Peer Power

How retirement plan participants can help each other.

Retirement plan providers have been testing behavioral science themes with retirement plan participants, and positive outcomes are clearly emerging from the effort. 

Drew Wineland, vice president and participant experience manager at Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, tells PLANSPONSOR as part of its initiative to focus on participant experience, Wells Fargo wanted to deliver something more proactive, personal and relevant. The firm first considered on-site employee meetings at which its retirement educators or counselors would present to smaller groups of 25 or so employees, but decided to try a discussion format instead.

In an event for Millennial employees, Wells Fargo chose two Millennial participants in a client’s retirement plan, and one participant who was closer to retirement, to be on a panel with its retirement educator. The panel facilitated a direct peer-to-peer discussion.

“We saw participants open up and ask questions and have authentic dialogue about their challenges and how to prepare for retirement,” Wineland says. 

For example, when discussing what is keeping them from taking fuller advantage of the company’s retirement plan, the employees talked about student loan debt—which Wineland notes is especially high for employees at this client, as it is a medical services facility. “The group opened up more about this when they heard one of the panelists speaking about how he manages student loans and still saves for retirement,” he says. “Understanding they are not alone in that situation and that there are ways to address it was helpful to employees.”

In addition to the pilot with its client, Wells Fargo held a similar discussion group with its own employees. It measured results in several ways, assessing employees’ satisfaction with the meeting, what they learned, and how likely they were to take a positive action in response to the peer discussion.

“We received good remarks; there were high levels of satisfaction. Employees said they like hearing from others like them,” Wineland says. He adds that action rates, such as for increasing contributions to the plan, were twice as high as those following normal lecture-style group meetings and in line with action rates seen after employee one-on-one meetings with counselors. 

“A fresh approach is energizing to them,” Wineland adds. “And, I think there’s definitely something to using social norms and people valuing and trusting those like them.”

Steve Jenks, head of marketing at Empower Retirement, in Denver, says Empower also has found peers to be very powerful motivators for retirement plan participants. Empower has made available to all clients over the last year-and-a-half a feature called “How Do I Compare?”

The theory behind the offering ties to a theory presented in 1954 by Leon Festinger: individuals evaluate their own opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to others in order to reduce uncertainty in these domains, and learn how to define the self. Jenks says when talking to plan sponsors, he’s found that they are often approached by employees asking “What should I do?” regarding their retirement plan, and often they say, “Will you tell me what other people are doing?”

The peer comparison tool, available on the home page of Empower’s website for plan participants, shows them what their actions look like compared to people of similar age, gender and income, and shows them the pre-retirement income they are on track to replace in retirement compared to their peer group, then gives them the option to increase their savings.

According to Jenks, last year, the first full year the tool was available, Empower saw 12% of online deferral increases were generated by this tool, and the amount of the increase was higher than for participants who increased their deferrals without using the tool—25% increase compared to 18%.

Jenks says Empower has seen that peer comparisons have a universal appeal to all demographic groups, but, anecdotally, it is probably most powerful for Millennials. “They are a demographic that is more used to openness and comparison than older generations,” he notes.

An important point to note, according to Jenks, is if individuals are compared to others who are doing better, they will be driven upward in actions.  “The important point is to compare people to the best, not just the average,” he says. “If you compare them to the average, you’ll get a bunch of ‘C’ students. Compare them to the ‘A’ students and give them ability to easily make a change, and they’ll act.”