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Keeping It Simple

Companies Are Using Videos and Audiotapes to Translate Complex Benefits Into Ordinary English for Their Workers

September 09, 1996|KAREN KAPLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a Southwest Airlines educational video, pilots and flight attendants sing about employee benefits set to the music of Broadway show tunes.

Drivers for the J.B. Hunt trucking company in Lowell, Ark., pop a new Super Driver cassette into their tape decks each month with the latest benefit plan updates sandwiched between country music hits.

Solar Turbine employees in San Diego log on to a company computer system that spells out how their benefits will change if they get married, have a baby or experience other major life events.

Companies are trying whatever it takes to get the message across: Employee benefits are important. It pays to understand your options.

"Communications has become a very big movement in the employee benefit industry," said Barry Lawrence, a spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional organization based in Alexandria, Va. "You can have the greatest benefit plans in the world, but if no one can understand it, it's not much of a benefit."

The stakes for workers are high. Benefits are becoming increasingly valuable as companies add more choices of health, insurance and retirement savings plans. Employee benefits typically account for 30% to 40% of a worker's total compensation.

But the additional choices have meant more confusion as human resource departments struggle to keep up with the changes and educate workers about new options and prices.

The experts advice? Keep it simple.

"The main thing is not to give them so much information that they will never read it," said Rene Betsch, a Los Angeles-based communications consultant with the employee benefits firm Buck Consultants.

Then, she recommends, follow the old adage: Tell them what you're going to be telling them; tell them; then tell them what you've just told them. Repeat as necessary.

"We'll send them a notice that they're going to be getting something in the mail and tell them when they're getting it," Betsch said. "After it's been sent, we'll send them a follow-up notice asking whether they received their materials. It's hard for them to be oblivious to what's going on."

Employees may know something is going on but just figure they won't be able to understand it. From top executives to factory workers, many people are intimidated by money issues. Throw in the baffling benefits-speak that fills most employee benefits literature and avoidance-tendency syndrome sets in.

Breaking through that resistance will take a steady stream of information distributed via multiple outlets, such as newsletters, interoffice mail, posters, faxes and payroll stuffers.

"Repetition is key," said Libby Sartain, whose official title is vice president of people at Southwest Airlines's Dallas headquarters. "You have to tell somebody something three times and in three different ways before it starts to sink in."

Southwest distributes a mock newspaper to employees called Benefits Plus Today and arranges for visits with benefits specialists, in addition to its benefit video.

Employers should build their communication plan with their target audience in mind.

"People are so uncomfortable with financial material because they think they're going to be intimidated," said Deborah Milne, a director of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington. "Target your audience and speak to them in a way they feel comfortable and identify with."

At Nike, sports permeate every facet of the Beaverton, Ore., company, and spokeswoman Donna Gibbs says that employee benefits are no exception. Information on Nike's benefits package isn't written by the human resources department, but by the company's hip image design group, which is responsible for formulating Nike's public image.

"We make references to the world of sports, since that's what defines us as a culture and as a brand," she said of the company's benefits materials. "We try to bring that into everything."

Another approach is to structure benefits information around the life events of employees, rather than the traditional categories like health insurance or retirement plans.

This spring, Solar Turbines introduced a new benefits communication campaign that isn't structured around artificial happenings like open enrollment periods. Employees receive a folder of color-coded one-page sheets with titles such as, "What if I Get Married?" "What if I Get Divorced?" and "What if I Have a Child?"

"It tells them what they need in life events situations," said Sioban Kanine, a human resource principal at the company.

Now that Solar Turbine's benefits information is organized in a user-friendly manner, the company has embarked on a three-year project to load it onto a company intranet that can be accessed by the firm's 4,200 employees. An employee can dial into the system and click on a color-coded icon to access benefit information.

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