“If I retire, then the payments begin in the year after?” one ESOP Communication Committee member asks for clarification. “Tell me again, now, what’s retirement age,” another member chimes in. Does this sound familiar? Is it a bad sign when the dominant theme of your interactions with participants or your ESOP committee is all about cashing out?  When employee owners are spending energy thinking about their exit, they aren’t developing “ownership thinking” which focuses on actions that will build value. How should you interpret it when people keep asking about cashing out?

Let’s examine a few factors that may be behind the questions. There might be unspoken subtext that is important to understand what you are observing.

This might be a very good sign
A high volume of questions is a good early sign. If you just started your committee or you added new people, the flurry of questions is an indicator of progress. No questions at all may mean they don’t believe the ESOP is real. You want your team to be excited about creating a culture of ownership, but the first step in ESOP engagement for many people is understanding this thing as a benefit. It is a phase that you can move beyond. Because distribution rules can be complex, it’s often helpful to get some help to make them accessible but accurate. At Workplace Development Inc. we find that developing clear communication tools that can be used as reference — and build the committee’s confidence — will help the team move quickly beyond this phase.

Questions may express underlying fears about change
ESOPs are a new concept for most employees. Expect some normal resistance related to change. Sometimes questions come out with an accusatory or skeptical tone. This kind of questioning is more than curiosity, it’s revealing an unease that cannot be assuaged with facts about the plan provisions. ESOP communication teams who are facing these kinds of coworker questions need help to answer the unspoken concerns and fears. This is an opportunity to take “ownership thinking” to the next level with new skills for the committee or team.

The team may be stuck
If distribution rules are being revisited but the discussion is stale, it may be time to visit the team’s larger purpose. For some ESOP communication teams, answering these kinds of questions is the first task that they took on.  They did it with zeal at first.  This important role gave them a purpose.  But teams that define their purpose around just one task will get stuck. When they don’t have a picture of “what’s next,” these committees get stuck in a loop of explaining and communicating plan provisions or even worse they embark on an unguided search for a new purpose that leads to missteps. If you are seeing this, it may be time for a planning session to return to the team’s purpose in the ESOP Committee Development Process.

Curiosity about distribution rules is an important part of strengthening ownership thinking. Answering these questions clearly is an element of building trust and making the ESOP meaningful. It is a normal step in the process.  However, if you observe recurring concerns or a preoccupation with distribution, this may an indicator the team needs skills or coaching to find the next stage of committee development.

To bring communication tools or coaching for your ESOP communication team contact Cathy Ivancic at civancic@workplacedevelopment.com or 330-896-7285, extension 101.