions
Maturity of Organization-Wide Inclusion and Diversity Initiatives:
The majority of organizations have deemed I&D a priority and are looking for ways to address it at an organizational level. In fact, these principles are increasingly cemented into overall workforce strategy — but the extent to which they are being applied in the employee benefits space is less clear.
This may be partly due to the fact that most companies reported their current programs already meet the needs of their workforces:
- 74 percent believe their retirement savings program is sufficient for all.
- 62 percent say the same for their benefits offerings.
- About two-thirds have not taken, or are unsure whether they have taken, any steps to ensure their programs are operated to promote or achieve I&D objectives.
These responses indicate that many organizations’ programs are still built on a one-size-fits-all mentality. Are such programs really meeting the needs of a diverse workforce?
One example: Some plans haven’t changed much in decades, meaning they were designed with the Baby Boomer generation in mind. In an effort to reduce the swelling workforce, provisions were developed to encourage people to retire early. Today, however, not everyone wants or can afford to retire early, so these provisions may mostly help higher-income employees at the expense of lower-income employees.
Beyond acknowledging the importance of I&D in shaping recruitment and retention efforts, some survey respondents discussed benefits-specific applications, including:
- More flexibility to ensure diverse employee groups have the coverages they need
- Expansion of mental-health support and wellness offerings
- Access to culturally appropriate benefits
- Gender affirmation
- Flex time/leave policies
- Systems to ensure availability of benefits to all employees and equitable access without bias
A Road Map for Inclusion and Diversity in Benefits and Retirement Planning
These results call for a framework to help companies understand where they are today and evaluate where they want to be (Figure). It’s crucial to recognize that these steps may begin with commitment to applying I&D to long-term benefits planning, followed by an ongoing, cyclical approach to listening, reviewing, measuring and communicating as companies learn and evolve their total rewards strategies and supporting approaches.
One of the survey’s biggest takeaways is that company leaders are willing to commit to I&D initiatives. Ensuring that people of different genders, races, orientations and neurodiversities feel the weight of the organization behind them is increasingly important to employers across industries. About half of respondents currently have plans to address I&D, such as reviewing benefits governance to align with corporate I&D strategies, building diversity in decision-making groups and incorporating inclusion goals into the saving plan’s investment policy.
It’s never been more important to listen closely to all employee groups and understand what is important to them. Effective starting points include doubling down on organization-wide employee surveys and focus groups, and incorporating diverse perspectives in investment decision making by improving diversity on boards and in management.
In addition, quantitative data — such as claims and participation — are a crucial input to help organizations understand which benefits are being used, who is using them, and what is falling out of favor or failing to serve certain segments. For example:
- An analysis of PTO might reveal that different groups of employees observe a variety of religious or cultural holidays. Workers will perceive great value from employers offering flexibility to mark those events.
- Future retirement plan redesign may benefits from a closer evaluation of survival benefits available to same-sex partners.
- The COVID-19 crisis has only amplified the childcare and eldercare conversation beyond scheduling flexibility to future adjustment of retirement plan assets to allow male and female employees to take family leave.
In some ways, this stage could be the simplest — take what you’ve heard, incorporate it in your business model and set early benchmarks. At the same time, this step may be the lengthiest as it requires rewriting policy, gaining leadership buy-in and communicating further with employees.
The review must also take into consideration
potential roadblocks, from internal system limitations or budget constraints to external regulations based on where the operations are. For example, employees in Quebec may be subject to a complex web of taxes on their benefits, requiring the provision of alternatives that enable employees to take more control over their finances.
At all points in this step, flexibility is key. Qualitative and quantitative data can point the way toward the types of features and policies that will meet employees where they are in life. The difference will be made in how employers balance one-size-fits-all benefits against a carefully curated selection of voluntary benefits and options that can evolve over time.
Two-thirds of organizations measure representation in hiring practices, career development and promotion and at senior leadership levels. More than half also survey employees and host focus groups. However, just half of respondents could confirm that their I&D initiatives have a positive impact on the workplace. Of those who did, almost all felt it improved employee engagement.
There is tremendous opportunity to leverage benefits plan data to gain insight into outcomes relevant to specific groups. For example:
- Benefits enrollment data can provide clues as to the effectiveness of the rewards design. If employees are selecting a certain level of benefits — or allocating the majority of credits to discretionary accounts as compared with purchasing defined benefits options — is there a reason for this? Is the design inclusive of the needs of employees, partners and dependents?
- As a key social determinant of health, social inclusion is fundamental to supporting overall health and wellbeing — and supporting the health of the organization and its community. Various data points within benefits data — such as uptake of mental health supports, usage of employee assistance programs and various disability indicators — can provide insight.
Once decisions are made, it’s time to communicate the resulting changes in benefits plans to employees as clearly and effectively as before, but through a new I&D lens. Most respondents (82 percent) said their current employee communications are visually diverse, and 64 percent review all content to make it accessible and understood by as many individuals as possible. Additionally, 45 percent provide more than one way to access information (such as multimedia and multilingual methods).
However, 57 percent said their communications are demographically generic, while just 24 percent have intentionally developed communications that speak directly to employees. And just 30 percent of respondents reported having HR systems that accommodate an array of pronouns (he/she/they).
Just as important is updating the language in benefits policies themselves. Some companies may still offer policies that define spousal relationships as between a man and a woman, creating a barrier to accessing benefits for same-sex partners. Many are already updating such policies to better reflect modern societal norms — but there are a host of other, less obvious opportunities related to language and communication, such as replacing the term “infertility treatment” with “conception services.”
The survey data show that many organizations already recognize the value and necessity of I&D initiatives and have seen specific wins in the recruiting and retention arena. Equal access to one-size-fits-all benefits offerings is no longer a solution and prevents many employees from feeling truly accepted in the workplace. Now is the time to tie I&D to better benefits planning, which has fallen behind increasingly inclusive societal norms. Benefits professionals must get better at meeting employees where they are — and linking organization-wide I&D initiatives to benefits strategy is an essential part of that effort.
 Aon Survey: Inclusion and Diversity through the Lens of Benefits and Retirement