It started with a phone line and a thought.

With high deductibles and defined contribution plans that highlight personal responsibility becoming the norm, Craig Hasday, president of Frenkel Benefits, wanted a way to put his company ahead of the curve. To break through "the whole cloud that surrounds employees' understanding their benefits," as he put it, he instituted a medical insurance help line for clients to call with questions. Roughly 40,000 people have taken advantage of it — and they want more.

"Our clients started asking us, 'What about other things? What about 401(k)s, what about life insurance beneficiary designations?' " Hasday said.

Late last year, he decided to help solve these questions by adding a financial phone line to Frenkel Benefits' help desk. The New York company hired two people to man the phones: a trained financial planner and a retirement specialist. Tying the financial line in with the health line was a natural progression for Frenkel.

"In the idea of activating employees, it was really an extension of that activism on the medical side," Hasday said. "We said, hey, they should be activated on everything. They don't understand 401(k)s, they don't understand college planning. Why not give them the ability to learn more at the work site and really to appreciate the benefits more?"

Early last fall when the bottom began to drop out of the stock market, Lynn Finkelstein, a national director of employee financial services for Ernst & Young, noticed a real spike in the average employee's financial education interest level. "They don't know what decisions to make, and sometimes they're either paralyzed and not making any decisions, or they're making the wrong decisions by discontinuing participation in the 401(k), taking out loans, hardship withdrawals," Finkelstein said. "So we have seen quite a bit of interest, especially just in the last couple months, of employers starting to realize the importance of offering these types of programs."

Even the most apathetic employees are more likely to show interest in their finances when the money goes away, but Aimee Lowry, a practice leader for compensation and benefits at Helios HR, said the need for solid financial advice is not tied to the economic times.

"I do think that it's critical that any company, if providing retirement plan services — including the plan sponsor — give employees the tools to adequately manage their own accounts," she said. Her reasoning is if employees have a knowledge base when the economy is stable, they won't overreact when markets become volatile.

Financial planning dovetails with financial literacy, said Jason Hochstadt, executive vice president for Jedi Management, a financial services firm.

"A lot of it is education … getting involved, getting active, really understanding things and getting to a point where you at least have a baseline knowledge," he said. Employees are now asking themselves, "How do I know I'm not engaging Bernie Madoff or something?"

In the few months since Frenkel launched the financial help line, Hasday said the interest level has been high, with about 5,000 employees calling in so far. "We expect it to be a big part of our practice," he said.

How thoroughly companies embrace financial planning through the workplace has everything to do with company culture, Finkelstein said.

Employers who want such services see them as a retention tool, according to Finkelstein and Hasday.

Hasday said financial advising helps employees appreciate the benefits their employer is offering them, "particularly since raises are obviously not as lucrative as they have been and so enhancing the value of benefit packages is another way of establishing a connection with those employees."

Another goal behind offering these services is mitigating risk to employers. When there's no one else to turn to for advice, employees will likely head to the human resources department — a bad idea, Finkelstein said.

Frenkel's help line is the company's first point of contact for financial advice. Customers seeking further assistance can be transferred to individual planners.

And, though they do stop short of giving securities advice, they're still in the process of getting the appropriate licenses.

"I believe in making sure everybody's appropriately licensed, so we're getting securities licenses just in case there's any question. I don't want to ever be questioned about it, so we're going to get licensed and training and all that," Hasday said.

Though Frenkel does not offer fiduciary services. "It's that in order to do securities advising, you need to be fully aware of someone's financial situation," Hasday said. "You can't, by law, give advice without doing fact-finding and without fully understanding the person's financial conditions, so we don't feel that we're legally able to give that advice."

At Ernst & Young, advisers do live seminars and workshops, Web seminars and telephone counseling. Advisers are strictly fee-based and will highlight the employee's current benefits structure before suggesting additional products.

"If there is a need for additional insurance or additional product, we basically help educate those employees on what the options are, and if they go get several insurance quotes, bring information back so that we can help walk them through the pros and the cons before they make the decision, we're more than happy to do that," Finkelstein said.

Though they might lead to future business, Hochstadt also said financial planning sessions with employees are not about sales. "When we're brought in, we're not there to sell or promote anything," he said. "We're not there to promote different things, to sell you on different types of insurance. … Knowing that we're not there as salespeople, the barriers go up less in that they know what our role is."

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