Open Enrollment Guide & Resources

How to communicate with and help employees to choose workplace benefits

Open Enrollment Guide & Resources

Companies are preparing to kick off open enrollment for their employees to choose their workplace benefits. Health, vision, dental, life insurance ... even pet insurance may be up for grabs. 

How can HR professionals best communicate with employees about their choices, when many workers are unfamiliar with the language and concepts of benefits offerings? What's the best way to help employees through open enrollment season?

Take a look at our primer below for ways to start the conversation, and at our glossary of common (and commonly misunderstood) terms. Our news articles offer lots of tips on educating employees and helping them make great choices.

What is open enrollment for benefits?

In the U.S., open enrollment season is a period of time when employees may elect or change the benefit options available through their employer, such as health, dental and life insurance, and ancillary or voluntary benefits ranging from legal services to pet insurance. Some benefits are fully paid by the employer, some are employee-paid through salary deferral or a section 125 cafeteria plan, and for some the cost is shared. 

When do most companies have open enrollment?

Most companies schedule open enrollment to end a few weeks before enrollment forms must be submitted to benefit providers. For calendar-year benefit plans starting Jan. 1, open enrollment often takes place in November.

How long does open enrollment have to be?

Open enrollment is not required to be a certain length of time. Most employers have an open enrollment period of at least two to four weeks.


2020 SHRM Webcasts

Benefits Administration: Best Practices for a Simplified Enrollment Experience
Oct. 22, 2 p.m. ET / 11 a.m. PT
Presenter: Caleb Masters, Paycom 
Sponsor: Paycom
Explore the value of a streamlined benefits-enrollment process for you and your employees on a single system with no data re-entry. You’ll learn tips to engage your workforce and improve the employee experience by directly connecting employees to their HR data, best practices for quickly and efficiently getting your employees enrolled in benefits, and more.  

HSA Pro Tips: Turn a Misunderstood Benefit into an Employee Financial Wellness Tool
On Demand (original webcast date: Oct. 1)
Presenters: Jean Chatzky, HerMoneyMedia; and Sherry Olson, WEX Health
Sponsor: WEX Health
Learn the importance of dispelling employees’ misconceptions about health savings accounts (HSAs). The session will lay out the reasons HSAs often get overlooked at open enrollment time so that employers can clear up confusion about HSAs and help more workers get back on the road to financial recovery and wellness.

Navigating Open Enrollment in a Changing Environment: Trends, Tips and Strategies for Success
On Demand (original webcast date: Aug. 27)
Presenters: Steve Parkhouse, Mike Glantz, Maria Keller, bswift
Sponsor: Aetna
With remote work limitations and other pandemic challenges, the upcoming open enrollment season will be even more confounding. This webcast provides tips and strategies for effectively engaging your virtual workforce with enrollment and benefits education via your benefits platform, communication materials and more.

How to Get the Most Bang for Your Buck During a COVID-19 Open Enrollment: 5 Communication Strategies for Financial Success
On Demand (original webcast date: Aug. 12)
Presenters: Helen Calvin and Patrick Niday, Jellyvision
Sponsor: ALEX by Jellyvision
How to seize this unusual opportunity to drive smarter benefits choices that can improve financial outcomes for both you and your employees, even in a grim economic climate. Discover benefits communication approaches proven to help reduce costs; how to shift to a fully digital messaging approach, in the (likely) event you're unable to run an in-person open enrollment; and more.

This Year’s Enrollment is Critical and Virtual Makes It Possible
On Demand (original webcast date: July 1)
Presenters: Sharlyn Lauby, ITM Group Inc.; and Richard Shaffer, Colonial Life
Sponsor: Colonial Life
This year’s enrollment is more important than ever, as many employees are reevaluating their needs and seeking to protect their financial well-being. Whether your workforce is still working remotely, returning to your worksites or anywhere in between, in this webcast you will learn how virtual enrollment will allow your employees to make informed decisions and adapt to new realities no matter where they’re located.

Open Enrollment Resources 

  • Need help defining health benefit terms to employees? Check out and share the health benefit terms glossary here on You can also download a PDF version to print and share with employees.
  • These 10 questions for employees choosing next year's health plans are a great way to encourage employees to consider health and relationship changes before making their open enrollment selections.
  • How to explain high-deductible plans to employees. More companies are making high-deductible health plans an option (or, increasingly, the sole choice) for employer-sponsored health coverage. Here is a quick guide on how to help employees understand the costs and benefits.
  • How much life insurance is enough? This guide will help get employees on the right track when determining how much life insurance is right for them.
And check out the SHRM Vendors' Guide, Benefits Enrollment and Administration, to compare and research benefits enrollment and administration companies.

Mandatory Health Plan Notices
For the many employers in the midst of open enrollment planning, SHRM has compiled model health plan notices from federal government agencies.

2021 Inflation-Adjusted Limits & Thresholds

2021 Wage Cap Rises Modestly for Social Security Payroll Taxes
Starting Jan. 1, 2021, the maximum earnings subject to the Social Security payroll tax will increase by $5,100 to $142,800, the Social Security Administration announced. By the start of the new year, employers should adjust their payroll systems to account for the higher taxable wage base.

IRS Announces 2021 Limits for HSAs and High-Deductible Health Plans
Health savings account (HSA) contribution limits for 2021 are going up $50 for self-only coverage and $100 for family coverage, the IRS announced May 21, giving employers that sponsor high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) plenty of time to prepare for open enrollment season later this year.

IRS Raises 2021 Employer Health Plan Affordability Threshold to 9.83% of Pay
For 2021 employer health plans, the top percentage of an employee's pay that an employer is allowed to charge for the lowest-cost, self-only coverage option will be going up, the IRS announced.

HHS 2021 Health Plan 'Parameters' Raise Out-of-Pocket Maximums
The 2021 annual out-of-pocket (OOP) maximums for non-grandfathered group health plans will increase by approximately 4.9 percent over this year's limits.

Plan Year 2021 Open Enrollment Tips

Build Empathy into Your 2020 Open Enrollment Season
Effective communication has always been vital during open enrollment, but this year it's even more important, and so is expressing empathy. Employers should show that they understand the fears and anxieties their employees are feeling.

Delaying Dental and Vision Care Can Be a Costly Mistake
Employees who stay away from dental checkups and eye exams could be putting their teeth, vision and general health at risk. To lessen their anxiety, during open enrollment encourage workers to speak with their care providers about safety measures.

Helping Employees Navigate Health Benefits During Open Enrollment
To help communicate about health care benefits, the marketplace offers an array of benefits selection and enrollment platforms and consultants who can engage directly with employees. Here are tips for choosing appropriate tools and resources.

Moderate Cost Increases Projected for Health Benefits in 2021
Despite COVID-19 uncertainties, employers continue to expect a moderate health plan cost increase next year, with less cost-shifting to employees. Health benefit cost growth, however, continues to far outpace inflation and wage growth, both of which have slowed significantly.

A New Role for Critical-Illness Insurance in the Coronavirus Era
As the pandemic continues, some insurers are amending their critical illness policies to cover infectious diseases. Consider the details, however, and other issues when deciding whether to add critical illness coverage as a voluntary benefit.

Employers Feel More Responsible for Employees' Financial Wellness
As employers acknowledge a responsibility to help improve employees' financial well-being, they are adopting financial wellness benefits that meet employees' evolving needs—heightened by the pandemic—and employers' own budget constraints.

Spotlight Value of Benefits Package During Open Enrollment
The COVID-19 pandemic makes this year's open enrollment period a critical time for employers to think about the benefits they're providing and to communicate the value of these offerings to employees.

Viewpoint: Conducting Open Enrollment During the Pandemic
With a pandemic raging, employers are facing even bigger challenges around conducting open enrollment and communicating benefits information. That's why there's an argument for passive-selection enrollment this year.

Planning 2021 Benefits Changes for the COVID-19 Era
Planning employee benefits for the 2021 plan year presents HR with unique challenges, given that the outlook for the COVID-19 pandemic is still unknown. If employers are going to change benefits programs to help employees enhance their physical, mental and fiscal health, they should determine if new offerings will meet actual workforce needs.

Prepare for Open Enrollment Challenges During a Difficult Year
With open enrollment for employee benefits coming up in the fall at most U.S. organizations, employers have an opportunity to reintroduce their benefit programs in ways that demonstrate how they can support workers during an unprecedented time.

Open Enrollment Tech

Virtual Benefit Fairs Draw Interest for Fall Open Enrollment
For the fall 2020 open enrollment period, during which employees will select their benefits for 2021, more employers are expected to "go virtual" by taking benefit fairs online, with cyber equivalents for vendor booths and Q&A opportunities.

Helping Employees Navigate Health Benefits During Open Enrollment
To help communicate about health care benefits, the marketplace offers an array of benefits selection and enrollment platforms and consultants who can engage directly with employees. Here are tips for choosing appropriate tools and resources.

Shore up Benefits Cybersecurity During Open Enrollment
Employee data collected during open enrollment is a gold mine for cybercriminals. This year, the challenge of keeping this information safe may be greater, as the COVID-19 pandemic has increased data vulnerabilities that criminals can exploit.

Toolkit: Leveraging the Value of Employee Self-Service Portals
This toolkit covers the value and effective use of self-service portals, including their use for functions such as benefits enrollment, employee onboarding and employee training.

Does AI Have a Place in Open Enrollment?
Decision-support technology, including those using artificial intelligence (AI) and often integrated into enrollment apps and online platforms, is starting to transform the open-enrollment experience.

Online Platforms Transform Open Enrollment
Technology is continuing to transform the annual open-enrollment season, during which employees select workplace benefits for the coming year.

For Benefit Platforms, Employers Pick User Experience Over Cost
Price is not the primary driver for large employers that are choosing among benefits administration technology platforms. Ease of use for benefits administrators and employees and the ability to integrate benefits technology with HR information systems can be higher priorities.

Data-Driven Benefit-Selection Tools Are Just Getting Started
Decision-support tools can help employees make health care decisions around not only the choice of doctors and hospitals but also the best type of plan to enroll in.

How to Boost Employee Adoption of New HR Tech
In addition to explaining the nuts and bolts, your plan of attack must include clear communications about why the technology is being introduced, as well as an explanation of how it will benefit both the company and the employee.


Revisiting the Basics... 

How to Explain Benefits to Employees Who Don't Care
Employee benefits are vital to workers' health and financial security, so why do so many employees wait until the last hours of open enrollment to crack open their benefit brochures and then march into HR and declare, "Just tell me what I should do"? (Watch the video clip.)

Open Enrollment: Choosing Active vs. Passive Benefits Election
Requiring employees to proactively elect to enroll in benefit plans for the coming year can prod them to reconsider the appropriateness of their selections, but it requires HR to engage directly with employees to ensure that no one inadvertently misses their opportunity to receive coverage

Open Enrollment: Developing Your Game Plan
Set goals for this year's open enrollment season and devise a strategy for meeting your objectives. Tailor your communications campaign to support these aims.

Open Enrollment: Targeted Communications Address Differing Needs
In drafting open enrollment communications, consider whether you're reaching people with information that's relative to them, taking into consideration where they are in their lives and what their particular needs are.

Open Enrollment: Using Social Media and Decision-Support Tools
HR benefit managers are turning to social media to get the open enrollment message out, holding twitter charts and sending text messages linked to videos. But many employers remain hesitant about using new media for benefits communications.

Open Enrollment: Voluntary Benefits Emphasize Choice
Voluntary benefits can help to address possible financial gaps for employees, especially for those enrolled in high-deductible health plans. While these choices enhance the benefits package, they also raise issues that employers and employees should keep in mind.

Ready for Prime Time? Using Video in Benefits Communication
A compelling video can go a long way toward getting employees to respond to benefits-related communication. While video has long been a part of employee benefits communication, recent developments are taking it to a new level.

How to Humanize Benefits Communications with Technology
Whether they use apps, videos, portals, microsites or automated e-mails, benefits administrators can reach employees with key messages across multiple channels. But many employees seek more of a human touch in how they learn and make decisions about benefit options.

6 Simple Ways to Improve Open Enrollment
Smart HR leaders are continually looking for new and different ways to engage workers during open enrollment. To that end, here are some tried-and-true tips to make the most of this crucial time.

Know What You Need to Select a Benefits Provider
As vendor choices grow and benefits technology evolves, it's more important than ever that benefits leaders know what they need to know when selecting benefits administration partners.

Use Voluntary Benefits to Attract and Keep Part-Time Workers
Part-time employees typically are not eligible for their company's core benefits offerings and oftentimes can feel left out. Offering part-timers access to employee-paid voluntary benefits can help to keep them onboard.

...and More Practice Tips

Simple Open-Enrollment Tips That Can Make a Big Difference
Many employees face open enrollment with emotions ranging from annoyance to dread,  lack confidence in the benefits choices they make and give their employers a mark of "C" for their efforts. These tips can help you raise your grade this open-enrollment season.

Open Enrollment Reminders for Employees—and HR
At many organizations, the open enrollment season for 2020 benefits is underway or about to begin. As HR representatives address open enrollment meetings, speak with employees one-on-one and send out enrollment reminders, they can use these pointers to help employees make smart decisions.

Employees Still Perplexed by HSA Plans During Open Enrollment
Employees often don't know how to use health savings accounts (HSAs) and the high-deductible health plans the accounts are coupled with. This leads some to bypass an HSA option during open enrollment, while others who enroll in HSA-eligible plans often fail to take full advantage of them.

When It's Time to Change Your Benefits Menu
As an organization's workforce changes, employers should be prepared to add, modify or end benefit programs, recognizing that benefits valued in the past may not be effective in the future. 

Employees Seek Personalized Perks During Open Enrollment
Employees' desire for benefits tailored to their own needs is changing the mix of offerings this open-enrollment season and leading HR managers to customize their benefits communications.

For Open Enrollment, Communications Get Social
Almost every employee now carries a smartphone, which allows HR benefits managers to make social media posts and text messaging part of their open enrollment toolkit. Here are tips for the upcoming open enrollment season.

An Open Enrollment 'Look Back' Captures What You've Learned
As the year ended, HR wrapped up another open enrollment season. Before moving on, however, standing back and reviewing what went smoothly and what tripped you up can ensure an easier, more effective process when next fall rolls around.

At Open Enrollment, HR Departments of One Step Up
Enrollment season puts extra pressures on departments of one, but these HR pros are up to the challenge. Their success carries lessons for HR teams of all sizes.

Open Enrollment Tips for the Coming Season
The fall open enrollment season is a time that some HR professionals dread as an administrative nightmare while others see an opportunity to personally engage with employees, and to help them make choices that will safeguard their health and financial well-being. Here are some suggestions for avoiding the former and achieving the latter.

How to Explain High-Deductible Plans
More companies are making high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) an option—or, increasingly, the sole choice—for employer-sponsored health coverage. So it's important to provide clear communication that helps employees understand how HDHPs operate and whether the plans are right for them.

Address HSA Misconceptions During Open Enrollment
Open enrollment is an opportunity to help employees understand the value of a health savings account (HSA), but many employers make common mistakes that undermine their communication efforts. For instance, don’t apologize for offering a high-deductible plan with an HSA, but focus on the long-term health-savings advantages.

Dental Benefits Are Often Misunderstood, Underused
Lack of knowledge about their dental coverage can cause employees to skip regular checkups and routine cleanings, leading to more expensive and invasive treatments later on.


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