Excerpts from “How to Deliver Benefits Bad News” by Tim Sackett

One of the biggest occupational hazards for someone on the benefits sides of HR is having to be the bearer of bad news. Benefits are expensive. Employers need to profit. Something has to give.

More often than not, that something is benefits. Despite your best efforts to tweak plan designs, at the end of the day, you are the one who has to tell your coworkers that their copays are increasing, their deductibles are getting higher, or that their overall benefits package is shrinking. Delivering a not-so-great benefits message is a delicate art, but it’s something you have to become comfortable with if you plan on thriving in this line of work.

Consider the Audience

There are all kinds of benefits bad news, and all kinds of folks to whom you have to tell it. Before you begin crafting your communication plan, you need to understand how the bad news will affect your people.

Who will feel the impact most? Is this something that will affect everybody companywide, like when there’s a senior management directive to cut HR costs? Or is it something that touches a much smaller group, like when there’s a new piece of legislation that changes the way a transit flexible spending account works?

And what if the “bad news” is actually something good for most people? A new employer contribution to a highly promoted HSA plan that Medicare Part A enrollees can’t take advantage of, for instance. You may have an obligation to announce bad news to everybody, but if you want to be truly helpful, you’ll have to know who’s really affected the most so you can craft a follow-up plan.

Make a Follow Up Plan

Too many benefits departments go radio silent after bad news is announced. That’s a mistake. If you want to be smart about communicating negative changes to benefits, you’ll take the time to plan general follow-up communications for the entire audience as well as individual follow-ups for the employees who’ll be affected most.

Sample Construction Plan

180 Days Prior to Open Enrollment

 This is a high-level view from 50,000 feet. You’ll provide basic communication (email works well here) on the expected benefit design changes, anticipated additions or subtractions to the plans, as well as what’s working well, what’s not. This is a good opportunity to ask for employee input on what they like and dislike about the plan design, new/old benefits, and wish list stuff.

Don’t Forget About Your Team

Way too many organizations spend all their time and resources getting a communication right only to see their efforts fall flat because they haven’t taken the time to make sure the people actually delivering the message were capable and receptive to actually delivering it in the way it was designed.

Not that your team aren’t professionals. They are. But they’re also employees who’ll be affected by the bad news too. If you don’t let them grieve the loss of whatever it is they’ll be losing, you risk having their unexpressed frustrations and resentments souring the message they’ve worked so hard to prepare.

Give your team time to be upset, and also let them know that they don’t have to like the changes that have to take place. Let your team know that they can be honest about their personal feelings if the topic comes up in the course  of explaining the changes.

If possible, model this tone for them in the way you discuss the changes with them.  Transparency, when controlled, is healthy for employees to see and understand. Besides, you don’t want to put anybody in a position where they’d have to be untruthful.

bad-news-sandwich
The Bad News Sandwich

Avoid Surprises

Avoid the tempation to give employees a “Bad News Sandwich”. Everyone hates this kind of communication. You hate delivering it and your employees hate receiving it.

The worst communications you will ever deliver are the ones that surprise people.  Simply put: Negative surprises kill culture. Just as a good manager should never deliver negative surprises during a performance review, a good benefits professional should never deliver negative surprises during open enrollment.

Great performance feedback happens in real time and on a continuous basis. Great benefits communications are similar. If you know you will have deep, or unpopular, cuts to your benefits, you need to start communicating those possibilities right away.

Don’t wait to deliver bad news. Rip the Band-Aid off right away with a simple, forthcoming message that addresses business realities calmly, and uses language you’d use yourself if talking to your colleagues face to face

120 Days Prior to Open Enrollment

“We’ve gotten some preliminary analysis done our 2016 OE, and you should expect some increases to premiums in the 8-12% range. We are looking at a number of things including: (your list of things), and our hope is we can bring this amount down while maintaining a solid benefits package you’ve come to expect.”

90 Days Prior to Open Enrollment

You should be using more direct language when describing cost and plan design changes. Also, you’ll need to provide more direction to those who will be affected the most. This helps calm employee stress, and gets you out in front of possible turnover issues.

60 Days Prior to Open Enrollment

You now have the official dates and times for open enrollment on the books. You should have a solid understanding of benefit designs and costs. This is the time to begin selling the reasons of why changes need to be made.

30 Days Prior to Open Enrollment

Your communication take on a more administrative tone because all the good/bad news has been delivered many times. Focus on how employees can sign up and get the most use out of their new benefits. Any new benefits should be highlighted.

Open  Enrollment

The task of open enrollment should not be emotional because you’ve already presented all the good/bad news. It’s just a matter of paperwork from here.