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Social media offers employers new routes for benefits communication

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When Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. launched its wellness campaign last September, the clothing retailer found the biggest obstacle was reaching employees in its more than 600 stores nationwide.

So PacSun created a Facebook page, open to its 2,500 full-time benefits-eligible employees, where it provides information on everything from medical and emotional health to its 401(k) plan, said Denise Silva, the Anaheim, California-based company's manager of compensation and benefits.

“There's a lot of information to offer people, and sometimes it just takes it being right there in their face” to get them to notice it, Ms. Silva said, adding that the company also is trying to communicate with “our younger population in a way that they're used to seeing things.”

But PacSun is one of the few companies experimenting with social media to communicate benefits information.

A survey the Society of Human Resource Management released in March found just 4% of organizations use social media for benefits communication. That compares with a National Business Coalition on Health and Benz Communications survey released in November that found 15% of predominantly larger companies do so.

While some employers are using Facebook and Twitter, others have added feeds for employee comments or blogs to their benefits sites and rewards portals to encourage employee participation in benefits and wellness initiatives.

Ongoing communication, rather than mailings or emails at open enrollment, is the only way to drive employee engagement with complex benefits, said Jennifer Benz, CEO of San Francisco-based consultant Benz Communications.

“Everything (today) is kind of real-time, ongoing, nudging people and helping inform people to make better decision,” she said.

Through social media channels, employees can comment on and discuss benefits and programs, which can carry more weight with their colleagues than an endorsement from the company, said Barry Hall, Boston-based principal and innovation research leader at Buck Consultants at Xerox Corp.

“That's gold for an employer to have other employees helping to promote the resources or programs that they offer, and, ideally, endorsing them,” he said.

But those conversations can turn sour. Instead of endorsing the benefits, employees could post negative comments — one reason most employers have yet to fully embrace social media in the benefits department.

Employers may be wary of losing control of the conversation, Mr. Hall said.

“Things spread virally. Everybody has an open and equal voice in a lot of social media constructs, and that's not something employers from a communication perspective are used to and not something that they are necessarily comfortable with,” he said.

Employers may fear “people spreading inaccurate or bad information, or people getting too personal or divulging too much in an open forum about, for example, their health,” which could open employers to legal liability or violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, said Kaulen Taylor, Austin, Texas-based partner and next-practice leader at Aon Hewitt.

Employers also may be uncomfortable showing their benefits programs to competitors.

But experts say these risks can be mitigated by moderating comments, providing guidance on what's appropriate to post or keeping social media channels on an internal site behind a firewall.

At PacSun, Ms. Silva and three co-workers who manage the company's wellness Facebook page, which launched in April, have minimized risks by keeping the group closed and verifying employment of those who request to join. They soon will start posting comments after vetting them.

While PacSun is using social media to target its younger staff, Meagan Tyson, West region director of client communication at Hub International Ltd., said it can be used for any demographic as long as social media fits a company's culture.

“If you are a little more closed off or more traditional in your communication methods, jumping into something like social media is just going to shock your employees, and they're not going to be engaged and they're not going to want to do it,” Ms. Tyson said.

Ms. Tyson said some employers are beginning to “build that two-way communication” through blogs before turning to Facebook or Twitter.

Loyola University Chicago found that social media, on which it started sharing employee benefits information two years ago, did not produce the desired effect.

“We've found more success with other internal communication channels such email, direct mail and our internal employee website, Inside Loyola,” Deborah Meister, director of benefits, compensation and human resources information systems, said in an email.

Already part of everyday life, social media will be increasingly expected in the workplace as the millennial generation becomes the majority there, said Aon Hewitt's Ms. Taylor.

“Employers who are not moving in the direction of social media are going to look more and more outdated and behind, and look as though they are unable to provide the type of authenticity and connection and other intangible things that employees are increasingly looking for in the workplace,” Ms. Taylor said.

Because many employers are just launching social media strategies for benefits purposes, its effectiveness is difficult to measure.

And those employers are using social media as just one of many outlets for benefits communication.

Said Ms. Tyson: “You can't do just Facebook. You can't do just print. You can't do just email.” The goal, she said, is making “sure people can get the information however they want it.”