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Employee advisory committees promote benefits buy-in

When it comes to designing and communicating employee benefit programs, employee input and involvement can be a boon. After all, one of the best ways to gain buy-in for and to communicate employee benefit programs is to use peer-to-peer interaction. If a group of employees supports these programs and makes it a point to tell other employees, organizations can build buy-in for programs and changes more readily.

How organizations structure this employee involvement varies. Some opt for the simplest type of employee input in the form of employee focus groups and surveys. Others establish a task force to promote a specific benefit offering, such as health promotion programs. Still others create broad-based committees that assess an organization's total benefits mix.

Employee advisory committees, as the name suggests, meet regularly or as needed to provide input on benefit programs and other issues affecting employees and the employment relationship. Some of these committees are highly formal, with set terms for members, regularly scheduled meetings, and minutes taken and shared. Many unions, colleges and universities, and public-sector employers maintain employee advisory committees, but they can play a role in almost any organization.

Getting the most out of a committee

“When used strategically, employee advisory committees can have demonstrable, positive impact by providing the employee point of view on benefits,” said Anita Doncaster, a partner with consulting firm Aon Hewitt in Charlotte, N.C.

If an organization is going to use an employee advisory committee, it needs to be prepared to take the group’s feedback and concerns seriously. Not all employers are willing to do that. “The deterrent is that many employers may not always be in a position to take the advice of employees serving on an advisory committee so they are hesitant to seek their opinions,” said Doncaster.

This is certainly a risk, but an employee advisory committee can yield important insights into what employees want and value in a benefits program. “Employers do not want to be spending money on a program that few employees use or care about, and it can be a mistake to change or cut programs that are considered sacred cows by employees,” said Kelly Jones, senior vice president with Sibson Consulting in Cleveland. “If the committee tells you what programs fall into either of those categories, you can more confidently eliminate or cut back on less-valued programs and use that money to invest in something that is more important to employees.”

Picking the right people

One of the most important decisions to make when establishing a committee is deciding who will serve on it. The employees serving usually do not have a strong grounding in employee benefits programs, how they work, and the issues and decisions involved in designing and administering these programs. This can make it difficult to communicate to the committee the employer’s rationale and decision-making around certain issues, such as plan design and cost sharing.

“Employers should consider choosing people who are natural leaders -- not necessarily named leaders in the organization but people who have influence in the organization,” said Doncaster. “I would also choose people who are not natural leaders but who are thoughtful and who are considered high-potential employees.” The rationale is that keeping high-potential employees happy is a crucial role for employee benefits. By having these employees on the committee, the employer gains insight into what a high-potential employee wants from the benefits program.

Perspective is also important. In some cases, committee members might come in assuming that the employer does not have employees’ best interests at heart. To overcome this, HR and benefit professionals need to be transparent and explain the issues. This requires time and effort that can pay off if it ends with the committee’s support for planned changes and programs the organization wants to communicate.

Committee members become de facto ambassadors who can help communicate benefits issues to other employees. Moreover, the messages these ambassadors send are likely to be well received. As employees themselves, committee members have had the same questions as their peers and will seek to answer those questions in a way that makes sense to peers

Taking it seriously

Employee advisory committees can fulfill a number of roles for an employer. However, for the committee to thrive and its members to contribute wholeheartedly, the employer should be as transparent as possible in its dealings with the committee and should be ready to act on its findings and recommendations or to explain why it cannot or will not do so. “This needs to be a transparent process for there to be any credibility,” said Jones.

At the same time, employers need to be clear upfront about the committee’s purpose and mandate and how the company is going to use the committee’s input. This includes the rules for the committee: how frequently it will meet, where, and so on. “It is the employer’s job to help the committee understand what is happening in the organization and how the committee’s input will help resolve those issues,” said Doncaster. “Don't try to manipulate their data or input, and don't try to spin any negative messages that need to be delivered. If an employer does anything like this, the advisory committee members are likely to be less inclined to be open and honest.”

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.

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