Pension plan members are buffeted from all sides by information on retirement options — some reliable, some not — especially now that the coronavirus pandemic is playing into the conversation.

“People are scared,” said Peter Shena, executive vice-president and chief pension officer at the Ontario Pension Board, during a webinar hosted by Common Wealth last week. “They’re scared for their health, their family members’ health and they’re scared about their finances. And fear makes people emotional. And we know that emotion and finances are not a good mix. It makes people vulnerable and vulnerability makes people susceptible to incomplete and confusing information.”

Read: Navigating pension fiduciary duties during coronavirus pandemic

Plan members may notice media coverage from inexpert sources, he stressed, making note of articles that mentioned withdrawing a commuted value from a defined benefit pension plan. “In reading those articles, there were key pieces of information missing from that article. No. 1 is, at least in Ontario, you have to quit your job in order to withdraw your commuted value. So really, they’re basically suggesting that you quit your job in the middle of a global pandemic. No mention, also, about the tax impact of withdrawing funds.”

Even under normal circumstances, external sources of advice, such as family members, have the potential to negatively impact plan member decisions, added Shena. “So how does all of this reinforce our delivery model? Well, our delivery model was focused on understanding the client and understanding what exactly it is the client needs. We know that pensions are complex and we also know the decisions are complicated, so our service model slows the process down.”

An OBP member’s first line of contact is with client care, which is staffed with registered retirement consultants. Their job is to suss out what the plan member needs and how much support is required to get them through it. If the issue is complex, it’s moved along the chain to transaction support, a team that helps members gather all necessary information and complete and submit documents properly. If the problem is still more complex, it moves along to decision support.

“Our decision support team is staffed by traditional advisors [and] certified financial planners,” he said. “They’re our staff, they’re not contracted out and they understand that the issues the members face are complicated and that good decisions are critical — they last a lifetime.”

Read: CAPSA updates guidelines on DC plan payout, responsibilities and advice

With traditional financial advisors on staff, OPB members receive expert advice with no agenda beyond helping them, noted Shena. “Our client service advisors’ compensation is not based on their members’ decision. It’s based on the quality of service they provided to the member and they help the member with all aspects of the decision.”

He’s often asked whether providing financial advice opens up the plan to increased legal risk, he added. “The answer is no, because the case law in Canada supports the opposite. It supports that if you end up in a dispute with a client who’s made a bad decision, the courts are more likely to side with the member, saying that you, as the pension expert, understood that this member was making a bad decision and you did nothing to bring that to their attention and help them understand what their options are and the impact of the decision that they would be.

“So our view is, taking this approach is actually risk mitigation and not actually expanding or increasing the risk we face.”

Read: Most millennials saving for retirement, prefer human advice: study