Tips for boosting employee acceptance of benefits changes

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The irony of pensions and benefits is that employees tend to ignore them until they need them or until their employer changes them. And whether it’s good news or bad news, there are almost always trade-offs.

Changing pensions or benefits can be a tough sell to employees. When employers say “change,” employees often hear “change for the worse” and are likely to react defensively. So what can plan sponsors do to ease employees’ anxiety and help ensure the change goes smoothly?

Engage leaders first
Employees invariably take their cues from leadership. If leaders set the tone, employees will follow. That’s why it’s critical to ensure the organization’s leaders truly support the changes. That includes both formal and informal leaders, as well as those who influence the decision-makers.

How does an employer do that? Executive interviews or focus groups can help leaders understand the business case for change, give them a say in the process and ensure their buy-in. But that buy-in has to be more than just lip service; leaders need to demonstrate their commitment. For example, consider having the chief executive officer deliver a clear, honest message to employees about what’s changing and why and ask for the leader’s support.

Get employees involved
Engaging employees in a plan change is equally important. The reason is simple: If they participate in the process, they’re more likely to accept the outcome (and the employer is less likely to get complaints). There are many ways to do that. For example, employers can hold focus groups or conduct a survey to determine employees’ benefits needs and preferences, as well as their readiness for change. But there’s an important caveat: Employers should avoid asking questions they don’t want to hear the answers to or about elements they’re not willing to change. Employees will get frustrated if employers ask for their feedback but they don’t actually use it.

Be strategic, not just tactical
When it comes to employee communications, it’s tempting to jump straight to media. Should the organization do an email blast or send out a memo? Does it need a video or a website? Should it hold employee meetings? Media are critically important, but if not used purposefully within the context of an overall communications strategy, they may not have the desired impact.

Take the time to think more holistically about the approach, identify the stakeholders and key messages, think through the timeline and ensure there are appropriate feedback channels. If an employer is unsure about which media will work best, why not ask employees what they prefer?

Be as transparent as possible
Employers, of course, can’t disclose everything to everyone. But if they try to spin negative changes in a positive light, employees will see right through it, which can damage their trust in the employer-employee relationship. Be forthright about what’s changing and why. Employees may not like the changes, but if they’re fair, carefully planned and clearly communicated, there’s a much greater likelihood they’ll accept them.

Navigating change can be challenging, but it’s also an opportunity to reach out to both the leadership and employees. And when done right, communicating a pension or benefits change can actually increase their engagement and appreciation of the plan’s value. Don’t miss out on the chance to create those connections.

Transcontinental Media G.P.