Category Archives: Employee Communication

Fear Sells

If fear appeals are so effective, why not use them to promote employee benefits and wellness programs?

Marketers and advertisers use a psychological technique called a fear appeal to elicit consumer actions. Such appeals can be overt, like the fear of death. Or subtle, like the fear of body odors.

You’ll be rejected.
You’ll kill your baby.
You’ll die.

The cognitive dissonance created by fear might seem like a counterintuitive tactic, yet years of consumer research show that fear appeals:

  1. Grab attention to generate action quickly. For example, fear appeals are commonly used in health campaigns to discourage harmful behaviors like smoking or unhealthy eating habits.
  2. Induce vulnerability to create memorability. Fear appeals can make people feel vulnerable to. The impact of feeling vulnerable to specific risks or dangers can lead to making a change or a purchase that relieves those uncomfortable feelings.
  3. Highlight negative consequences to encourage behavior change. For instance, fear-based advertising in the automobile industry often highlights the dangers of not using seat belts to promote safe driving behavior.

So, if fear appeals are so effective, why not use them to promote employee benefits and wellness programs?

It is generally considered unethical and unproductive to use fear-based persuasion on employees. And for good reason. 

  1. Employees are a captive audience and must interact with your messages. This is a vulnerable position that employers should treat with respect. 
  2. While fear has been proven effective in leading to action, it has also been proven to have a detrimental effect on morale, productivity, and overall well-being. 
  3. Organizations that resort to fear-based tactics as a means of motivation run the risk of creating a toxic work environment and ultimately undermining employee satisfaction and performance. 

While it might be fun to think about creative (even scary) ways to get employees to participate in benefits and wellness programs, education and a focus on positive messaging is still the best approach to creating a positive work environment that fosters mutual respect and employee engagement. 

If you need help strategizing and creating great communication (except frightening employees) contact Smith. Employee communication is what we do. 

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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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Get Out of ERISA Jail

Four questions to ask your clients about their plans.

If you’re a benefit communicator, you can keep your clients out of ERISA jail (metaphorical only) by helping them keep their plans⏤and required disclosures⏤up to date by asking these four questions. 

Will your plans cover COVID treatment and vaccines at 100% after July 10, when the emergency period ends?

Benefits for COVID treatment may be covered the same as any other illness after this date, but the federal government encourages plan sponsors to keep the 100% benefit in place. The 100% benefit for COVID vaccinations is required separately by the CARES Act. Plans that want to provide a lower benefit must notify participants 60 days in advance by issuing a new Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) for each medical coverage option.

Did you describe the suspended (“tolled”) deadlines for filing claims, choosing COBRA, and making change of status notifications?

Some plan sponsors used a footnote in their annual enrollment SMMs to indicate the deadlines that were affected. The deadlines remain suspended for claims or status changes that occur before May 10, 2023. Because some plans allow claims to be filed up to a year after the date an expense is incurred, advise your clients to keep the tolled deadlines in their communications through the first half of 2024, and include the date the end effect of the emergency period ends.


You must request enrollment within 31 days* after the marriage, birth, or adoption…

* This deadline was extended on March 1, 2020, until the earlier of (a) one year after the original deadline, or (b) May 10, 2023. 

Will you extend the Special Enrollment Period for those who lose Medicaid coverage beyond the required 60 days?

With the end of COVID emergency period mandates, many people will lose their state-managed Medicaid coverage. This will drive lower-paid employees back into employer’s plans before the next open enrollment. Plans must allow eligible employees and dependents to enroll during the 60-day period after their Medicaid coverage ends. However, the federal government is encouraging plan sponsors to offer a more generous Special Enrollment Period window⏤ the 60-day period is a required minimum, not a maximum. Employers with a large group of lower-paid employees may want to communicate this opportunity to bring these eligible employees back into their plans through an organized mid-year campaign. 

Do your retirement plans change their required minimum distribution (RMD) dates with changes in the law?

Remember when you changed all the references in your retirement plan communications from “the year you reach age 70-1/2” to “the year you reach age 72?” You get to change them again. Under SECURE 2.0, the RMD rule applies at age 73 for participants who reach age 72 during this calendar year. And mark your calendar, because in 2032, that age jumps to 75. Plan sponsors will especially want to communicate this change to their vested terminated members. 

But have your client check their plan documents first! The language in some plans⏤especially defined benefit plans⏤is fixed on the original age 70-1/2 date. For some plan sponsors, that could result in different RMDs for their defined benefit and defined contribution plans⏤and the need for some carefully crafted communications to participants. 

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Same Tools, Different Rules

Digital marketing technologies and ethical restraint.

At Smith we think internal communications is special. 

What makes it special? Employees, of course. 

When we do our jobs well employees access opportunities that can help them stay healthier, enjoy retirement and put their kids through college. And employers maximize their valued employee relationships. Special. 

Same Tools, Different Rules. 

On the surface, communication looks the same across many fields and disciplines. 

Marketing, advertising, public relations and employee communicators all use similar tools and techniques. We all might create a brochure, website, or video intended to reach targeted audiences and produce desired outcomes. We all think strategically and creatively when presenting choices to our audiences. We all try to write clear and impactful messages.

The key difference is in the relationships we each have with our audiences and the ethical restraint that relationship requires. 

Smith’s clients occupy a position of trust with their employees; an ethos that informs and defines the tools we use and the persuasive approaches we take. False promises, outrageous promotions and scare tactics may work in sales, but they have no place in employee communication. 

Unfortunately, new players who don’t get this are moving into the HR communications space. Many of these firms consult clients on employee communication without experience in or appreciation for the ethical responsibilities inherent in it. 

Seeing employees as no different from any other anonymous end user, they recommend techniques and technologies intended to invisibly commoditize employee data and behaviors. Marketing what they call “results-driven” communication, these organizations promote:

  • Engaging in indiscriminate data collection.
  • Commingling personal and professional data.
  • Monitoring data that evaluates employee performance against often unstated wellness, training and other goals.
  •  Using behavioral science techniques, such as “gamification,” to influence employees “behind the scenes.”
  • Advocating for the use of apps to create AI-generated biases for or against criteria that’s not transparent to the user.

Solutions like these often have a myriad of analytical tools. However, these types of techniques and technologies show little appreciation for the pivotal role an employer plays in an employee’s life.

Employees want to trust their organizations to be faithful to the promises they make and transparent in the messages they communicate.  Employers need to trust employees to be reliable in their actions and transparent in their interactions with the organization.  

This reciprocal bond, when nurtured and protected through open and honest communication, runs deeper and lasts longer, than the often-short-term results generated by commercial, transactional communication.

Employees are key to organizational success. They deserve special treatment. 

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