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General

Don’t touch your benefits until you survey

The average employer pays between $3,000 and $6,000 per employee, per year, for a benefits program, depending on plan design and demographics. On that basis alone, wouldn’t you like to know if you are getting the most value out of your investment?

Now, add in this common complaint: benefits program costs continue to rise due to the usual culprits of new and expensive drug therapies, an aging workforce, reduced government coverage and more. Put the two together and the argument for assessing your investment becomes even more compelling.

Plan sponsors need to not only heighten employee awareness of the value of their benefits programs, but also need to probe employee perceptions about those programs before implementing any changes. As such, before you tolerate cost increases, tighten management controls and/or reduce coverage, step back and do some research with an employee benefits survey. A carefully planned and executed survey will help you to better understand how to strategically allocate the benefits plan budget while preserving—or even increasing—employees’ perceived value of the program.

To help you get started, consider the following factors when building your survey.

Determine your goal
It may appear simple to just “ask some questions,” but you need to determine what the worthwhile questions are—and these will only reveal themselves after you’ve established your survey’s objective. Is the goal to pinpoint how well employees understand and value the plan? Is the company tightening its financial belt and you want an intelligent re-design, taking into account employee preferences? Or perhaps you want your program to help you attract the best employees in your industry—but you first need to understand how your program is perceived “on the front line.”

Establish that goal and filter every question through it. If the answer to a question will help you to achieve your goal, keep it; if not, lose it.

Keep it confidential
When you guarantee confidentiality, you increase honesty. Employees need to feel confident that you will not trace a negative response back to them, and answers must not be influenced by fear of consequences. You may have to use an online survey system or third-party to conduct the survey. While you may know there won’t be any negative outcome based on responses, employees must believe it, too.

Exercise restraint
Resist the temptation to probe all things at once. Giving in to the idea that once you’re asking about one area, you might as well ask about another can create an unfocused, unwieldy survey that may backfire when respondents become annoyed with the length and detail. Answers that otherwise would have been neutral may become tainted with a dose of negativity. To avoid compromising the results’ honesty, be mindful of length, difficulty and the time required for completion.

However, this can be challenging in an employee benefits survey where participants are asked to rate, comment on and compare benefits features. To increase the survey’s success, communicate the following:

  • the importance of the survey;
  • how answers to the survey will affect decisions about the benefits program;
  • the value of employees’ input; and
  • if applicable, the possibility of a prize or other incentive. (Prizes can go a long way toward encouraging individuals to complete a survey. But remember that an outside party should handle the prize draw, and survey respondents should be notified as such, so as not to infringe on confidentiality.)

Be directed by the survey’s goal (see first point above), which should restrain you from asking unrelated questions. And accept that if the scope of your investigation is too vast, you can break it up into digestible mini surveys over time.

Use the survey as a communication tool
When framed carefully, an employee benefits survey becomes a valuable communication channel that can be used to communicate benefits and human resources messages. For example, if your program is a generous one in your industry, say so, or if you think employees value flexibility—but you don’t know if they realize it might mean forfeiting or reducing something else in the program—explain as such and, in so doing, reinforce the message of personal ownership over benefits usage.

Don’t ask about something you are not prepared to deliver
If you provide a laundry list of potential benefits options, employees may think those are future possibilities. Be careful not to establish false expectations and ask only about what you can realistically deliver.

Determine distribution and language
Determine the survey’s dissemination ahead of time. A written format for a large employee population will be cumbersome, both to circulate and tabulate, whereas online surveys facilitate confidentiality and make for easier tabulation, filtering of results, creation of graphs, etc., for any population size. You can also arrange for employees to have the option to complete the survey from home, to make it more convenient for them. And, if a significant portion of the employee population speaks English and/or French as a second language, note that you may require translation or an interpreter.

Once the survey is done
After the answers are in, share the results. If you don’t follow up to your employees’ survey answers, it is like asking your friend a question and then just walking away. Carry on the conversation by doing the following:

  • thank employees for the time they invested in answering the survey;
  • remind them of the survey’s importance;
  • provide a high-level statement of survey findings; and
  • let them know the next steps.

This last stage of the survey is your opportunity to engage employees in an important dialogue about a program that is of great personal value to them and that represents a significant company investment.

Benefits surveys: Part of a larger engagement strategy
Ideally, employee surveys should be part of a larger, proactive employee engagement strategy. According to Marguerite Thompson-O’Neal, vice-president of human resources with Purdue Pharma, “Many of the employers I worked with over the years achieved ‘top employer’ status. I attribute this to success in employee engagement. And one of the most important tools [for] facilitating the employer/employee dialogue (a fundamental component to engagement) is that of a survey, in that it asks employees for their opinions.”

Last year, Purdue Pharma launched a company-wide employee engagement survey that included benefits-related questions. “While our benefits program ‘scored’ well, a certain message came through loud and clear—namely, that employees wanted more flexibility across the organization,” said Thompson-O’Neal.

“So, we took that message and applied it to our benefits program by asking ourselves, ‘How can we increase our program’s flexibility while maintaining its robust nature, yet without spending more?’ This led us to examine a few flexible options and implement the one that made the most sense. I believe benefits are included in the employee engagement paradigm and that is part of why we enjoy both positive engagement and recognition as an employer of choice.”

 This article was written by Esther Huberman and published in Benefits Canada.

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