How to Help Your Small Workplace Team Succeed

Often many small workplace teams have higher rates of productivity, due to a lesser amount of disruptions. Although there are more projects put onto single people instead of groups, it may not be a bad thing. Read this blog post for helpful tips on how to help your small workplace team succeed.


Are small workplace teams effective? Some savvy business innovators think so. After all, it was Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos who once said, "If you can't feed a team with two pizzas, it's too large."

Academia agrees. A 2019 Harvard Business Review study leans toward smaller teams. The study suggests that small workplace teams can "disrupt" conventional wisdom and get things done, according to authors Dashan Wang, a management professor at Northwestern University, and James A. Evans, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago.

"Our research suggests that team size fundamentally dictates the nature of work a team is capable of producing, and smaller team size confers certain critical benefits that large teams don't enjoy," Wang and Evans stated.

The study sought to "measure the disruptiveness" of workplace teams using "an established measure of disruption that assesses how much a given work destabilizes its field."

"This told us how the research eclipsed or made us rethink the prior 'state of the art,' setting a valuable new direction for others to follow," Wang and Evans wrote.

Why Small Teams Can Succeed

As Bezos and the Harvard Business Review study authors show, bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to workplace teams.

"Given the right resources, small teams can be incredibly powerful," said Michael Solomon, co-author of Game Changer: How to Be 10x in the Talent Economy (HarperCollins Leadership, 2020) and co-founder of 10x Management, a technology talent recruiting firm in New York City.

Solomon deploys an armed forces analogy to highlight the effectiveness of smaller workplace teams.

"If we think about the military, special ops are usually small units of highly trained, highly synchronized individuals who have prepared extensively, know each other incredibly well and are working toward a common goal," he said. "If companies can create a culture for small teams where there is a shared mission, a safe environment for constructive feedback and trust, there is little that can't be done."

For one project at his company, Solomon said, a team of between three and five people replaced a group of 35 to rebuild a product. "It was the right group of people with the right skills in the right culture, and they were able to literally achieve 10 times the result" of the larger team.

While smaller, more-nimble teams are commonplace at small businesses and startups with tight budgets, the concept can work at any company.

"Small teams can definitely be competitive against bigger teams, but the strategies are different," said John Doherty, chief executive officer and founder of GetCredo.com, a digital marketing company in Denver. "For instance, bigger teams will often have a lot more meetings and voices at the table, whereas smaller teams tend to motivate around a singular goal and focus. It really depends on what a company wants to achieve."

Getting Results with Smaller Teams: Top Tips

Team-building experts advise managers to consider these tips when building small teams:

Build an "ownership" mindset. Emphasizing ownership in a specific skill set is a great way to build small teams.

"Giving each person on a team an area of ownership helps small teams become more effective," Doherty said. "For example, I own business and marketing, my business partner owns the technology/software side, and we also have specialists on accounts, operations and finance."

Doherty's team uses Front, a business management tool, to steer tasks to the right person. "If something comes into our respective e-mail inboxes that should be handled by someone else, we can easily assign it to them and keep moving forward," he said.

Make accountability non-negotiable. Since fewer staffers are available, holding team members accountable is a must for small workplace teams.

"A smaller workplace team needs a combination of ingredients to succeed," said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, a business startup services provider in Calabasas, Calif.

Sweeney lists several traits she looks for when building smaller, efficient company teams:

  • They must own their responsibilities. "Team members must be accountable for their work and for being able to drive assignments and initiatives."
  • They should be accessible. "There must be an understanding of how to reach a team member with open communications leading to answers."
  • They must be flexible. "Being flexible is important, as things quickly change and each member of a team must be nimble enough to handle those changes."
  • They must be creative. "Smaller workplaces have fewer resources and less budget than companies with more money and team members. Creativity allows you to brainstorm ideas with your team that are cost-effective. These ideas may help differentiate your brand [from] an expensive option."

Start planning early. Waiting until the last moment to get an assignment started and accomplished is a non-starter for those managing smaller teams.

"Sometimes, starting late cannot be helped, as some assignments come through with tight deadlines," Sweeney said. "When that happens, it's critical that managers address the new priority with their teams, put a hold on existing work, and divide and conquer to quickly get the item with the most urgency completed."

When possible, managers should also encourage small teams to work ahead. "If they're caught up with one piece of their workload, have them start a piece that has been set aside for later," Sweeney added.

Curb team meetings. "With a smaller staff, I strive to avoid meetings," said Lotus Felix, founder of Flawless Content Shop, a content marketing company in West Palm Beach, Fla. "Conventionally, meetings may appear as the backbone of businesses, but there is so much your team can achieve when you slice down the frequencies of these meetings. At Flawless Content Shop, we have been able to up our monthly output by 175 percent by keeping some days entirely meeting-free."

Felix said having a full day without meetings allows his team to build incredible momentum. "This way, my staff can get fully enveloped in their daily to-do lists," he said.

Give your team flexibility, across the board. Felix strives not to "drown staffers in overbearing professionalism.

"For example, we don't have a strict dress code," he noted. "Personally, I have gone to the office in slippers. I wear ripped jeans on casual days, and most Fridays I Rollerblade to work."

Felix said he views this as "a deliberate attempt to unshackle my small team, giving them more vacuum for creative expression."

Measure performance and value. Focus on how your workplace team adds value using three measures: how they help make money, save money or reduce your company's risk.

"Keep track of your team's accomplishments and, as much as possible, determine the return on investment for your smaller team's contributions to the company," said Terry McDougall, owner of Terry B. McDougall Coaching, in Highland Park, Ill. "When you can demonstrate a positive return on investment, this is generally when C-suite leaders feel confident that increased investment in your team will result in a greater return for the company."

Let go of bad performers. Above all else, don't let underperforming team members stick around, because total team performance can suffer.

"With smaller teams, one bad apple can really destroy the culture of a team," Solomon said. "Believing that you can overlook one underperforming or difficult member of the team may be the biggest mistake managers make in running small teams."

In his book, Game Changer, Solomon talks about workers with a "sabotage impulse" who "avoid responsibility for their own actions and are very quick to blame others. No one is eager to have them around because they never feel safe with someone around ready to blame others for their own mistakes."

Too often, team leaders overlook these behaviors in hopes that the worker will rectify his or her behavior.

"In reality, these types of individuals … can be incredibly destructive for small workplace teams," Solomon said. "It's very important to remove them quickly to avoid an adverse impact on the rest of the team."

SOURCE: O'Connell, B. (29 September 2020) "How to Help Your Small Workplace Team Succeed" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/people-managers/pages/helping-small-teams-succeed-.aspx


Three Communication Tips to Raise Productivity

Communication is often the key to success especially within the workplace and during team projects. If communication expectations are laid out and shown to employees, the chance of higher productivity is more common. Read this blog post for helpful tips.


If you're looking for ways to bump productivity, rescue slumping performers or improve teamwork, start with your expectations. These subtle—but very powerful—elements of your leadership toolkit can produce lasting results.

Raising your expectations doesn't require you to adopt a perpetual cheery optimism, but it does require you to make a brutally realistic assessment of current conditions. If productivity is low, cycle time is horrible and/or quality is poor, you need to acknowledge the facts—or you'll never be able to improve performance. And part of that brutal assessment requires looking in the mirror. Perhaps, without realizing it, your underlying beliefs are contributing to the performance situations you see around you.

Three components make up the messages you send: the words you use, the way you say them and your nonverbal cues.

Words

Here are some examples of how to frame your expectations for performance improvement in three different situations.

  • If productivity is down, you might say: "Well, as we look at productivity, we can see that it's 2 percent below where it was last year. I know we can get back to where we were—and eventually beyond—because we have the horsepower right in this room to do it." In selecting these words, you've acknowledged where performance is and expressed confidence about improvement.
  • If you're making progress in an area—but more progress is required—the message might be: "While we're making progress on quality, it's still not where it needs to be. I know we can get to where we need to be by continuing our Six Sigma efforts. Let's look and see where we need to put our resources next."
  • If performance is good and you want to boost it more, the message should be: "Cycle time is good, never been better. Let's look at how to cut it even further. I know we can do it if we work together to figure out how."

In each example, your words describe the present situation in simple and direct terms and also express confidence in moving to further improvement.

Verbal Intonations

The tone of your voice is the second element of your message. Everyone has experienced situations where the words sent one message and the tone of voice sent another. When there's a conflict, most people believe what is conveyed by the tone of your voice. So, make sure that your tone matches the positive message of your words. Not only should you avoid the obvious mismatch, but also the unintentional mismatch—those occasional situations where your words say one thing and your tone of voice says another.

Nonverbal Cues

The bulk of the meaning lies here. You can say the words, and your tone of voice can match the words. But if you're looking around, tapping your fingers, shaking your head "no" or doing any one of the hundreds of other seemingly little things that say, "I don't believe in you," you're not going to get the performance you want. Here are five categories to check yourself against:

1. Body position. If your arms are crossed, your legs are crossed away from the person you're communicating with or you're giving the "cold shoulder," then you're sending negative messages. On the other hand, if your body position is open—you're facing the person rather than looking away—you communicate honesty, warmth and openness. If your posture is erect rather than slumping, you communicate positive beliefs. And if you're leaning slightly forward, you demonstrate interest in the other individual.

2. Hand gestures. Avoid tapping your fingers ("I'm impatient"), hiding your mouth ("I'm hiding something"), wagging your finger (the equivalent of poking someone with your finger) and closed or clenched hands ("I'm upset"). These gestures all conflict with an "I believe in you" message. Instead, use open hands with palms up ("I'm being honest with nothing to hide") or touching your hands to your chest ("I believe in what I'm saying"). Both of these emphasize a positive message.

3. Head. If your head is shaking back and forth or tilted off to one side, you're sending a message of disbelief. On the other hand, if your head is facing directly toward someone and you're nodding up and down, you're delivering a nonverbal message of belief and confidence.

4. Facial expressions. Smile, and keep your mouth relaxed. Show alertness in your face and act like you're ready to listen. Do these regularly and you'll have created an open communication pattern with someone who will believe in your sincerity. On the other hand, if you're tight-lipped, are clenching your jaw muscles and have only a grim smile, no smile at all or a frown, you'll send a message that says: "No way can you possibly succeed at this project."

5. Eyes. Maintaining good eye contact is one of the most important nonverbal signals you can send. It conveys the message, "I'm interested in you and when I say I believe in you, I really do." Making sure that your eyes are open wide is also helpful. Squinting can deter the recipient. Worse yet is looking around, paying attention to other things and not paying attention to the person or topic at hand.

Communicate high expectations well enough and you may even have to step aside to avoid getting run over by a team of committed players whose performance is accelerating.

SOURCE: Connellan, T. (29 September 2020) "Three Communication Tips to Raise Productivity" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/people-managers/pages/three-communication-tips-to-raise-productivity.aspx


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Too much screen time from remote work? These tips can combat uncomfortable eye strain

Sitting behind a desk can cause more than just neck and shoulder pain, it can also cause many eye problems and not just headaches and hazy eyes. Read this blog post for helpful tips.


With much of the workforce working from home, employees are spending more time than ever on digital devices — and it’s been a real headache.

Too much screen time causes eye strain, which often leads to headaches, dry and irritated eyes, and neck and shoulder pain, according to a study by the Vision Council. Light emitted from digital devices can also suppress melatonin levels, preventing a good night’s sleep. To combat the uncomfortable side effects of screen time, optometrists and online retailers are marketing blue light filtering glasses, which claim to reduce or eliminate eye strain by blocking the light that causes it. But do they really work?

“Some people say it’s a hoax, some say it helps — but in my experience, about eight or nine out of 10 patients say they really notice a difference after using blue light lenses,” says Dr. Alina Reznik, an optometrist with the mobile optometrist company, 20/20 Onsite. “I do love these lenses — I’ve seen people feel more comfortable and get better sleep throughout the night.”

Eyes are also exposed to blue light from the sun, but staring at screens for long periods of time is what causes eye fatigue, Reznik says. Blue light filtering glasses and contact lenses are designed to prevent blue light from entering the eye and causing symptoms.

“When blue light enters the eye, it scatters and our eye perceives it as glare and has to work overtime to keep our vision clear and focused,” says Jen Wademan, an optometrist with VSP — the largest vision insurance provider in the U.S. “It’s like a muscle — if you engage that muscle, it fatigues.”

The optometrists say blue light exposure also causes people to stop blinking while using digital devices. Wearing blue light lenses can help prevent that, they say.

“You don’t think about it when it’s happening, but when we’re on our computer or phone, we don’t blink as much,” Wademan says. “Blinking lubricates our eyes, so when we don’t do it as much, our eyes get dry and irritated.”

Wademan and Reznik recommend that employees talk to their optometrist about different options for combatting eye fatigue — even those who don’t need corrective lenses to improve their eyesight. Reznik says employees can find high-quality lenses online, but employees need to do a lot of research to verify their legitimacy.

“When people say blue light lenses don’t work, it’s often because they’re not wearing them long enough, or because they’re using low-quality lenses that aren’t actually blocking the blue light,” Reznik says.

People with 20-20 vision can still use vision benefits to purchase lenses to combat eye fatigue, Reznik and Wademan say.

“There’s so many blue light filters on the market online, but your best option is to have an eye exam to talk about your concerns,” Wademan says. “[Optometrists are] held to higher standards, so you can validate that the lenses are high quality.”

Wademan pointed out that people with perfect eyesight should still visit an eye doctor regularly.

“What we do is more than just vision, we look to make sure your eyes are running efficiently and properly,” Wademan says. “We’re also able to monitor chronic conditions like glaucoma and diabetes through eye exams to address them quickly.”

Reznik and Wademan say blue light exposure is not the only vision concern employees should address during the pandemic. The amount of time people spend looking at their screens without breaks, and the distance between themselves and the monitor, have an impact on vision health too.

“You can actually make yourself near-sighted by not taking breaks to look out the window into the distance,” Reznik says. “Our eyes are like muscles, and muscles need to be engaged in order to work properly.”

In addition to wearing blue light lenses, Reznik and Wademan say employees should practice the 20-20-20 rule: look away from your screen every 20 minutes at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Computer screens should also be placed at arms’ length to reduce eye strain. But, most importantly, they said employees and their children should have regular appointments with their eye doctor.

“So much of what kids learn is through their eyes, so it’s really important to make sure they’re running efficiently,” Wademan says. “We can’t do much without our eyes, so if you have vision benefits, you should definitely use them.”

SOURCE: Webster, K. (24 September 2020) "Too much screen time from remote work? These tips can combat uncomfortable eye strain" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/tips-for-combatting-eye-strain-from-too-much-screen-time


HR Professionals Struggle over FMLA Compliance, SHRM Tells the DOL

In addition to the daily struggles that HR Professionals have to resolve, they are faced with many frustrations that have stemmed from the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Read this blog post to learn more.


In a Sept. 15 letter to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) highlighted many of the challenges and frustrations that confront HR professionals as they comply with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

"SHRM supports the spirit and intent of the FMLA, and our members are committed to ensuring employees receive the benefits and job security afforded by the act," wrote Emily M. Dickens, SHRM's corporate secretary, chief of staff and head of Government Affairs. "While it has been more than 25 years since FMLA was enacted, SHRM members continue to report challenges in interpreting and administering the FMLA."

The letter, developed with input from SHRM members, was in response to a request for information issued by the DOL's Wage and Hour Division on July 17. The DOL solicited comments and data "to provide a foundation for examining the effectiveness of the current regulations in meeting the statutory objectives of the FMLA."

According to Ada W. Dolph, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw who practices labor and employment law in Chicago, “SHRM’s comments echo what we are hearing from clients in terms of their challenges in implementing FMLA leave, particularly now with the patchwork of additional state and local leave requirements that have emerged as a response to COVID-19."

She added, "Our experience shows that regulatory gray areas add significant costs to the administration of the FMLA and impact the consistency with which the FMLA is applied to employees. We are hopeful that [the DOL] will implement SHRM’s proposed revisions, which provide much-needed clarity for both employers and employees."

Wide-Ranging Challenges

In its comment letter, SHRM addressed several issues its members have reported:

CHALLENGES WITH CONSISTENTLY APPLYING THE REGULATORY DEFINITION OF A SERIOUS HEALTH CONDITION

"Continuing treatment by a health care provider" as currently defined in federal regulations creates uncertainty for SHRM members on how to treat an absence of more than three consecutive days, according to SHRM's letter. "If there is not 'continuing treatment,' then it does not constitute a 'serious health condition' under the regulations," the letter explained. "However, if the employee does receive additional treatment, it's not clear whether these initial three absences are related to a serious health condition."

SHRM pointed out that several members "have suggested increasing the time period of incapacity, indicating they spend a lot of time processing employee certifications for missing four days that they believe more readily falls under sick time or paid time off."

Further guidance, including criteria and examples of when employers may obtain second and third medical opinions, "would be helpful, as many SHRM members reported declining to challenge an employee's certification at all because the conditions under which they may challenge those certifications are unclear or cumbersome," SHRM said.

Members also reported that obtaining documentation from health care providers on the need for employees to take leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition was difficult, and that doctors were often vague about identifying how the employee fits into the caregiving equation.

CHALLENGES WITH INTERMITTENT LEAVE

SHRM members reported that intermittent leave-taking is the most likely FMLA leave to be abused by employees.

"Employees are permitted to take incremental leave in the smallest increment of time the employer pays, as little as .10 of an hour, which members reported allowed employees to use the time to shield tardiness or other attendance issues," the letter read. "SHRM strongly urges [the DOL] to increase the minimum increment of intermittent or reduced schedule leave that is unforeseeable or unscheduled, or for which an employee provides no advance notice." SHRM suggested several alternative approaches.

For instance, the DOL could:

  • Require that employees take unforeseeable or unscheduled intermittent or reduced schedule leave in half-day increments, at a minimum.
  • Establish a smaller increment, such as two hours, that automatically applies in any instance in which an employee takes unscheduled or unforeseeable intermittent or reduced schedule leave.

Additionally, when an employee takes intermittent or reduced FMLA leave, an employer may transfer an employee to an alternative position. However, under current regulations, employers may only require such a transfer when the leave taken is for "a planned medical treatment for the employee, a family member, or a covered servicemember, including during a period of recovery…."

"Given the potential burden and hardship that intermittent and reduced-schedule leave have on employers, SHRM believes that an employer should be permitted to temporarily transfer an employee on intermittent or reduced-schedule leave to an alternative position, regardless of whether the leave is foreseeable or unforeseeable or whether it is scheduled or unscheduled," SHRM told the DOL.

CHALLENGES REGARDING EMPLOYEES WHO ARE CERTIFIED FOR INTERMITTENT LEAVE FOR CONSECUTIVE YEARS

Employees continue to regularly exhaust and replenish their 12-week FMLA entitlement, based on the rolling 12-month entitlement period, SHRM members reported.

"Combined with the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act requirements to accommodate absences under some circumstances, these unrelenting absences become unreasonable and unduly burdensome to employers," SHRM commented.

Similarly, many SHRM members reported being frustrated that there weren't more mechanisms to challenge potential abuses of intermittent leave (e.g., when employees take every Friday or Monday off).

FRUSTRATION WITH EMPLOYEES NOT PROVIDING SUFFICIENT NOTICE OF THE NEED FOR LEAVE

Many employees provide notice of even foreseeable leaves after the leave has begun, noted SHRM, which recommended that notice of foreseeable leave be required prior to the commencement of leave and not "as soon as practicable."

SHRM also suggested that "a more definitive requirement be imposed so that employees understand clearly that they must provide notice of leave prior to beginning leave," and that "if an employee does not give advance notice, it should be the employee's burden to articulate why it was not practicable to provide such notice prior to the start of the leave. If they are unable to meet this burden, the regulation should permit and specify the consequences."

DIFFICULTIES OBTAINING TIMELY RESPONSES FROM EMPLOYEES AND THEIR PHYSICIANS TO SUPPORT THE REQUESTED LEAVE

If an employee fails to provide sufficient information to demonstrate that he or she may seek FMLA leave, then the employee can be required to provide additional information "to determine whether an absence is potentially FMLA-qualifying," SHRM explained. "However, there is no deadline by which the employee must provide this clarifying information, resulting in extensive, continued delays and continued administrative burdens."

SHRM recommended tightening this time frame to seven days and that the DOL "endeavor to provide firmer and clearer deadlines and notice requirements throughout the regulations."

SHRM members also reported that health-provider fees for completing paperwork often slowed or halted the certification process and asked whether providers' ability to impose these fees could be limited.

New FMLA Forms

Overall, SHRM members expressed satisfaction with recently updated FMLA forms. However, members continue to report that the information received from medical providers is often unclear and that they struggle to determine whether the reported condition constitutes a serious health condition.

The new forms do not account for the possibility that an employee does not qualify for FMLA because the employee doesn't meet the requirement of being unable to perform the functions of his or her job. "As such, we suggest that the medical provider be given the option to indicate that an employee does not meet this requirement," SHRM wrote.

Many members suggested that the DOL allow completion of online forms to speed processing times and reduce the administrative burdens of processing FMLA leave.

Among other issues, SHRM members also reported struggling with how to effectively reconcile FMLA with other leave laws enacted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SOURCE: Miller, S. (21 September 2020) "HR Professionals Struggle over FMLA Compliance, SHRM Tells the DOL" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/hr-professionals-struggle-over-fmla-compliance-shrm-tells-the-dol.aspx


Pandemic Forces Organizations to Get Creative in Prepping Young Employees for the Workplace

Many are still having to work remotely, and become introduced to a company while not in an office setting. This may be hard for many entry-level beginners, interns, and recent college graduates. Employers are now trying to find ways to creatively prepare young employees for a non-traditional workplace. Read this blog post to learn more.


Pairing remote "buddies" with interns, creating leadership boot camps and hosting virtual presentations with college students are a few of the ways employers are preparing young employees for the workforce at a time when the pandemic has forced many employers to adopt a work-from-home culture.

"This pandemic has necessitated all employers to be agile and adapt to a 'new age' workforce and workplace—namely, a decentralization of employees and ability to work remotely," pointed out David Owens, director of campus recruiting at Addison Group, a national staffing and recruiting firm based in Chicago.

"Prepandemic, the majority of internships and entry-level employment opportunities were in-office or involved a majority of in-person daily responsibilities and tasks. Thankfully, in today's climate, we have the capability and technology to shift these in-person or in-office duties virtually. Leading organizations were already transitioning to a more modern concept of work," he said.

"This has been a hot-button inquiry from new graduates and this incoming generation of talent, many of whom are looking for their future workplace to be flexible and agile. More and more organizations will be tested on their adaptability to offer similar work options."

The pandemic has created a need for more in-depth and strategic partnerships with colleges and universities for recruiting students, Owens noted. Hosting a virtual panel or presentation for students is a better option right now than setting up a booth at a widely attended career fair, he said.

"I also recommend forming strategic partnerships with related student organizations and clubs that have a strong presence on campus. Additionally, be an ally to students, many of whom are stressed-out enough adapting to a hybrid or entirely virtual school year. Offer resume reviews, mock interviews, short-stint internships and networking events. Even if they don't apply for a full-time position, it helps to build brand recognition, and they could even end up applying to work at your organization down the road."

Online Networking

"We've been hosting online network events for individuals who are looking to come into the industry," said Carla Diaz, co-founder of BroadbandSearch, a company with 15 employees who all work remotely. Her company helps clients find the best Internet and TV service.

"Since we have connections within the world of ISPs [Internet service providers] and the like, we thought it would be a great idea to give up-and-coming professionals the chance to meet people within the industry—especially since many networking events were canceled as a result of COVID-19."

The events are not large, she said, but they can help young adults make important connections. Some, for example, have led to internships at Broadband.

'Firsthand Exposure'

Synoptek, a global systems integrator and managed information technology (IT) services provider headquartered in Irvine, Calif., designed DiscoverIT for recent college graduates in the U.S. It is a six-month, highly intensive training in technology, project management, the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, security and leadership. The program includes mentorship and technical and leadership boot camps, according to Danielle Andersen, vice president of global human resources at Synoptek.

The company continued its college recruitment program during the pandemic, hiring six employees during the summer.

"The program gives fresh college graduates firsthand exposure to IT consulting," she said.

And its 12-month mentorship, which pairs mentees with a company business leader at its various sites, has been using Microsoft Teams during the pandemic to meet semimonthly. It's a chance, Andersen said, for mentees "to gain more in-depth knowledge about our business model, polishing their professional image and building overall leadership skills."

The coronavirus outbreak should not be a hindrance for young professionals, said Sonya Schwartz, managing editor at Her Aspiration in the Jackson, Miss., area and founder of Her Norm, a relationship website. Her fully remote company, which employs six workers, hires at least one new graduate per department annually and plans to continue to do so, she said.

"I make sure to expose them to the ins and outs of the company to make them more familiar with the whole working process. There is a specific employee assigned for their virtual training, and chatrooms designated for them are made to ensure that all of their questions or clarifications are answered," Schwartz said.

A senior employee assigned to train a new employee also serves as the new hire's guide for daily tasks.

"Initially, we ask the new grad which part of their career they want to focus on and enhance so that they could undergo training, and, once they have decided, we will assign them to the person who we believe can contribute and can train them well in that field and will also serve as their immediate superior," she said.

Trainees attend meetings with potential clients to learn the importance of effective communication and are assigned minor projects, such as conducting research and minor layout of content. They also are given social media management tasks to develop industry-related skills.

Buddy System

The Expense Reduction Group in Baltimore stresses role modeling as a way to prepare and transition emerging professionals, according to founder and CEO Michael Hammelburger. The company, which opened in 2019, employs four staffers.

"Each new hire is unique; that's why I have implemented a buddy system for them," said Hammelburger, financial consultant for small and midsize businesses.

"We assign each of our newbies a tenured employee they can ask any question about the company to make them feel more comfortable as they adjust to their new workplace." During the first six months of hire, each buddy does a daily Zoom meeting, and there are weekly team meetings that include the buddy's new-hire cohort.

"It also breaks away from the formal onboarding seminars that are dull and boring. During our feedback process, our new hires always mention how easy it became for them to adjust."

SOURCE: Gurchiek, K. (23 September 2020) "Pandemic Forces Organizations to Get Creative in Prepping Young Employees for the Workplace" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/organizational-and-employee-development/pages/pandemic-forces-organizations-to-get-creative-in-prepping-young-employees-for-the-workplace-.aspx


Employers Consider Child Care Subsidies

Working parents have been put into situations that are causing them to almost choose between their careers and their children due to the coronavirus pandemic bringing families home and requiring work to be done virtually. Employers are now seeking ways to help employees with taking care of their children. Read this blog post to learn more.


Working parents have borne the brunt of the pandemic's impact on employees, as many must juggle their job responsibilities with overseeing their children's remote educations and overall well-being while quarantined. Some have had no choice but to quit their jobs or decided not to seek new employment when their jobs were eliminated due to the downturn, so that they could focus on caring for their kids.

In fact, an August survey by Care@Work of 1,000 working parents with children under the age of 15 showed that 73 percent were considering making major changes at work, such as revising their schedules (44 percent), looking for a different job (21 percent) or leaving the workforce entirely (15 percent).

One approach that is gaining steam among employers seeking to help employees with children is to provide child care subsidies. These typically are employer-provided spending accounts or bonuses designed to help cover the costs, in full or partially, of day care and pandemic-related educational expenses.

"Subsidizing professional child care arrangements for an organization's employees makes sound business sense because it potentially reduces the stress and anxiety that working parents might regularly experience while worrying about their children during their normal work hours," said Timothy Wiedman, a retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University in Crete, Neb. "And that stress and anxiety might well divert a parent's full attention from their assigned duties."

Making Sure It's Fair

To be sure, many companies have not considered offering any type of child care subsidy to working parents. A major reason often cited is that single employees, as well as those who are married without children or who have grown children, will feel slighted by an employer that offers a benefit they can't access.

"There is always that fairness doctrine that comes into play when you offer a subsidy to one employee because they have a special need that some other employee may not have or need," said Carol Kardas, SHRM-SCP, founding partner at KardasLarson, an HR consulting firm in Glastonbury, Conn. "Some may consider this a discriminatory practice, and [it] could be a cause for lower morale or productivity."

Some organizations overcome that issue by providing a different benefit instead to offset those perceptions. Wiedman suggested reviewing benefit allotments for such employer-paid offerings as elder care, the deductible required by the company-provided health care plan, the annual contribution to 401(k) retirement plans, health savings accounts, life insurance coverage (or additional disability insurance) and tuition reimbursement. The allotments can vary based on whether the employee also receives a child care subsidy.

Another option is to explain that by providing assistance to their colleagues, the workload will remain balanced and not fall more heavily on employees who don't have child care duties.

"Working parents who have to use paid time off to spend time with their children when no other arrangements can be made may also call out at the last minute, since arrangements can be canceled abruptly," Kardas said.

Alleviating Stress and Costs

Working parents who can't afford child care and don't receive a subsidy "are often interrupted by children wanting to share their toys or get a hug from dad," said Laura Handrick, an HR consultant in Phoenix. "I see the stress on parents' faces in Zoom meetings. It's too much to manage a full-time paid job and a full-time unpaid job [parenting] at the same time. The stress affects the worker's mental health, employee productivity and family relationships."

Offering child care subsidies can increase employee satisfaction and engagement, she said. "[Managers] earn employee loyalty and increased productivity from grateful employees who aren't ridiculously stressed by constant kid interruptions while working," Handrick said.

There is a financial benefit as well: Employers that supply child care subsidies can take advantage of an annual tax credit of up to $150,000 if they use it for qualified child care facilities and services. According to the IRS, "the credit is 25 percent of the qualified child-care facility expenditures, plus 10 percent of the qualified child-care resource and referral expenditures paid or incurred during the tax year." To receive the tax credit, employers must complete Form 8882.

Handrick said a company can start a child care subsidy program with flexible spending accounts (FSAs).

"The benefit of providing a child care subsidy to employees in the form of an FSA is that the employer contributes pretax dollars, reducing its payroll taxes," she said. "The employee can choose how much or how little to contribute. Those who prefer to send their children to a more expensive program can fund and pay for it through the FSA using pretax dollars."

Kardas said if workplaces hire essential workers, they could utilize government-run programs in their states, such as Connecticut's CTCARES for Child Care Program for first responders, grocery workers, state facility employees, and child care and group home workers. They could also tap into an employee assistance program (EAP) to help employees find or pay for child care, she said.

Another idea is to grant every employee a certain amount of personal time that can be used in special circumstances, such as when child care is closed or a child is sick or unable to attend a child care program on a given day.

"This type of personal time could also be given to and used by those who do not have children for attending appointments or other obligations that can't be done after work," Kardas said. "This time may not solve the issue of employees being absent, but the fact that all would share equally may help."

As workplaces reopen physical locations, HR can look for child care facilities in the immediate area and work with them to offer a discount to employees, Kardas recommended.

"Single moms and working parents rarely have an extra room at home to carve out a home office," Handrick said. "That means they're likely working from the kitchen or dining room with children at home demanding attention. Toddlers want to play, [and] school-age kids need help with online classes."

Larger employers and those with deeper resources may even consider establishing an onsite child care facility for employees and charging less than a typical child care facility, which experts agree would dramatically boost appreciation among working parents who could then visit their children during each workday.

SOURCE: Lobell, K. (22 September 2020) "Employers Consider Child Care Subsidies" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/many-workplaces-consider-child-care-subsidies.aspx


Viewpoint: How to Minimize the Risk of Retirement Plan Litigation

Many employers have paid millions to settle lawsuits brought to them based on their excessive fees in their retirement plans. It's the employer's responsibility to ensure that retirement plans are created for the most benefit for those who partake in it. Read this blog post to learn more.


What do Estee Lauder and Costco have in common? Both are defending themselves against lawsuits alleging mismanagement of 401(k) accounts, as retirement plan litigation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) proliferates.

LinkedIn was added to the list in August, when a class-action lawsuit was filed alleging the firm mismanaged its 401(k) plan. And, on Sept. 18, a federal judge rejected a petition by AutoZone Inc. to dismiss allegations of ERISA violations filed by 401(k) plan participants.

In recent years, employers as different as Princeton University and WalMart have paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by employees alleging excessive fees in their retirement plans.

At the heart of many of these cases are allegations that employers' retirement plan oversight committees tolerated high fees and poor investment performance. Retirement plan committee members are fiduciaries who, under ERISA, are responsible for ensuring that the plan operates in the best interest of its participants.

Attracting Lawsuits

Companies settling ERISA lawsuits are typically accused of failing to pay adequate attention to the retirement plan, such as by failing to remove or replace poor or overly expensive investment choices and allowing vendors to charge above-market fees. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is relevant here.

Law firms are combing through ERISA plan annual filings to identify worthwhile 401(k) targets, looking for expensive or poorly performing investments and high recordkeeping costs. ERISA complaints now include tables and charts comparing a targeted plan's investment performance and expenses with average or best-available practices, to persuade courts that a trial is in order.

Law firms comb through ERISA plan filings to identify worthwhile targets.

Adopting Best Practices

Plan sponsors can't completely eliminate the risk that they will be sued by current or former plan participants, but companies can minimize the risk by adopting best practices—such as those listed below—for making plan investment and management decisions.

FORM AN ACTIVE RETIREMENT PLAN OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE.

The committee should include interested employees, including representatives of HR, finance, legal and rank-and-file employees. A well-functioning committee has a range of talents and perspectives to help it make effective decisions.

The committee should operate under a written charter, setting out the responsibilities of the committee and its procedural rules for appointing members, holding meetings, voting, and hiring advisors and experts as needed, for example. The charter need not be overly rigid or specific but should be drafted to reflect how the committee will operate.

PROVIDE PERIODIC FIDUCIARY TRAINING FOR COMMITTEE MEMBERS.

ERISA is complicated, and committee decisions have direct impacts on employees' retirement income. Committee members must act solely in the interest of plan participants and make decisions as a "prudent expert." Ask vendors to have their top technical experts conduct training, and ensure that the training is tailored to plans of your size.

WRITE AND ADOPT AN INVESTMENT POLICY STATEMENT.

While having an investment policy statement (IPS) is not generally a requirement for 401(k) plans, it is an important document as it may help show that the committee acted prudently and in the plan's best interests in evaluating investments. The IPS should include specific language describing the process by which investments are selected, monitored and replaced when necessary.

It is not advisable to list the plan's current investments within the IPS, as this list may change over time and the IPS may not always be consistent with the website your participants visit to manage their accounts.

MINIMIZE INVESTMENT FUND EXPENSES.

Sponsors of 401(k) plans have spent millions of dollars settling allegations that they had overly expensive funds, in many cases retail-share classes rather than institutionally priced investments.

The expense ratios that 401(k) plan participants incur for investing in mutual funds have declined substantially since 2000, reports the Investment Company Institute, a trade association for financial services firms. In 2000, 401(k) plan participants incurred an average expense ratio of 77 basis points (0.77 percent) for investing in equity mutual funds. By 2019, that figure had fallen to 39 basis points (0.39 percent), which is a 49 percent decline.

For plan sponsors of all sizes, it is imperative to document efforts to maintain the lowest possible investment expenses.

COMPARE INVESTMENT PERFORMANCE.

How do your plan's funds compare to similar offerings? There is no shortage of high-performing, low-expense funds to choose from in each investment category. While the retirement committee can't forecast future investment performance, it can determine prudent funds based on their track record.

If investment evaluation isn't your forte, get expert help from an investment adviser that accepts fiduciary responsibility for investment recommendations.

DROP UNDERPERFORMING FUNDS.

If the menu needs to be revamped, just do it. The small inconvenience of explaining to employees why changes are being made is better than responding to document requests arising from litigation for failing to let go of underperforming funds.

MONITOR REVENUE-SHARING.

Many mutual funds share a small portion of their expense ratio fees with plan administrative firms, which may reduce the costs that plan sponsors pay administrative firms for services such as recordkeeping of participants' investments, providing statements and distributing literature. Fund share classes with no revenue-sharing, however, have lower expense ratios and slightly better investment performance.

If revenue-sharing is in place for any fund being offered through the plan, audit it periodically—at least annually—and ensure that it is reducing plan expenses that might otherwise be paid by participants.

PAY VENDORS WITH FLAT-DOLLAR FEES.

All plans should grill their recordkeepers and other vendors on whether they charge the very lowest administrative fees available. When plan sponsors don't pay administrative fees themselves, a best practice is to charge participants a flat recordkeeping fee (perhaps subsidizing small balances) rather than using revenue-sharing funds to pay the recordkeeper a fee based on the percentage of assets in plan accounts.

If plan sponsors engage an investment adviser, it's also preferable to pay them a flat-dollar fee rather than a fee that fluctuates based on plan assets. Advisers should not be thinking about how recommended changes in a fund lineup will affect their pay.

In all circumstances, evaluating fees on a flat-dollar amount or dollars per participant will provide useful comparisons to fees based on a percentage of assets under management in the plan.

MAINTAIN CONSTANT VIGILANCE ON ADMINISTRATIVE FEES.

Recordkeepers and other vendors negotiate best when they perceive that they may lose you as a customer. As a fiduciary, you and your team need to play hardball at times. Don't worry about hurting the feelings of the vendor's personnel—you're the fiduciary with potential liability, they're not. Benchmark your administrative fees and consider issuing a request for proposal (RFP) for administrative services every few years.

Even though plans may not have changed much, vendors have, and they should be able to lower costs or provide additional services.

DOCUMENT YOUR DECISIONS, BUT BE SMART ABOUT IT.

Maintaining good records is a must but understand that any and all plan-related documents can wind up in the hands of class-action attorneys. Meeting minutes and e-mails should be carefully written and demonstrate a prudent process, to avoid casting the plan or committee in a bad light.

GET IT IN WRITING.

Vendor contracts should be negotiated, not rubber-stamped. Keep track of promises made in RFP responses and finalist presentations. A vendor's oral promises should be documented within their service agreement. Insist on performance guarantees so your plan will be compensated for any service lapses.

DON'T ACCEPT FORCED ARBITRATION WITH ANY VENDORS.

Fiduciaries should not sign away their option to use federal courts to resolve conflicts with vendors. Plan sponsors can always choose to arbitrate a dispute, as vendors prefer this. Just don't sign any contracts agreeing to compulsory arbitration of any and all disputes.

PROTECT AGAINST IDENTITY THEFT.

Ensure that hackers don't steal your employees' account balances. Ask recordkeepers about their security practices, experiences in defeating hackers, and resources committed to maintaining strong cybersecurity.

Obtain a written commitment in the service agreement that the vendor will reimburse participants who followed account security guidelines and, through no fault of their own, had their accounts depleted.

Summing Up

There are several things a company can do to protect against 401(k) litigation. Have the retirement plan run by a committee of dedicated, knowledgeable employees. Hire independent expert advisers to help with investments, vendor oversight and training. Make sure that all fees are competitive, using benchmarking and RFPs as needed. Use an objective fund scoring methodology and replace underperforming investments. Document decisions and pay attention to process.

SOURCE: Scott, P. (22 September 2020) "Viewpoint: How to Minimize the Risk of Retirement Plan Litigation" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/minimize-risk-of-retirement-plan-litigation.aspx


5 open enrollment communication strategies for your remote workforce

As the employee benefits workforce continues to stay remote in a majority of places, it's important for them to strategize their communication especially as open enrollment season is coming around the corner. Read this blog post for helpful tips.


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many employers to switch from a mostly onsite workforce to a remote or dispersed workforce, employers were faced with effectively and consistently communicating benefits to employees who were located in different locations, whether that meant offices in different cities or countries; work from home employees; employees working in warehouses, factories, and distribution centers; or employees working at different branches of retail or service businesses.

This communication is important because when employees are unaware of what benefits are available or don’t know how to access their benefits, utilization can drop significantly, so neither employees nor employers are getting value from the benefit offerings. In addition, when employees aren’t using or aware of their benefits, satisfaction with employers decline, which can impact both productivity and retention.

The goal is to both effectively and continuously communicate with employees and build awareness and understanding of available benefits, not just during open enrollment, but all year long. Of course, each communication strategy will be shaped by the organization’s culture, but there are several tools that employers should consider including in their benefits communication toolkit.

Diversify your benefits communication tools
Before developing your benefits communications plan, determine how employees prefer to receive this information by surveying them. In most organizations, there will be several different approaches that appeal to employees because of differences in employee ages, locations (office vs. warehouse or delivery truck), and comfort level with technology.

In the past, standard benefits communications were printed materials that were either distributed at work or mailed home. And while this tool is still effective and gives employees something they can use as a reference throughout the year, there are several other tools that employers should consider using to reach their diverse employee audiences.

Dedicated benefits websites and/or mobile apps broaden access to information
Unlike printed materials, with an online benefits site and mobile app employees can access the content wherever they are, whenever they want, and employers can update the information frequently without incurring printing costs. The site can also serve as a convenient way for employees to ask benefits questions, which can be answered by email from an HR team member, a benefits vendor’s support team or for simple, frequently asked questions, by a chatbot.

Email or text?
Employers will most likely need to include both emails and texts in their plans, but these tools may be used in different ways and with different audiences. For example, texts are a good way to reach employees who are younger or more tech savvy as well as those who are on the road a great deal or don’t work at a desk. These messages will be shorter and will focus on prompting employees to take specific actions, such as enrolling in benefits, updating beneficiaries or submitting receipts for reimbursement under an FSA, HSA, or HRA. They can also be used to remind employees about underutilized benefits to drive participation.

Emails can communicate more detailed information and directly link employees to benefits websites and other resources. However, emails should be kept as succinct as possible to ensure that employees are not overwhelmed with information and skip reading the communication.

Open channels for two-way communication
Providing benefits information to employees is only one part of the communication equation. Employees also need frequent opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts on what they want and need from their benefits plan. That can be harder to make happen for a dispersed workforce, but video-based webinars, town hall meetings and “ask me anything” sessions with members of the benefits team can be effective approaches.

To ensure everyone has access to information regardless of location or job type there should be multiple sessions for different time zones and schedules, and the sessions should be recorded, posted on the company employee site and include the opportunity to email or text in questions for employees who cannot attend a live event.

Try out-of-the-box communication tools to engage employees
In addition to more traditional communication tools, consider trying different formats that make information more digestible and engaging, such as quizzes, polls, short videos, infographics and storytelling. The goal is to keep employees interested in what their benefits offer and what’s new to help them get the most out of their plans.

SOURCE: Varn, M. (14 September 2020) "Views 5 open enrollment communication strategies for your remote workforce" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/list/5-open-enrollment-communication-strategies-for-your-remote-workforce


4 benefits of positive recognition to boost employee engagement

As both employers and employees are facing difficult times both in their work-life and home life due to the circumstances that the coronavirus pandemic has brought into the world, it's important that the negativity does not take place of the positivity needed. Positivity is powerful and can play a critical role in the workplace. Read this blog post for four benefits of positive recognition.


With all that’s happening, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the negativity in the world. Our emotional state is important at work. Positive emotions transform our minds and increase our ability to bounce back from hard times.

The power of positivity should not be overlooked, and recognition plays a critical role in generating these emotions in a modern workplace. Open acknowledgement and expressed appreciation for employees’ contributions can go a long way.

Improve employee retention
The first benefit of positive employee recognition is improving employee retention. In fact, according to industry analyst Josh Bersin, companies that build a recognition-rich culture actually have a 31% lower voluntary turnover rate.

Gallup research on recognition also shows that employees who don’t feel recognized at work are twice as likely to quit within a year. In today’s current environment where many organizations are driving more productivity with fewer employees, leaders need to ensure that they’re not forgetting to focus on employee retention. You’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that isn’t concerned about retaining top talent right now; top performers will find new opportunities even when they’re hesitant to move.

Creating a workplace where people want to stay isn’t just beneficial for employees; it’s also good for the bottom line. Turnover cost can be difficult to compute, but I challenge you to consider the costs of recruiting, onboarding, training, and the lost institutional knowledge that comes with poor retention.

Increase employee engagement
The second benefit that is particularly important right now is increased employee engagement. Our own research showed that 84% of highly engaged employees were recognized the last time they went above and beyond at work compared with only 25% of actively disengaged employees. We also found that while 71% of highly engaged organizations recognize employees for a job well done, only 41% of less-engaged organizations did so.

Positive recognition is powerful and has a clear tie to engagement. Yet, many organizations still do not adequately measure engagement. When was the last time you measured engagement with your own team? How much opportunity is there to improve through recognition?

Boost employee morale
The third benefit of positive recognition is boosted morale. I already mentioned the transformative effect of positivity, but the simple act of thanking people can make a tremendous difference. When employees were asked about their experience at work,70% said that motivation and morale would improve “massively”with managers saying thank you more.

How did you feel last time you were recognized?

Positivity has an important impact on employees, but it also pays literal dividends to companies that have figured out how to encourage it. Research from author Shawn Achor shows that happiness raises sales by 37% and productivity by 31%. Consider ways you can encourage your team to recognize each other more often.

Leverage peer recognition
It turns out that peer recognition massively outperforms top-down recognition. Peer recognition occurs when individuals give and receive recognition from their peers, managers, and direct reports.

Being recognized by colleagues is incredibly powerful for employees, especially when it’s done publicly. Peer recognition is 36% more likely to have a positive impact on financial results than manager-only recognition, according to SHRM. Managers can’t see every positive action that occurs, so think about how to encourage everyone to participate in recognition of great work across the entire organization.

SOURCE: Crawford-Marks, R. (14 September 2020) "4 benefits of positive recognition to boost employee engagement" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/list/4-benefits-of-positive-recognition-to-boost-employee-engagement


Retirement accounts at ‘serious risk’ as COVID-19 spurs bankruptcies

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many things around the world, let it be the workplace, schools, everyday life habits, and it has even disrupted retirement accounts. In the nine months of COVID-19 hitting businesses, bankruptcies and lawsuits have risen and caused many questions. Read this blog post to learn more.


If there’s one thing clients have always relied on in troubled times, it’s that last bastion of savings, the retirement account — whether it be a 401(k) or an IRA.

But we’re now into the ninth month since COVID-19 hit our shores and nothing can be taken for granted. Business closures, bankruptcies and lawsuits from creditors have soared, calling into question even that formerly unassailable bulwark. That’s why it’s crucial that advisors know which accounts can be protected in bankruptcy and in non-bankruptcy lawsuits — and which cannot.

Make no mistake: Not all possess the same safeguards. Retirement accounts carry a number of different protections. These layers of defense shield IRA owners and company plan participants from bankruptcy and general (non-bankruptcy) creditors. In addition, levels of protection vary widely from state to state. In the current environment with so many small businesses on the brink of closing and struggling employees in limbo, increased bankruptcy filings are placing retirement savings at serious risk, especially when these might be the only funds available for a personal bailout.

ERISA plans: The gold standard
Most employer-sponsored retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, fall under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 guidelines and receive creditor protection at the federal level. ERISA offers the gold standard of protection up to an unlimited amount against both bankruptcy and non-bankruptcy general creditor claims.

To illustrate, let’s take the hypothetical example of “Mark,” a successful contractor who flips houses. He has a 401(k) plan set up for himself and the employees of his sole proprietorship. Mark’s current plan balance is $1,500,000.

Recently, however, there was an accident at one of his construction sites, and Mark is being sued personally. Even if Mark loses the lawsuit, the assets in his 401(k) remain protected by ERISA up to an unlimited amount. Additionally, if Mark were to declare bankruptcy, his 401(k) would be off limits to bankruptcy creditors.

Going solo = greater exposure
The same protections do not, however, hold for solo 401(k) plans.

Often, business owners worried about potential lawsuits keep their retirement funds in their so-called solo-K because they believe it to be fully creditor proof, as opposed to an IRA.

Butsolo 401(k) plans are not covered by ERISAand have no creditor (non-bankruptcy) protection under that law. Plan balances will only receive non-bankruptcy creditor protection available under applicable state law.

These plans do, however, receive full bankruptcy protection under the bankruptcy code. This is also the case with other non-ERISA company plans such as SEP and SIMPLE IRAs, non-ERISA 403(b) plans and 457(b) governmental plans.

Bankruptcy and IRAs
Traditional and Roth IRA contributions and earnings are protected from bankruptcy under federal law up to an inflation-adjusted cap — currently $1,362,800.

Is this a sufficient limit?

If the maximum amount was contributed to an IRA each year from 1975 to 2020, there would be $141,500 in contributions — $158,500 if the IRA owner qualified for age 50 catch-up contributions available beginning in 2002. It is unlikely that the earnings, even for those who contributed the maximum each year, would push an IRA balance over $1,362,800.

But what about rollovers from plans to IRAs? Do these dollars count against the $1,362,800 cap?

They do not. Former company plan assets (previously protected by ERISA while in the plan) rolled to an IRA will obtain unlimited bankruptcy protection under the bankruptcy code. As an added bonus, rollovers from SEP and SIMPLE plans also do not count against the $1,362,800 cap.

As an example, let’s conjure up “Sheila,” an attorney with a $2,000,000 balance in her company’s ERISA 401(k) plan and a $700,000 balance in her IRA, which is composed entirely of contributions and earnings.

In April, Sheila retired from her law firm and in May rolled her 401(k) into her IRA. Sheila’s IRA is completely shielded from bankruptcy. The bankruptcy code protects her $2 million 401(k) rollover up to an unlimited amount, and the $1,362,800 cap is enough to cover her original IRA balance.

Note that in this example, Sheila did not need to keep her 401(k) and IRA dollars separate to retain the maximum bankruptcy protections. However, from an administrative standpoint, it could make sense for some individuals to keep rollover assets separate via a conduit IRA to avoid confusion.

Lawsuits and IRAs (non-bankruptcy)
General creditor protection (e.g., when a person wins a judgment in court against the account owner) for IRAs, Roth IRAs and IRA-based company plans like SEPs and SIMPLEs is based on individual state law — and these state-level, non-bankruptcy protections vary widely.

As such, it is important to understand your client’s state coverage, especially before advising the client to roll over ERISA plan dollars into an IRA.

As mentioned, ERISA-covered plans enjoy full bankruptcy and general creditor protection. While all former plan dollars remain protected in bankruptcy by the bankruptcy code after a rollover to an IRA, these same dollars do not retain unlimited general creditor (non-bankruptcy) protection. Assets rolled from an ERISA plan to an IRA will now fall under the applicable state-level protections. These state safeguards may be comparable to ERISA levels, or they may be significantly less so.

For instance, the hypotheticalDr. Kapp” changed employers and is deciding what to do with his $400,000 401(k) plan. His profession exposes him to malpractice lawsuits. If Dr. Kapp rolls the assets from his work plan to an IRA, the $400,000 will be fully protected in bankruptcy. However, he will be limited to the general creditor (non-bankruptcy) protections offered under state law.

Instead, Dr. Kapp elects to roll his former plan assets into the 401(k) plan offered by his new employer. That way, he ensures the $400,000 will retain 100% ERISA protection from both bankruptcy claims and any malpractice judgments against him.

Inherited IRAs and bankruptcy
In a landmark decision released in 2014,Clark v. Rameker, the U.S. Supreme Courtruled unanimously that inherited IRAs are not protected in bankruptcy under federal law.

Since only "retirement funds" are protected under the bankruptcy code, the primary issue before the court was whether an inherited IRA is, in fact, a retirement account. The Supreme Court decided that inherited IRAs do not contain “retirement funds” because:

1. Beneficiaries cannot add money to inherited IRAs;

2. Beneficiaries of inherited IRAs must generally begin to take RMDs, regardless of how far away they are from retirement; and

3. Beneficiaries can take total distributions of their inherited accounts at any time and use the funds for any purpose without a 10% early distribution penalty.

As a result, the favorable bankruptcy protection afforded to such funds under the bankruptcy code does not extend to inherited RIAs.

Bankruptcy timing and rollovers in transit
IRAs and retirement accounts protected under the bankruptcy law are generally shielded only as long as the funds remain qualified. Creditors will sit patiently until retirement dollars are withdrawn to snatch them as unprotected assets.

However, these funds remain safeguardedas long as they are qualified dollars. If funds are withdrawn, the law protects these dollars while they are out of the IRA in transit to the new IRA or retirement account. This protection applies to 60-day rollovers as well as trustee-to-trustee transfers. An individual only receives this protection if bankruptcy paperwork was officially filed while the funds were still in the retirement account. Timing is key in such cases. Funds already out on rollover when bankruptcy is declared lose all protection.

IRAs and the LLC shield
IRAs enjoy specific levels of protection against “outside” claims, i.e., claims brought personally against the IRA owner.

But what happens when a claim is brought against an investment within the IRA? The answer is that such “inside” claims may not only devastate the IRA but could also put an IRA owner’s personal non-qualified assets at risk. Inside claims can be mitigated with the use of a limited liability company (LLC).

The imaginary “Blake” owns a self-directed IRA worth $500,000 that invests entirely in a local Jet Ski rental and watersports company. He did not use an LLC within the IRA to acquire the rental business. Blake has other personal assets worth $1.5 million.

Last summer, a Jet Ski renter had an accident and suffered a catastrophic injury. After almost a year of litigation, the renter won a $2 million judgment against the IRA.

All of Blake’s IRA assets could be reached because the claim arose from activities of the IRA investment. His personal assets could also be at risk. But if Blake’s IRA had been invested in an LLC that subsequently purchased the water sports company within the IRA, the LLC structure would have protected both the IRA assets and Blake’s personal assets against the $2 million judgment.

Be keenly aware of outside vs. inside claims and how to mitigate certain risks with an LLC.

Clear and present danger
Add the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak to our litigious society with the increasingly looming possibility of bankruptcies, all under the watchful eye of SEC Reg BI, and educating clients on available safeguards becomes increasingly vital.

That education holds even more true for financial advisors in whom clients have placed their trust and financial futures. Understanding the levels of bankruptcy and non-bankruptcy protections afforded to both workplace retirement plans and IRAs is now a must to safeguard the dreams of post-work life clients have worked so hard to achieve.

SOURCE: Slott, E. (10 September 2020) "Retirement accounts at ‘serious risk’ as COVID-19 spurs bankruptcies" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.financial-planning.com/news/retirement-accounts-at-risk-as-coronavirus-spurs-bankruptcies