The Need for Compassionate Communication

The Need for Compassionate Communication

July 14, 2020
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Your employees have a lot on their minds these days. We’re in a year with multi-faceted, complex things happening: the COVID-19 crisis, economic instability, market volatility, and the largest civil rights discussion in half a century.

As an employer, you’re really busy dealing with everything. But you also should take the time to show empathy and compassion for your employees, whether you’re communicating about your retirement plan or more broadly. How, and how frequently, you communicate matters a lot.

Here are a half-dozen ways you can communicate compassionately now:

2 Sticky 401(k) Questions

Let’s say an employee whose spouse lost his job asks you about reducing her deferral. I suggest you lead with empathy: First, make it clear that you know this is a tough time. It’s also worth having on hand a communication piece with a concise example or two showing why continuing to contribute will make a big difference in a participant’s ultimate outcome. This helps the employee make a decision that balances her short-term needs and long-term consequences.

Some of your employees also may ask about taking a 401(k) loan, now that the CARES Act made that easier. Instead of questioning whether they really need the money, give them simple information that helps them think through their decision. I’ve always been a big proponent of participants taking a 401(k) loan or hardship withdrawal only as a last resort. So ARP put together an infographic for our clients’ participants, ranking the choices for them to tap into their money, from best to worst. An emergency savings account comes out as the best choice, with reevaluating their monthly budget second. The infographic continues down the hierarchy, to the two last choices: retirement plan loans rank seventh, and hardship withdrawals rank eighth.

2 Helpful Resources

Many of your employees probably feel financially stressed, and they want to feel more in control of their financial lives. Some of your longer-tenured employees may want to reevaluate their plans for timing their retirement, for example. We’ve seen a lot of interest among people close to retirement in understanding when and how it makes the most sense for them to start taking Social Security benefits. You can give them simple educational resources like pointing them to the Social Security Administration Web site (, which has really improved its tools over the past couple of years. At ARP, we also get actively involved in educating employees about Social Security as part of our financial wellness programs.

For employees further from retirement, think about doing a program that helps them build up their emergency savings. Everyone should have three months’ worth of income in an emergency savings account, but we learned quickly as a country this spring that most Americans come nowhere close to that: It became very apparent how many live hand to mouth, and don’t have any rainy day savings. A tailored education program can help your employees get in a better position to handle the financial stressors of this uncertain time.

2 Ways To Check In

Your employees need to know that you’re thinking about them, as people and not just as staff. So communicating with them weekly during this crisis, about topics beyond their work tasks, makes a lot of sense. This check-in can be a simple, one-page letter you email at the same time every week.

Be informative about what’s happening at your organization, but also show compassion on a human level, and proactively offer your employees resources that go beyond work. Think about how you can raise mental health awareness, because we’re all dealing with a situation unlike any we’ve ever seen. My sense is that we’ll experience huge demand by employees for mental health resources in the next year or two. I think we’re about to see, for the first time, a real focus by employers on the mental health of their employees.

Beyond the weekly email, I also suggest taking the lead in having an ongoing, open conversation with your employees about what they’re thinking and feeling. In times of crisis, people want reassurance that someone really is listening to them. An employee survey, whether a brief SurveyMonkey questionnaire or something more in-depth, gives your team members the opportunity to feel heard by you.

Your employees likely have a lot of thoughts about their work lives and their stressors these days, and they’ll appreciate you asking them. This is a time for you to listen, and express empathy. Many Americans feel we lack enough empathy in our country now, and they crave it—including from their employer. In times of crisis like this, even more than what you say, people will remember how you made them feel.