Benefits Communications: The Basics Still Apply

The signatures of President Barack Obama, Vice...

Just about now, as fall tiptoes ever closer, benefits administrators everywhere are dreaming not of crisp new back-to-school outfits or a bountiful harvest, but of benefits open enrollment. Those dreams are not likely to be the happiest during the best of circumstances, but with regulatory changes big and small brought on by the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare), they’ve probably turned into nightmares for some this year. (Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against Obamacare. I just know it’s giving headaches to a lot of benefits administrators and their communications departments.)

How much your company’s benefits plans and policies will change depends on all kinds of factors, from how big your organization is to what you’ve offered in the past. And it’s likely you’re still scrambling to figure out what many of the changes are going to be, as well as what you need to communicate and when. In fact, if you’re still depending on old-fashioned print for open enrollment materials, this may be the year to explore some more easily-updated electronic formats.

But whether you are communicating via quill pen or Yammer, the cardinal rules of good communication still apply:

Put yourself on the employees’ side of the desk. Chances are, employees will most care about:

  • Cost: Will health benefits cost more (or less) than what I’m now paying, and by how much? Remember that cost usually comes down to numerous factors that not all employees will be considering, so it’s up to you to fill in those gaps. If they choose the new lower-premium plan, how much higher will their deductible be? If they opt for the more expensive plan, will they still be saving as much on co-payments as they did last year? Ideally, give them some concrete examples to illustrate your points.
  • Coverage:  Are there any important differences in service coverage among the different plans I can choose from? Are there any changes from last year? While coverage questions may be a little more straightforward than questions of cost, you still want to be sure to direct employees’ attention to things they might not have considered. Have there been any major changes to the prescription drug formulary? To the networks? Are referrals needed in order to see a specialist?

Remember a key rule of the late, great crime-writer Elmore Leonard and “leave out the parts that people skip.” The things your employees will likely not care to know about include arcane bits of legal mumbo-jumbo. Sure, some of that stuff has to be included in your communications. But, as much as possible, try to get it out of your central text and into fine print or, better yet, links.

Be clear. You, yourself, may eat, sleep and—as I mentioned earlier—even dream in benefits jargon, but many employees wouldn’t know a PPO from an IPO from HBO. Stick to the simplest possible terminology and define it every step of the way. (Remember, this has nothing to do with education or intelligence. Most people not steeped in the benefits world really don’t know how coinsurance differs from co-pay.)

Be detailed. The details you don’t want are those the lawyers want you to include. (Ok, yes, you may have to include some of them anyway.) But the details you do want are the what, how, when and where of benefits enrollment. What do employees need to do, how and when do they need to do it and where can they get more information?

Be available. The best benefits communications, provided in the best possible formats, can’t cover every employee’s situation or answer every question. Set up a hotline or a dedicated email box. Invite employees to text you. Do it however you want, but make a live human being available—ideally not only to employees, but to their family members.

Be honest. If the options aren’t quite as comprehensive as last year or costs have increased (or both), say so up front. With luck, you’ll also be able to communicate that costs are going up everywhere, that your organization is still delivering a tremendous amount of value, and that you’ll continue to look for ways to bring coverage up and costs down. If your company has made a habit of honesty in its communications, your employees may even believe you.

Need some help with your benefits communications? Drop me a line: or give me a call: 718-628-4753.

I’ve been trying to figure out how the Affordable Care Act is affecting benefits communicators this year. If you have any thoughts to share, please, please contact me and let’s set up a time to talk—on or off-the-record, it’s up to you!

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What’s the Story?

Everyone loves a good story. Not coincidentally, stories are one of the best ways to communicate, because our brains are wired for them. Not only do we pay more attention to stories, we remember them better. (There’s research out there demonstrating this, but it will be no surprise to anyone who can recite entire scenes from The Godfather or episodes of Seinfeld, but can’t remember her own cell phone number.)

So it stands to reason that if you’re trying to get employees to remember and use your benefits, work-life and wellness programs, you’ll have more success if you reel them in with a good story.

First, a word about what I mean by “story.” The concept has become a bit of a buzz word in the business world lately and though this is mostly a good sign, it’s also led to some dilution in meaning. It sometimes seems like any few bits of information, strung together in logical order, are called a story. Data can tell a story, but mostly to those who already have more than a passing interest in the data. If you’re running a corporate child care service, the number of people using that service, and perhaps what jobs within the company they have, tell you a story–you’re happy just to look at the numbers. If you’re considering whether to continue offering a wellness program, the decrease in health care costs associated with that program tell you a story.

But if you have some other job altogether, the fact that 20% of employees with young children are enrolled in child care is not a compelling story. What might be compelling, is that someone who initially shared some of the same misgivings you have about the center is now happily using it. Or that someone who thought they couldn’t afford the center discovered how generous the sliding fee scale was. Or, frankly, simply that someone with a name and a face is using the center. Because research also indicates that people respond much better to stories of individuals than they do to stories about large numbers of people.

So, how to go about telling stories? Here are a few options:

  • Depending on the circumstance and what you’re trying to promote (and thus how much privacy concerns come into play), you can simply provide profiles of employees using a program or policy. I once worked with a company that was trying to promote a culture of flexibility. It already had a number of employees working in some pretty flexible ways, and for some pretty interesting reasons. (In other words, not just people leaving at 3 to pick up the kids.) Leadership wanted others—including management—to get the message that these kinds of arrangements were not only possible but encouraged. So they gave me a list of employees working flexibly and I interviewed them one at a time. Then I wrote a brief, lively profile about each one. The profiles were no longer than a handful of paragraphs, but they described a typical day of work and personal pursuits, explained how and why this particular way of working had come about, and summarized how the arrangement was going for all involved. Now, flexibility was no longer an abstract list of potential work arrangements. It had a face—many faces, in fact.
  • Another, less formal option is to let your employees do the talking. Take advantage of social media! More and more organizations are introducing corporate social networking sites like Yammer or Pulse. Take advantage of these to invite employees to tell their stories. Try posting a different question every few weeks. Have you used the R&R service? Tell us how it went. Did you join a Weight Watchers group? How hard has it been to stick to the plan—and how near are you to reaching your goal? Even without official social networking sites, you can invite employees to post their comments on a dedicated Intranet page. Or have a video competition—show us your favorite work-life program and why.
  • Finally, you can take the creative way out (and avoid all privacy worries): make your stories up! I’ve always admired the company that ran an ongoing narrative soap opera, with a cast of characters that got into all kinds of catastrophic situations—only to be saved by one of the company’s work-life programs or policies. The HR department released a new story each week; they were avidly followed by employees. I could imagine doing this as a comic strip, as well, if you’ve got somebody on the team with the talent to pull that off. Perhaps a “Perils of Pauline” -type series featuring a feisty young hero or heroine. Perhaps a contest again, to help decide the fate of the characters. Just think of the possibilities!

Here’s a secret shared by storytellers: telling a story can be just as fun as reading one. (Ok, the writing, itself, can have its agonizing moments, but there’s still something deeply satisfying about a good story, which the writer experiences every bit as much as the reader.) So give yourself and your programs a break: let your storytelling instincts—or those of your employees—take over for a change.

Need help telling your story? Let’s talk!

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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.