Communicating Benefit Changes in Uncertain Times

The pressures of the worldwide economic recession and the rising cost of health care have taken a toll on many employers. In an effort to stay financially sound, companies are scrutinizing their benefits packages with special concern and a renewed emphasis on cost control. This may lead to dramatic changes in an employer’s benefit strategy, which in turn must be conveyed to employees.

It’s already a struggle to ensure that employees read and understand the benefits information provided. What tactics can you use at a time when it’s critical to communicate an important or difficult message about your benefits program? Here are some suggestions:

Get the message out early.
Too often, significant benefit changes are presented only during annual enrollment. This gives employees just a few weeks to assimilate the information and make election changes accordingly. If you are rolling out a complex concept, such as a consumer-driven health plan or a wellness incentive, consider a more gradual approach. Provide advance information about the change in a series of short e-mails, posters, and/or letters prior to annual enrollment. This makes it more likely that employees will be familiar with the change prior to annual enrollment. In addition, by targeting a specific concept, you help employees to focus on what should demand the most attention.

Give your audience what they need.
While most employees recognize the importance of their benefits, that doesn’t mean they’ll take the time to read their enrollment materials thoroughly. Don’t expect them to find the most critical points without your help! Think about streamlining the information you provide.

First, take a close look at the enrollment guide. How long is it? Does it provide extensive details about programs that haven’t changed . . . details that are also found in the booklets provided by the insurers? Employees should always be referred back to those booklets for concrete information about the benefit. Your enrollment guide should provide only a limited overview, such as concise benefit summaries and information about coverage restrictions or exclusions.

Keep in mind that your employees are likely to be at different levels of literacy. This means your materials should be written at a level that can be understood by everyone. In addition, use charts or other pictorial illustrations when possible. This draws the eye, helps to break up the text, and gives pertinent information at a glance. For example, if you are offering a choice between an HMO and a high-deductible health plan, consider a side-by-side chart comparing the most significant differences between the two options.

Finally, laser in on changes and other important information with a cover letter, perhaps signed by the company’s president or CEO. The letter can help you to pull out the critical concepts that you want to express, and give employees the knowledge they need to make more thoughtful benefit elections. In this way, even if they simply skim their other enrollment materials, they’ll have a succinct summary of the most important points at their fingertips.

Put on a good show.
Even if your company typically does not hold employee meetings during annual enrollment, consider doing so when major changes are coming. If employees have read their enrollment materials, this is an opportune time to reinforce the information and answer any questions. If they haven’t read the materials, this is the best way to get the message across.

Be thorough, but keep the meetings as short as possible. For example, if you’re rolling out major changes to the health plan, don’t discuss the life and disability plans that are staying the same. If you want employees to focus only on important changes, don’t muddy your approach by including unnecessary details about less critical items.

Organize your presentation as follows: what is driving the benefit change, what the change is, and how it will impact the employees. If someone from within your organization will be leading the presentation, make sure that person is prepared to support the change publicly and to deal diplomatically with frustrated or angry employees. These can be difficult meetings, so it is critical that the presenter be a credible leader who can both uphold the company’s position and be genuinely sensitive to employees’ concerns.

Your benefit plan is unlikely to remain static from year to year. Whether you are bringing in a new carrier, altering plan options, or even implementing an enhanced benefit, communicating these changes to your employees in a meaningful way can be challenging. By planning your communication strategy in advance, with the goal of providing information in the most accessible way, you are better assured of success.

Ann Marie Rowley is a senior account manager for McGraw Wentworth in Troy, MI. McGraw Wentworth has been one of Metro Detroit 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For since 2002. Rowley can be reached at [email protected].