Feb 3, 2008


Traditionally, employers placed a low priority on the communication of their benefit plans to employees. They took the attitude that employees appreciated any benefits that were given to them. The little information that was made available tended to be only the literature that had been prepared by the insurance companies providing the coverage. Over the last few years, this situation has changed dramatically. Employers are required by federal law to disclose a substantial amount of information to employees about their benefit plans. In addition, employers have come to realize that many employees take their benefit plans for granted, that they fail to realize the value of these benefits to themselves and their families, and that they are unaware of the employer's dollar outlay. Not only will effective communication solve this problem, it may also minimize the dissatisfaction that arises from misunderstandings about the benefit program, and it may reduce turnover to the extent that employees realize the true value of their benefits. Employers have also learned that effective communication is necessary to obtain employee support if cost-containment efforts are to be successful. Finally, benefit communication is increasingly important as employees are given more choice with regard to their own benefits. This is occurring as more employees have alternative medical expense plans, cafeteria plans and retirement plans that allow investment options.

Most benefit consultants feel an effective communications program should have four primary objectives.

- To create an awareness of and an appreciation for the way current benefits improve the financial security of employees

- To provide a high level of understanding about available benefits

- To encourage the wise use of benefits

- To comply with legal requirements

Effective Communication
Employees will obtain information about benefits in some manner. Without an effective communications program, an employee is likely to rely on the grapevine, which often provides incomplete and inaccurate information. Good communication rarely just happens. Rather, it requires that the employer set objectives in a manner similar to that used for benefit plan design. While any list of objectives is likely to include the clear and concise dissemination of information about current benefits, other objectives may change over time. For example, an employer may want to encourage employees to switch to a managed care plan.

Depending on the circumstance, communication may be ongoing or on a one-time basis. In either case, benefit consultants feel that it is important for employers to design communication materials that convey to employees that they and their needs are important to the firm, that the employer cares what employees think about benefits, and that the employer wants employees to understand their benefits. A successful long-run communications program also has a method for obtaining feedback that allows the employer to determine the effectiveness of the communications program. Steps can be taken to rectify inadequate information, and past experience can be of value in designing future communications.

Several factors can complicate the communication process. For example, an employer may have different benefit plans for different groups of employees and therefore may have to design alternative communication strategies. While it may be possible to have somewhat similar strategies, the sophistication levels of the different employee groups may call for entirely different approaches. A similar problem may occur if an employer has multiple locations. In addition, employers must take the needs of non-English-speaking employees into consideration. Finally, communication strategies may vary for new employees and existing empolyees.

Whatever form a communications plan may take, communication specialists recommend that several basic factors be present:

The communication should be written in a style that is clear and understandable. Legalese and benefit jargon should be avoided.

The communication should make it clear what a benefit means to an employee. For example, if an employer is trying to encourage enrollment in a managed care plan, the lack of any deductibles and minimal (or no) copayments should be emphasized.

The communication should explain why changes are being made. The effectiveness of the communication is likely to be lessened if an employer is not open and honest. Too many employers fail to realize that employees are smart enough to read between the lines of communications that are less than forthright.

The communication should make use of graphics and examples. Too often communication that lacks these features is boring and therefore less effective.


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