Financial wellness is key for employee productivity

As he often does, SunTrust Banks Inc. CHRO Ken Carrig recently took part in an open forum with a group of SunTrust executives and employees to discuss the Atlanta-based organization’s Financial Fitness for Teammates program.

For Carrig, these periodic meetings — held at least quarterly — offer a way to get a sense of whether the 14-month-old initiative is on its way to accomplishing its overarching goal: to get 100 percent of SunTrust employees on the path to financial well-being by providing them with the time, tools and financial incentives to learn and practice fiscal well-being.

The moment Carrig really started to grasp the program’s true impact, however, came during an impromptu conversation with an operations employee after the aforementioned meeting.

The worker — a single mother with an autistic child — approached Carrig and said, ” ‘I was on vacation today, but when I heard you were having this meeting, I felt compelled to come in,’ ” he recalls. “She wanted to share how she had been struggling to make ends meet, and how the help she was getting through this program had gotten her started toward feeling financially secure.”

Late last year, SunTrust conducted a survey specifically for employees — teammates, in SunTrust parlance — taking part in the Financial Fitness program.

“We found that more than 75 percent of our teammates in the program feel they’re on the path to financial well-being, and they feel significantly better about their financial situations,” says Carrig.

Count the employee described above among them. The program, launched in January 2015, consists of two components designed to help SunTrust employees like her realize their financial aspirations: a learning platform, powered by South Jordan, Utah-based financial education provider 8 Pillars, and a financial contribution from SunTrust designed to help qualifying employees become better prepared for unforeseen financial emergencies.

To qualify for participation, employees must meet requirements in two phases, each of which includes “8 Pillars.” Actions taken during the first phase, for example, include opening an emergency-only savings account with a $100 deposit, creating a workable budget and developing a debt-elimination plan by completing an exercise found in the downloadable 8 Pillars Workbook.

Among other steps, the second phase entails employees taking a financial self-assessment on the SunTrust career-planning site; setting up a $20-per-month automated deposit to the aforementioned emergency savings account; volunteering four hours toward improving the financial well-being of their community; and taking their Day of Purpose, for which participating employees receive an extra paid day off to engage in activities designed to improve their own financial health and/or someone else’s.

One of the program’s chief objectives is to ensure that participating employees establish a $2,000 emergency savings fund. To help teammates hit that milestone, SunTrust contributes a match of $1,000 to teammates completing the program.

Roughly 10,000 of SunTrust’s 26,000 teammates signed up for Financial Fitness when it launched, according to the company, which paid out $3 million to nearly 7,500 eligible teammates who completed steps for the first installment toward their emergency savings accounts in the program’s first four months alone. Enrollment has since climbed to more than 15,000, and follow-up surveys have shown that 73 percent of employees taking part in the program say they now feel more in control of their finances. Such results certainly suggest the program is paying big dividends for SunTrust teammates, and the organization is reaping the benefits as well, in the form of happier, less-stressed and more productive employees.

From Concerned to Confident

Providing teammates with guidance and resources to get a better grip on their personal finances was exactly what SunTrust Chairman and CEO Bill Rogers had in mind when he approached Carrig in 2013 “to look at how we could redefine SunTrust for the future,” Carrig says.

“Bill commissioned a task force of sorts, led by three executives, including me,” he says. Along with the bank’s chief financial officer and head of marketing, Carrig — who became CHRO in June 2011, just weeks after Rogers had taken the reins as CEO — looked to SunTrust teammates to help create what would become the framework for the Financial Fitness initiative.

Carrig and his fellow executive-leadership representatives led the group of more than 20 multi-level teammates across the company “in an effort to capture all of the inputs around SunTrust’s purpose, values and guiding principles,” he says.

In speaking directly with SunTrust teammates and conducting employee surveys, Carrig and company discovered that workers needed assistance in getting their own financial houses in order if they were to properly help customers do the same.

A December 2013 engagement survey, for instance, included questions aimed at gauging how comfortable SunTrust teammates were with their current financial situations, asking employees to gauge their preparedness for a financial emergency of $2,000 or more, for example.

Overall, the poll found just 39 percent of employees reporting they were satisfied with their financial well-being. That figure, says Carrig, was very much in line with national averages, but was also “a bit surprising” for an organization that prides itself on delivering financial counsel to its customers.

“Seeing this [number] inspired our HR team and our total-rewards and engagement team to say, ‘As important as financial health is to our clients, we first need to address it with our own teammates and see what we can do to help them achieve it.’ ”

To nurture and grow the resulting Financial Fitness for Teammates program, however, SunTrust enlisted 8 Pillars, which has assisted organizations such as Intel, Chevrolet and Overstock.com in integrating financial health into their employee-wellness programs.

Through the partnership, SunTrust teammates gain entry to the 8 Pillars University online portal — from home or work — to take advantage of 21 different learning modules, hundreds of money management-related articles and other financial wellness tools such as an “ask the expert” section where employees can submit financial questions. Employees also have access to financial-wellness training — live and in-person as well as through webinars, DVDs, real-time streaming and mobile applications.

In making financial health a prominent part of its overall wellness efforts, SunTrust “was way ahead of the curve,” says Joe Ellis, a senior vice president at CBIZ Benefits & Insurance Services Inc. in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

“Companies that do wellness programs in general are often looking to solve a specific problem among the workforce — a spike in a particular physical condition or use of a particular medication, for example,” says Ellis, who provides employers with advice and support on all aspects of employee-benefit plans.

“I think that rolling it out with the financial incentive to participate is a key to the success they’ve had,” he says, noting SunTrust’s $1,000 matching contribution to qualifying employees to help grow their emergency savings accounts.

“If I was a CEO or CHRO and came along to tell employees I wanted them to put $1,000 away now and then keep putting $20 away each month, but there was no match, I think a lot of employees would be inclined to say ‘no thanks.’ But here, the company was very clear in how serious it was about this program.”

Indeed, Rogers and Carrig were keen to demonstrate the organization’s resoluteness to improve teammates’ financial health.

For instance, Carrig and his department worked closely with the talent and rewards team to create a video that introduced teammates to the program via the SunTrust intranet system. Known internally as Spotlight, the intranet home page features a quick link to a page dedicated to the Financial Fitness program, where employees are directed to information on 401(k) savings, insurance offerings and other financial resources. The teams also set up a dedicated e-mailbox for employees to send questions about the program as it was being launched.

“Ken and I have also done a number of calls and meetings around the company, stressing the importance of what we were doing with this program,” says Rogers, who, along with Carrig, orchestrated a kick-off event in which they led a conference call with SunTrust’s top 250 leaders to get them up to speed on the program.

“From the start, we’ve wanted to be clear that this isn’t just an HR thing,” Rogers adds. “This is a SunTrust thing, and we expect leaders to get on board, and we expect them to help spread the word. We want to make it very apparent to our teammates that we have a high level of commitment to this program.”

Expanding the Offering

Judging by the early returns, it seems that commitment is paying off.

Retention among the 7,500 SunTrust teammates who completed the initial phase-one requirement, for instance, is more than 10 percentage points higher than their peers, according to the company, which also reports that 90 percent of Financial Fitness participants in customer-facing positions have reported that they apply learnings from the program to better meet the needs of clients “sometimes” or “most of the time.”

The results have been so good, in fact, that SunTrust is spreading the Financial Fitness message outside the company.

In February, the company took to television during the Super Bowl to debut its new “Hold Your Breath” advertisement, led by Chief Marketing Officer Susan Somersille, as a reminder to viewers that “they will miss life’s important moments if they are worried about finances,” according to SunTrust, which is also sharing research findings indicating that those who are more financially confident are three times more likely to be satisfied with their lives.

The ad also directed viewers to onUp.com, where they could pledge to take action to improve their financial well-being, take a “mental-wealth” quiz and receive specific actions, tools and tips tailored to their financial needs. The ad expands on SunTrust’s onUp movement, a group that more than 77,000 consumers have joined in an effort to improve their personal finances as well as share their financial goals and actions with others. (For each individual who joins the movement, SunTrust donates one dollar to Operation HOPE, an organization geared toward financially empowering communities.)

SunTrust is also in the midst of introducing Financial Fitness for Companies, a customizable version of Financial Fitness for Teammates that will be available to the bank’s business clients.

The new program — which Rogers says is currently in the pilot stage with various companies — wasn’t part of the original plan, though.

“We didn’t start with the intention of rolling this out to other companies,” says Rogers. “But the results were so overwhelming that we felt we couldn’t not share this with our communities and our clients.”

Led by SunTrust’s wholesale banking unit, the Companies version was born after the company acquired the intellectual property behind 8 Pillars, hired 8 Pillars founder and expert Brian Ford, and established a team to tailor the program for other companies, offered at no profit to SunTrust.

It’s been “fun to watch” Carrig and HR “look like a Silicon Valley team,” applying what it’s learned in rolling out the Teammates program to helping to design the external offering, says Rogers.

For example, SunTrust employees expressed a desire to see the program’s tools and resources available via mobile device, which they now are.

“And employees of other companies will want to have mobile applications as well. So it would be crazy not to respond to consumer demand,” says Rogers, noting that the Companies program will also include templates for pre- and post-program surveys, to test employees’ financial confidence before and after completing Financial Fitness.

“We want to make it as easy as we can for other employers,” he says. “Improving employees’ financial well-being is already on the minds of CHROs and CEOs. Hopefully, we’re going to help them solve that problem.”

Always Improving

With Financial Fitness for Companies just being brought to market, and the Teammates program “still being refined,” plenty of work remains for Carrig and HR at SunTrust, he says.

Expanding on Financial Fitness’s initial goal of getting SunTrust teammates set up with emergency savings accounts, components and features are always being added and tweaked to bolster the program.

Many of the additions the HR team and total-rewards group are making have been based on employee feedback, says Katherine Brune, financial and physical well-being manager at SunTrust, whose role includes serving as 8 Pillars’ primary point of contact in building the Teammates program.

For example, “after launching the initial program, we heard from teammates that looming debt and student loans were a top concern,” says Brune. “So we created a relationship with a credit-counseling service to provide teammates with free one-on-one counseling sessions.”

In response to employee demand, SunTrust has also created more opportunities to get family members involved, such as introducing four “boot-camp” learning sessions to provide teammates with “an alternate way of learning that also allows them to do deeper dives with their families,” says Brune, noting that each of these sessions ends with an exercise that requires employees and family members to take an immediate course of action toward better financial health.

Program participants are also encouraged to share their success stories “to inspire other teammates,” says Brune. For instance, she recalls a Financial Fitness participant and SunTrust teammate of roughly 15 years, who took the aforementioned course with her fairly free-spending husband.

“He’s spending more wisely now, and they’ve even started a vacation account, to fund fun trips, along with their savings,” says Brune.

Another teammate, who attended one of the boot-camp sessions with her husband, wrote a testimonial describing it as “absolutely what I needed to get refocused on maintaining a stricter budget that I use every day,” adding that she “loved” the option of listening from home, which enabled her spouse to join in.

Teammates submit such testimonials to HR, which the organization disseminates to all employees on a roughly quarterly basis.

Carrig, who has completed 8 Pillars and has also sent his three millennial-age children through the program, has read many similar testimonials, and views them as a sign that Financial Fitness is making progress toward fulfilling its primary purpose.

“Being in HR, I’ve gotten my share of ‘nasty grams’ from teammates over the years,” says Carrig with a laugh. “But, a year in, we continue to get ‘love letters’ from employees saying how much this program has helped them in reaching their financial goals.”

By Mark McGraw from HR Executive Online Magazine