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Benefit changes better understood with targeted messages

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Benefit changes better understood with targeted messages

Employers that want their employees to better understand their benefits could borrow tactics used by advertisers and marketers: Know your audience and customize the message to meet their personal needs.

So say benefits communications experts who are trying to get their clients to do just that to ensure employees know how ever-changing benefits such as health care and retirement affect them.

“Everyone is so busy, and in this economy employees are being asked to do more with less and are being asked to manage their own benefits,” said Betsy Woods Brooks, a Stamford, Conn.-based principal in the communication practice of Buck Consultants L.L.C., adding that the shifts toward defined contribution retirement and consumer-driven health plans have helped create a maze of confusion among workers. “It's putting more personal ownership and accountability into managing your benefits. All of that requires greater understanding.”

As a recent survey reveals and experts agree on, nearly half of employees are not getting the message.

In December 2011, an ADP/Human Resources Pulse survey ADP HR/Benefits Pulse Survey on Employee Benefits Tools revealed that 40% of employees do not understand their benefits plans, according to human resource decision-makers.

That figure doesn't surprise benefits communications experts, who said the challenge is multipronged: Benefits designs are calling for more employee decisions that put more power in the hands of workers, plans are more complicated than ever, and workers are bombarded with information every day, left to sift through what's important and relevant to them.

“It's just a complicated alphabet soup for some people,” said Ann Bongiani, Seattle-based senior consultant for Towers Watson & Co.

“There are some complicated issues on how to manage the health care system...these tend to lull people to sleep,” said P.J. Waters, a communications consultant with Lockton Cos. L.L.C. based in San Diego. “Appreciating our audience is definitely the first step.”

“Most companies are still using a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Ms. Bongiani of what she says is one of the biggest pitfalls in presenting benefits information to employees.

The term “targeted communications” is not a new one in the realm of human resources, but it is one that is becoming more commonplace as benefits get more complicated and the workforce more diverse.

“Employers and human resources have always tried to emulate consumer marketers and haven't always been successful,” said Ms. Brooks of Buck Consultants. “Now they have a greater need to do that.”

“We have to understand that our employees are in a highly customizable world now, and we need to look at how we can (accommodate) that,” said Jim Hoff, Chicago-based partner with the communication practice of Aon Hewitt.

An obvious but often overlooked problem with human resource communications is the language barrier in many workplaces, experts say. An easy fix is to rely on translators, said Mr. Waters, whose firm is among those who provide translation as part of their service to employers.

Next and most prominent are the various ages of employees, which experts say is tied to how certain demographics best receive information, experts say.

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Robin Throckmorton, president of Cincinnati-based Strategic Human Resources Inc., a firm that provides human resources services to small and midsize companies, has examined different age groups of workers and has determined, using research and focus groups, how certain demographics like to obtain their information.

The findings? The “radio babies,” another name for anyone born between 1930 and 1945, prefer face-to-face communication; baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, like to learn things in groups; generation X, workers born between 1965 and 1976, prefer email; and generation Y, born between 1977 and 1990, also like email but more and more prefer to receive reminders over mobile phone text messages.

This shows that, to get the word out and explain benefits effectively, human resource professionals should use a variety of ways to communicate (see related story). “You have to keep who you are trying to communicate with in mind when you want to get a message across,” Ms. Throckmorton said. “But you also don't want to alienate your employees.”

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