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Education key to get nonnative speakers into retirement plans

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Fundamental obstacles keep nonnative English speakers from investing in 401(k) plans, say experts who work with midsize employers.

“Spanish speakers who spent their formative years in Latin America and have come here to work have misconceptions about investing that are not always apparent to (the human resources) staff,” said Melissa Burkhart, president of Denver-based Futuro Solido USA L.L.C., which provides translation and employee education services.

“There's a real mistrust of banks and the financial system. It makes them far more inclined to save in cash,” Ms. Burkhart said.

Most Spanish-speaking employees “have doubts about investments,” said Austin Gwilliam, a bilingual consultant at 401(k) Advisors Inc. in Aliso Viejo, Calif. “A lot of them don't even have a bank account.”

Because of the cultural differences, these employees need to have “a comfort level with the employer involvement” in an investing program, said Ame McClune, director of marketing and client communications at Willis Human Capital Practice, a Radnor, Pa.-based unit of Willis Group Holdings P.L.C.

“Sadly, an employer contribution, which is the best part, can raise their hackles,” because they know there's no such thing as “free money,” Ms. Burkhart said. “There's a tremendous suspicion that whoever is trying to encourage them to participate is going to earn money at their expense. This applies to all sorts of workplace issues,” she said.

Improving participation requires “really addressing these objections that have always gone unaddressed,” she said.

“Straight translation (of English materials) doesn't necessarily work. A lot of 401(k) communication is written for the "me generation,'” emphasizing freedom and the individual, said Barbara Hogg, head of the retirement communication group at Aon Hewitt in Chicago.

“My message to the Hispanic population is you have to put something away to take good care of your families. That's what resonates with them especially. They seem to care for their families more than their own futures,” said Gary Weir, vp of retirement services for Frenkel Benefits L.L.C. in New York.

Educational meetings are crucial, Mr. Gwilliam said. But “most (of those employees) are very shy and they don't want to ask questions in a group setting.” That's why it's important to follow up with individual consultations, he said.

It's also important to find a Spanish-speaking “peer advocate” who can vouch that his account has increased and that the employer has contributed, Mr. Gwilliam said.

“Deploying testimonials with champions or other co-workers” is effective, Ms. McClune said. “If they can relate and see how a program supports a co-worker, that supports their comfort level.”