Since your company spends a lot of time and money on benefits, you have high expectations that employees will understand what they receive and make smart decisions about how to use benefits.

But, despite your best efforts, that doesn't always happen. Employees are busy. They're distracted. And they don't always pay attention.  

Plus, because your company offers an array of benefits, and because many of them are so complex, it's even more important that you communicate effectively.

The results: most employees say HR communication doesn't prepare them to make smart decisions about pay, benefits and performance management. In fact, my firm's research finds that only 30% of employees are happy with communication they receive (50 percent are indifferent). More importantly, less than 25% of employees feel communication gives them the knowledge they need to make decisions or take action.

Luckily, the remedy is simple: Change the way you communicate. Here are 11 ways to dramatically improve benefits communication: 

1. Set objectives for what you need to achieve. Every communication effort should start with the end in mind: by setting objectives for what you want to accomplish. This is especially true when communicating benefits. 

Why? Because there are often actions you need employees to take that determine whether or not your benefits are successful. The idea, of course, is to make sure you design communication to support those actions.

Here are three sample objectives: 

  • Increase participation in the long-term disability program.
  • Influence employees to sign up for benefits throughout the enrollment period; don't wait until the last two or three days to do so.
  • Encourage a percentage of employees to switch from the "preferred" PPO plan (more choice, higher premiums) to the "select" plan (less choice, lower premiums).

2. Understand what employees know and what they need. "Know your audience" is hardly a new concept; even beginner marketing students learn that the most effective way to reach people--and to motivate them to take action--is to understand who they are and what they need.

Yet assessing employees is a step that's often skipped in HR communication. We plunge into creating communication without thinking about the people we're creating it for. Even worse, we assume that employees are just like us, taking for granted that the ways welike communicating will work equally well for employees in a variety of jobs, geographies and functions.

How can you make sure you truly know your employee audience? 2 ways:

  • Start by analyzing employee demographics. 
  • Conduct qualitative research--like focus groups--to explore communication needs and preferences. Demographics helps you know who your employees are. Once you do, to really get inside the minds of employees, you need to go further and talk to them. The best way to do so? Conduct focus groups. This research helps you find out how well employees understand their current benefits, perceptions about the value of benefits and what employees need to know--and how they would like to receive communication.


3. Tell the "why" behind benefits changes. Start with your overall approach to benefits.Why does your company offer benefits? How does the package stack up against the competition? Answer these questions for your employees. Then share the reasoning behind decisions.Chances are, leaders gave benefits changes a lot of thought, looked through the data and made strategic decisions based on cost-benefit analysis. Walk employees through that process.


4. Use the inverted pyramid to organize information. This classic message structure puts the information that's most relevant first, and saves the details for lower down in the message. And it works for any kind of communication, from e-mail to enrollment packages to benefits meetings.


5. Focus on what employees need to do. In these information-overloaded times, employees want you to cut to the chase and tell them what action is required. So be clear, with content like: "Five decisions you need to make" and "A three-step process for choosing your benefits."


6. Be visual. Instead of long narrative copy, break content up into easily scannable segments. For example, create a table that captures key changes to this year's benefits. Or add a sidebar with a checklist of decision items. And whenever possible, use icons, photos or sketches to illustrate your points.


7. Don't sugarcoat. Communicating benefits is often a bad news, bad news proposition. Sometimes costs increase; other times benefits are eliminated. To maintain credibility, it's important to communicate honestly. Tell employees why a change was made, how costs were managed and how they can choose and spend wisely.


8. But don't be shy about celebrating good things. Use communication to remind employees about benefits that are designed to make their lives better (e.g., flexible spending account debit cards, preventive care, discount gym memberships and free financial advice). 

9. Provide help. Include tips, advice and Q&As that will help employees be smarter consumers and live healthier. Some examples of service-oriented topics you can integrate into your communications:

  • How to determine if you're saving enough for retirement
  • Low-impact ways to get more exercise
  • How I saved $300 on my prescriptions
  • 7 top discounts offered by the company medical plan

10. Manage time wisely. When it comes to benefits communication, the Rolling Stones got it wrong: Time is definitely not on your side. In fact, timing is one of the trickiest aspects of communicating benefits.

There's no a hard-and-fast rule for managing time wisely. Instead, in each situation, work at managing the right balance:

  • Allow enough time for employees to understand a change that's coming, so they can get used to it. 
  • Give employees a heads-up when something is coming. ("Next month is when enrollment starts.") 
  • Be as "just in time" as possible, so employees have the information right before they need to take action. 
  • Provide "friendly reminders:" short messages that don't overwhelm or annoy, but give a gentle little push to get going. 

11. Use tools for what they do best

When it comes to benefits communication, don't use email for everything. Email is great for timely reminders. And for quick checklists. And to provide handy links to information available on a web site. 

But email is not as effective as other communication channels for conveying complex information. For instance, there are terrific apps or web tools available that help employees enter personalized data and calculate the best choices for them. And posters and postcards are still valuable for providing important information at a glance.

And here's something that might surprise you: One of the most effective tools for communicating benefits is still, after all these years, a print publication. Whether it's a brief flyer), a four-page newsletter or a full brochure, print fits the bill for:

  • Compiling all the facts employees need to understand benefits and make decisions
  • Including charts, tables and other ways to compare information
  • Bringing benefits to life through examples
  • Allowing employees to share information with significant others (since many benefits decisions are still made at home at the kitchen table)

There you go! Communicating benefits is still a lot of work, but the right approach can set you--and employees--up for success.