Plain language can help benefits communications

When it comes to benefits communications, plain vanilla is the best way to go

By Andrea Davis

In a world of information overload, employers can struggle to get their benefits messages heard and, perhaps more importantly, understood. Last October, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act, which calls for communications from the federal government that are clear, concise and well-organized. By Oct. 13, 2011, federal agencies must use plain language in any document that is necessary for obtaining any federal government benefit or service, or filing taxes.

“Plain language is all about making the right decision to give the right information to the right audience at the right time,” says Deborah Bosley, associate professor of English at the UNC Charlotte and a plain language expert.

Bosley recently talked to EBN about how employers can incorporate plain language principles into their benefits communications.

EBN: What exactly is plain language?

Bosley: Plain language is the use of proven writing and designing strategies that increase the ability of readers to understand and use the information.

In a way, plain language is a misnomer, because it’s not just about the language. The design is really critical as is, frankly, the delivery. But mostly it’s about language and design in combination.

EBN: And when you say “delivery,” does that mean choosing the correct medium?

Bosley: Yes. And then, for example, if you put information on a website, it should not be written in the same manner that a hard copy document would be written, because people read 28% slower onscreen. So we have slightly different writing conventions for Web content than for hard copy.

EBN: Can you give an example of something that does not fit the conventions of plain language?

Bosley: The Internal Revenue Service tax forms have just been a disaster as far as people’s ability to comply and to fill out those forms. There have been several attempts to rewrite them but so far not much has been done to turn that into plain language.

Summary plan descriptions are now required to be written in plain language because of ERISA. The conversion of those old summaries into plain language has been a very important shift from jargon-filled, legal language into plan summaries that the average plan participant can understand.

EBN: What are the legal requirements for plain language?

Bosley: There’s a variety of documents that fall under legal requirements for plain language, including summary plan descriptions, credit card agreements, proxy statements and privacy notices, whether financial or health.

EBN: What advice would you have for employers about talking to their employees about benefits?

Bosley: Employees can only make choices when they understand their options. So clarity and transparency are crucial in encouraging employees, particularly with voluntary benefits.

If you want your employees to make choices about their voluntary benefits, obviously they have to understand what those choices are.

Allowing your employees to easily understand information is a cost savings to a company because it decreases the number of questions employees have, and the amount of time they spend on the phone with HR trying to get some clarification.

Employees need to be able understand what their benefits are. There are not enough insurance companies that have made that commitment.

There was a recent study out of Stanford that showed that when people can’t understand complex information, they lose respect for the company.

Secondly, when information is difficult to understand, they don’t trust the company.

And, third, there’s a study out of the University of Nebraska that shows there’s a direct relationship between corporate reputation and how certain kinds of information are understandable. You can extrapolate from that, that a company that commits itself to writing employee benefits in plain language will garner more trust from its employees, will save money, will be recognized and trusted.

It also avoids liability, just to be really crass about it. I’ve been an expert witness in two lawsuits around summary plan descriptions. I was hired by the corporations to determine whether or not I thought the information had met the standards for plain language. Out of 42 claims in one of the lawsuits, one of the two claims that was not dismissed was the question of how the summary plan description had been written. So there are liabilities around writing information in a complex manner that makes it impossible for people to understand.

Finally, I think what you’re doing is giving your employees a good communications experience, which I think there are few of. We all suffer from communication overload and, much of the time, if we don’t understand something after about the first eight seconds, we won’t read it.

EBN: If an employer decides to revamp their employee communications to reflect plain language principles and hires someone to help them do that, is there anything in particular they should look for?

Bosley: I would look at the person’s credentials and examples of what they’ve done for other companies. Have them do an analysis of an existing document to show you where the plain language issues are. And after something is redesigned, test it with members of the intended audience.

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