There are different ways employers can approach benefit education an employer can take. Although benefits professionals often give a great deal of thought to considerations like the packet presentation, orientation logistics and the role, if any, of technology, the information itself is so comprehensive that it can appear convoluted.

Complicating matters is that often regulatory requirements make it so the information language can't be altered.

Sometimes, certain benefit information is difficult for English-speaking, U.S.-based workers - never mind what a tough time foreign workers who may not speak English as a first language might have. These common benefit questions can serve as a guide for employers needing to communicate basic benefits information to foreign workers.

1. Who should I call if I have a benefits question?

Companies increasingly are outsourcing administration of certain benefits offerings - health insurance claims, COBRA and flexible spending accounts, for example. Depending on the benefits query, should foreign workers call HR or should they call a vendor?

To ease confusion, include a quick reference chart with all applicable benefit/vendor information in every new-hire packet. The chart also should be available on the company website.

2. Where are my U.S. taxes going?

Clearly note on foreign workers' paystubs the amounts being deducted for taxes - federal, state (if applicable), Medicare and Social Security - what these taxes are for and how they might differ from withholdings in their home country.

In some countries, for example, taxes withheld go toward funding a national health insurance and/or retirement pension plan. Communicate the percentage of taxes an employer is responsible for and the percentage of taxes a worker is responsible for.

3. Why should I contribute to a 401(k), 403(b), flexible spending account, or health savings account?

Although these types of accounts are complex and may be unfamiliar to foreign workers, explaining them doesn't need to be very complicated - it can be as simple as showing employees how pretax benefits may benefit them.

For example, if a foreign employee has a family, let him know that a flexible spending account or health savings account may be useful for eligible medical services, while a dependent care flexible spending account could assist with child care expenses.

And even for workers who live in a country with a national pension plan, they still may contribute to a U.S. 401(k) or other retirement plan. Be sure to communicate the annual maximums they can contribute and the taxes and penalties associated with early withdrawal. In 2011, the maximum for 401(k) and 403(b) is $16,500 for individuals under age 50 and $22,000 for individuals over age 50.

4. Why do I need to get preauthorization for certain medical services?

For a foreign employee who may be accustomed to a national health plan, this can be a particularly confusing concept. Explain that in simple terms, when a medical procedure is not routine or may be considered an alternative treatment, preauthorization serves to protect the health plan for paying for medical services or procedures that may be unnecessary.

5. What are the eligibility requirements I need to meet if I plan to retire in the United States?

Offer employees a basic outline of how a foreign worker can retire from the company, including how to draw from a defined benefit pension plan (if the company offers one), the parameters of withdrawing funds from a defined contribution plan and eligibility requirements to receive Social Security and Medicare benefits.

6. What's a deductible? What's a copay?

Terms like deductible, copay, coinsurance, premiums and out-of-pocket maximum will make absolutely no sense to a foreign worker - even some Americans don't fully understand what they mean. Provide an easy-to-understand vocabulary cheat sheet with applicable examples to address this concern.

7. What do I do if I want a raise?

Encourage foreign workers to speak up with any workplace issues or concerns. Since compensation is a big part of your company's benefit program, why not talk about the benefits of employee development programs?

My experience with foreign workers is that they may not be as assertive as their American colleagues. One person told me, "I just hope my manager notices my hard work." As the HR pro, you could facilitate a quick meeting between a foreign worker and his or her manager to outline performance expectations and company procedures for considering pay increases.

8. Do I get paid time off for medical, caretaker or parental leaves?

In some countries, parents may receive up to six months paid leave for the birth of a child. This is drastically different from the unpaid family and medical leave an eligible employee would be entitled to under FMLA. Take care to fully explain to foreign employees the difference, as well as any separate company policies that would apply to a medical or parental leave situation.

Finally, companies that are transparent in their communications usually are the most successful with foreign workers in ensuring that their messages are being interpreted correctly. As employers develop benefit communications for foreign workers, consider having someone outside the benefits department review your materials. That will be the true gauge of a successful communication piece.


Contributing Editor Emily Chardac is an HR professional with degrees in human resources and international business. She can be reached at emily.chardac@gmail.com. Follow EBN on: Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Podcasts

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