Transparency and communication emerged as common themes at the keynote panel at yesterday’s Benefits Forum & Expo. Executives from Southwest Airlines, The Ken Blanchard Companies, Alston & Bird LLP and CHG Healthcare Services – companies that share the distinction of being on the “Best Companies to Work for in America” list -- revealed their best practices and benefits strategies in a session moderated by Jennifer Benz, chief strategist and founder of Benz Communications.

None of the four companies had the deliberate goal of making the “Best Companies” list. Rather, making the list was a byproduct of other goals, such as lowering turnover or benchmarking.

“We set out to lower turnover rates,” said Kevin Rickfels, senior vice president, CHG Healthcare Services. “In a business where relationships are important, we set out to lower turnover. Put employees first and they want to work very hard.”

During tough economic times in 2001 and 2009, executives at The Ken Blanchard Companies made the commitment to not lay anyone off. As a result, employees nominated the company to be on the list. “When we came back strong, employees wanted to express appreciation to the owners,” said Shirley Bullard, chief administrative officer and vice president of HR at Ken Blanchard.

“We were looking to see how we ranked against other companies,” said Cathy Benton, chief human resources officer at law firm Alston & Bird LLP. “We didn’t think a law firm would make the list. We already had a great culture.”

For Southwest Airlines, “programs are not solely created to be on a list,” said Shari Conoway, director, people. “They’re created because they’re necessary. The list comes after.”

Noting that health care is a big challenge, Benz asked how these employers reconcile cost-containment with wanting to do what’s best for employees.

“Honesty is important,” said Rickfels. “We started telling people how much insurance costs. We try to be open and honest about what’s happening.”

That sentiment was echoed by Benton, who said Alston & Bird strives to build trust between management and employees with town hall meetings. At The Ken Blanchard Companies, meanwhile, “transparency is the best policy. We don’t just tell employees about benefits, we make information available on all of our financials so they are very informed.”

Panelists also discussed the importance of using a variety of communication methods to educate employees about benefits.

“We do a combination of high tech and high touch,” said Bullard. “It’s still important to have someone there because we are a people business. We have an online portal we use for open enrollment and to push information out to employees. It’s tailored somewhat to different generations. I still think you need a combination of the two. I couldn’t see us ever going one way or the other.”

Tying benefits to something bigger is a strategy Rickfels uses. “Benefits for most people are really boring, let’s be honest,” he said. “Tying it to something bigger people can emotionally relate to [is important]. … The total wellbeing of the company means putting people first. People now see everything we do as a benefit to them.”

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