When Employees Don’t Read Benefits Materials

Innovative communications approaches minimize complaints to HR about regretted choices

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Mar 9, 2016
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Nearly 40 percent of North American organizations have budgets specifically devoted to benefits communication, and 25 percent are planning to increase those budgets in 2016. Yet only 19 percent of employers say that their workers have a high level of understanding about their benefits packages.

The latest Benefits Communication Survey Results from the nonprofit International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) also reveals that employers believe that:

  • Benefit plan participants do not open or read communications materials (80 percent of organizations reported this).
  • Participants don’t understand the materials (49 percent).
  • Participants don’t perceive value in their benefits (31 percent).

Despite the failure of traditional communication methods, less than half of organizations have tried nontraditional benefits communication platforms like video (29 percent), social media (23 percent), texts (10 percent), robocalls (9 percent) or games (7 percent).

Fresh Approaches

Lena Smith, HR manager at Cannon Construction Inc., a utilities contractor in Lakewood, Wash., told SHRM Online about the changes she’s made over the past year to improve benefits communication at the company.

“Our benefits broker came in and did eight or nine presentations, but because we have people working different shifts at different projects, we knew we couldn’t touch everybody,” she said. “So they did a GoToMeeting recording of the presentation, and I posted it on our YouTube channel as an unlisted link”—which isn’t searchable by the public; employees are given the URL and then encouraged to view it.

“This way, employees could watch and review the information presented at their leisure, or at home with their spouse as they decided which plans to elect,” she said. The video also allowed employees to scroll through to the specific topics that they wanted more information about. The same video is used for new-hire orientation.

The video had over 300 views during last fall’s open enrollment period, Smith said, “and I only have 130 employees. So people were going and watching it.” She plans to provide an updated video for next year’s open enrollment.

This was the first year Cannon Construction offered a high-deductible plan with a health savings account (HSA) in addition to a traditional preferred provider organization (PPO) plan. And it also was the first year the company had two different dental plans, along with short-term and long-term disability coverage as a voluntary benefit, “but if you don’t enroll at open enrollment, you’re not guaranteed issue. Explaining all of those things, and explaining how an HSA works, was a challenge,” Smith said.

Her insurance broker provided a thumb drive with a PDF of the entire benefits package, and paper copies were available on request, “but I don’t think employees read through everything. It’s just kind of overwhelming.”

Smith recounted that she personally met one-on-one with about 40 employees and walked them through the online enrollment. “And we still had people who, a month later, realized they signed up for the HSA and it’s not like the PPO, and ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to pay for all of this out-of-pocket’ under the plan’s $2,500 deductible. ‘I need to switch.’ You still had people who just didn’t pay attention.”

Smith said she has the ability to broadcast text messages through the company’s paycheck distributor, “and I’ve done that once or twice.” Also, “in our dispatch room, we have multiple computers for the employees to use for time-keeping, and we turned the screen savers on those computers into HR bulletin boards. It will go through 12 slides with announcements or information, or ‘This person needs to go to HR and see Lena.’ And it works.”

Screen savers on computers used for time-keeping
were turned into HR bulletin boards.


Overwhelmed and Under-Targeted

“So much material is being distributed by employers, and then organizations see a rise in the number of phone calls going back to HR because no one is reading what they’re receiving,” said Pepper Krach, communications practice leader at consultancy Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in Philadelphia.

It’s difficult for employees to isolate those items that are vital to their benefits selection and that pertain to them specifically, “so they don’t read anything,” Krach said.

Adding to the challenge: “Millennials really don’t like to read e-mails; they prefer to be texted. But then organizations run into the risk of texting too much. So they might want to just text once a month or for special occasions. Because anything that gets overused becomes unread.”

Employers also should look for ways to be more targeted with their internal customers, Krach advised. “It isn’t just a question of what to put in the next communication piece you send out; it’s who are you targeting, what are your recruitment and retention goals—and from that, developing tactical measures to be able to reach employees.”

For instance, “we’ve seen accelerated interest in building microsites—a Web-based portal or platform—with benefits information, and it’s done in a fun way that’s easy to view and navigate through. It can be branded to HR, and it’s a great place where you can post your videos or blogs. You can get creative and communicate in a variety of ways.”

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow me on Twitter.

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