What do benefits look like after a merger or acquisition? Ascensus CHRO recaps her experience

Onboarding any new hire and making them feel comfortable at an organization is challenging. Onboarding 1,600 new employees at once? It's a daunting task

In 2022, financial services company Ascensus acquired Newport, a California-based retirement services provider. The merger pushed the headcount at Ascensus from roughly 4,000 to nearly 6,000 — and welcoming those new workers in, helping them feel at home and extending supportive benefits required quick communications and thoughtful strategies from the HR team. 

"Over the last year it's been about merging and figuring out their policies, and how to add that population to our organization," says Amy Walker, CHRO at Ascensus. Walker has worked at the organization since 2001, observing significant growth and changes throughout the decades — but managing a surge in the workforce during an ongoing pandemic was no small feat for the industry vet. 

Read more: 4 ways to create a rock-solid culture for all your employees

As Walker and her team move through 2023, they're staring down the same challenges so many leaders are facing today, from remote versus in-person work to benefits that will retain talent and attract new workers, too. But her first priority is ensuring that the newly expanded workforce at Ascensus is gelling, and the needs of all community members are being heard, recognized and met. 

Walker recently spoke to EBN about her approach to creating unity at Ascensus, through consistent communications, considered benefits and support from employee organizations. 

How did the 2022 merger impact your benefits strategy as you worked to bring these two communities together? 
We did really take a look at the best of the best, in terms of looking at what benefits that organization had versus what we had. How do we combine those and move forward? 

One of the benefits we retained from that organization that we now offer across the broader organization, as an example, is Lyra Health as our new EAP and mental health provider. We had a provider in place, but we'd gotten phenomenal feedback from the other organization on Lyra, and based on our analysis we thought we could make that a more substantive benefit for our folks. 

Of course, concerns around mental health really came out of the COVID era in terms of being a high priority for individuals and families. And we're definitely hearing it still. We have associate resource groups — focused on achieving wellness, addiction education and support — so there's networking that those folks do across the organization, and they've continued to escalate this as a definite need that they're hearing their colleagues speak to.

Read more: A mental health platform designed with Gen Z in mind

Are those associate resource groups a new part of the company culture? 
The ARGs have been a part of our culture for 10 years or so, but they've really grown and matured from what was historically more like an activities committee, to something that really understands the business goals and how their partnership can support that. We've seen a significant increase in the participation and leadership across those ARGs, which is exciting. 

Now, we really try to highlight when something comes out of a partnership with an ARG, whether it's a new benefit or a policy. It helps people understand that those ARGs have more impact than just being a social group. 

After the acquisition, how did you integrate new folks into the communities that the ARGs support? 
Our DEI journey is continuing to grow and mature, and in addition to our associate resource groups, we also launched mentorship and sponsorship programs. One thing we did as a part of the acquisition unification was to have a DEI open house, to really introduce all of the resources and promote the ARGs. Those new team members, prior to the acquisition, had a journey of their own — which didn't look dissimilar to ours. So they were thrilled to find that, almost overnight, they were taking leaps forward on those DEI journeys as we pulled them into ours. 

The past couple years were dominated by talk of the "Great Resignation." What are you seeing on the talent and recruitment front as we move through 2023? 
I had a conversation with our talent acquisition leader recently, and we would have thought the tide would have stemmed a bit more than it has by now in terms of talent. And it's really on the recruitment side — we're continuing to see higher comp levels in those attraction areas than we've seen historically. Everybody's competing for the same talent.

Read more: Ascensus exec: 529 and ABLE plans can shore up families' financial futures

How do you convey expanded benefits and a growing culture to new talent coming in? 
We make sure that our talent acquisition team is fully up to speed. Our benefits team, as an example, met with them at the end of the calendar year to share all the new enhancements and changes to the benefit program. So they get to put their selling hat on as it relates to recruiting; we want to make sure everyone understands, because they're the voice and face of Ascensus to new associates. 

Even when someone gets here, we've learned that people don't fully realize the depth or breadth of some of the benefits available to them. Every April, there's a National Employee Benefits Day, and years ago I used this as a kind of "Know your benefits" campaign through the month of April. And the feedback we got was, "Wow, that was great — but it was a lot." So we moved it to be a monthly communication. Every month, we send something out about a benefit program, such as pet insurance, and it really drives education and awareness, and it gives us a chance to offer examples and testimonials. 

That kind of communication is a two-way street — how do you gather input from your expanded team?
Throughout the COVID era, we did a lot of pulse surveys, focusing on the associate experience: What's working, what's not, what do you need? And at the beginning of this year, we just did another pulse survey, but focused specifically on how the broad organization feels about the unification of the organizations. We're still formulating exactly which direction we want to go into. And we're of the mind that, you don't ask for feedback unless you're going to respond to it. 

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Employee benefits Workplace culture Employee engagement