Success in Open Enrollment Season Is All About Communication

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

HR can avoid frustrating employees during open enrollment season for health insurance and other benefits by developing and executing a well-planned communication strategy, consultants say.

Employees and HR alike can find the open enrollment process to be a hassle, especially at a time when many employers are switching health insurance plans and adopting other cost-cutting measures. Such changes can bewilder employees if they aren’t explained properly.

Start planning well in advance, Chris Johnson, a Philadelphia-based partner in the career line of business at consultancy Mercer, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 7. July or August would be a good time to start communicating with employees about open enrollment, depending on whether major changes are in the offing or not. If so, “more frequent communication” is necessary, he said.

Consider the “stakeholders” who need to hear from HR, Johnson said. Think about what impact any changes will have on specific stakeholders, and consider which media are available to reach them. Email “should not be the only means of communication,” especially because few people bother to open informational attachments, he said.

Johnson added that HR should not make the lazy assumption that older workers prefer print materials and younger workers prefer digital messages. For example, if the organization has a manufacturing plant in a rural area that may not even have a company email address, HR representatives may have to go there in person and hold a meeting with workers, he said.

Have Available Coaches

It’s not just manufacturing workers who need to talk to a human being about their benefits. Make “coaches” available to all employees by phone, Cynthia Meyer, resident financial planner for El Segundo, Calif.-based workplace financial wellness company Financial Finesse, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 7. “It’s a hard thing to manage with an online-only platform because people have really specific questions,” she said.

Questions about organizational switches to increasingly popular health savings accounts and high-deductible health insurance plan offerings are inevitable, Meyer and Mercer’s Bruce Lee pointed out.

A mass meeting can be a good place to answer benefits-related questions. Al Zink, senior vice president of human resources at Care.com, said his organization held a “benefits fair” where employees and their partners or spouses could meet benefits carriers in June, well before open enrollment season. He said this is part of a strategy of communicating with employees about their benefits year round for the company, which connects caregivers to families needing care.

Make Open Enrollment Fun

Make learning about benefits, which can be “a pretty dry topic,” fun for employees, Zink suggested. Care.com introduced a “houses of Harry Potter” theme which is especially appealing to millennials who grew up on the beloved young adult fantasy books, he said. At the same time, mailers to employees’ homes have generated surprisingly positive feedback because they provide a convenient way for families to review their options, he said.

Zink also suggested, based on his own experience with employee feedback, that HR train managers in at least the basics of benefit offerings so that they don’t automatically send their subordinates to HR with any and all questions.

Widespread dissatisfaction with HR professionals’ handling of open enrollment is easy to find. In a recent survey of 517 full-time U.S. workers age 18 to 65, almost one-third (31 percent) “give their employer a ‘C’ or lower when it comes to open enrollment,” sponsor Namely, a New York City-based company that operates an online HR platform, said Aug. 29. “Compared to employers, survey respondents were twice as likely to rate their HR department as ‘poor’ for their handling of open enrollment.” The survey was conducted over email by Survey Monkey for Namely July 31 to Aug. 4.

That “C” grade “often results from factors that go beyond the day-to-day performance of the HR team,” Matt Monahan, vice president of benefits at Namely, told Bloomberg BNA in a Sept. 6 email. “We have seen benefits cost rise year over year, and employees usually have no say in the benefits offered by the company. Compounding that, employees often still enroll with a paper process that’s drastically out of line with how they purchase every other good or service in their life.”

As to the factors that HR can control, Monahan’s advice was similar to that of the other consultants Bloomberg BNA spoke with: Check with a benefits consultant to be prepared for changes in the organization’s insurance policies and rates, and develop “a well-planned communication strategy” including “multiple meetings over a range of times and dates” and digital and other materials that explain everything clearly.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

For More Information

The Namely survey results can be downloaded by visiting https://library.namely.com/open-enrollment-employee-benefits-survey.

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