Open Season

Over the summer, many HR departments start gearing up for fall or winter benefits Open Enrollment. Wait—why are you reaching for the Advil?

Ok, so it may not be your favorite time of year. And yes, benefits communications, especially when it comes to the level of detail required for this process, can be deadly. But that doesn’t mean they have to be deadly—either to write or to read.

Why not do something different this year? Turn them into a challenge. If you’ll excuse the ugly proverbial phrase, kill a few birds with one stone. (Sorry, PETA.) Think of Open Enrollment season as Open Season on several communications goals at once:

Promote the heck out of your organization as an employer of choice.

Quite possibly, you live in benefits-land, a world of costs and returns and heavy negotiations, both with vendors and with management. You know how expensive some of these programs are. And what it might cost to get the same benefit in the outside world. But does Joe Employee? Not necessarily. Sure, intellectually he might have an idea. It would be hard to be awake in 2012 and not at least know something about the cost of private health insurance. But when he looks at his paycheck, minus his health insurance premium, does he think, “Gee, if it weren’t for my employer, I’d be paying a whole lot more?” I’ll leave you to answer that.

And that’s just the obvious benefits, like health insurance. What about flexible spending accounts? What about the 401(k)? What about programs and policies that have nothing to do with benefits open enrollment or pay, but still count as part of employees’ total rewards, like time-off policies? How much are they worth to employees?

You have to get so much information out, anyhow, this time of year. Why not take the opportunity to remind employees of what they’re getting?

Bump up program usage.

Again, every employee knows she has health insurance, but does she know her plan offers reimbursement for gym use? A 24-hour nurse-on-call? Does she know she can save on prescription costs by getting them mail-order? And about that 401(k) and Flexible Spending Account…does she know how much actual money she can earn with the former, if she takes full advantage of the company match—and how much she can save with the latter, if she uses it wisely? Does she remember that your child care referral service can help her find summer camps? Heck, does she remember that you have a child care referral service?

Benefits enrollment doesn’t have to focus only on the mechanics of enrolling and it doesn’t even have to focus only on benefits. It’s a once-a-year chance to grab the attention of busy employees and strut your stuff. Take advantage of it!

Free up some “me” time.

At most organizations, benefits open enrollment season makes the HR team cower not so much because of the front-end work (although that part can certainly be daunting), but because of what happens when the communications go out and the sign-up period actually begins. Phones ringing, e-mails ping-ing, people stopping you on the elevator. Questions. Problems. Confusion. It’s a giant headache and, to be honest, it’s never going to go away completely. But you can mitigate some of the pain by writing clear, jargon-free communications with plenty of concrete examples. At minimum, you shouldn’t find yourself on the phone explaining the difference between co-insurance and a co-pay, or what “pre-tax” means. At least, not too often.

The trick to writing clear, understandable benefits enrollment communications is the trick to writing all good communications—put yourself in the head of your reader. Remember that the vocabulary of human resources and of benefits is not the vocabulary any of us grew up with—what may be familiar and obvious to you is far from familiar and obvious to most of the world. Remember, also, the value of a good example. The picture that is worth a thousand words doesn’t have to be a picture picture—it can be a word picture. So, draw, baby, draw!

Go ahead, take the challenge. Turn Open Enrollment Season into Open Season and make all your trouble worthwhile. Happy Hunting!*

*No animals were harmed to write this post.

**Want some help with your benefits open enrollment materials? Look no further. Contact me and let’s set up a time to talk.


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