5 Tips for Communicating Difficult News
Context is Key – Especially During Open Enrollment
Do you have some hard news to tell employees this fall? Are rates going up? Plan designs changing? PPO options going away?
It’s almost inevitable that you’ll have to convey some not-so-popular messages to employees at some time or another. Here are some tips for doing it a little more gracefully as you try to gain employee understanding and acceptance.
- Be direct and transparent
The worst thing you can do is ignore the change, brush over it or bury it deep within your messaging. Employees expect you to acknowledge what’s happening directly and transparently. According to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, “People today grant their trust based on two distinct attributes: competence (delivering on promises) and ethical behavior (doing the right thing and working to improve society).” Transparent communication is the only way to demonstrate those attributes.
To ensure consistency, develop key messages and make sure all spokespersons are using them. That includes the people who will be answering employee questions on the phone or via email.
- Context is key
Whenever possible, explain the “why” – the reason behind the change.
- What is driving the change? Health care cost inflation? High claims costs? Other budget concerns?
- What alternatives did you consider? Did you raise premiums so you could keep plan design the same, or did you adjust the plan design to maintain current premiums? Did you work with consultants to consider alternatives?
- How does this change affect the cost-sharing ratio? Are you sharing costs at a competitive level – say 70%/30% or better? If so, it can be helpful to tell employees and let them know how you compare to competitors in your industry.
Also consider the context of your message. Be aware of other messages the company is sending around this time so you don’t draw a sharp contrast. For example, it’s not wise to announce a hike in benefit costs at the same time you’re launching a fundraising campaign.
- Demonstrate understanding and provide a plan of action
It’s OK to acknowledge that the change is difficult. Explaining how the change will affect employees demonstrates that you understand their feelings and empathize.
Part of that acknowledgment includes suggesting steps employees can take to adjust to the change and providing a source for getting questions answered. Your benefits advisor can help you with ideas like:
- Provide tools to help employees choose the best plan
- Explain the advantages of any new or different plans
- Re-acquaint employees with cost-saving tools like asking for generics, choosing the right care setting or using services like GoodRx when you’ve had a formulary change.
- If appropriate, remind employees they can look at ACA Marketplace plans or seek coverage under a spouse’s plan
- Timing is important
Especially when you have bad news to share, start as early as you can to educate and prepare people for the change.
If possible, share the news with all employees simultaneously. If the news gets out early, the rumor mill will take over, likely spreading a story worse than the real one.
If you don’t have the facts, tell employees when you will more details and how you will communicate them.
A few more suggestions
- Whenever possible, engage employees in the solution by finding ways to listen to them. This can take the form of focus groups before the change is decided or follow-up surveys to understand the impact of the change. You will make better decisions with employee input, and employees will accept changes more readily if they feel they’ve had a voice. Be sure to acknowledge their input when you announce your decisions.
- Don’t send bad news on a Friday. You’ll look like you’re trying to hide it.
- Prepare for objections. Gather your team and work out some worst-case scenarios and how you’ll respond.
Communicating bad news is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage. With these tips in mind, you’ll be much better prepared.