Obstacles to Benefits Communications – Part 1

Last week I wrote about a recent study that revealed a decline in employee perception of the value and satisfaction level of employer-provided benefits.  Over the next month, I will explore the four key reasons that I have discovered on why employers do not prioritize benefits education, even though the majority of employers are very eager to increase employee satisfaction with their benefits package.  The four reasons are:

  • Short staffed HR departments that are forced to triage and focus on only the most urgent issues as opposed to the longer term strategic planning that education requires (this week’s topic)
  • Concerns about legal liability associated with crossing the line into providing employees with “advice” about benefits
  • Cynicism that education doesn’t really work because retirement plan providers have struggled to increase retirement plan deferral rates despite offering online and live educational support
  • Uncertainty about the best way to actually help employees make  benefits decisions

Today’s focus is on the obstacle of having an HR department that is short staffed and lean on manpower.  The HR department is the heart of a company, and strongly determines the professionalism, motivation and productivity level of employees working within any other departments.  But when the HR team is stretched thin, the daily grind of “putting out fires” puts more emphasis on taking a reactive approach to situations than having the time to put together a forward thinking proactive approach to benefits education.

An example of this comes to mind with the process of retiring.  In the past, I’ve met with pre-retirees within a year of their retirement who have never run a pension estimate, never looked into retiree health or COBRA costs, and who think they have to move their money out of their 401(k) when they leave.  Now, I know what you’re thinking – why didn’t the employee look into these important factors before making the decision to retire?  Isn’t it their job, not that of HR?  With a few simple clicks on the computer, most of this information is available, but for some employees, not knowing where to find the benefits portal or not understanding what they are looking at once they do run a pension estimate can be very intimidating, so they wait to receive the choices in their retirement paperwork, which then causes them to rush or make an un-informed decision that could be crucial to their retirement.

Not to mention the chaos it creates for whoever is meeting with them prior to their exit.  I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from retirement benefits managers who are put in the horrible position of having to deal with employees who thought they were prepared to retire, only to find out shortly before retiring that they over-estimated their pension payout, or misunderstood retiree medical insurance, or didn’t realize that their nest egg was likely to last only 5-10 years when they could conceivably live another 30-40.

It’s a vicious cycle.  Because there was no time to put proactive benefits education in place, employees end up going to their benefits manager with reactive questions and issues that could have been entirely prevented.  This makes the benefits team even busier, cuts down on their proactive/strategic planning time, which means employees get even less proactive communication and the cycle continues.

The best way to break this cycle is to move away from managing different communication efforts through different vendors and find a single partner who can dedicate themselves fully to your benefits communication and education.  Notice I say “partner” here not “vendor” and that is very intentional.  The partner you choose needs to operate as an extension of your company as opposed to a vendor selling a menu of pre-set services.  The firm or individual needs to have a strong track record in developing customized benefits education programs and needs to fully understand your goals, your company culture, your employee demographics, and the way you operate as an organization in order to be able to operate self-sufficiently without you having to worry about dangerous missteps that happen when a vendor’s goals are not aligned with your own.

They need to be able to handle the full life cycle of benefits education, from developing a strategic plan to educate employees about benefits, to creating materials to support the benefits education program, delivering the education, tracking employee feedback and behavioral change, and adjusting the program as needed based on employee feedback and HR goals.

If you’re thinking, “There’s no way we have the time to find a benefits education partner right now”, I empathize.  Virtually every day I’m at a client site witnessing the chaos that the benefits team faces.  But here’s the million dollar question (and I mean that very literally as a good benefits education program ultimately saves tens of millions, if not more, for a large company):

Can you afford to delay this another month, quarter, year?  What happens when the years become decades and a whole other generation of employees faces the same challenges or worse ones due to economic pressures?

For most companies, the problem, left unresolved, is only going to get worse.  The sooner you solve it, the sooner everyone benefits.  (Bad pun intended….)

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This entry was posted in Employee Benefits, H.R. Guru, Retirement Planning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
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