Employers are increasingly frustrated by the endless rise in benefit costs and the apparent lack of appreciation from employees.
Some employers now realize that the era of benefit improvements, which began in the 1970s, is over and are taking direct action by either paring down benefit offerings or by introducing cost sharing.
Unfortunately, many employees don’t understand what has brought about these changes.
Similar to misunderstandings that occur in personal relationships, this disconnect between employers and employees regarding their attitudes towards benefits can often be traced to a breakdown in communication.
This issue was front and centre at a series of six roundtables held earlier this summer by consulting firm Morneau Sobeco in Toronto and London, Ont. More than 60 employers gathered to discuss ways to better communicate the value of total rewards offerings and what other companies were doing regarding employee communication.
While the total rewards concept encompasses everything that an employee can value about the employment relationship — from direct compensation to recognition and development opportunities — many of the attendees expressed frustration about how employees undervalue employer-sponsored benefits.
Discussion began with the simple question: Why do people work for your organization? Participants provided a wide variety of answers. Employees choose a company for its devotion to a particular cause, for its reputation as a successful organization, for its treatment of employees, and for the advancement and growth opportunities it provides.
The impression was that employees are connected to their employer through the nature of the business, how they are treated and what they can achieve there.
While benefits aren’t what connects employees to their organizations, they’re still deemed to be an integral part of many employers’ total rewards strategies.
Another way of looking at this is that employees expect fair rewards and recognition for the effort they put into making a business successful. In return, employers expect appreciation and acknowledgement for the rewards they provide to employees.
But employees only appreciate benefits when they use them: pensions aren’t really appreciated until retirement and many group benefits are only valued by those who need them. Benefits that aren’t used typically aren’t valued. The exception might be catastrophic coverage like life insurance, which provides employees with a certain peace of mind.
The link between the rewards and recognition and the business may not be clearly established. The missing piece is often the communication strategies that bring these concepts together.
So how should you deal with communicating benefits? Two clear messages emerged from the roundtables:
Set clear goals with every benefits communication:
Typically the communication will have at least one of the following objectives: passing along information, getting employees to make a decision or take some other action, or influencing employee behaviour.
HR must decide what is the purpose of the communication and then determine how effectiveness will be measured. Communication without measurement is like driving without a destination. The trip may have been a lot of fun, but you didn’t get to where you needed to go.
Educate employees on how to most effectively use their benefits:
Employees only value benefits when they are using them. So they need to know what benefits they have and how they can access them.
All information must be easily accessible. It’s a good idea to maintain a web-based mindset — provide information in bite-sized chunks, giving employees the ability to drill down to the level of detail that satisfies them.
Rather than just focusing on the terms and conditions, and the nitty-gritty of various aspects of the benefits plan, focus on what the benefit actually provides the employee. Incorporate plain, easy, understandable language and stay away from jargon wherever possible.
Where applicable, get employees to realize there is no insurance in their benefits coverage:
If health and dental coverage is being provided on an administrative services only basis — insurance carrier pays the claims and the employer simply reimburses the insurance carrier — make it clear who is actually paying the tab.
Make it easy for employees to file claims:
How claims are handled can often influence benefit satisfaction more than the actual level of benefits. Encourage the use of electronic submissions where ever possible.
Involve front-line managers:
They don’t have to be benefits experts, but they do need to reinforce the key messages — why benefits exist, how good they are and where employees can get information when they need it.
Periodically revisit and revise communication methods, making sure that key messages are kept consistent. Communicating only when there’s a change, which is what most employers do, isn’t sufficient to build awareness and reinforce messages.
Keep it fresh:
Remember that there is a lot of “noise” out there. Most HR departments will be competing for employees’ attention. Find out what employees value and adapt communication tactics accordingly.
Reinforce employees’ responsibility:
This is an area that hasn’t received enough attention. Many organizations are struggling with the sense of entitlement on the part of employees. That’s the mindset created when employees take their benefits for granted and assume that they will always have them.
Employees need to know what’s expected of them, and how their decisions affect what benefits the employer can afford to provide.
When offering choice, make it meaningful choice:
Provide employees with the information and tools they need to be able to make informed decisions, even for such mundane things as how much optional life insurance to elect.
Finally (some would think firstly), make sure the program is consistent with overall rewards philosophy:
Offering universal access to benefits that a minority of employees use may not be money well-spent. Shifting the coverage of certain benefits to a health-care spending account is not only an effective way to change how certain benefits are provided; it also sends clear messages regarding employees’ responsibilities regarding the benefit consumption choices they make.
The clear consensus emerging from the roundtables was that we have entered into a new benefits reality, and communications strategies need to reflect this. Benefits are a vital part of a total rewards package that should play an instrumental role in any organization’s efforts to attract and retain the best talent.
Depending on the circumstances, some or perhaps all of these steps should help improve the communication of total rewards so that employers and employees are on the same page when it comes to determining the value and worth of benefits.
Barry Gros is a partner in the pension practice of the Toronto office of Morneau Sobeco. He is also the managing partner of the firm’s communication consulting practice. He can be contacted at (416) 383-6447 or email@example.com.