Money, the Final ‘Off Limits’ Topic

by George Grombacher

Religion and politics used to be the “off limits” topics around polite company, but now a visit to Facebook suggests Americans are more than comfortable with those subjects. Two subjects that have also remained off limits until recently are sex and money.

The #MeToo movement that started in Hollywood has opened the door to conversations about sexual abuse as well as many kinds of sexual interactions between men and woman. The 2016 Republican election cycle saw then-candidate Trump’s tax returns take center stage and brought money to the tips of our tongues.

My purpose in writing this is to encourage leaders of organizations to begin communicating more openly about money. In so doing, I think and believe it will help address two existing problems the American employee is facing.

One: poor financial habits. The January monthly report on personal spending produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows the U.S. savings rate fell to 2.4 percent in December. That’s the lowest level since 2005. Just two years ago, the savings rate was more than twice as high.

And two: a lack of engagement in their work. Countless studies show that less than half of the workforce is engaged at work.

Fundamentally, when we talk about a problem or issue, healing can begin. An organization can help to start this process. It may not be the responsibility of an organization to do that, but, when most Americans spend more of their waking time at work than they do at home, there’s an opportunity to work toward solving these problems. What would a more engaged and financially secure workforce mean for an organization? I don’t see a downside.

The taboo nature of money in American culture comes from the British, who considered it in bad taste to talk about it. But this has been slowly changing. One of the wealthiest American families, the Waltons, are very public about their philanthropic efforts, as are Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and many others. But it’s not only America’s wealthiest.

According to the Wall Street Journal, nearly half of millennials surveyed discuss compensation with their friends. And the reality is, with companies like Glassdoor, salary data is becoming more transparent.

To be on the leading edge of compensation transparency, companies like SumAll and Buffer have fully disclosed this information to all their employees. “It’s kind of crazy that in America, which is founded on this capitalistic vision of meritocracy, we’ve obfuscated one of the core components of it,” SumAll CEO Dane Atkinson told Business Insider in May.

This trend of salary transparency may be too much too soon for many organizations. An alternative is to start small, with the organization’s leaders sharing a personal story about their history with money. Chances are, they’ve experienced financial stress at some point, as we all have.

This small step will reap large benefits over the long term. Why should an organization’s leadership get personal and vulnerable its employees? Because they need it and the organization will benefit greatly. 

A vocal leader will be an example that no one is immune to struggles with money as well as evidence that it’s possible to overcome that struggle. When an organization’s leadership shares a personal story and makes them vulnerable, it can help an employee to personally feel more comfortable talking about his or her financial situation. And, according to psychotherapy, talking about an issue is the first step in solving it.

This open and honest sharing by an organization’s leadership will also promote loyalty and increased engagement among the employees. According to Harvard Business Review, people feel more comfortable around others who are authentic and vulnerable. People also feel a strong sense of connection, hope and trust in leaders who exhibit these behaviors. This, in turn, can lead to reduced turnover and more productive and engaged employees.

For people and organizations to grow and flourish over the long term, many variables need to be present. One of those essential variables is honesty and transparency in the leadership. While money may be the final taboo subject, the time is right to change that.

If an organization could help its employees more fully realize the impact they have through their work, it could help the organization more fully align while, at the same time, helping the employee achieve personal alignment — leading to greater fulfillment and contentment in their lives. It would have a dramatic and positive impact on their financial situation because a fulfilled and contented person is less likely to over-consume material things.

George Grombacher is a consultant, podcaster, writer and speaker. He’s a co-founder of the “Figure it Out podcast” and host of the “Money Savage” podcast. His first book, The Farmer’s Rules for Your Financial Harvest, will be released in early 2018. He helps companies design educational strategies for increasing employee participation in retirement plans.

Finance and Workforce: A Three-Part Series

Putting the ‘Why’ in Personal Finance (January 2018) 
Addressing the Absence of Community in Personal Finance (February 2018)
Money, the Final ‘Off Limits’ Topic (March 2018)

To reference published segments, please access the archived “Features” articles on the In Business Magazine website.

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