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Employers and their benefits advisors are responding to the rollercoaster called the economy by expanding, reducing and reorganizing employee benefits programs.

Forces such as rapid increases in health insurance cost inflation and changes in the accounting rules for retiree health benefits are also reshaping benefits packages.

Managers at a company thats changing its benefits package need to work as a team to communicate changes and win employees support.

Establishing A Foundation:

An employer that will be using top-down communication needs to prepare carefully to overcome common challenges such as confusion, unrest, rumors and employee resignations.

As a general rule of thumb employees dislike change. Even improvements to benefits plans can be misperceived if not properly communicated.

The best guiding principle is to communicate openly and honestly with affected parties as often as deemed necessary.

But managers also need to work with one another and their benefits advisors to develop a detailed communications plan. They should work together on specific details, such as timing, selection of communications forums, and strategies for conveying a consistent message. The plan should also include specific steps to follow and measurable goals.

The communication plan should identify a point person (or persons, depending on the size of the company) who is well versed in the nature of the change to answer difficult or complicated questions. When changes are communicated to employees, the designated point person, or point persons, should be readily available and easy to reach. An open-door environment is a must.

To E-mail Or Not To E-mail:

There is debate surrounding the issue of communicating benefit changes via e-mail. Some experts feel that e-mail can be more accurate and lessen the discomfort for the messenger as well as the recipient, particularly if the news is negative.

While it may be more comfortable, e-mail does not promote an open, two-way discussion between management and employees. When possible, communicating face-to-face is the preferred method, with written materials available as a supplement.

If the changes are drastic or complicated, particularly when revamping pension and 401(k) plans, it may be necessary to schedule benefit education meetings. At the very least, employees deserve to be notified of the changes in person, through an easy-to-understand explanation of how they will be effected.

More Than One Channel:

Supplemental materials are vital to easing confusion and questions surrounding benefit changes.

Create a packet of resources for employees to take home to share with their families.

The handouts should explain the latest trends in the benefits marketplace, so employees understand how their new benefits compare with industry norms.

A grid comparing what the employee is gaining or losing can be a straightforward, quick-read explanation of the changes.

Materials can be distributed as handouts during meetings, as paycheck stuffers or as home mailers.

Larger companies should establish a benefits hotline and a section on the company Intranet that employees can access 24 hours a day.

Add a voice-mail or e-mail option, so that employees can leave anonymous feedback and have questions answered in a timely manner.

Anticipate employee concerns before announcements by developing a Frequently Asked Questions sheet. Distribute the FAQs through the company Intranet, bulletin boards or in-office mailboxes.

By using several different vehicles of communication, you will be fostering an open-door environment that will ease transition.

Good employers share information with employees as a means of promoting ownership and loyalty among the workforce. Provide employees the opportunity to make sound decisions based on all the factsgood and bad. Carry out the due diligence of communicating change and the return will be improved two-way communication, a stronger employee/employer relationship and increased credibility to the organization.

is senior vice president of operations in the Atlanta office of Duffey Communications, a public relations, business marketing and public affairs firm. Her e-mail address is lkobel@duffey.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, October 8, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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