Mergers and acquisitions present a host of challenges, among them, the need to rationalize benefit plans. By factoring communication into all phases of the benefit review, it is possible to bring people and programs together, achieve efficiencies, and help build a stronger, more flexible organization.

1. Don’t rush the process. While changing all human resources policies at once may seem cleaner, a rushed job won’t allow time for consultation and is less likely to produce a satisfactory result.

2. Set up a team with representatives from each predecessor group. Ideally, the team members will bring familiarity with their current plans, history and culture, as well as any exceptions or special cases, to the review process.

3. Keep employees in the loop. Announce the purpose and parameters of the review and confirm that their group is represented on the team. Where appropriate, gather employee input through questionnaires and/or focus groups. Assure them that their opinions matter, and use their input to build the framework for the new program.

4. Don’t try to be all things to all people. When multiple plans are replaced by a single program, inevitably there are some winners and losers. Consider making transitional arrangements for those adversely affected but don’t clutter up the new plan design with permanent complications. In the long run, a simpler plan will be easier to explain and administer, and, if properly structured, will still address a wide range of employee needs.

5. Clean house and get your program up-to-date. Major cutbacks will not be well-received but minor cost-control adjustments could be acceptable when balanced by positive features of the new program. Explain the importance of keeping benefits plans sustainable in the face of rising health costs, government plan downloading and other challenges.

6. Don’t cling to old terminology. Put a fresh face on the program and adopt more current, user-friendly language. Improved packaging will help distance the new program from any of the predecessor plans, to avoid the impression that one plan has simply absorbed the others.

7. Allow time and resources for communication. Leave extra time for pre-testing communication material, translation, group presentations, option selection, etc. And make sure there are sufficient financial and staff resources to launch the new program effectively.

8. Get any “bad news” out of the way in advance. If some changes will be seen as negative, prepare the way with advance newsletters or memos that position these points in the right context. Include some “good news” to balance the picture.

9. Let employees know how they are affected personally. Presenting the new program with a standardized communication tool, such as an enrolment guide, will help establish the identity of a single companywide program going forward. Supplement the package with customized tools, such as memos and factsheets pertaining to particular groups or individuals.

10. Make the most of the opportunity. While addressing the key changes, also remind employees to update beneficiary designations and dependent information, and to familiarize themselves with their spouse’s coverage and coordination of benefits implications.

After the initial launch is over, avoid the common tendency to slide back into minimal communication practices. Establish an ongoing program that will keep the subject of benefits alive and well. On the whole, a wellcommunicated program will be used more responsibly and valued more highly by employees.

Karen Yukich is president of K. R. Yukich & Associates, a consulting firm specializing in employee communications in Toronto.