Faced with the current challenges brought on by the financial crisis, company priorities have been forced to shift, and employees are often left with a lack of understanding and insufficient guidance on their benefits choices at work.

In research conducted for Prudential by the Center for Strategy Research, Inc., helping employees make better benefits decisions and addressing the diverse benefits needs of a company's employee population have been at the bottom of the list of employer objectives.

According to "The Importance of Employee Benefits Enrollment and Diversity Communications Strategies," plan sponsors rank them at 35% and 28%, respectively, in terms of importance.

This shifting of priorities can affect both the health and financial security of employees. For employees to make the best choices regarding their benefits, the programs and the consequences of their decisions need to be well-understood.

"Inadequate communication during the benefits enrollment process doesn't encourage employees to really think through their selections," says Jean Wiskowski, vice president of marketing for Prudential's group insurance business.

"But given the challenges companies' HR professionals have faced, ranging from downsizing to understanding the impact of the new health care legislation, it's not surprising that companies have focused less on benefits education and communications," adds Wiskowski.

Other significant findings include:

* About 24% of employees surveyed indicate that they tend to choose the same benefits; 44% read some information and possibly discuss options with a relative or friend, but in general don't make many modifications from year to year.

* 70% of whites and 75% of African- Americans rate employee benefits higher in importance when deciding whether to take a job, compared with 41% of Asian-Americans.

* African-Americans are more likely to be "highly interested" in having tailored communications than any other ethnic group.

* Women show a clear preference for receiving benefits communications via workplace email rather than home email.

Despite the differences expressed by different gender and ethnic groups, only 21% of plan sponsors think that tailoring benefits communications to their various employee segments is "important" to their benefits strategies - a drop of five percentage points from four years ago.

"Employers who commit to a benefits strategy that reflects their entire workforce will have a competitive advantage," says Wiskowski. -E.B.N.

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