What I've Learned - Dawn Burke B Bad News copyDelivering bad news is the worst. Whether it’s telling your kid that Santa Claus isn’t real, telling your roommate you lost the cat in a bar bet, or having to tell co-workers news they don’t want to hear, nobody ever likes making people feel disappointed. But sadly, as a benefits pro, inevitably you’re going to have to do it. It’s just part of the job.

Usually, the bad benefits news you find yourself having to share falls into one of two buckets: ‘sorry, but the company is decreasing coverage’ or ‘sorry, but we’re increasing costs.’ If either of these two things occur, know ahead of time some employees will want to unleash their inner rage-dragon on you. And can you blame them? No. Losing nice things is the worst.

You can’t control how your employees will react to your news. They’re going to feel how they’re going to feel. However, you CAN control how you present the news, and how you respond to their dragon-fire when it comes. And that should be your focus.

I’ll explain what I mean, but first, a story.

I once worked for an organization that offered free medical, dental and vision benefits to all employees with single coverage. Yes, free. The coverage was robust, didn’t have any major carve-outs, and was truly a good plan. However, as incredible as free benefits are, ‘free’ isn’t scalable. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.

After many years of free single coverage benefits, the time to increase premium costs inevitably arrived. Sigh. But guess what? When all was said and done, the increase was only going to be…get this…$20 a month! Still a great deal compared to most, right? Problem was, the employees affected (especially long-tenured ones) didn’t see it that way.

Nope, employees, in this case, felt that:

  • The company had lost its moral compass
  • The company was trying to stick it to the common man, i.e., the life-blood of the company
  • They were entitled to free benefits (for too many reasons to list here)
  • They should be grandfathered into ‘lifetime’ free single coverage

They were so passionate in these beliefs, in fact, that an employee created and passed around a petition requiring the company go back to giving free single coverage. Not surprisingly, employees were more than happy to sign.

Ain’t that a kick in the pants?

When it came time to deliver the news, I did my best to do it carefully. But upon reflection, there are things I could have done that probably could have softened the blow even more. Here are five of the most important:

#1. Deliver the new ‘in-person’ first, if possible.

The size of your company may limit your options here. But if you can, don’t let the first announcement of a cost increase be in an email or ‘phone-tree’ (yuck). In-person shows you care and have the courage to face employees. Hiding behind emails is cowardly and gives the impression you, leader, know you’ve stuck it to the employee.

#2. Don’t base your communication strategy on what executives think will work best.

Why? Well, because it’s possible they’re a little, how do you say, out of touch with the impact a change will have on the ordinary employee. Y’know, because they make a lot more money than the ordinary employee. So, err on the side of being extra-sensitive to how a seemingly small change will affect the bottom line of your lowest-paid employees, even if your execs don’t think it’s a big deal.

#3. Benefits communication is a strategy, not an event. Announcing benefits changes shouldn’t be a shock-and-awe, one-time event before open enrollment. Communications on benefits costs and their impact on the company, benefits options, ways to be good stewards of benefits dollars, and wellbeing strategies should happen year-round. If you make this a strategy, most employees will understand the ‘why’ behind a change way before a change has to be made. Some may even suggest it!

#4. Use technology to help communicate benefits news year-round. Learn from my mistakes, friends. In all HR leadership roles where benefits were under my umbrella, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t prioritize communicating benefits year-round over other items. It stunk. There just wasn’t time. However, there’s no excuse for this now. With all the benefits communication platforms out there (yes, like ALEX) you can keep a steady drumbeat going and barely lift a finger.

#5. Get a read on your employees’ feelings about changes before you communicate with everyone. Pull a small group of trusted employees together (including corporate influencers) and get their opinion on how changes will be received. This is the best and most efficient way to understand all potential reactions. Who knows? You may actually be surprised by how few employees think the news is as bad as you thought they would.

Let’s face it: delivering benefits bad news is never going to be something you look forward to. But with some pre-planning, continuous employee feedback, and a proper year-round communication strategy you can make it sting less (and maybe even avoid a petition!).