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Remember to Talk

Remember to Talk | Human Resource Executive Online Slashing benefits communication in tough times may hurt employee retention and productivity -- and an organization's bottom line. HR leaders should also keep in mind these essential steps for communicating with employees during tough times.

Saturday, May 2, 2009
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Employees are anxious and there's a lot for them to be anxious about: the economy; announcements of new layoffs virtually daily; high jobless rates; higher food and fuel prices; the financial crisis impacting their retirement savings -- and whatever may be going on in their particular workplace. 

Given the current state of our United States, the absolute worst thing employers can do is remain quiet. Uncertain times are just when you should be communicating with employees more openly and frequently -- both to retain them and maintain their productivity so that your company doesn't end up another casualty of this tough time we're experiencing.

Cutting benefits communications may be especially harmful, especially as all too often, employee benefits are being cut or workers are being asked to assume a larger portion of the cost of those benefits -- while, at the same time, they are fearing layoffs, losing bonuses and having salary increases delayed.

Benefits communication directly impacts employee recruitment, retention, satisfaction and productivity -- all of which are especially vulnerable during tough economic times.

As many HR leaders know, loyal, productive employees aren't necessarily those with the most expensive benefits; rather, they're employees who understand how to get the most value from their benefits. 

Effective communications help employees choose their benefits and use them well. Studies reveal that 85 percent of workers rate company benefits as highly important to their decision to change employers or remain with their current company.

An effective communication program helps you make the most of your investment ? whatever that investment is. Studies have shown that firms with highly effective communication programs experience a 47 percent higher total return to shareholders and increase their market value as much as 16 percent.

HR leaders seeking to significantly improve benefits communications should consider these steps:

Develop a strategy.

Know your company: What drives business results? Know your employees: What's important to them? Have a clear understanding of how your benefits tie the two together. And be patient. Educating employees and changing behaviors takes time. A strategy ensures all efforts are going toward the same goals.

Get their attention.

Market your benefits as aggressively as your company is marketed. Stand out. When it comes to employee communication, your competition isn't limited to what happens inside the company -- you're also competing with all the messages and news your employees see every day.

Treat employees like customers.

All employees tend to get the same message delivered in the same manner. But benefits communication strategies that work for one group, may not work for another. Segmenting your employee population and tailoring communications to meet their needs works for all types of goods and services; it works for benefits too. Get to the heart of who your employees are and what they want. A strategy that puts them first yields better outcomes for you.

Know their families.

It's estimated that 60 percent to 70 percent of all company healthcare costs derive from employees' spouses and families, and it's actually these folks who are making the decisions about benefits. So be sure to get information to spouses and families, and be sure it's tailored to address their needs.

Provide access.

Don't lock benefits information behind a firewall. Make sure it's easily accessible to all those who need it. The easier it is to use, the more it will be used.

Keep it whole.

Coordinating communications during difficult or fast-changing times can be difficult, but it is essential. Every employee communication should be reviewed in its relationship to the whole of a) your company's communication strategy and pieces, b) the context of the current environment and/or situation, and c) their individual package. Everything should be coordinated to reflect and connect to employees' lives and the company's overall business results.

Integrate.

Depending on your company's size, you may have as many as a dozen vendors providing programs and services to your employees. Rather than let each vendor communicate independently and overwhelm your employees, control the process. Integrate all to make it easier for your employees to navigate.

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Be consistent.

Communicate all, all year long, by every means possible. Keep your employees in the loop. Talk to them throughout the year and use every communication vehicle available -- print, online, social media, person-to-person. 

Helping employees become better users of their benefits requires lots of information and time. Changes won't be so difficult to understand or accept if they understand what's happening throughout the company as it's happening.

This is especially true in difficult times. From layoff announcements, to higher food and fuel prices, to shrinking retirement savings, employees already have plenty to worry about. Uncertain times are precisely the right time to communicate with employees more openly and more frequently.

The worst thing you can do is remain quiet. Employees will sense a problem and switch to reaction mode; productivity falls, good employees may leave.

Keep it simple. 

Forget those big benefits books and legal plan documents. Make it easy for them to take action with tip sheets, simple checklists, and easy-to-use information. Tailor information -- age, family situation -- and provide relevant examples. 

* Be specific about the impact of changes on costs and provide a comparison with current offerings; don't make them do the math.

* Demonstrate how they can save money with their choices

* Help them use their plans all year long with regular tips. Nudge them when they're not taking full advantage of available plans and programs.

Let them talk back.

Give employees a way to share their thoughts and questions, and be sure to respond. Social media tools make it simple. Communication that flows both ways is the best way to earn respect and loyalty from your employees.

Is it working?

From surveys to focus groups to communication audits -- use them to learn what's working. Then use these findings to refine your strategy and continuously improve your communication for even better results.

Jennifer Benz is founder and chief strategist of Benz Communications, an HR communications strategy boutique creating integrated employee benefits campaigns for employers committed to nurturing high-performing and satisfied employees. Benz Communications' clients include Fortune 500 companies, Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For, and small- to mid-size companies. 

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