Last fall, our benefits team received a request from the executive staff: "How can we encourage retirement in 2012? And if we can do it, should we?" We completed our analysis and recommendations, highlighting risks to avoid, best practices and permissible approaches. We never believed we'd actually implement something.

We thought wrong.

Shortly after submitting our recommendations, our team was working feverishly to identify eligible employees, define and refine an early retirement incentive plan, draft contracts, prepare communication plans and assemble personalized retirement packages.

The primary audience included incentive-eligible employees - these are valued, long-term employees who will be eligible for "normal" retirement under our pension plan by the end of 2012. Some were already planning to retire during the eligibility window; others hadn't begun to seriously consider retirement.

There were other stakeholders, too: Certain classes of employees were excluded, despite their eligibility for normal retirement. In addition, there were hundreds of employees eligible for early retirement who weren't incentive-eligible either. We also have a host of well-intentioned supervisors, managers and co-workers who would have unanswered questions about the program. Lastly, company executives had a need for regular updates on our plans, progress and results.

 

Communication challenges

Our first challenge was to present the incentive so that the eligible group (highly capable, long-term employees) would not feel devalued by the company's decision to incent their voluntary retirement.

In addition, we needed to provide this group a lot of time-sensitive, date-driven information in a way that was actually helpful and not intimidating.

We offer a variety of retiree benefits - including medical, dental and life, plus a traditional final-average- earnings pension plan and 401(k) - and knew the incentive would require an immediate education campaign about our retiree benefits package to prevent employees from making a hasty decision without thoughtfully assessing retirement.

Managing expectations, clarifying responsibilities and ensuring that our limited HR resources were available to those who most needed our help and support during the decision-making window were also objectives for our communication and implementation plan.

 

Strategies and tactics

To communicate and launch the program, we:

1. Prominently displayed executive support for the program. The initial announcement came from our CEO in a memo that explained the program's business purpose and outlined employee eligibility. He also acknowledged that with such a large number of retirement-eligible employees, we needed to focus on planning for an orderly exit.

2. Followed the CEO announcement with emails from HR, tailored to specific groups. Eligible employees were invited to a mandatory meeting to be held within two days. The message was reassuring, telling them they would learn about next steps and that our team would be available to answer questions.

Supervisors and managers received a message that essentially said, "We know you have good intentions, but there's nothing for you to do yet. Be available to listen to your employees' questions and direct them to HR." Active employees were instructed to be respectful, give space to their eligible peers and refrain from tying up HR support resources, which would be devoted to serving the eligible employees for the next several weeks.

We even had tailored messages to those eligible to retire, but not eligible for the incentive, with an explanation of the rationale. Plus, there was a special message for those who were already in our retirement process with plans to retire sometime shortly after the announcement was made.

3. Equipped eligible employees with the information to make a good decision within the required timeframe. At the mandatory meeting for eligible employees, each employee received a packet that included the amount of their incentive offer, two copies of the legal contract, detailed descriptions of the incentive program, pension projections, FAQs, a checklist with step-by-step instructions and a list of company-offered retirement resources.

Our team also held voluntary, 90-minute sessions on retirement benefits. We distributed several follow-up communication pieces throughout the decision-making period, such as answers to additional FAQs and reminders about dates.

 

Support structure

Throughout the decision-making timeframe, we offered a unique support structure that bypassed our normal call center and permitted eligible employees to interact one-on-one with a senior benefits analyst who could answer their many and varied questions on the spot.

Throughout the process, we regularly provided updates (who, where, when) on retirement decisions to our executive leadership. And we were deliberate in making sure the employees who opted to accept the incentive were seamlessly transitioned into our company's formal preretirement support model and process.

Although we'll likely be administering almost twice as many retirements in 2012 than expected prior to the incentive announcement, the full impact of the program remains to be seen.

Thankfully, though, some our early fears were ill-founded - eligible employees have provided resoundingly positive feedback, and ineligible employees have been supportive of their peers. Further, some younger employees are energized by potential opportunities to restructure and reorganize tasks and assignments left behind by our 2012 retirees.

Contributing Editor Cindy Bucher is a senior benefits analyst for a Midwestern financial services company and has been in her current role since 2004. She and her team serve more than 2,500 active employees and 650 retirees, as well as their families. She can be reached at cindy1967lou@aol.com.

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