Category Archives: Employee Communication

Summary Plan Descriptions

Why I Love SPDs.

I love SPDs. This is a feeling not universally shared by those clients and colleagues who are tasked with developing and maintaining them (or even most of us who receive them).

When I first began working on SPDs, I didn’t fully appreciate them. I often described them in terms that weren’t always (let’s just say) the most flattering. However, more exposure to these documents has helped me value their finer points.

Benefits make a difference. Benefits are a critical part of employees’ total rewards from their employer. A thoughtfully developed benefits program provides a safety net for employees and their families. How employees participate in these programs can affect their overall financial picture, now and far into the future.

I create multiple communication/education programs associated with employee benefits, ranging from recruiting to new hire to annual enrollment materials and beyond. SPDs assume a unique position in this communication universe. In many ways, they are the backbone of any benefits program.

SPDs are legally mandated under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). ERISA specifies information, timing and distribution requirements to make sure participants are informed about how their benefits work and legal protections provided to them. [ERISA background]

SPDs provide employees important legal and regulatory details, such as rights and protections provided under ERISA. These include where to go for help; who is responsible for running the plan and what their duties entail; what benefits are insured, e.g., defined benefit plans under the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; what rights are in place if a claim is denied; and required notices, such as the Women’s Cancer Rights Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

SPDs are a comprehensive user’s manual and reliable reference tool. The SPD provides information about eligibility, enrollment, timing requirements, benefits provided, where to go for more information and much more. Rules can be complicated and have big financial implications.  [Requirements for a 401k SPD]

Participants are encouraged to read the documents carefully and keep them in a convenient place for future reference. Now SPDs are commonly posted electronically for easy access at any time.

Keeping an SPD up-to-date is the realm of a team of benefit professionals—HR staff, technical benefit consultants, specialized attorneys, and communicators. Legal contracts, insurance policies and documents that spell out how a benefit plan works must be translated into understandable language for the average person. [SPD Development Strategy]

Such an important document deserves our respect. We should all view the SPD as a valuable resource that helps employees find information, use their benefits effectively and appreciate their employer’s investment in their well-being.

For those  reasons, I love SPDs!

Pat Dodd is a senior consultant  at Smith Communication Partners. 

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Why You Should Audit Your Communication (And How To Do It)

When clients ask us to design a communication strategy, we often start with an audit of their current materials. Why? Because as Dr. Phil says, “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.” A communication audit is simply an objective analysis of your current state that can point you toward an improved future state.

A communication audit starts with an inventory and then a big sort. This is like Marie Kondo pulling all your clothes out of your closet and drawers and dumping them on the guest room bed.

  1.  Ask your team and vendors to send you electronic copies of all your HR and benefits communications. This should include emails, web pages, PDFs, videos, etc.
  2. Now, sort the communication samples in a way that makes sense for you. For instance, if you have a Total Rewards philosophy with five categories, you might sort the samples into Benefits, Community, Career, Wellbeing and Compensation.
  3. Sort those categories into campaigns. These might be Annual Enrollment, Incentive Statements, New Hire Orientation, etc.

There will be differences in how your team refers to documents, which can create confusion. For that reason, you’ll want to export an image of each document. It’s easier to know that “postcard #1” is the same item as “AE announcement postcard” when you have a picture of it in your audit report. At this point, you should know each communication element of each campaign. Piece by piece, you’ll run through an objective scoring system that rates:

  1. Accessibility / Delivery
  2. Visual Appeal
  3. Readability
  4. Clarity
  5. Completeness

Here is a sample of our scoring system, using a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest rating. You should rate the communications against industry best practices, and – if you have it – your internal brand guidelines. If you don’t feel informed enough to make these judgements, it may be useful to call in professional help at this point.

You can measure readability using these formulas. Just insert a sample of text, and the tool will give you a grade level report. Generally, 7th or 8th grade is a target reading level that works for lower-level readers as well as for higher-level readers who may just skim content.

Now, you’ll complete a more subjective analysis of each document. There is no reason to make this overly complicated: a simple pros/cons list will do the trick, along with your recommendations for improvement.

For instance, a “pro” might be “The sick leave policy is written and is up-to-date.” A con might be “Reading level is grade 14.” The pros/cons list allows you to flesh out the rating system with the observations that drove the ratings.

Once your ratings are complete, open up Excel. For each of the five categories, determine your average rating. If visual appeal averages out to 1.96, you know you have work to do in this area. We like to provide a summation for each category that speaks to “where you are,” “where you want to be,” and “actionable steps to get you there.”

At the end of your audit process, you should have a comprehensive inventory of your communications. You should also know:

  1. If each communication element is useful and continues to be required.
  2. How effectively each deliverable presented its key messages and your overall messaging.
  3. Specifically, how each deliverable might be improved.

Our clients will generally proceed to the next steps of incorporating the audit results into a total communication strategy. That strategy will move from the deliverable level to a bigger picture view, considering what communication channels may best serve the client’s audiences, and how individual campaigns should be improved as a whole.

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A Cupful of Good Sense

Behavioral science validates an appeal to retirement savings.

We all know (or have used) this useful little bit of wisdom to motivate employees to save more:

This commonsense comparison shows how very small sacrifices can be leveraged into future financial well-being. It uses a popular purchase, straight-forward math and solid financial advice to educate and motivate. But do we know if this argument actually persuades people to save more?

Probably not. Communicators are often not able to be data driven. There are many historic and practical reasons why this is so. Internal budgetary constraints, imprecise measurement tools and the difficulty in pinpointing attribution within any individual’s psyche are substantial challenges to proving the effectiveness of an appeal.

Instead, we know our audiences, their needs and wants, and how to gather and present our facts with reason and wit. We’ve done it this way since ancient Greeks. The usefulness of the coffee-a-day analogy was obvious and brilliant. So it caught on. It turns out, it’s also scientifically provable. 

Bite-size is easier

On a recent episode of Choiceology (a Charles Schwab podcast focused on personal economic choices), Katy Milkman looked at the merits of breaking sometimes overwhelming challenges into smaller more manageable tasks. Whether it be learning a new skill, rehabilitating from an athletic injury, building your business, or saving for retirement, dividing any large task into smaller segments is a winning strategy for creating initiative and staying on task.  

Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing and behavioral decision-making at UCLA, was a guest on that episode. Hershfield created a study around how reframing the same goal might change a person’s willingness to engage with change. Using a personal finance app (linked to users’ bank accounts), Hershfield presented an automated savings program framed as three distinct offers.

Users were offered one of the following savings plans and responded accordingly:

  1. Contribute $150 a month. (7% signed up for this offering.)
  2. Contribute $35 dollars a week. (11% signed up for this offering.)
  3. Contribute $5 a day. (28% signed up for this offering.)

Four times as many people signed up for the $5-a-day plan, even though the amount of money taken out each month was the same across all three plans. Why?

Hershfield concluded that people likely think about money in distinct “buckets.” The monthly offering competed with the most expensive items in most budgets, like rent and car payments. Whereas the $5-a-day bucket competed with any number of small insignificant purchases, like a cup of coffee. How significant the sacrifice “feels” to the saver is the most important driver. 

This is a useful insight for employee communicators. We offer employees pathways to wellness, health, continuing education, savings and more. Accomplishing these big, life-changing goals usually requires personal sacrifice on the front end and a payoff later. Breaking those goals into bite-sized actions can help employees find the motivation necessary to get started. 

Good to know

It’s good to know that our methods have merit. We understand that carefully framing an organization’s programs in ways that appeal to employees works. And works well.

It’s also good to know more. Employee communicators can benefit from work being done in fields like positive psychology, behavioral economics, and organizational psychology. The more we know, the better we will be at presenting wellness programs, benefits, retirement options, etc. with all the complexities of available choices in ways that both inform and motivate employees.   

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Please rate your last straw?

Loads of online surveys are destroying your engagement measurements.

In just the last two weeks, I’ve received 17 marketing surveys through email and/or text messages. More than one a day from companies large and small— my electric utility, a golf course, my insurance company, multiple online vendors, a coffeeshop, SaaS providers, etc. It’s like they are being piled on until I finally buckle under the load. Two in particular became my last straws. 

The first was from my dentist. She’s a fabulous dentist. An accomplished DMD, educator, former head of our state’s dental association. The perfect dentist. Except, she recently purchased a marketing package that facilitates (promotes) the use of digital surveys. They go out whenever you make, change or go to an appointment.

The second straw was from a roadside vendor who sells raw, local, and wild honey. So now the raw honey dude, selling off his truck’s tailgate, is push-marketing in my phone with SMS surveys? 

Enough, already!

Just because you can, should you?

This question should be the first hurdle any digital communication feature needs to clear before adoption. There are countless companies inventing new ways to push, pull, track, fence, compile and report endless streams of user/consumer/employee data. 

With more and more digital solutions coming online every year, we must think critically about these technologies. How are they received and perceived by the actual humans engaging with them? And how does this communication product/feature help us achieve our goals?

Today’s survey explosion is facilitated by platforms like Shopify, Facebook and Workday. What used to be a discrete function of a company like Survey Monkey, has been integrated into most major social media, online sales and human capital management platforms. These tools make creating and distributing surveys easy. Technically easy, that is. Creating and conducting surveys that yield valuable data still requires strategic thinking and implementation. 

Take my two surveys as examples. Does my dentist think I’m going to be more loyal or get more “dental care” because she asks about my wait or if the office is “nicely appointed?” The office is comfy, fully staffed and I never have to wait more than five minutes. She knows these answers before she asks them. She likely believes she’s increasing appreciation between her office and me. When, in fact, she is annoying me. 

What about the honey dude? He definitely prefers cash, but begrudgingly takes credit cards with a swiping device on his phone. His survey is likely generated by the credit card vendor, for their own purposes. There wasn’t a single question about the honeycomb/honey ratio (the only important question) or the wait times at the tailgate. I doubt he even reads the survey results.

Why are these two sending a survey after every interaction? Just because they can.   

Combatting Survey Fatigue

Unlike the honey dude, our clients create employee engagement surveys that are both important and well thought out. Unfortunately, empty marketing surveys are diluting the effectiveness of these important information-gathering tools.

When employee surveys suffer from reduced participation, disengaged responses and false data points, the culprit is likely survey fatigue rather than the quality of the survey architecture.


All effective communication adapts to the environment. To be heard in a loud room, you raise your voice or lean in closer. Signs on 70 mph roads need to be larger than those on 30 mph roads. And surveys conducted in an environment overrun with surveys need special attention to resonate.

You can elevate your engagement surveys in the minds of your employees, even when they are barraged with useless surveys.

Limit the frequency of your engagement surveys.  

An annual survey can be framed as highly important to the direction of the company. Quarterly surveys monitor employee attitudes and progress toward goals. Monthly surveys are not typically effective. It is very hard to institute meaningful change on a month-to-month basis and you dilute participation. 

Acknowledge survey fatigue.

Establish a limited survey schedule and let employees know that schedule in advance. Frame your surveys as important to the direction of the company. Let employees know that you are aware of the potential for survey fatigue and that you will not waste their time on activities that are not important. Employees are the only source for certain feedback. Tell them why they’re important and they’ll participate.

Make your survey relevant.

Surveys not only gather data they also communicate your organization’s values and business interests. Be certain your survey isn’t merely an exercise in polling employees. Make it a thoughtful process, transmitting important information between management and your workforce.

Employees want to be relevant to their company. Show them how their survey responses inform decision. Take the time to promote engagement surveys as vital to the ongoing success of your organization and employees will understand that these surveys aren’t the same as the throw-away versions they experience every day. 

Let’s Connect

If you want help designing and implementing employee engagement campaigns, we can help. We’d love to hear from you. 

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