Numbers. Cold, callous and dismissible?
I just passed my probation here at PS Aspire, and I’m delighted. It’s got me reflecting a bit on how I ended up in Member Communications. (Having been a somewhat eccentric child, and then going on to study International Business and Accounting, communications wasn’t the obvious end job).
One reason I didn’t go into Accounting was because in my final year my sister was going through her professional accountancy exams and was like ‘Johanna Banana, promise me you’ll not do them!”. (Of course she has now passed them, and is doing amazingly well in the Tax industry!).
Another reason I didn’t go into Accounting was because, in my final year, I developed a big passion for employees and a sincere distaste for representing them as a number. It came about from my dissertation where I explored the negative impact of representing people numerically.
In an arguably naïve state of mind, I couldn’t understand why employees were represented as an expense – a number! In my mind, it was outrageous that Accounting simplified our - beautiful, progressive and intelligent - selves into a number.
What sent me over the edge was when I realised that things like machinery can be accounted for as an asset, but employees are an expense (even though we all know that people are an organisation’s biggest asset). I was officially raging.
I realise now that my view was impractical and too defiant. But still, during my degree research it led me down an interesting path exploring the use of numbers and people…
I explored war crimes, reading studies that argued that one reason for the execution of civilians in war is because humans are often represented as a number or in mathematical formulas - meaning decision makers, or those who carry them out, become detached from the human, emotional and horrific element of their decisions and actions.
I also explored the business world, in particular instances where businesses make terrible employee decisions. For example, child labour. How on earth did some of our best retailers get caught up in such a thing?! Was it because employees were an expense; a number that represented a problem that needed to be managed and lessened? Children were cheaper, so child labour simply became a solution to a numeric problem.
But we live in a mathematical and money-driven world, meaning numbers are inevitable. As a result, there didn’t seem to be an alternative to representing employees as a number in accounting. I thought perhaps employees could be represented as an asset on the Balance Sheet. That’d be good. Right? But then having done some digging I found out that, during the slavery era, slaves were often represented as an asset and this wasn’t good either - it made ‘employers’ think and act like they owned these people, when obviously they didn’t.
Clearly I didn’t solve the ‘number versus employee’ debate. Equally clearly, the matter is far more complex than how I was viewing it; and of course, businesses have great functions like HR and Unions to look after employees.
Nonetheless, this exploration left me with a passion for employees and wanting to work in an area that focused on making the employee experience better.
Thereafter I joined an Employee Benefits consultancy firm, fell into Member Communications, loved it, tried a few jobs, and I’m now at PS Aspire leading their Member Communications proposition. It’s worked out well.
So, why is all this relevant?
Well, this reflection has got me thinking again about numbers, employees and of course, pension communications.
Yesterday, I was looking at some Annual Benefit Statements from a provider, and I was just thinking that these numbers are surly a bit meaningless to the ‘average Joe’, and won’t lead to good decision making.
As communicators, we know that emotional impulses trump reason. In most scenarios, people react emotionally first – and only then, if they let it, will logic take over (have a read of Peters’ 2012 bestseller, The Chimp Paradox). So if the Annual Benefit Statement is supposed to trigger awareness and action, how on earth do we expect this to happen when it’s dominated by numbers?
Personally, I don’t emotionally connect with numbers, so I’m not surprised we continually hear our industry worry about ‘apathy in pensions’. So, is all this apathy the fault of legislation?
Currently, legislation requires providers to send their members a numerically fuelled Annual Benefit Statement each year. So is the crux of the UK pension deficit problem, that legislation is fuelling a communication approach that’s numeric? Communications that are cold, callous and dismissible?
Maybe we need a new idea for pensions communications?
What’s your view though?
Topics: Employee Engagement