A sad truth acknowledged?

I have been part of the Employee Benefits industry for a very long time (more than a third of a century in fact), and when I started, the benefit choices available to most employers and their workforces were rather limited.  This has changed drastically over the last 20 years, during which time I have spent much of my time writing articles - or delivering presentations - explaining the importance of such provision to often dubious audiences of private, public, and third sector employers and their Human Resources (HR) professionals.

I can and do set the scene to explain the value of some benefits.  I outline the huge importance of the additional security for workers and their families, and the business case for sponsoring-employers in the form of the expected Return on Investment (ROI) too.  This ROI can be fiscal, practical, or moral (and often all three).

Yet I remain horribly aware that my words alone are not always enough.  Employers often want to see evidence of the good they will be doing – and the mistakes they might be avoiding – by following any suggested path.  This is often rather difficult for me to demonstrate in purely generic terms.  Or, to put it another way, my words are always going to be much less powerful than the reality-check of actual experience.

The evidence is visible

And the sad truth is that there is a very obvious reality-check visible to all at the moment.  The UK’s already significant death toll from the coronavirus pandemic includes many from the nation’s working-age population. 

Now every single death represents a horrible tragedy to that individual’s family, friends, workplace colleagues, and employer.  I have absolutely no intention of suggesting otherwise or writing anything that in any way distracts from that thoroughly awful and universal basic truth.

Yet anyone who has dealt with the aftermath of the loss of a loved one will tell you that the human and emotional pain can be magnified by the financial implications that sadly so often accompany a death.  This is particularly the case when the loss is unexpected, and potentially leaves dependents exposed to an uncertain financial future at a time which is already highly emotionally-charged for all concerned.

What is needed at such times is more than just kind words, however well-intentioned.  So often some practical financial support is necessary too.

Nothing worse?

Which reminds me of one of my most often repeated maxims of the last 20 years;

“There is nothing worse for all concerned, than an employer arriving at the funeral of a valued employee with nothing more than a few kind words and a wreath of flowers.”

Of course, sympathy will generally be welcomed.  But often the reality of the situation will mean that the bereaved family will genuinely be in need of some immediate finances to help them through the most difficult of situations. 

And the former colleagues of the deceased will also expect to see evidence of some employer paternalism alongside the compassion too.

Employer good intentions may not be enough

Yet, the reality is that even today, many employers still don’t provide life-insurance protection for some or all of their workforce.  When I have challenged individual employers on this oversight in the past, the response has so often been along the lines of; 

“Of course we will find some money for the family if we ever face such a situation”

And - for the record - I really don’t doubt the sincerity of such claims or intentions.  Indeed I have seen many employers over the years do exactly that. 

But surely the economic situation of the moment highlights just how fragile such good intentions can actually be?  With much of the UK economy currently in hiatus, do employers really have the ready capital to shell-out tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds as a one-off “ex-gratia” payment to a deceased employee’s family at present?  Sadly in many cases, the answer might well be “no”.

And if the money can’t be easily found – and aside from the obvious moral dilemma of such a situation and the much-increased pressures for the deceased’s family – how is this news likely to land with other employees?  What immediate and future damage might it do to the organisations' reputation, engagement, and productivity?

It’s one of those pivotal moments that all involved will remember for many years to come.  It follows that employers will want and need to manage such a moment well for sake of the employee’s family, and additionally for all those mundane but important moral, practical, and fiscal reasons that I mentioned earlier too.

A sad truth

Which takes me back to the start of this article. 

When I joined the industry the most common benefit was usually some form of Group Life Assurance provision.  It’s still there at very many employers, but often overlooked in corporate communications for the more expensive, fashionable, or multipurpose benefit offerings now available.  But it remains really important.

And in 2020 many employers will be deeply indebted to that day, long ago, when some far-sighted colleague established such a scheme to protect employees, their families, and the employer too.  

The sad truth is that it has never been more needed.

(Published 13/05/20)

Steve Herbert

Steve is Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, and is an award-winning thought leader on Pensions, Employee Benefits, and Human Resources issues. He is occasionally accused of making Employee Benefits interesting.

Steve Herbert

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