Laying Out Enrollment Options

By Linda H. Heuring Aug 1, 2003

HR Magazine, August 2003Start spreading the word about benefits long before employees start looking at their open enrollment menus.

In the weeks ahead, open enrollment season will be on your radar. You’ll be formulating the messages that you’ll send employees about their health and other benefits. By November or so, you’ll be deep into the procedures for explaining benefit options to employees and gathering their enrollment decisions. And then—except for tracking down a few stragglers, perhaps, and tying up loose ends—it will be over until next year.

Or will it?

Increasingly, benefits experts are saying that the success of the messages you send to employees at open enrollment time depends largely on the groundwork you’ve laid throughout the year and the effort you’ve put into preparing those messages. In other words, communicating with employees about next year’s benefits choices begins soon after you close the books on this year’s open enrollment.

As plans’ costs and complexities increase and as employees are steered toward fuller responsibility for their health and retirement plan decisions, HR’s role of communicating about benefits is taking on greater importance.

“Of all the things we do in the benefit world, the one we overlook the most is employee communication,” says benefits consultant Gary B. Kushner, SPHR, president and CEO of Kushner & Co. in Portage, Mich. Yet if communication is neglected, he says, even a well-negotiated benefits program will “die on the vine.”

HR’s first step in shaping its message is to acquire a clear understanding of any changes being made in plans and how such changes will affect employees—the steps you’re doubtless taking now as this year’s open enrollment season approaches. In fact, knowing and communicating the impact on employees is crucial, says consultant Pam Rollins, a communication practice leader in Southfield, Mich., for Watson Wyatt Worldwide, which has its U.S. headquarters in Washington, D.C. Employees, she says, must understand the rationale for the change and where to get additional facts and answers to their questions.

If such information is made clear to employees, Rollins says, at least they’ll understand it “even if they don’t like the change.”

Next, HR has to make sure the messages to employees are crafted carefully and that the best media for delivering them are selected, in light of the company’s culture and employees’ needs. If available, internal communications specialists would handle those elements of the program. (See “HR and the Communicators” in the June 2003 issue of HR Magazine.) Otherwise, it would be HR’s responsibility to shape and deliver the messages.

Finally, HR should apply its own yardsticks to determine if the communication program succeeded.

To accomplish all of those goals, many HR professionals are concluding, there should be a year-round education program on health care costs and retirement financing. In effect, communicating with employees about their open enrollment options becomes a summary of the trends and developments that have been set before them since the last time they made benefit choices.

“If I’m doing it right,” says Kushner, “I’m doing it all year.”

Aluminum producer Alcoa Inc. has shifted its focus from a once-a-year benefits discussion to an ongoing look at benefits and health. Donna Bauman, manager of human resource communications at Alcoa’s corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, says the company publishes a newsletter that is part education and part benefits communication.

A recent issue, for example, examined rising health care costs and the new consumerism approach in health care. It also provided an update on flexible spending accounts, an article on a new voice-activated benefit system, a feature story on a drug provider and its web site, and stories on ergonomics and on the steps being taken at one Alcoa facility to reduce the risk of injury during the handling of test samples.

By tying the stories to specific Alcoa business issues, Bauman expects to make an impact on health, safety and benefits understanding.

IBM Corp. publishes benefits-oriented feature stories on its HR intranet site, says Cathleen Donnelly, senior communications specialist at company headquarters in Armonk, N.Y. Stories in the “Your Health” section cover “current health-related topics such as health care inflation, disease management, health care quality, and prevention and wellness,” she says.

At General Electric Co., based in Fairfield, Conn., benefits information is rolled into the communications programs that go on year-round within each business unit, according to Bonnie Lescinsky, communication program manager for GE US Employee Services in Schenectady, N.Y. Through those channels, communication about benefits is supported with articles on the broad range of programs and how benefits interact.

Ongoing employee communication programs such as those at Alcoa, IBM and GE give a company a way to establish a context for the facts and choices that will be presented to employees at open enrollment. For example, “if you know health care costs are going to increase, start weaving in all those messages,” says Amy Heiserman, a Denver-based senior communications consultant at Mercer Human Resource Consulting, headquartered in New York.

Heiserman says a communications plan should start with the key messages, such as the causes of health cost increases not only for the company but also within the overall economy. Such messages should be tied into—not viewed as apart from or in conflict with—the company’s overall business strategy, she emphasizes, and they should be communicated throughout the year.

The benefits message you create should be linked to your goals, says Kathy Collura, communications consultant in the Atlanta office of the Hewitt Associates consulting firm, headquartered in Lincolnshire, Ill. Before crafting the message, she says, decide what you want to achieve. Is your aim to persuade employees to move into a specific plan? To motivate them to assume more responsibility for their health care? To get them to switch to an online enrollment system?

Divide and Conquer

Collura and other experienced benefits communicators advise separating the benefits planning process from open enrollment, encouraging employees to determine what kinds of health benefits are best for them and their family members before deciding which plans meet their specific needs. By separating the health care needs analysis from choosing a carrier, some say, the employer can focus open enrollment on choice rather than the more complex question of “what kind of coverage is best for you.”

Collura says she advises clients to make a demographic snapshot of their employees and determine if any particular group in the workforce may have significant concerns about benefits enrollment. A facility or company with an older workforce, for example, may be more interested in retirement benefits than maternity benefits or college savings plans.

When you’re communicating to employees about open enrollment, be aware of “what other messages are going to be landing on employees’ desks or computers during that same time,” says Collura. Mercer consultant Heiserman says layoffs, acquisitions, division spin-offs or sharp declines in stock prices should make HR especially alert to heightened anxiety among employees if they are simultaneously being told that they’ll have to pay more for their benefits.

One way to gauge whether your open enrollment messages will work is to try them on employee focus groups. Alcoa, for example, set up focus groups with about 200 employees and showed drafts of a letter announcing “significant changes” in its benefits program for 2004, Bauman says. Employees were very candid, saying, in effect, “Don’t sugarcoat it; just give me the facts.”

But be sure to share any positive news you have to offset negative messages. For example, just because employees’ costs may be going up doesn’t necessarily mean the news about the benefits package is all negative. You’ll be able to deliver a more positive message about the overall benefits package, Heiserman says, if there are improvements to report—expansion of health benefits, perhaps, or increased company contributions to the 401(k) plan, or more vacation or a new benefit such as long-term care insurance or legal assistance.

Timing and Content

Assuming you’ve set the stage by communicating the business message throughout the year, how should your open enrollment messages be conveyed and when should you begin?

Start communicating in August or September for a January plan year, Heiserman says, and be prepared to follow up with specifics. Employees can hear the general message about rising costs for only so long, she says, “before they’re going to ask how much.”

Heiserman advises that the enrollment packet, whether online or in print, spell out plan details such as features and costs and also include forms—for enrolling, for example, naming beneficiaries and applying for life insurance. The packet should also include a provider directory.

Alcoa supplies videotapes for employees on plan changes, conducts training sessions for HR professionals who will be communicating the plan changes and benefits, and offers enrollment via a web site that employees can access at work or at home. Last year, a passive year for enrollment—meaning there were no plan changes, and employees’ previous benefit elections remained in place unless they opted otherwise—70 percent of Alcoa’s U.S. employees who signed up or made changes did so online, Bauman says.

Many companies provide a personalized benefits summary for each employee during open enrollment, showing available plans, costs, the plans the individual employee is enrolled in, the employee’s costs of participation and the balances in the individual’s flexible spending accounts, 401(k) plans and other programs.

Although a paper presentation of such information has been standard, advances in privacy protection technology, along with increased access to and acceptance of electronic transactions, are making electronic versions easier and more flexible for the employee to use in calculating the costs and effects of various plan options.

IBM provides an online tool for calculating the employee’s costs and options. (See “One Company’s Paperless System.”) Alcoa’s web site offers a way to compare options, “to pick and choose and see the impact on your pay,” Bauman says. There’s an impact for the company, too. She notes that web site enrollment costs the company only half as much as an automated phone system and only one-fifth the price of enrollment through live representatives.

Know Your Audience

Company culture and workforce demographics affect a company’s choice of communications media for the benefits enrollment process. For example, employees at Yahoo! Inc., the Internet communications company based in Sunnyvale, Calif., are web-savvy and are comfortable making or changing benefit choices via the Internet, although printed materials are sent to the 3,500 employees’ homes to make sure family members can see them, says company communicator Heidi Burgett.

In fact, keeping the family in mind can enhance the effectiveness of benefits communication, says consultant Kushner. It can lead to an engaged employee who understands the issues facing both the company and the family, he says, and the company then appears to the employee as more of a partner and less “the big bad employer coming down and wanting more of my money.”

Like others, GE mails benefits packets to employees’ homes and uses the company intranet as a communication tool. But “because our audience is so diverse,” ranging from factory workers to employees who spend their days in front of a PC, says communication manager Lescinsky, the company uses other media as well, such as targeted e-mail messages, posters, newsletters, banners and table-top cards in cafeterias to convey information ranging from reminders of the open enrollment deadlines to an explanation of a particular benefit. Lescinsky says she does whatever it takes to reach specific groups of employees.

“Keep getting your messages out there in as interesting a way as possible,” she advises.

Measuring the Results, Gathering Feedback

To evaluate the effectiveness of open enrollment communication, it’s best to identify ahead of time the behavior you want to foster with your messages, Collura says. “If you got the behavior, you were effective.”

Heiserman agrees: “The first thing to be able to measure success is to set some objectives, some measurable goals to begin with. What will success look like and what are we trying to accomplish here?”

At Kennametal Inc., a Latrobe, Pa., manufacturer of metal-cutting tools, benefits communication for the current plan year reflected the customary approaches—a handbook, a summary of costs and plan changes, even a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the plans at each company location.

But the effort presented some unusual challenges, says Michael Pepperney, global compensation and benefits director for the 14,500-employee company.

First, all the various health plans of the company’s U.S. divisions and recent acquisitions were being replaced with one comprehensive plan provided by a single national vendor. Second, employees’ health coverage costs would be increased to restore the employer/employee ratio of cost contributions to the targeted 80/20, after it had gone askew, reaching 87/13. Fixing the ratio would mean that some employees’ contributions would rise as much as 50 percent.

In communicating all the changes at Kennametal, the attempt was to be “comprehensive, up-front and honest,” Pepperney says.

After Kennametal replaced the plans and raised participants’ costs, it did a follow-up survey asking employees to rate the ease of the online enrollment system, the quality of the written materials and the effectiveness of communication in employee meetings. The ratings were high, Pepperney says, attributing them to the way the changes were communicated. “The approach was that it’s a problem for everybody,” he says, “not just an employee problem, but...a company problem as well.”

Linda H. Heuring, a freelance writer in Evans, Ga., is a former newspaper reporter and editor and has worked as a corporate communications professional.


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