This is the first of a two-part series. Check back Wednesday for the second installment.
How well do you communicate with employees? Do you give them information to help them choose their benefits? What about using those benefits throughout the year? Do they understand cost-effective ways to get the quality services they need?
If you’ve answered “not well” or “no” to any of these questions—or you’re not sure—it might be time to rethink your benefits communications. How well employees understand and use their benefits dictates how well they view you as an employer.
Communications Equals Perception
A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows health benefits achieve strategic business goals. That includes attracting, retaining and engaging talent, and improving productivity, among others. Yet without investing in benefits communications, can your employees understand the benefits you offer?
According to the MetLife U.S. Employee Benefits Trends Survey, less than half of employees “strongly agree” benefits communications help them understand how much services cost. That uncertainty can make them think your company doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
When it comes to communicating effectively, the stakes are high. Forty percent of employees believe benefits communications are easy to understand. That leaves a lot of employees scratching their heads.
Employees aren’t the only ones struggling. You might relate to our clients, who wonder how to distribute messages in a way that supports workers and reaches them where they are (in the field, at home, at their cubicle, etc.).
Set Your Budget
It’s important to plan ahead. You need to create a dedicated budget for your employee benefits communications. Thirty-eight percent of member organizations in the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans have a specific benefits communication budget. Communications made up three to ten percent of the total spent on benefits. Only you can determine the size of your budget.
Once you decide how much to invest in benefits communications, consider your business goals. Is it educating employees during open enrollment? Is it introducing a new benefit? Is it increasing participation in voluntary benefits?
Think strategically about how to allocate money for optimal results. Will a printed and mailed-to-homes guide give you the best return on investment? Is investing in a social media strategy a smart bet? Would your employees be more receptive to educational videos?
Conduct a communications audit to examine what worked in the past. Create a simple survey of your employees to ask their communications preferences. Compare to actions. Did that email campaign lead to increased enrollment in critical illness insurance? Did more people use the EAP after receiving an informational postcard? Don’t forget to rely on providers for help. Communication materials from carriers can stretch your budget and let you devote time and money to the programs that need an extra boost.
Yes, communication about employee benefits is an investment. But that investment is a smart financial decision that can positively impact your bottom line.
From working on social media projects and writing blogs; from sitting in on meetings and working on requests for proposals, to learning from seasoned employees, having breakfast with the CEO and going to a Phillies game, there was never a dull moment in Trion’s summer internship program. Being a Trion intern was a very rewarding experience because of the way they run their program and the way they treat each one of us.
When I first learned that I’d gotten this internship in the marketing department, I was both excited and scared. After all, this would be my first “real” experience working in Corporate America. After studying it in school, I was eager to learn if marketing was something I’d actually like in practice. I wondered if I’d get a better idea of where I wanted my career to go. I wanted to fit in with the other interns and employees.
I was also nervous. I had no idea what to expect about the company itself, the culture, the summer internship program or what was expected of me. Stepping into my first day of orientation was thrilling and intimidating. Now, looking back at the experience, I’m happy to say I’ve learned more than I could have hoped.
Understanding Expectations is Key
Having a clear understanding what was expected of me in the role helped me feel comfortable and valued. Trion’s clearly defined expectations gave me the structure I needed to do my best and reach my fullest potential. Interns were supposed to do our best work on projects, meet deadlines, show up to meetings on time, and work 40 hours each week.
I appreciated that team leaders didn’t just have me get coffee or file papers. They gave me real work. My projects were shared with clients, used by other employees at Trion and posted on the company website. Leaders also gave feedback to help me learn and show me they appreciated my dedication to a job well done.
It’s Nice to be Appreciated
Their guidance and appreciation were two of the many ways the people at Trion showed they cared about our experiences at the summer internship program. They put a lot of time into preparing for us. They set up meetings, lunch and learns, and other activities to help us get the most from our internships.
Our internship leaders consistently checked in to answer our questions and assigned us each a mentor. They let us make mistakes and gave us feedback that helped us do better the next time. They gave us deadlines so we could learn how to manage our time, and they followed up to make sure we were never unsure about what we needed to do.
There’s no Shame in Asking for Help
I will be the first person to admit one of my weaknesses is communicating especially when I am confused. No one at Trion made me feel bad about asking for help. To the contrary, my colleagues encouraged my questions and were eager to teach me. They were generous with their feedback and critiqued my work when appropriate. They encouraged me when I was tenuous and praised me for a job well done.
I can say with confidence my communication skills have grown tenfold during this summer internship program at Trion. I learned to be more confident and comfortable asking questions. I’m now more professional in how I talk, write, and interact with the professionals around me.
Soak it All In
Being new to the world of insurance and benefits, I had many questions. Every single employee I met was open and available to answer my questions. We had an opportunity to meet with employees from different parts of the organization. We learned more about what they did and how they got to Trion. We sat in on meetings and phone calls and went to training programs to learn more about the insurance industry, the roles of each employee, and how to be professional in business. These skills would serve us both professionally and personally.
While I came into this summer internship program unsure, I left with newfound confidence and knowledge. I am thankful for the time I spent at Trion and for all the wonderful people I met. I would recommend this internship program to anyone looking to leave with important skills they can use in the “real world.”
Way back, when I was new to benefits communication, I hardly had any idea what I was getting involved with. Old timers tried to warn me that this niche tested the ability, skills and will of the best in the communications field. Properly communicating to employees the differences between an HSA and an FSA is an art, and not every consultant has the chops to make it.
“Poppycock.” That was my response. I had been in the publishing field for years. How much worse can this be?
Having had enough of my flip attitude, one wizened, battle-scarred consultant pointed a crooked finger in my direction. “You laugh now, you mock our experience and the wars we fought,” the consultant growled.
“But you, YOU,” shaking her finger directly at me for added emphasis, “have never seen how poorly executed benefits communications can devour an employee population from the inside. The CHAOS from carpet bombing employee populations with unintelligible letters and memos. ENTIRE employee populations zombified and beating down the doors of human resource managers. Managers with their own questions and few answers…”
“Whoa,” I rolled my eyes. “Kill the theatrics.”
The consultant pointed to the log in her cubicle, beckoning me to sit.
“Listen to my tale of woe before you dismiss me,” the veteran said as she began to build a fire.
“A campfire… in the office?” I thought to myself. But, sit down I did. What else would you do when someone is about to be escorted out by security for trying to burn down the building? Something had pushed her too far. I needed to hear her story.
“I was there the day the communications died. When it all went wrong. When a thousand benefit plans were ripped asunder and shattered the hopes and dreams of many.”
As the consultant spun her tale, more co-workers gathered by the campfire and took a seat on the log. All of them, might I add, a bit in shock by the scene they were witnessing. The veteran paced back and forth with a wicked grin on her face.
“Come on, you must be exaggerating. No one has ever died because they did not receive their benefit communications!” one of the gathered team members asserted.
“Don’t be so smug,” the veteran answered with a snarl. “Without the necessary communications, anything can happen.
“Why, if they aren’t properly informed on where to go for care, employees may flounder on whether to go to the urgent care or the emergency room,” the veteran continued. “A severe infection may not get treated in a timely matter. A small splinter could cause a serious infection, gangrene could set in…”Tthe veteran paused. “Then… AMPUTATION!” the veteran bellowed.
The assembled audience, their tension relieved, burst out in laughter and eye rolls. They assumed this had all been the gag of a stressed out co-worker.
With a loud “Boom!” the veteran’s fist slammed down on her desk.
“You think this is all a joke!?!?” The veteran screamed in a creepy, high-pitched voice. With malice, the consultant hoisted her hand in the air above the gathering.
Where there had once been a hand, there was now the glistening steel of a sharp, hooked claw at the end of the veterans forearm. Since this was a detail no one had ever noticed before, there was much confusion amongst the team.
Finally, I asked, “Wait… are you able to use FSA or HSA funds for your prosthetic appliance?”
“Good question!” the veteran answered. “Now, THIS is why employee benefit communications are so important.”
It seems there’s a big elephant in nearly every room these days. We live in strange times, when even close family members are divided over certain issues. When good friends might not want to bring up certain subjects.
While this can be painful in our personal lives, it can be downright dangerous in the workplace. You never know when a seemingly innocuous comment will ignite a co-worker’s—or superior’s, or client’s—unconscious bias, and lead us to places no one wants to go.
Naturally, it’s best to avoid bringing up these subjects in the workplace. But what if someone else brings it up? Or worse, what if you’re asked a direct question by someone you can’t just easily dismiss?
Those are tricky situations. However, there are strategies you can use to gracefully, even elegantly, defuse a situation that could easily get out of hand. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Change the subject without looking like you’re changing the subject. This is one of my favorites. Of course you’d just like to say, “How about them [insert local football team here],” but that’s not always practical. Instead, use a kernel of the imminent conversation to bring the subject around to something that’s more comfortable for everyone. Something like:
Potential conversation destroyer: “Anyone who voted for that loser is basically a traitor. Did you vote for [him/her]?”
You: “You know, speaking of treason, I went to see Hamilton the other night, and besides being a FANTASTIC musical, I learned a lot about the birth of the country and our founding fathers. Anyone else see it?”
If you’re in a group, hopefully you’ll gain an ally with this who will come to the rescue (even if they haven’t seen the show), and now you’ll be talking about something completely different.
2. Be politely direct. “You know, I’ve always had a personal rule to never discuss politics or religion at work. Is that all right with you?”
This might not always work, but you’re making it clear where you stand and drawing a boundary that the other person must now consciously choose to cross.
3. Invent a distraction. In this case, your smartphone might be your best friend. If your phone is in your pocket, make believe its vibrating, pull it out, and say, “Excuse me, I need to take this, my [brother/aunt/dog] is in the hospital and we’re waiting for word.” Then leave the room to have your make-believe conversation.
Yes, it might not be the most elegant solution, but desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. When you return, make sure you have a topic of conversation ready that you can immediately launch into, so as to avoid the previous topic.
These are good places to start, but I’m sure you can think of even better ways to defuse a potentially explosive situation. In fact, this might be a good exercise for a team-building situation: “How would you avoid a direct question about religion or politics?” Sounds like a good brainstorm subject to me!
I am, have always been, and will likely always be, the sort of person who “wears his heart on his sleeve,” as the old expression goes. In other words, my emotions are never far from the surface. My wife tells me that I am a man of deep feeling, and I cannot argue.
This, as you might imagine, has its advantages and disadvantages ‒ most of which I will not explore here. But with respect to the workplace, someone like me has to be mindful of his emotional character, and not let it impede interactions with co-workers or, more importantly, with clients.
As you might have seen with some of the other recent blog entries, most of our clients have recently gone through “open enrollment,” meaning the annual event in which all of their employees must choose their benefits for the upcoming year. This is a very high-stress time for us here in the Communications Practice of Trion ‒ and this was my first one. It was a good time to test my adaptation skills.
So for open enrollment and other situations, it’s important that I be able to control my emotions. Of course, it isn’t always easy, so I’m constantly looking for tactics and tips that can help me out. Recently I came upon an article from Psychology Today that has some excellent advice for when your emotions are in danger of escaping your control and wreaking havoc about the office and your co-worker relationships.
1. Select the Situation. If there’s a circumstance that always, without fail, causes your heart to beat fast and your ears to turn red (a sure sign that I’m about to blow), try your best to control for that situation. For me, it’s when clients wait until the last minute to get their changes on a piece back to us, then expect us to drop everything and get those changes done yesterday.
While sometimes this is unavoidable, there are things you can do to reduce the chances of it occurring ‒ one good way is the “drop-dead email.” Draft a note in the friendliest tone possible, explaining that if we don’t have the edits by such-and-such date, we risk not being able to fulfill our timeline, because of this-and-that reason. Now, this will not always work, and perhaps not even most of the time. But it does help to know that you’ve done everything possible to avoid that situation.
2. Modify the Situation. Perhaps there’s a deliverable that you haven’t mastered yet. And trying to master it for the upcoming deadline is making you nuts. Well, maybe this isn’t the time to try and master it. Instead, try switching with a co-worker for something you do well, and hand off this one impossible task. Or, perhaps it’s as simple as asking for help ‒ being afraid to ask can add to stress in a big way.
3. Shift Your Attentional Focus. There’s one thing that’s getting under your skin. You can’t get it off your mind, and if you see it or hear it one more time, you’re going to flip your lid. Well, that’s your fault. You’re in control of yourself, remember ‒ you’re the master of your domain. You choose what to pay attention to, what to let in, and what to refuse to acknowledge. Go ahead, refuse to acknowledge that one thing that bothers you so much. Take a walk instead. Play a quick game of Pokemon. Put on your headphones and listen to the new album you just got.
4. Change Your Thoughts. I’m going to quote the article here, because it’s right on: “At the core of our deepest emotions are the beliefs that drive them. You feel sad when you believe to have lost something, anger when you decide that an important goal is thwarted, and happy anticipation when you believe something good is coming your way. By changing your thoughts, you may not be able to change the situation, but you can at least change the way you believe the situation is affecting you.” Absolutely. You control your thoughts, and you control your beliefs. Take charge of them.
5. Change Your Response. If you can’t do any of the above, harness your willpower and change how you respond to any given situation. If you’ve got to shout or explode, find a quiet room. If you can’t help it, type out that nasty email ‒ but don’t hit send. Just let it sit there until later, and maybe just reading it back to yourself will help you feel better.
We’re almost there! We can see the light at the end of the tunnel as the annual Open Enrollment (OE) season winds down. Phew!
Perhaps you now have time to prepare a home-cooked meal for dinner instead of hitting up the Uber Eats number currently featured in your speed dial. It’s time to give yourself a pat on the back for all the hard work and let yourself breathe a sigh of relief.
As you look forward to the end of the Open Enrollment season and getting into the holiday spirit (can you believe it’s already that time?!), it’s important to consider the overall experience. What went well, what didn’t go so well? What were your strengths and weaknesses? What did you learn? Perhaps not everything went as smoothly as you would have liked, but there is always the ability to learn from your mistakes and make improvements.
Here at Trion, our Communications Team Leader, Jill Sherer Murray, embraces this particular learning method by hosting an annual Open Enrollment Debrief meeting. This gives us a chance to get together to discuss the happenings of this year’s Open Enrollment season, and share what worked and what didn’t. Reflecting on our different processes and procedures, and assessing the results, enables our team to build off of what we learned and polish our strategy or establish a new plan for the next year. Something that may have caused a headache this year can be talked out and analyzed in order to identify a more efficient and effective procedure to reduce the headaches next year.
Don’t wait – get it on the calendar now! Book a time slot in early 2018 so the debrief is on your team’s radar, and participants can make note of anything they may want to discuss while OE thoughts are still fresh.
Life is a constant cycle of living and learning. It’s remarkable to see the improvements that can be achieved based on simple experience and awareness.