Stealing a page from marketing

Employers should spend more time marketing total reward programs to ‘internal customers’

HR and marketing professionals have something in common — they both need to advertise key messages. HR professionals may be targeting a different customer — the employee — but they also want to avoid the spam-like effect that often plagues marketing efforts, especially when communicating total rewards.

As total rewards programs grow more complex — with tangible and intangible benefits for diverse workforces — communicating them is also becoming more difficult and potentially more costly, says Alison Avalos, practice leader at WorldatWork, an international association based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that helps HR practitioners implement total rewards

“Given the variety of types of programs being used in total rewards to attract, motivate and retain talent, if the communications around them are not effective, there can be a severe effect on the organization’s ability to bring in the right talent, keep the talent and certainly to get them to do what needs to be done to achieve business results,” she says.

HR professionals trying to get the word out about total rewards need to know what needs to be communicated, who it needs to be communicated to and what method of communication works best. Sharon Vanderwerff, a principle at HR consulting firm Mercer in Toronto, says most HR practitioners realize the messaging around total rewards programs needs to be heard loud and clear by employees, and are beginning to tap into the marketing department’s expertise for help.

Step one: Understand the package

The first step for HR is understanding what the organization is offering employees, says Vanderwerff.

“You’d be amazed how many companies do not know internally all the pieces of their total rewards,” she says. “Take a step back and look at your great package.”

Step two: Create the message

Once the employer understands what it has to offer, its communications with employees should have a specific intent, says Avalos.

“What are you trying to communicate? Are you trying to change employee behaviour? Or do you just need to communicate that an employee’s health costs have gone up three per cent?” she says.

Being able to measure an intended effect, such as how many employees are enrolled in the profit-sharing plan, ensures HR gets the most value from its total reward communications, says Avalos.

When Vanderwerff talks about communicating total rewards, she suggests creating an “employee experience.”

“In the past, HR communications have been event driven,” she says. “They focus on benefit enrolment. Or pensions. HR has a tendency to communicate in silos, whereas communicating a variety of total rewards components in tandem reveals there’s more in it for employees.”

One example might be using a personalized, individual total rewards statement that communicates information as well as a key message, such as participating in “take your pet to work” day.

Step three: Know the audience

The next step for HR is to take a look at the audience. Differences among employees, such as cultural or generational, should be identified and leveraged in total rewards communications, says Avalos.

“If you’re recruiting younger employees you’re not necessarily going to focus on the pension plan in the advertisement,” she says.

Using multiple channels

While choosing the best channels is dependent on the message being communicated, there are some key considerations to take into account. The Mercer Snapshot Survey Total Rewards – 2007, which looked at 580 organizations in the United States and Canada, found a majority (52 per cent) of respondents use three or more communication vehicles.

“You need to use multiple channels. One shot does not work,” says Vanderwerff. “And if you only have the time and resources to make it one shot, make it personalized.”

One-on-one meetings are ideal, especially when there is a complicated message, says Avalos. They are certainly the tried-and-true approach when presenting the entire total rewards package to new hires. It’s also a good idea to use annual performance reviews as a one-on-one opportunity for managers to communicate key benefits to employees. For very large companies, meetings where groups or segments of employees are gathered for an information session with a representative from HR work well, says Avalos.

Online versus paper

While paper-based personalized statements are effective, online personalized statements can be updated more frequently and are more cost effective, assuming a company has payroll software in place, says Vanderwerff.

E-mail or the Internet, however, are not necessarily the best communications channels for every industry, particularly where a smaller proportion of staff have access to a computer, although that is slowly changing as more people now have home computers, she says.

Online communications should be accessible through the Internet rather than company intranet, says Vanderwerff.

“And you still have to drive employees to the website,” she says. “It’s not a field of dreams where, if you put it there, they will come.”

Company newsletters should never be a one-shot communication vehicle but rather one element of a communications strategy, such as encouraging employees to phone HR or a helpline for more information, says Brian Henry, director of people and values at Maritz Canada, a performance improvement, travel and marketing research firm in Mississauga, Ont.

It’s also important to make sure the people answering the phone are trained in the total rewards communications strategy so they can educate and engage employees about their benefits, says Avalos.

Cost will limit the types of communication vehicles available to HR. DVDs and CDs can be effective, but they’re expensive. They ranked as the least-used communication channel in the Mercer survey, with only seven per cent of organizations using them.

“They are gaining some steam, especially in new employee orientations where there is so much to communicate,” says Salvos.

Many organizations spend a lot of time and money communicating to their external customers. Given the pending labour shortage in Canada, companies need to put as much effort into engaging employees and HR should take a “more marketing-style approach in their communications,” says Vanderwerff.

Lesley Young is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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