Case study: How BMO boosts its staff’s financial literacy

When the Task Force on Financial Literacy released its recommendations a few years ago on how to make Canadians better understand financial concepts, this prompted BMO Financial Group to launch an internal financial literacy program. Although the company is a bank, about 40% of its employees aren’t in customer-facing roles—they’re in other departments such as HR, marketing and legal.

The company wants to make sure workers understand financial matters such as budgeting and are confident in financial literacy, says Kelly Harper, the company’s director of customer experience learning. There’s also a business benefit: BMO recognizes that the more confident its employees are with their finances, the more prepared they will be to help customers.

Before launching the program, the bank wanted to understand its employees’ current level of knowledge. So BMO conducted a financial literacy survey—based on one by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—in early 2013. The survey measures both financial knowledge and financial behaviours.

Read: Help employees become financially literate

All employees were invited to participate, and the bank was expecting a response rate of about 5%. The response far exceeded expectations: 35% (about 15,000 employees) responded.

“We were really encouraged, and we knew from just that response rate alone that employees would be engaged,” Harper explains.

The survey also asked which topics workers would find interesting to help the bank prioritize what type of content to roll out first. BMO found just over half (57%) of its employees had a budget, compared with 51% of general consumers. “The reason we launched with budgeting is, we actually found out that even beyond financial planning, budgeting was one of those core financial behaviours that really set up people for success and positive behaviours and attitudes toward money,” Harper explains.

Go time

The bank launched its Let’s Start program and website in the fall of 2013, starting with a group of about 8,000 of the company’s 45,000 Canadian and American employees in various divisions. The goal was to get some initial feedback before launching to all employees in October 2014.

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The program has a number of different themes, including budgeting, debt management, my first mortgage, my next mortgage and investing.

The site is Internet-based rather than on the firm’s intranet. Due to regional differences, the site has three versions: two for Canada (English and French) and one for the U.S. The company wanted to make sure the content was regionalized from a product perspective (RRSPs versus 401(k) plans) as well as from a content perspective (Canadian statistics versus U.S. data).

The announcement regarding the launch of the program first came from the head of HR. Then heads of different lines of business were asked to reinforce the message and build awareness. The program is also promoted at town halls and through the online HR portal, and executives have blogged about it.

Once employees register for the program, they receive updates on their progress and on new content. “Those weekly progress emails serve as a way to keep content fresh and encourage users to keep coming back,” says Harper.

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Now that the site has launched, 32% of all North American employees have visited the site, and 17% have registered. So far, the results have exceeded the bank’s expectations.

Harper was also pleasantly surprised at just how effective email has been as a communication method. Employees are still signing up, and there’s a spike in registration when a new email comes out.

Layering communication has been an effective method, too. She notes it’s not enough to communicate once; you have to repeat the message over and over and find other opportunities to get program information out.

What’s in a game?

The site’s core is a learning framework built on gamification principles. Users get bite-sized chunks of information so it’s not too overwhelming. Quizzes are also part of the experience.

Just like a video game, once users finish all of the activities in one level, they earn a badge and unlock the next level. Users can also earn badges based on activities, and the company makes it fun. For example, those visiting the site between midnight and 4 a.m. earn a night owl badge.

Read: A new approach to financial literacy

BMO realized some employees may not want to go through the various learning levels but might just need quick access to information. So there’s also a resource section with articles and blogs that can be sorted by topic or type.

A mobile responsive version of the site is available for tablets or smartphones. All employees need to do is register once from a BMO computer, and then they’ll always have access.

Team play

Feedback on the site from employees has been quite positive. They also feel the content is written in a way that’s not judgmental about financial behaviours.

The site is built for future collaboration. The bank intends to build the functionality to allow users on the site to create networks where people can work together. Harper says it’s comforting for employees to know there are others like them who haven’t yet created a budget or started saving for retirement.

“To understand where you sit within your peer group can be very encouraging,” she says, adding employees can get practical advice from their colleagues as well as their employer. “We’ve seen how user-generated content has become so important over the years, so we wanted to build the ability to do that within the site.”

Read: The importance of financial literacy

Over time, the company wants to track if there’s an increase in enrollment in its savings programs, such as the employee share ownership plan, at an aggregate level. (Since the Let’s Start program is voluntary and confidential, outcomes can’t be tracked individually.) The bank realizes it’s just one program to support workers, but its overall goal is for employees to make a habit of changing their financial situation for the better.

“This isn’t about selling products, and this isn’t about the return on investment,” says Harper. “We’re really doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”


What advice would you offer to other organizations setting up a similar program?

Understand what your employees currently know and what the opportunities are. It was very worthwhile for us to invest in the survey ahead of time, because we wanted to be confident our employees would be open to a [financial literacy program]. We also wanted to make sure we were creating a program that was relevant for them, so we felt it was really important to engage them in that conversation.

In developing a program like this, it’s really important the employees feel comfortable that this isn’t about their role. The fact that they might carry a balance on their credit card has nothing to do with whether they’re good at their job or not. It was important, through the development and the access to the site, that employees were confident it was anonymous: we were maintaining their privacy, and this was really about them and their [financial] well-being.

What does the future hold for the Let’s Start program?

What we’re really excited about is embedding it into every new onboarding activity that we have across the organization….As part of [the] welcome letter, [we’re] letting employees know this is something that’s available to them and giving them the means to sign up for it.

We’ve had a lot of feedback from our front-line employees saying, ‘I love the site. Can I use it with my customers?’ We are exploring this.

Why launch in two phases?

We launched [the program] to 8,000 employees to get some initial feedback and also because we wanted to test some of the engagement principles we’d built into the site. We wanted to do that with a smaller employee audience, and, at the same time, we knew we needed to build up the content within the site before it was ready for a full enterprise launch.

Looking for related articles? Read more stories about financial literacy.

Craig Sebastiano is associate editor of

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