3 Reasons You Need a Professional Writer for Your SPDs

By JoAnn Gulbin
Communication Consultant 

Raise your hand if you procrastinate updating your Summary Plan Descriptions (SPDs). Yep, thought so.

While we all know that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requires SPD updates on a regular basis, actually making the updates can be time-consuming and difficult, and can fall to the bottom of the to-do list.

That’s where a professional benefits writer can help. While your first instinct may be to look just to your ERISA attorney or plan administrator, partnering with a writer who has SPD expertise can ensure a better outcome. Here’s why:

SPDs are required by ERISA to be written in plain English and easily understood by the average employee. A lawyer’s focus on fulfilling the requirements of ERISA can mean clear and concise descriptions of key plan provisions are often sacrificed. While it’s essential to include legal input and review during the SPD drafting process, it’s best to leave the writing to someone focused on effectively communicating the plan provisions and how to best utilize plan benefits.

An inadequate SPD is a liability. SPDs offered by third-party administrators are often “off-the-shelf” products that are minimally customized for your plan. This approach runs the risk of critical plan provisions being omitted or inadequately described, leaving you open to legal action by plan participants in a claim dispute. And remember, the plan documents provided by administrators do not fulfill ERISA’s SPD requirement unless they are accompanied by a wrap document that includes the information required by ERISA.

Your SPD is more than just a legal requirement. Viewing your SPD simply as a legal document is too often a lost opportunity to educate plan participants about their benefits; instead, give employees a communication that helps them make informed decisions and appreciate the overall value of the plan.

Communication Insight

Transform your SPDs into valuable communication tools by thinking less like a lawyer – and more like your employees. Need help drafting or updating your SPD? Contact us.

Reminder! For those of us who haven’t memorized the ERISA requirements for SPDs:

SPDs for new plans must be provided to participants and beneficiaries within 120 days of that plan’s effective date.

SPDs for existing plans must be provided within 90 days of the date a participant begins to be covered.

If material changes are made to a plan, a Summary of Material Modifications (SMM) must be provided within 210 days after the end of the plan year in which the change was effective.

Every five years, assuming a plan has changed, a new SPD must be provided to all participants (every 10 years if there have been no changes).

There are serious financial penalties for noncompliance.


Are your new hire materials sending the right message?

4 reasons to make a positive first impression

By Danielle Foley
Senior Communication Consultant 

We know that good benefits communication is essential for helping employees make smart decisions during annual enrollment. But what about your new hires? Are the materials they receive an afterthought?

Here are 4 reasons why it’s so important for your new hire materials to make a positive first impression:

  1. New hires are a captive audience. If there’s one time when employees (and their spouses/partners) are laser-focused on benefits, it’s during the hiring and onboarding process. This is your chance to broadcast all the great benefits your company offers and reaffirm their decision to join. It’s also an opportunity to quantify the investment you’re making in them through your total rewards package.
  2. As Mom always says, you only have one opportunity to make a good first impression. Even though they’re already hired, sending enthusiastic new employees—especially millennials—a huge packet of paper forms or multiple PDFs they need to download gives the impression that you haven’t joined the digital age. Chances are you used cutting-edge tactics like social media and digital advertising in your recruiting process, so don’t stop there. Offer new hires a simple, clean microsite with everything they need to know and do about benefits. As an added advantage, a website outside the firewall means spouses can log on, too.
  3. You get the chance to market those perks and programs that don’t require annual enrollment. Again, back to that captive audience thing. If you’ve got great perks, like student loan repayment, volunteer time off, fertility benefits, back-up child care programs, or even pet insurance…this is your chance to advertise them. These benefits provide a huge bang for the buck, especially with younger employees. And—bonus marketing!—they’ll also tell their friends and family about them.
  4. New hires are expensive, so make sure they stay. With the unemployment rate so low, talent is in limited supply. Research shows that new hires make the decision to stay with a company long-term within the first six months on the job. So, engage them right away with new hire materials that impress.

Communication Insight

Great new hire materials don’t have to break the bank. The New Year is the perfect time to repurpose your annual enrollment communication so that your new hires get the same top-notch benefits information as long-timers.

Need help with your new hire materials? Contact us.

Effectively Communicating Corporate Change Initiatives: Where do you begin?

By guest blogger Darlene E. Arroyo, RN, BS, COHN-S

Senior management has just approved a corporate change initiative. Your leaders are excited about the change and ready to communicate to employees. How do you ensure the information is effectively conveyed?

Ask yourself:

Who is impacted by the change?
Identify your audiences. Think about salaried, union, part-time, and hourly employees; contractors and interns; as well as inactive groups like retirees or employees on a leave of absence. Then consider any need to segment your messaging to managers, leaders, or other specific groups.

What should each audience know, feel, and do?
As you draft your key messages, consider any differences in how the change impacts each audience, and tailor the key messages to each group. Ideally, hear what your employees have to say first to learn what the change means directly from those being impacted. A listening “road show” can be a series of focus groups, a brief “pulse” survey, or even informal conversations.

If union employees are affected, get input from the union leadership team to ensure the language aligns with Collective Bargaining Agreements.

If the change impacts employees outside the United States or who speak different languages, plan to get input from local representatives to confirm understanding and translation.

How much detail does each audience need?
Employees want to know what is changing and what the change means to them. Tell them as simply and clearly as possible. Use visuals (infographics, before-and-after diagrams, process flow charts, etc) whenever possible to reinforce the message.

Vague content can create confusion, causing your team to spend hours replying to e-mails or telephone calls. But you don’t want to overwhelm readers with too much detail.

The solution? Pair your base communication with a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) document, anticipating as many questions as possible. As the change rolls out, update the FAQs as new questions come in.

What’s the best way to reach each audience?
While email can seem to be an effective approach to reaching a large number of employees at one time, your communication could get lost in overloaded inboxes. There are lots of additional digital and print choices available; using a “surround sound” approach that includes a variety of vehicles can successfully reinforce the message.

Other channels to consider:

  • Intranet banners and articles
  • Social media posts
  • Manager or HR toolkits
  • Plasma screens or poster announcements
  • Postcards, print newsletters, or other home mailers
  • Interactive infographics
  • Digital guides
  • Short videos
  • Texting campaigns
  • App notifications
  • Webinars/lunch-n-learns

If the change involves financial or regulatory changes to retirement or 401K plans, or an update to the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) regulation, be sure to include a home mailing component.

When should the communication go out?
Coordinate timing with your internal Communication department so you can be sure you won’t overload employees or compete with other important announcements.

Also, avoid sending communications about major changes at times when an employee may be distracted, such as directly before a holiday or during a corporate down-sizing or reorganization.

Communication Insight

Communicating corporate changes successfully means focusing on each audience’s needs.

Need help planning your change communication? Contact us.