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CHICAGO -- To people used to the rough-and-tumble world of trading hogs, cattle, S&P Index options and other futures, a plain employee benefits statement can be a real bore.

The staff of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, however, is trading up to a new personalized benefits statement.

Peppered with charts, graphs, boxes and lots of white space, the new statement has been a big success with the Merc's employees, according to Laura Freston, director of compensation and benefits. The eight-page statement, bound in a glossy white cover, has helped employees understand and appreciate the value of their benefits, she said.

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange is a futures exchange owned by its approximately 2,700 member traders. The Merc employs about 940 people, mostly at professional and managerial levels.

Previously, the Merc distributed personalized 5-by-7-inch benefits booklets filled with black and white type, Ms. Freston related. However, the benefits department received questions from workers throughout the year, indicating workers didn't really understand their benefits.

"I personally felt that we could improve" the statement, Ms. Freston said.

The new personalized benefits statement is 9-by-12 inches and uses not only black text but also includes colorful graphics inside.

A colored border on the left edge of each page indicates what information is in that section. The sections include total compensation, health care benefits, income protection and survivor benefits, and retirement benefits.

The cover has four stacked symbols: a teal-colored open hand, a red shield, a green dollar sign and a mustard-colored scroll. The symbols are "a little bit abstract by design," Ms. Freston commented. Each of the symbols serves as a background to the text in one section of the booklet in either teal or mustard.

"The cover design and having a larger format invited (employees) to open" the booklet, Ms. Freston said.

The four symbols are "open to interpretation," she said. For example, the hand could symbolize the hand signals that traders on the floor of the exchange use. The hand is used in the income protection/survivor benefits section of the booklet. The shield is used in the health benefits section. Although the exchange is self-insured, the shield could refer to the company's third-party administrator, Blue Cross & Blue Shield, she said. The dollar sign is used in the retirement benefits section, and the scroll is used on a page describing additional benefits, including educational assistance.

The Merc's statement won Best of Show in the personalized correspondence category of the 1997 Business Insurance Employee Benefits Communication Awards competition.

"I'm finding more and more that employees don't read what's passed on to them" because they receive so much information, said Victor L. Villanueva, an associate with William M. Mercer Inc. in Chicago, who worked with the Merc on the statement. However, this statement is "easier to read, has less jargon, more white space, more charts and more graphs."

Mr. Villanueva added that he does not think that personalized, printed benefit communications will be replaced by new technologies in the future, because printed materials are relatively permanent. Also, everyone does not have access to new technologies such as the Internet, he said.

From start to finish, the project took about three months, according to Ms. Freston. Some of the design work, such as creating the four symbols, was done by Merc staff to contain costs, she said. The Merc declined to comment on the cost of the project.

After the statements were printed, they were sorted alphabetically and by department and shipped to the Merc. An address window in the envelope displayed the employee's name and department. The statements then were distributed to employees.

In an effort to quantify how employees felt about the new benefits statement, the Merc included in each booklet a separate, free-standing survey card that employees could complete and return to the human resources department.

"We received excellent feedback from the employees on the statement," Ms. Freston noted.

According to survey results, the new benefits statement was well received by employees: out of 105 respondents, 84% said the document was "very helpful" in understanding the total value of their compensation and benefits program. Ninety-six percent said the statement provided sufficient information about their benefits, and the same percentage said the statement was easy to understand.