How to facilitate effective benefits plan communication

The way that employers communicate benefits information to employees has a tremendous impact on how well the programs are understood, utilized and perceived.

“Managers and supervisors can be effective in sharing important benefits information, especially if it is not scripted or canned. Since they are most likely to know what their employees understand, they might be better able to present benefits information in a way that makes sense. As an employee’s main point of contact, managers and supervisors also tend to be more approachable with questions,” says Judy Griffith, compliance officer at JRG Advisors.

Opportunities to ask questions, express dissatisfaction and discuss problems with supervisors and managers should be encouraged. However, when managers and supervisors share benefits information, it needs to be done with caution.

Smart Business spoke with Griffith about effective benefit plan communication, via managers and supervisors.

How can an employer avoid verbal communication problems?

Communicating inaccurate information to employees is always a major concern when using managers and supervisors to relate benefits information. Employers should be mindful that misinformation not only causes an employee relation problem, it has the possibility of leading to litigation, as well.

Follow these tips to avoid problems.

  • Consider allowing only specific HR personnel to discuss benefits information.
  • Remind supervisors and managers, who may be asked benefits questions, to review their plan documents carefully. They should refer any question they’re unsure how to address to the HR department.
  • Whether formal or informal, don’t make promises regarding any aspect of the plan that the company won’t be able to keep.
  • State in the documents that amendments are to be made only in writing and approved by the corporate representative or plan administrator, if applicable.

What are some written communications cautions to be considered?

Even if written material about benefits information isn’t an official plan document, informal written promises can still prevail in court. So, make sure informal written communication about the plan is consistent with official documents before distributing.

Employees often rely on summary plan descriptions to determine their rights under a specific plan. In the event of an issue due to discrepancies between plan documents and the summary plan document, the summary plan document can hold up in court. Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure the summary plan document is correct, current, clear and in agreement with the plan documents, handbooks and other benefits information.

As a safety measure, be sure that the summary plan description, handbooks and other benefits communications state clearly that the plan document has absolute authority over them. This should appear in a separate paragraph in a prominent position. Consider using larger, italic or boldfaced type, or a distinct border, to make the information readily apparent.

Other general helpful tips include:

  • Keep a copy of each communication or disclosure sent to employees, however informal.
  • Grant discretion to fiduciaries in the plan document.
  • Make sure all documents relating to the plan don’t include misleading information before distributing. Request additional information from the plan administrator, if necessary.
  • Reserve the right to amend the plan at any time for any reason.

In addition, health insurance issuers and group health plans are required to provide a Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC), an easy-to-understand summary about health plans benefits and coverage. These simplistic health plan summaries can help an employer explain benefits to employees.

How can selecting the right broker help?

Employers should partner with an experienced benefits professional who can provide an effective benefits communications solution and strategy. This strategy should include engaging communications that reflect the needs, wants and motivations of your employees, and also comply with the legal requirements surrounding the benefits plan.

Insights Employee Benefits is brought to you by JRG Advisors