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Jennifer Benz April 12, 2016 4 min read

Why you need to communicate more during times of uncertainty

Communication in uncertain times image

When we last addressed this subject, we were in the midst of the Great Recession and just weeks away from what would be an historic presidential election. People were anxious about their jobs and their financial wellbeing. Fast-forward eight years, and again, with an election just months away, many people are nervous about the economy, their jobs, and their future security. To retain your best employees in this environment, employers need to be communicating more—and getting executives and leaders to be more visible and accessible to employees.

Just because you don’t have all the answers doesn’t mean you shouldn’t communicate. You’re allowed to tell employees what you don’t know along with what you do know. Do acknowledge issues that you know are top-of-mind for employees (like layoffs or salary increases), but don’t delay communicating until you know every last detail—that’s how rumors get started and why employees start feeling like decisions are being made without them.

One of the interesting findings in our 2014 Inside Benefits Communications Survey was that fewer companies were communicating year-round than in 2012. While many factors could have influenced that change, I believe a big one was the uncertainty around health care strategy during the Affordable Care Act rollout. So, at a time when employees needed and wanted more communication from employers, many companies were actually communicating less frequently.

Let’s not repeat that this year. Here are a few tips for communicating successfully during times of uncertainty:

How do we shift communication tactics during a time like this?

First of all, don’t think that communicating in an uncertain environment calls for a completely different approach. You can apply the same rules that you use when communicating “business as usual”—be consistent, open, honest, engaging, authentic, etc. The difference is the topic you’re talking about and the inevitable emotions and fear that are involved. Take all of those into consideration, but don’t rethink the rules or overlook what has worked well in the past.

We’re about to roll out big benefits changes. How do we set context and let employees know that these are not a reaction to recent events but part of a longer-term strategy?

In an ideal world, you’ve had several years to educate your employees about your health care strategy, and they know what’s been happening to health care costs and how your company is handling them. If that sounds like a fairy tale, you’re not alone. With wages almost flat, health care costs rising, and an election in the offing, employees are feeling the pain. It’s important to get the health care cost message into your leadership’s overall business communication. You don't want your execs to be talking only about overall business strategy and cutbacks or freezes at the same time that your HR team starts communicating about benefits cost increases. Not only will you appear uncoordinated, but it will also confuse employees who thought that they were getting the whole story from execs.

Incorporate these into your communication for more success:

  • Let employees know what’s happening in the health care “big picture,” along with what exact changes are being made and why.
  • Be specific about the impact to health care costs by showing comparisons between current and future plan offerings (don’t make employees do the math themselves).
  • Give employees specific examples that are relevant for them, based on demographics/family situations.
  • Show employees how they can save money with their choices (e.g., by moving to a lower-cost plan or enrolling in the FSA or HSA).

If we haven’t been communicating, won’t an “out of the blue” communication sound the alarm that something really bad is happening?

Not if you do a good job with your communication. Let employees know why they’re getting new information—they’ll appreciate your honesty. Also, be completely transparent about what’s happening and why you’re communicating—following the “let them know what you don’t know rule.” The current environment is an ideal opportunity to get a communication process in place, even if it’s informal and needs some fine-tuning over time.

How do we make employees feel more secure?

Talk to them, give them a way to talk back (e.g., responding to a leadership blog), and respond to questions and concerns. Keeping the dialog open is the best way to earn respect and loyalty from your employees during uncertain times.

Need help talking about health care changes?

The health care landscape will continue to shift as provisions of the ACA roll out through 2018. For context that will help you craft your employee benefits communications, read our blogs: “Get out ahead: Key pre-enrollment benefits messages about health care reform” and “Take care to communicate ACA messages.”

Jennifer Benz

Jennifer Benz, SVP Communications Leader, has been on the leading edge of employee benefits for more than 20 years and is an influential voice in the employee benefits industry.