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TORONTO -- Employees who understand their company benefits are more likely to appreciate them, the Bank of Montreal says.

After the Toronto-based bank delivered a series of three colorful and informative newsletters to its 25,000 employees throughout Canada, the percentage who perceived the company's new flexible benefits plan as "driven by sensitivity to employee needs" rose to 81% from 64%.

Coincidentally, at the same time, the percentage of Bank of Montreal employees who said that they understand their benefits well increased to 84% from 71%.

Indeed, better understanding usually leads to better appreciation, explained Leslie Dutton, a communications consultant in Toronto with Hewitt Associates L.L.C. who helped the bank develop the newsletter campaign.

The newsletters, which won Best of Show in the newsletter category of the Business Insurance Employee Benefits Communication Awards, were the latest innovation in a series of communication tools that the bank has employed to help its employees better understand their benefits.

The newsletters also were part of a total communication program that included a boxed flex-plan enrollment kit.

Over the past four years, the Bank of Montreal has been conducting employee opinion surveys and focus groups, asking whether the information describing the plans was sufficient and whether the bank-provided benefits that met workers' needs, according to David Minifie, senior manager of benefits.

For example, before the newsletter campaign, one employee had written to the benefits department, complaining that the plan charged too high a premium for supplemental medical insurance.

"Isn't that interesting, considering we don't charge a premium?" Mr. Minifie remarked. "As they come to better understand their benefits, they come to see how they meet their needs. We've been closing the gaps over the past four years."

The Bank of Montreal introduced the newsletter concept a year before it implemented its new flexible benefits program in 1996 so that the employees would become familiar with the medium, Mr. Minifie explained.

While the first series of newsletters were published in blue and white, "when we went to flex, we brought it up a notch and made it more colorful," he said.

In addition, "we wanted it to stand out" among all the other marketing materials bank employees regularly receive, he added.

The employees' response? "We've only received positive comments," he said.

In fact, the employees were so impressed by the newsletter campaign that most said it should serve as a model for introducing other bank programs.

Eighty-eight percent viewed the newsletters as "effective" in supporting their flex information needs.

In surveys and focus groups conducted before, during distribution and after flex plan enrollment, Bank of Montreal employees said the newsletters were easy to read and that the personalized distribution system significantly improved the likelihood that they would receive the information.

Previously, the bank distributed benefits information only to department heads, who were responsible for ensuring employees received copies.

But this did not guarantee that all employees received the information, Hewitt's Ms. Dutton explained. So the newsletters were individually addressed to ensure each employee would receive the information.

In fact, the bank was able to trim some of the expenses associated with the project by using its internal mail system, which goes to all 1,100 locations coast-to-coast, said Mr. Minifie.

The newsletter project cost $100,000 Canadian ($70,560) to produce, including consulting fees.

Published triannually -- in April, June and September -- the newsletters were printed in French and English so that employees could choose the language they understood. "About a fourth of our employees are French-speaking," Mr. Minifie explained.

Translating was challenging, given that many English words do not have direct French equivalents, Ms. Dutton pointed out. For example, "benefits" is "les avantages" in French, she said. And the authors chose "Zoom" in French to mean "Focus" in English.

To ensure proper idiomatic translation, the Hewitt communications consultants assigned to the project worked closely with company translators, according to Ms. Dutton.

In some cases, more French words were needed to ensure appropriate translation. For example, the English phrase "Focus on Flex" was translated into "Zoom sur les avantages flexibles" in French.

"The work was done in English and then translated into French to ensure the tone and flavor of the terminology and to capture the essence of what we were trying to convey," she said.