Lost in Translation: 4 Ways to Improve Employee-Benefits Communications Time to get your SPDs and SBCs straight. Wait, you don't know what those even are?

By Matt Straz

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Employees and HR professionals agree: Benefits communications aren't working. In a survey of HR professionals published by SHRM in March 2015, just 22 percent of respondents strongly agreed that their organizations' employee benefits communication efforts were "very effective" in informing employees about their benefits.

Related: The Top 4 Ways to Engage Your Employees in Their Own Healthcare

In addition, only 20 percent of employees surveyed in Aflac's 2015 WorkForces Report said they had enough information to make informed decisions about their benefits.

Clearly, information is lost in the lengthy documents and emails employees are receiving, leaving them confused about their options. And when employees don't understand their options, they're bound to make rushed and misinformed decisions.

As an employer, you should be helping your employees better understand their benefits options by improving your communications. Here are a few steps to do just that:

1. Get your SPDs and SBCs straight.

Group health-plan administrators have long been required to provide participants with a summary plan description (SPD). In addition, employers and insurers must now provide employees with a summary of benefits and coverage (SBC). Although these two documents are similar, the rules about SPDs and SBCs are different. Getting these two requirements straight is the first step to more effective, compliant employee-benefits communications.

While the plan administrator, typically the employer, is responsible for providing an SPD to all participants, both the insurer and plan administrator are responsible for providing SBCs. SPDs are required for stand-alone dental and vision plans, while SBCs are required only for individual medical policies and insured and self-insured group medical plans.

In addition, SBCs and SPDs must be provided to participants at different times. The SPD must be delivered to all participants within 120 days after the effective date of a new plan, and to new participants within 90 days after the date the participant first becomes covered. SBCs, however, must be provided when individuals enroll in coverage for the first time and at the beginning of each new plan year.

Understand the differences between SPDs and SBCs to ensure the right information is given to employee participants at the right time.

2. Provide continual communication.

Employees need more than required explanations of benefits options. In fact, 56 percent of millennials surveyed by GuideSpark in April 2014 said they wanted their employers to communicate about employee benefits in a way that was easier to understand.

Handing employees stacks of information before the enrollment period begins leaves them overwhelmed and confused. Instead, keep employee benefits communications going throughout the year. Deliver information gradually, in easy-to-digest pieces, and focus on reviewing one benefit at a time. Give employees access to open enrollment materials as soon as those materials become available. And guide them through these materials -- don't leave staffers to figure out the materials on their own.

Related: 5 Ways to Help Employees Make the Best Use of Benefits

3. Go beyond email.

Relying on emails and printed materials to educate employees about benefits is easy -- but not effective. Employees receive countless emails every day, and those containing critical information are easily lost or ignored. Yet 79 percent of those surveyed by GuideSpark said their employers used email to communicate about benefits, and a whopping 87 percent said their employers used printed materials.

Still, some employers are striving to extend communications beyond emails and pamphlets. In the SHRM survey, 63 percent of respondents said changes had been made to their organizations' employee-benefits communication materials in the past year. And there was a notable increase in employers who met with employees to discuss benefits options face-to-face.

Don't rely on written communications to get the job done. Talk to employees in person to better explain options, clear up confusion and questions and ensure they get all the important details.

4. Get social.

Social media is a powerful tool to connect and communicate with employees -- especially using internal social media platforms. But this tool isn't widely used: Just 4 percent of those surveyed by SHRM said their organizations used social media as an employee-benefits communication tool.

Employee-facing social media channels are great for reminding employees about enrollment deadlines, events like benefits fairs and Q&A sessions. These channels also point employees toward resources to help them make more informed decisions. Post more specific plan information and explanations on internal employee social media networks to boost awareness of available employee benefits options.

These steps are important because benefits can cause employees stress; and a lack of communication from employers can make the whole issue even more of a hassle. But, with accessible, continual information from HR, employees can leave behind the mountains of pamphlets and tackle their benefits decisions with ease.

What tools and tactics do you use in employee benefits communications? Share in the comments below!

Related: How HR Can Communicate Important-But-Boring Stuff to New Hires

Matt Straz

Founder and CEO of Namely

Matt Straz is the founder and CEO of Namely, the HR and payroll platform for the world's most exciting companies.

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