Staffing Management

Helicopter Employer Approaching

By Kelley Butler

Jan. 7, 2014

I recently read a post on the Harvard Business Review blog written by a health care marketing executive who asked, “Why do American employers act like helicopter parents when it comes to their employees’ health care?”

Just as so-called helicopter parents “hover” over their children, she wrote, U.S. employers hover as well by offering “a very small number of health plan options, with the result that workers don’t have to — and never learn to — make significant decisions about coverage.”

Retiree health care chart 1 November 2013Hmm. While I don’t believe a helicopter employer is made or broken by the number of health plan options it provides, I do think the writer could be onto something.
Now, wait. Before you get upset and ask: “How dare anyone accuse you of helicoptering your employees?” I think it’s important to point out and acknowledge that all helicoptering — whether by parents or employers — comes from a genuine place of caring. I have three children and constantly have to fight the urge to swoop in with my mommy propellers.

But fight it I must, or my kids will never learn the resiliency and confidence they’ll need to navigate the world on their own — or develop the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from doing so.

Let’s be honest: Keeping an HMO in today’s high-cost environment is more about maintaining employees’ warm fuzzies than maintaining the bottom line.

To keep myself from going full-on Black Hawk, I’ve learned to identify certain helicopter-parent warning signs. In that vein, if you’re concerned that you or someone you know might be a helicopter employer, I’ve thought up a short list of warning signs:

1. You still offer an HMO.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you jump head-first into a full-replacement, high-deductible health plan, but let’s be honest: Keeping an HMO in today’s high-cost environment is more about maintaining employees’ warm fuzzies than maintaining the bottom line. “Don’t worry about that scary HSA over there,” you soothe. “You still can have your copay and everything will be just fine.” Tsk, tsk. Start phasing out that HMO, I say, or start building the helipad.

2. You offer an incentive for everything.
T-shirts for taking a 10-minute health assessment! Water bottles for walking 10,000 steps! Gift cards for biometric screenings! One of the most important parts of parenting — and employer-ing — is instilling a sense of personal responsibility and accountability. It’s tough, because you want to cheer every time your kids (or your employees) brush their teeth without being asked 12 times. However, the reality is that in life there are just some things you have to do because you have to do them. You don’t get a treat; you just get it done and keep it moving.

Incentives have their place in any successful wellness program, of course. Still, if it starts to feel as if you’re giving away prizes like Oprah (“You get a car! You get a car!”), then it could be time to slow the propellers a bit.  

3. Your employees don’t understand the deductible of their current plan, let alone a high-deductible plan and/or an HSA.
I’ve said before that helping employees master the basic workings of our health care system is a shared responsibility between employers and employees. Far too many Americans don’t know the difference between a copayment and coinsurance, never mind the one between an HRA and HSA. Since the majority of Americans get their health coverage through their employers, it’s up to you to help them learn not only the terms but also the tactics for using their health benefits in the most effective and cost-efficient way possible. Tell them in plain language what a deductible is, give them tip sheets on how to avoid unnecessary medical tests and procedures, and offer them clear, concise decision-support tools.

Then — dun, dun, duuuuun — let them apply that knowledge in the real world.

Scary, I know. I’ve taught my two eldest children about “stranger danger” no less than a bazillion times. Eventually, I know they’ll be approached by someone they don’t know. When that time comes, I have to trust and pray that I’ve taught them well and given them the tools to effectively navigate the situation safely.

I dare you to tell me that anything you have to teach your employees to understand about managing a health savings account is scarier than that. If you can, then I’m afraid you might be a helicopter employer.

Kelley M. Butler is the editorial director at Benz Communications, an HR/benefits communication strategy firm. Prior to joining Benz, Butler spent 11 years at Employee Benefit News, including seven as editor-in-chief. To comment, email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with


Join over 52,000 of your HR peers

Don't miss out on the latest tactics and insights at the forefront of HR.