September 27, 2011 | Leadership, Workplace Culture + Practices

I recently read an article that discussed the need for a new approach to the open enrollment communication process largely due to the issue of health care reform. Changes in health care at the Federal level are raising a lot of questions and concerns, among employers and employees alike. While I agree with the three guidelines the author offered in her post, I have added a few of my own to the list for communicating about benefits.

Employees of NRG Systems, 2010 group shot

A few guidelines

1. Have a good understanding of what matters to your staff. There are a lot of surveys available that show poll results for what benefits matter most to American workers. The problem with using these surveys to make benefit decisions in your company is that you may be missing what really matters to your own population. Every employee is different, and while you may think that health insurance is the one benefit that everyone cares about, that may not be the case. Perhaps a young, healthy single person will value the little extra perks (like baseball or theater tickets and ski passes) your company provides over the health insurance options that an individual with a family might value. Know what is important to your people and respect that even minor changes can sometimes have a big impact on your employees.

2. Work in partnership with your employees. When benefit changes are explained solely from the company point of view, this tends to set up a defensive dynamic to your benefit discussions. Any communication should come from the frame of mind that you and your employees are in this together. Your success is intertwined. Welcome employee questions, seek their input, engage them in the dialogue about benefits.

3. Fully utilize your management team. Managers, directors, supervisors—everyone in a leadership position—must understand your company benefits, what and why changes were made (if any) and help foster communication among their teams. Engage these leaders in the process, let them know what is coming and why, and enlist their support for ensuring that good, factual information is available to their employees.

4. Make use of multiple channels for communication. While we’ve typically started open enrollment with a company-wide meeting to talk about our benefits package, this year, we plan to meet instead with smaller groups of employees. My hope is that this will make the process more personal, encourage more questions, more discussion and allow for a healthy exchange of information. We also make use of our company intranet to provide updates and easy access to benefit-related forms. A bulletin board in our HR area also features information about benefits and other HR-related items. And, we speak about HR-related issues through department stand-up meetings, informal lunch-and-learns, and sometimes at our monthly company-wide staff meetings.

5. Don’t sugarcoat benefit changes. Be honest when communicating about benefits and give the whole story. If you have to introduce changes in benefits that may be perceived as reductions or losses, explain the decision-making process in a manner that shows you understand the effects these changes may have for your employees. (See rule #2.)

Benefits as a retention and recruitment tool

Your compensation and benefits package can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool. And you want to ensure that you’re in a good position to attract new workers and keep the talent you have.

At NRG Systems, our compensation and benefits package has received plenty of attention for its unique and somewhat generous offerings. There is no doubt that this package has been a valuable recruitment and retention tool. But more than that, our goal has always been to develop a benefits package that reflects our company values and the respect we have for our employees. We want them to feel good about coming to work each day, we want them know they are highly valued and we want them to be successful.

Will our approach be successful during this year’s open enrollment? We’ll know soon enough, but my hope is that a focus on better communication will open up the dialogue about benefits with our employees not only during open enrollment time, but throughout the year.

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