'Getting Through': Employee Benefits Communication Challenges

Experts don’t agree on much. But one conviction seems to have gotten support from voices across the employee benefits world:

Accomplishing your benefit plan objectives requires successful employee communication.

The Chamber of Commerce reports that employers spend up to 40% of payroll on employee benefits, but only a small fraction of employees understands and appreciates them. And Colonial Life finds that 90% of employers believe it's important to their business for employees to understand and appreciate their benefits, but only 21% believe their employees actually do. However, "when you sit down and explain to people how a health plan works, and you give them some context to the decision, and you personalize it to their family situation, you can see the light go on in their head," says  Jan Blair, VP of HR at Allegiance Health Care in Jackson, Mich. That is successful employee communication.

Sally Can’t See Everyone

benefits communication challengesSuccessful communication means engaging employees with your message and making sure they understand the value of their benefit package. But even the best leaders can be mystified when it comes to effectively reaching their employees, who quite often represent different generations, cultures and communication styles.
Gone are the days when a quick meeting in the break room and the instructions to “go see Sally in HR and she’ll take care of you” serve as your “employee communication”. Many HR departments have been downsized or refocused on more strategic initiatives, with a workload that does not allow them to sit down with each employee to review individual benefits options. Healthcare continues to become more complicated, and employees are often left to make uneducated decisions about benefits on their own.

One Message, Multiple Formats

Many employers offer some type of group informational sessions for their employees during the open enrollment season, but few make attendance mandatory. However, by requiring employees to attend and making the presentation engaging, informative and practical, you send the message that this information is important—and that you value your employees’ time. Your benefits advisor can be extremely valuable as a well informed, unbiased third party to help deliver your message professionally field any questions your employees may have.
Not everyone feels comfortable asking questions in a group setting, so good questions often remain unspoken. The best way to combat this situation is to offer employees the opportunity to meet one on one with a benefit specialist to review their options and ask any questions they might have. This approach reinforces the value of the benefits the employer is offering and gives employees the tools they need to make the best decisions regarding their benefits.
We all process the information we receive differently; some people are auditory learners and some are visual learners. Because employee populations are likely to include both types of learners it is important that employers provide materials that communicate the same message in a visual format. Providing a comprehensive overview in print also allows it to be used as a reference once the group meetings are completed, and relieves overburdened HR staff by answering some of the many questions that inevitably arise.

Cultural Adaptation

To successfully reach Gen X and Y employees, you will virtually be required to post benefit information online. Many others who don’t fit those demographic categories also readily seek information online. You can accomplish this with an employer Intranet or with a website specifically designed to communicate all of the benefit offerings, along with helpful links to additional information or forms that employees may need.
As employers consider modernizing their employee communications strategies, an emerging trend is to engage employees with benefits related messaging through Social Media. Organizations are increasingly embracing technology to reduce costs, be more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
A comprehensive communication strategy will insure employees are engaged, understand what is being asked of them, and have the knowledge to make the best choices. Employers should seek help from their benefit advisor to make this kind of multi-faceted approach work for them and their employee population.
Quotes drawn from "Tailor made – Don't take your communications campaigns 'off the rack'; they must be tailored to fit your specific employee audience"; Kathleen Koster; ebn.benefitnews.com, November 1, 2009
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