Experts offer tips and tricks for translating benefits jargon into plain English

By Kathleen Koster in Employee Benefits News

After featuring EBN readers’ pet peeves for HR and benefits communication in a slide show, we went to the experts for advice on improving HR communication strategy and techniques.

To employees’ ears, terms like “tax-sheltered annuities” and “FSA” may sound closer to gibberish than benefits phrases. HR professionals are often so close to 401(k) plan details or busy implementing behind-the-scenes health reform requirements that they forget not everyone in their workforce is as exposed to this information.

According to a new report, over half of benefits professionals say their benefits communication efforts have been more effective during the last three years. However, nearly half (45.4%) aren’t satisfied with their current communications strategy, and an additional 28% are ambivalent, suggesting HR professionals still see room for improvement.

When communicating with employees, the information needs to be simple and focused only on what employees want to know, advises plain language expert and professor, Dr. Deborah S. Bosley. That way, employees can easily understand and act on the material.

Health care changes

When employers communicate around health reform changes, for example, they should filter bits of relevant information to employees. Policy changes such as covering dependents until age 26 and the ban on pre-existing condition exclusions are issues “that people care most about, and they are easy to explain,” says Bosley, associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

“Everything should be available,” she says, “but I think we should tell people [only] the most important information that will impact their daily lives.”

Jen Benz, founder and CEO, Benz Communications, adds that HR should focus on what is changing now and how it affects employees. For many larger employers, that means explaining very little, she says. Even though there may be a lot happening behind the scenes, Benz recommends that employers “don’t try to explain every nuance or piece of the law; keep focus on what actually matters for your population.”

Bosley says employers should directly ask workers what questions they have and what they want to know specifically about health care reform.

While Eric Lanier, benefits director of UNC Charlotte, tries to take advantage of unique opportunities to promote employee benefits for his employee population, he acknowledges it may not be as easy as sending an email.

“In general, people are overwhelmed by the amount of communications they receive on a daily basis,” Lanier says. With so much information for workers to sort through each day, he says HR’s message needs to stand out from the crowd.

Bosley suggests HR request feedback from sending communication pieces to the entire population. “This can be done with one-to-one interviews, and you only need five to eight people to give you about 85% to 90% of the problems,” she says.

She adds that HR should always give background when explaining a major benefit shift by presenting the current benefit alongside the new version, so employees can see a clear comparison of the change.

“Most people don’t know what their existing benefits are beyond the few that they use repeatedly. I think one of the biggest mistakes is telling people what the change is without reminding them what exists,” details Bosley.

Even the very word, “change,” can be problematic, she says. HR should still use the term, but should focus more on the benefit itself, because employees often equate “change” with shelling out more money.

Bosley shares one communications horror story that flooded TIAA-CREF with 10,000 calls from
disgruntled retirement plan participants in a single week.

The financial services firm sent retirees a letter explaining that at age 70.5 participants needed to take out a minimum amount of money from their IRA account. However, the letter began with a reference to the IRS – in bold and underlined. It scared many retirees, who thought they were in trouble with the IRS.

“If you want to help get somebody a benefit, you don’t start out by talking about the IRS,” she laughs. “You have to be aware of trigger words. It’s not just the jargon, but how people respond emotionally.”

Bosley suggests combing call-in records to determine the most frequent questions employees ask HR, which should reveal any unclear material.

“Benefits has its own language like every area of HR,” says Lanier. “If we use [an industry-specific] term, it’s important we define what it is.”

By repositioning communication from the employer perspective to the employee’s point of view, HR can express issues clearly and better engage workers.

“Because benefits managers are so close to the material and know the complexity of it, they have a tendency to want to communicate everything all of the time. And most people don’t need that level of detail. It can distract and overwhelm them,” advises Benz.

Use concrete examples

Bosley suggests using concrete examples for explaining how benefits affect the individual, such as highlighting the five most relevant situations for your employee population.

“Rather than just listing the rules, give me some stories or illustrations that would help me see the most common situations people want to know about. Create a scenario in which people can see themselves in the situation in which they are using that benefit,” Bosley adds.

In addition, Bosley suggests employers use the active voice and pronouns, if possible, to carry a
conversational tone throughout the education.

By using short sentences and paragraphs with lots of visuals, HR can “format [materials] to make them look like something [employees] would want to read,” she explains.

Colorful summary plan descriptions that use callouts can grab employees’ attention, meaning they are more likely to read its contents.

As Lanier points out, employees have limited time to sift through everything that competes for their
attention. Using white space in documents so they’re easy to skim will more likely entice people to read the information.

Employees aren’t the only ones pressed for time – the HR department is often working to tight deadlines as well. Benefits professionals can become so preoccupied with completing the actual legwork that education can get pushed to the backburner.

“One of the things that I’ve learned [in the communication process] is to slow down,” says Lanier.

Lanier says it’s important to internally define the big picture HR wants to communicate and to take time layering the details while determining concise ways to share information with employees.

Kelly McClusky, director of marketing communication at Unum, says one of employers’ biggest challenges is “not building in the proper timeline to communicate to employees.” She suggests that employers should take three weeks to optimally communicate before an event or initiative so employees best understand their

Even for big events like open enrollment, McClusky says three weeks does the trick – any longer and
employees may forget about the event once it arrives.

Benz believes that “the biggest mistake is only communicating once a year. A lot of employers pile on information in the weeks leading up to open enrollment and wonder why people aren’t engaged the rest of the year.”

In fact, 78% of employers cite engaging employees year-round as among their biggest challenges, yet less than a third (28.9%) are communicating with employees year-round, finds the Benz Communications survey.

Benz says employers can easily push out information on benefits topics in simple blog posts or emails, many of which apply all year. For example, reminding employees to take advantage of wellness and EAP programs and to save money for retirement all require constant communication.

Unum, meanwhile, is testing text messaging as a means to alert employees about benefit enrollment and other offerings.

Overall, employers should send information through multiple channels, based on what modes their employee demographics prefer. “Expanding the channels you use can help [spread your message] as well,” says Benz.

Benefits glossary

When employees get stuck on a minor detail or don’t understand a key term that is not defined in the benefits communication, they stop reading. Unum presents a list of common words and phrases along with better alternatives.

Avoid the alphabet soup and instead just spell it out.

Use “because” instead.

This confusing word has more than one meaning. If you mean twice a week, simply use that phrase. If you mean every other week, use that phrase.

These words can have more than one meaning as well. If you mean twice a year, simply use that phrase. If you mean every other year, say that.

Instead, try: We have important information to share with you.

“Reason” is a better option.

Instead, use “about.”

Simply state “earning less.”

Write “mailed separately,” to be clear.

Instead, use: “Thank you for providing the information we needed to approve your application for benefits.”

Alternately, use “please” or “it is important that you …”

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