Commentary: It’s no secret that health care costs are rising. Higher priced plans impact everyone, both employer and employee, and breaking the news to your team is never easy.  How do you help your employees make the best choices for their particular situations and their pocketbooks while also managing the bottom line? Communicating your benefits programs during OE is one of the most important things you’ll do all year, and it can be challenging even in the best of times.  So how do you gracefully communicate bad news?

Also see: Building a better voluntary program

At GuideSpark, we faced unprecedented rate hikes this year, and our health care costs increased by 12.3% overall. We recently had to communicate these premium increases to our employees and we knew it would be tough. We also knew it would be a test of our success as a company. We’ve staked our reputation on improving employee communications and engagement, so it was crucial that we got it right ourselves. Here’s what we did.

Know your employees

First, we considered our employee demographics, since they’ve changed significantly. A few years ago, the typical GuideSpark employee was a millennial who was just covering him or herself, and perhaps a spouse, under our plans. Today, there is no typical employee. All major demographic groups are represented, and more of our employees are signing up for family plans. Knowing that dependent coverage was increasingly important, we went to great lengths to offer broader and more cost-effective solutions in this area.

Drive open communication for open enrollment

I’m a big believer in the “no surprises” style of communication. Before we launched into our full platform of OE communications, which included videos, newsletters, digital display reminders, postcards and in-person training, we sent an email outlining the major changes. A critical part of our culture is transparency so it was important to explain how the increased costs would affect the company and the team in very clear terms. Like GuideSpark, your company has intelligent employees who appreciate when the executive team is upfront and open in their communication, even if the news is less than great.

Also see: Voluntary benefits: What employers are looking for

Emphasize gains, not losses

In all our communications, we also highlighted all the new perks, not just rate increases.  One of the biggest benefits we added this year was a company contribution to the HSA. It makes the plan an appealing option for employees, and a cost-effective one for us, so it’s a win for everyone. Another positive thing we shared was that we were keeping the same plan carriers this year, since a switch in carriers often means more hassles and headaches. Another huge gain was the richer dependent coverage across all three of our medical plans, as well as our dental plan. And, we added a new service, orthodontia coverage, which many of our employees had requested. We also communicated the company’s plan to shoulder a large percentage of the premium increases and distributed a one-pager that clearly communicated the company’s contribution to each of the plans. When employees heard about the new perks combined with the company’s investment in their premiums and their families, the overall increases were received with greater understanding.

Gamify

While OE is an important and sometimes stressful activity (especially for your HR team), there’s no reason you can’t have a little fun around it. We had an integrated campaign called Rock Enroll, which everyone got a big kick out of and it was difficult to ignore the fun messaging and graphics that came through via the teaser video, the posters in high traffic areas, the reminder cards that came with pop rock candy and more. We offered raffle prizes for the first employees to complete their enrollments and we managed to get 100% participation.

Since we had some tough news to break, OE could have been a real challenge for us.  But because we knew our employees well, emphasized the positives over the negatives, and developed a multichannel communications strategy to address them, we were able to get through it successfully. It’s an approach we’ll continue to use in the years to come.

 Keith Kitani is CEO of Guidespark, an employee engagement and communication company.

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