Top tips for communicating benefit strategies to overseas employees

intercultural-communication-presentation-9-638Implementing a global benefits strategy can be a costly exercise, in terms of both the time and money invested in it.

As with anything that requires such a big investment, a multinational employer wants to ensure that its reward efforts are recognized, appreciated and provide a return for the business, so communication of that strategy is vital. There are several key tips to ensure employers’ communications around global benefits schemes are effective.

1. Create a plan

While it is an obvious starting point, any employer wanting to create a global benefits communication plan must first ascertain that it is at the right stage of development and define its reasons behind its plans. Roger Beech, senior international consultant at Towers Watson, says: “From an employee perspective, on the whole, there is a lack of understanding of benefits being provided, and that’s because of the lack of clear communication. That potentially creates issues in terms of lack of understanding of benefits: there may be poor, or non-optimal, choices being made.

“[Employers] want to make sure, particularly with things such as pension plans, that people understand if they’re being asked to make choices, the options that are available.”

Effective communication can differ between employers, and it can depend on the size and nature of the organization. Doug Rice, managing director – international services, Jelf International Benefits, explains: “Larger, more established firms, such as oil, pharmaceutical firms or banks, have established programs in place, which generally tend to be systems driven.”

As part of its initial plan, an employer must determine what it wants to include within its communications: for example, will these focus purely on benefits, on both compensation and benefits or on its overall employee value proposition? “Some more advanced, leading-edge organizations have looked at this from a total reward perspective,” explains Beech.

Those employers want to be able to articulate what it means to work for that organization, and to show compensation and benefits elements, as well as less tangible elements, such as company culture, learning and development and promotional aspects.

2. Do your homework on legal considerations

Implementing and communicating a benefits plan in a new location normally involves three critical considerations: compliance with the local security system; taxation of benefits; and securities laws and legislation. Many multinational employers carry out a benefits audit or inventory, to analyze how their benefits strategy compares with other organizations in its sector or location, and to ensure they meet compliance requirements. “First and foremost, are they compliant with social security, collective bargaining requirements and any regional legislation?” says Beech.

Mark Childs, director at reward management consultancy Total Reward Group, adds: “Before a benefits professional gets sign-off from the decision makers in the business, they really ought to be doing their due diligence: understanding what’s feasible in different countries; understanding what the likely costs are associated with getting a plan registered or approved; or getting the tax advice around a particular plan in a particular country.”

This information will then feed into the communications plan for a benefits strategy.

3. Work with local teams

In addition to tax rules and legislation, employers must be aware of local and cultural sensitivities. This can include things such as the language in which the communication is sent and the kind of language used, as well as considering how things are normally done in that country. For example, in the US, there is a culture of personal responsibility, whereby an employer can provide contact details and website addresses, but the individual will take responsibility to take further action.

Whereas in some Asian or European locations, for example, there is more of a paternalistic approach whereby the employer has traditionally been responsible for looking after employees.

4. Consider the communication methods used

How communications are sent is just as important as what is included. An employer should take the lead from local teams to ensure communications adhere to a specific country’s rules. Employers need to consider who they are communicating to, and can they communicate to all their employees, globally, in English? English might be the business language but are there legal requirements locally? Do these sorts of messages need to be communicated in a local language?

The way in which a question is phrased can differ between countries. For example, in some cultures, a ‘no’ would never be given to a question; just a ‘yes’ in a particular way, which would not always necessarily mean ‘yes’.  Language and tone are equally important.

An employer should also determine if it is okay to send email communications, for example, or if there is a requirement to send details to home addresses. Engaging local HR or benefits teams will help them to feel that they are part of the project and that this is not just an exercise that has been sent down from head office. Beech says: “If an organization is going to invest time and effort in doing this, it wants to maximize the clarity and value of the message. Therefore, it needs somebody to provide guidance on whether the message is clear, and whether or not it will be appreciated.”

Viewpoint: Communicating benefits: The role of employee voice

Although cultural differences might appear as important to account for the cross-national variation of human resource practices, institutional differences are equally important. Thereby, deciding on a communication strategy for benefits may not only reflect cultural but also institutional variability.

Communicating to a global workforce may take place via direct and one-way modes of employer communication, for example staff handbooks, posters, emails, newsletters, total reward statements, SMS, webinars, podcasts or more interactive means such as staff meetings or forums, intranets and social media such as internal Facebook sites.

The institutional perspective suggests the importance of representative institutions of employee voice that are embedded in particular institutional contexts.

Employee voice institutions refer to opportunities for employees to be involved in collective decision making. These include trade unions, collective bargaining and forms of works councils or consultation committees.

For example, collective bargaining provides a venue to negotiate various benefits, such as childcare, bonuses, healthcare, pensions and annual leave, and hence to communicate them to members. Thus, employees in organisations with collective bargaining agreements are typically well informed about those perks that take the form of entitlements.

By contrast, when employees rely only on downward information sharing, this may be unidirectional and less effective. The benefits strategy should be embedded into local employee voice institutions that reflect home-country arrangements and norms. As long as employees feel that they jointly shape benefits policies and their needs are taken into account, the communication strategy on benefits is bound to be more successful.