Category Archives: Employee Communication

Leveraging Tax Day

Promote HSAs during tax season for a better return.

Tax Day in the U.S. is anticipated by those receiving refunds; dreaded by those who owe. April 15 is a national touchpoint that creates an opportunity to promote the multiple tax advantages of a health savings account (HSA).

HSAs make sense

When coupled with a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP), an HSA is a great choice for many participants.* Some of the benefits of an HSA include:

Affordable. HDHPs have lower premiums and higher out-of-pocket costs. HSAs make these plans work.
Flexible. Participants have more control over how they spend their healthcare dollars on a variety of healthcare expenses such as dental, vision, and alternative medicine.
Portable. Participants own their HSA, allowing them to keep their savings when they change jobs or retire.
Valuable. Participants can build equity because an HSA acts as a long-term savings vehicle. (More so if employers contribute to participants’ HSAs.)
Deductible. HSAs allow participants to save pre-tax dollars on healthcare expenses, reducing their taxable income, which results in tax savings.

*Depending on individual circumstances and changes in tax laws, there could be limitations on and disadvantages to contributing to an HSA. Employers should encourage participants to consult a qualified financial advisor about the potential impact of participating.

HSAs make cents (and dollars)

There are more advantages than are commonly understood. Participants can benefit from these three and more:

  1. There is an April 15th loophole that allows participants to retroactively fund their HSA after they know their qualifying expenses from the previous year.
  2. Adult children who ARE covered under a parent’s health plan AND who are NOT claimed as a dependent on a parent’s tax return, can fund their own HSA.
  3. Qualifying expenses can be reimbursed years later. And HSA qualifying expenses are defined more broadly than an insurance company’s ⏤ ranging from aspirin to acupuncture (with a receipt). These HSA reimbursements are not taxed, unlike withdrawals from a 401(k), making HSAs potential rainy-day accounts.

Piggybacking on tax season messages

Tax season creates a timely opportunity to remind participants of the tax advantages that a health saving account benefit offers them.

Below are a few ideas to help get you started.

● Use tax season as a natural segue to a discussion of the tax benefits of an HSA, piggybacking your internal marketing efforts on other media messaging about tax deadlines.
● Remind potential participants that they have until April 15 of the current year to fund HSA dollars that can be used for qualified expenses incurred the previous year.
● Focus on a one or two-week campaign around April 15th for maximum impact, but don’t limit efforts to educate about the benefits of this valuable, but often overlooked, benefit all year long.

Need more ideas or help executing the ideas above? Contact Smith Communication Partners; participant communication is what we do.

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Racin’, Rubbin’ and Writin’

An appreciation of employee communication

“Rubbin’, son, is racin’.” In this line from Days of Thunder, the seasoned NASCAR crew chief is enlightening his rookie racer about the fuzzy line between illegal and legal contact.

Pushing the limits

There are many fields where the communicator’s purpose is to find an advantage, to push the boundaries, or even stretch the truth into gray areas. For example: 

  • Fiction is a product of the imagination.
  • Political communication is at best aspirational, and at worst deceptive
  • Legal arguments explore the boundaries of what’s acceptable
  • News media elevate the sensational
  • Advertising is crafted to attract and tempt consumers 

Though their work often supports aspects of certain gray areas, working within and even establishing boundaries is the work of another type of communicator. This type of communicator is specialized, careful and accurate. For example: 

  • Technical writing requires precision and clarity.
  • Regulatory communication clearly lays out rules and requirements. 
  • Academic writing is for like-minded peers and is often esoteric.

Employee communication is a hybrid discipline and a balancing act. It requires accuracy and precision to make it compliant to organizational and legal regulations. Yet it also must be accessible and compelling to the employee audiences.  

Organizational and legal guardrails are not to be rubbed against. They set the course, so that we can all race, cleanly and without any unwanted drama or pain. Employee communication isn’t about exploiting the gray areas. It’s about clearly defining legal, organizational and relational obligations. Employee communicators know where the guardrails are and make certain that the organization, the processes, and the employees all stay within them. 

Keeping it between the lines 

More Formula 1 than NASCAR, employee communication requires precision and careful execution. Mistakes can be costly. Careless communication can side line important initiatives and diminish the return on expensive investments.

Experience is the key quality of a successful and valuable internal communicator. There are no shortcuts to learning how to balance between compliance obligations and creative expression. It takes time, study, and years of doing the job to be good at it.

Once the parameters of the work are clearly understood, the greatest challenge for employee communicators is creativity—adding interest and making content compelling. 

It’s easy for employees, who are familiar with certain processes and information, to stop paying attention. For example, year-to-year the numbers and other facts might change, but the basic structure of an employee’s benefits package is often the same. That doesn’t make the details less important or less worthy of careful consideration and attention.

Making the familiar feel fresh requires knowing how to move the pieces around in new and inventive ways and finding graphicly evocative ways to appeal to different employee audiences. While the guardrails should keep us from using empty and flashy approaches, they shouldn’t stop us from making creative, elegant and inviting content.

The challenges we face during client engagements can’t be met by everyone. Smith has assembled a highly experienced and creative set of consultants to execute a precise and demanding job. And when we do that job well, we make a difference for employees, their families, and the organizations where they work. 

Employee communication, it’s what we do.

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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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Easy Choices

Do simple names help employees make complex decisions?

HDHP/HSA: An Overview 

Since its inception in 2004, the adoption rate of the High-Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) has been growing. Today, approximately 30% of covered workers in the United States participate in an HDHP. Originally offered as an alternative to PPOs and HMOs, the HDHP was intended to incentivize consumer behavior in healthcare. Its plan design, which allows it to be paired with a tax-advantaged Health Savings Account (HSA), was distinct from existing medical plan options and the name alone made it easy for HDHPs to stand apart.

The Challenge of Naming a Plan

As acceptance has grown, so have the options. Employers are increasingly adding not just one HDHP, but multiple HDHPs. In these cases, quickly distinguishing one HDHP option from another through use of a descriptive plan name can be challenging. 

This is due, in part, to low understanding among employees of key medical plan features:

  • Premium: the amount the employee pays for the coverage each month
  • Deductible: the amount the employee pays for covered services before their insurance starts to pay
  • Copayment: a fixed dollar amount the employee pays for certain healthcare services
  • Coinsurance: the employee’s share of the costs of a healthcare service once coverage kicks in 
  • Out-of-Pocket Maximum: the most the employee pays during the plan year before the plan starts to pay 100% of the allowed amount

Generally, higher deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums result in lower premiums and multiple HDHPs are distinguished from each other by these amounts (rather than by features such as access to out-of-network providers).  

Comparing these multiple plans can be challenging for employees because there are many variables must be compared against one another.

  • How much will this cost me each month?
  • How much health care will my family use?
  • How much risk am I taking over the course of the year?
  • How much will my medications cost?
  • How much can I save in HSA over time?

These are not trivial one-to-one cost analysis. They are highly individualized and impactful for most employees’ health care budgets. Therefore, finding simple, easily understood names for the plans is also difficult and complicated.  

Common Approaches to Naming HDHPs

Metallic Plans (Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze)

This is likely the most familiar option, as it is employed by Similar to how they are used in the Olympics (or by jewelers), these metals distinguish plans by actuarial value with Platinum being the highest followed by Gold, Silver and Bronze. 

Metallic names seem to offer an immediate recognition of value. (Would you rather have an ounce of bronze or an ounce of Gold?) However, metallic names are problematic, because it’s not necessarily clear to the employee what that value means. 

It could easily be inferred that Platinum plans are most expensive, but that’s only true with regard to premiums. Yet, high premiums may be a waste of money for people who don’t use very much health care.  It could also be inferred that Bronze plans are worth less, but they could be a better deal for the employee based on their use of health care, and a greater ability to save money in an HSA. 

Deductible Amounts

Including the deductible amount in a plan’s name immediately conveys useful information about the underlying plan. However, as mentioned above, employees might not necessarily understand this concept. For example, some employees might be willing to pay higher premiums in exchange for a lower deductible because they may assume a lower deductible means “more” or “better” coverage.

Some employers use only the individual deductible in the name (which can cause confusion for those who choose family coverage), and some use both the individual and family deductible, (which can result in long or clunky names).

  • Single Deductible Approach: HSA $1,500 and HSA $3,000
  • Both Deductible Approach: HSA $1,500/$3,000 and HSA $3,000/$6,000

Comparative Descriptors

Another approach is to use descriptive terms that attempt to convey how the plans are different. However, these approaches have similar pros and cons as the metallic names; they have inherent meanings but might mislead employees.

  • HSA Premium and HSA Standard 
  • HSA Plus and HSA 
  • HSA High and HSA Low 
  • HSA and HSA Core 
  • HSA and HSA Basic
  • HSA and HSA Value 
  • HSA High Use and HSA Low Use

Non-comparative Descriptors

Another approach would be to use descriptors that merely indicate the two options are different without implying any comparison. These labels have no inherent meaning. Employees would have to learn what each means over time.

  • HSA Blue and HSA White
  • HSA 1 and HSA 2
  • HSA A and HSA B


There is no right or wrong approach to naming HDHPs. The metallic names, though simple and easy to understand, are imperfect. Other comparative and descriptive methods also fall short. Simplicity cannot be the ultimate concern. 

Employees need to understand the features of their health plans through effective communication and tools that help them model and compare the offered plans against their individual circumstances. Any name will work, if it is properly supported with information employees can usefully access and apply.

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