How to effectively communicate employee benefits

communicate employee benefits

People care about employee benefits. In fact, benefits are the second most important factor (after pay) in attracting and retaining top talent. And in today’s competitive market, employees want options that help them achieve work-life balance and a secure future.

To meet these demands, many HR organizations (including yours) develop comprehensive programs of benefits and work perks to offer employees. But employees aren’t listening:

  • A staggering 80 percent of employees say they don’t read benefits communication materials, according to a 2016 survey conducted by the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans.
  • Only three of every 20 employees feel informed enough to make decisions about benefits, per Davis & Company’s 2015 HR communication research report.

These sobering statistics tell us even the best employee benefits program doesn’t mean a thing if employees don’t understand what’s available.

If benefits are so important—a factor that influences career decisions—why is it so hard to get employees to pay attention?

The struggle is real

Employees already suffer from information overload. It’s a widely recognized fact that employees check email every two minutes on average. Now, throw in text messages, news alerts, Tweets and other social media posts that light up their phones throughout the day, and you’ve got too many messages coming from too many sources.

how to efficiently communicate benefits

And because benefits programs are more complicated than ever, communication about benefits can be complicated as well. Too often it can look like an ominous wall of text—hard to read and harder to understand. Riddled with jargon and corporate speak, benefits communication can be just plain mind-numbing.

So can you blame employees when they opt for watching those always-adorable cat videos instead of diving into your benefits booklet to decipher their options?

Here’s what to do

To cut through the din of overloaded inboxes and competing media, and get employees to pay attention to your benefits communication, don’t just turn up the volume. Fine tune your efforts to achieve the right balance. Here’s how:

Use simple and direct language. Make it easy for employees to understand your message by sticking to one topic at a time and keeping your language jargon-free. Even though you’re a pro when it comes to benefits, remember that employees aren’t experts.

  • Ask a colleague who isn’t on your benefits team to be your sounding board. Does he or she understand what you’re trying to say?
  • Run your communication through a readability test like Flesch-Kincaid. Strive for a ninth grade level or lower.
  • Aim for an average of 14-word sentences and five-character words. Long sentences are tough to follow, which makes it easy for your message to get lost. Long words make your reader work harder and decrease readability.

Be employee-focused. Develop your benefits communication from your employees’ perspectives to ensure they know what’s in it for them.

  • Use the inverted pyramid structure that puts the most important information at the top. This will help employees quickly get the message.
  • Begin your headlines, subject lines, and titles with verbs like “Sign up,” “Join,” “Grab your” or “Don’t miss.”
  • Be specific about dates, times and deadlines for participation. And consider time zone differences for your global employees.

get employee interest

Be candid about changes. Avoid the urge to soften changes with sugar-coated language. Treat employees like grown-ups (because they are!) even when your news might be considered bad. Employees will appreciate open and honest communication about what is changing and why.

  • Don’t assume everyone will be hysterical about change; rather, be prepared to handle any reactions with talking points or frequently asked questions and answers.
  • If possible, bring employees into the decision-making process. By conducting periodic research to understand how employees perceive and value benefits, you’ll have real data to explain the reasons behind a change.

Simplify with visuals. Break down that wall of scary text. Pull apart long paragraphs with subheads, bulleted lists, callouts and other images to make content easier to digest.

  • Use tables, charts, and other graphs to help employees visualize complex data and see comparisons.
  • Develop a timeline to help employees understand when decisions need to be made.
  • Create a checklist of things to remember.
  • Develop a theme for your benefits communication and use photos or icons that represent that theme to create a coherent, visual story.

Use a multichannel approach. You don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to designing benefits, so you shouldn’t communicate only one way, either. Instead, engage your diverse workforce in a variety of ways.

  • For complex messages, use the “bite, snack, meal” approach:
    – Bite. Create quick, visual communication, such as a graphic email, highlighting the benefit and what employees will get from it.
    – Snack. Include a link to an intranet article or microsite that provides more detail.
    – Meal. Provide an option to download the comprehensive guide so employees can review and refer to all the details.
  • Create a mix of both digital and print communication. While digital may be convenient for some employees, others (like plant employees) find online-only benefits communication to be a challenge. Create print materials, such as brochures and postcards, which are easy to share at home.

use multichannel approach to internal communication

Personalize and create targeted benefits communication. When you create specific experiences for employees based on their needs and preferences, they’ll feel valued as employees and respected as individuals.

  • Tailor communication to meet the needs of different generations. For example, you might want to help new employees better understand how to get the most from your company’s 401(k) match. Older employees, on the other hand, might need more information about how to best access their 401(k) funds after retirement.
  • Package appropriate HR communication around employee life events. For example, when someone requests leave for the birth of a baby, compile relevant information about the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and other leave-of-absence policies, and how to update life insurance and healthcare coverage once the baby arrives.

Communicate about benefits throughout the year, not just during open enrollment. Promoting benefits (like wellness programs, life insurance, disability insurance, retirement plans, identity theft plans, tuition reimbursement and other perks) year-round will both improve employees’ perceptions of the company’s benefits package and increase participation.

  • Don’t “one and done” your benefits communication. Experts debate whether it takes three, seven or 20 impressions for a message to break through to its intended audience. No matter what the number, your message is more effective when repeated and delivered in a variety of ways.
  • To help employees understand the true value of all of their benefits, provide them with customized total benefits statements. Often called “total rewards” when combined with salary and bonus, the statement illustrates costs covered by the company for each benefit an employee receives. These may include health or life insurance, dental plans, pension or 401(k) contributions, and other reimbursements. If you have been communicating about benefits all through the year, employees will have a better understanding and appreciation of the benefits you offer.

About the author:

Alison Davis is founder and CEO of Davis & Company, the award-winning employee communication firm that for 30 years has helped leading companies – such as Johnson & Johnson, Motorola Solutions, Nestle, Roche and Rogers Communications – increase employee engagement. Alison sets the strategic direction for the firm, consults with the client on their toughest communication challenges and leads the development of new products and services.

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