Do cultural biases have an impact on the decisions your employees make about their retirement savings and benefits? “Of course,” says Chad Lewis, founder of Intercultural Focus, from Boston, Mass. Culture is something plan sponsors need to keep in mind not just when developing their plans, but when communicating their plans as well.

Lewis, the keynote speaker at the Benefits & Pension Summit, hosted by Benefits Canada, in Toronto today and tomorrow, kicked off the event with hard facts. According to Statistics Canada data, Canada has one of the highest foreign-born populations, with 19.6% born elsewhere. And, if trends continue as expected, by 2017 about 22% of the Canadian population will be foreign-born. “Why is this important?” he asks. Because these are your customers—but also your employees.

“Communication,” he says, “is the most important skill in life. It’s something we use everyday but we may not give a lot of thought to it.”

More than words
Communication is more than just verbal, it’s non-verbal as well. Body language, presentation and even silence are all forms of communication.

Most people are aware that how they present themselves, their hand gestures and the way they stand can reveal a lot before they even say a word. The same can be said about how your communication material is packaged. Lewis uses wedding invitations as an example. “How many people here sent their wedding invitations out on a napkin?” The audience’s light chuckle was all the answer he needed. He points out presentation of your materials is just as important as what they say. Obviously, there is no one style that suits all plans, but it’s something to consider when planning these vital tools.

How can silence be a form of communication? “Silence is not the absence of communication. When my wife gets mad at me, she gives me the silent treatment and I know exactly what that means,” he jokes.

Putting this into context (another important aspect of effective communication), when plan members are silent—despite your communication efforts and opportunities for them to ask questions—could this mean they don’t understand? Or, do they fully understand and have no questions? In regards to intricacies of their pension and or benefits plans, it’s likely the first.

Socially awkward
When you ask someone “How are you?” when you arrive at the office in the morning, you expect the standard, “Good, thanks. Yourself?” This has become a social norm. Often times, you really just mean “Good morning.” Then why don’t we say that? “Our culture has many things that, socially, you say one thing but mean something else,” explains Lewis. “If people don’t recognize this, they may think you are being insincere.”

Examples of this are common idioms and business jargon, such as “moving forward,” and “at the end of the day.” These are two items that could mean a number of different things and, when considering the diverse workplaces we now work in, need to considered when communicating to your audience.

“Communication is difficult, even in homogenous environments,” he says.

Think it through
So what can plan sponsors due better communicate to their diverse workforces? “Be aware that your employees may have different priorities,” Lewis says. “Be prepared to be able to adjust your offerings…[and have] better awareness of our own communication style and language.”

One small step that plan sponsors could take that may significantly improve the overall communication of their organization is to examine the message being sent.

  • Could you be offering benefits that make sense to you but not your employees? Is that why there are low take-up rates?
  • What in your materials might be open to interpretation?
  • Which words might have multiple meanings?

“A picture is worth a thousand words, but a word can be worth 1,000 pictures,” he said in summary, leaving the audience to contemplate one last item. “How can your literature be open to interpretation?”

The Benefits & Pension Summit is being held at the Westin Harbour Castle, in downtown Toronto on April 27 and April 28. Watch for more coverage of the conference over the next few days.

Other stories from the Benefits & Pension Summit:

Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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