HR Hacks: Breaking Down The Benefits Barrier With Plain Language

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HMO and PPO and HDHP – oh my! Hello again, it’s Meisha, PlanSource’s resident Content Manager, here to give you some fresh HR insight.

While your company might offer stellar benefits and competitive perks, all of your investments mean nothing if employees don’t understand what these benefits and perks actually mean.

Unrelated, but have you ever applied for a mortgage? Well, I have not. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing for an almost-30-year-old is up for debate, but one thing I can tell you is that there is A LOT of jargon thrown around that goes well above my head. I have a lot of smart, adult friends that are busy doing smart, adult things like getting married and buying houses, and when they talk to me about the process and their pain points I just smile and nod like I know what the heck they are talking about. Spoiler alert: I do not. And guess what—your employees might very well have this exact same feeling while you are busy going over their annual benefits.

It’s time to break down the benefits barriers and initiate real conversations about benefits using simple, plain language.

Not sure where to get started? No worries, we’re here to help!

Read our breakdown of plain language below or skip to our sections on tips for writing in plain language or how to use plain language for HR.

Why Benefits Information Is Hard To Understand

Those of us that work in or closely with employee benefits and insurance sometimes forget that our industry language can be confusing and complicated. Benefits lingo is not common knowledge and should be translated into user-friendly alternatives to increase engagement and understanding.

Almost half of all employees do not understand employee benefits materials.* Click To Tweet


Here are the issues with how benefits information is traditionally conveyed:

  • Complex information in materials and presentations
  • Messaging includes industry-specific jargon and acronyms
  • The health care system (providers, networks, forms, etc) is increasingly complex and confusing


*International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans

Understanding ‘Plain Language’—In Plain Language

Yep—’plain language’ is an actual thing, and understanding this simple concept will vastly improve your HR communications.

Often confused with ‘dumbing down’ writing, using plain language is actually about putting the reader first. The fundamental traits of plain language include readability, intelligibility and usability. The goal of using plain language in your communications is to craft messages that your audience can easily read, process, understand and use.

The fundamentals of plain language broken down:

  • Relevance – The information is highly relevant and easy to read and understand with minimal effort.
  • Coherence – The information is easy to absorb, has a natural flow and eliminates ambiguity.
  • Usability – Usability essentially means effectiveness. Does your writing incite action and drive results?
HR manager teaching benefits education class

Flesch-Kincaid is a popular reading score formula that is often used to judge readability. The score will tell you roughly what level of education your reader would need to be able to understand your text. For example, here are a few popular novels and their approximate reading level: 

  • Harry Potter = Middle School
  • Jurassic Park = Early High School
  • A Brief History of Time = Late High School

To further demonstrate this, and to help match appropriate writing for each communication method, check out this handy chart:

flesch kincaid diagram for HR communications

Of course, this is not the ‘end all be all’ scale for any one team, but rather an example for the average professional workforce. Consider your unique workforce, their communication skills and preferences, and adjust your writing accordingly.

Tips For Writing In Plain Language

If the chart above is a bit too ambiguous, take these actionable tips to simplify and improve your writing:

  • Limit each paragraph to one idea and keep it short
  • Use short sentences whenever possible
  • Eliminate unnecessary words and phrases
  • Use headings, lists and tables whenever possible
  • Write using an active voice
    • Ex: “Enrollment must be completed by all employees by October 31st”—passive – vs – “All employees must complete enrollment by October 31st”—active
    • Here’s a passive voice detector tool to help spot passive writing

See more tips for writing in plain language here. 

Three Steps To Simplifying HR Communications

Whether you handle your benefits materials in-house or you work with a third-party, take these steps to simplify your benefits messaging.

Step #1: Re-write your benefits materials

Ok, admittedly this sounds like a huge pain, but hear me out. Re-thinking your benefits materials is the first step in embracing a new approach to benefits communications.

The beginning of the year is the perfect time to start planning your new and improved open enrollment. Not only will starting early give you plenty of time to adjust the messaging in your materials, but it will also provide time for feedback and edits from real users—aka your employees. You are creating these resources and materials for your employees, after all, so why not include them in the process?

If you’re still not sure where to get started, focus on simplifying your messaging while also using plain, simple vocabulary to explain complex concepts. Of course, this sounds easy on paper, but putting the pen to paper (or keyboard to screen, as it is now) can be a challenge. If you don’t feel comfortable auditing and revising your benefits materials in-house, consider partnering with a benefits communications expert that can guide the way.

Step #2: Invest in user-friendly tools and resources

The next step in revamping your benefits materials and simplifying your messaging is to ensure you have an arsenal of tools to help you and your employees along the way. The options are essentially endless, but we do have a few favorites:


Video is an absolute no-brainer when it comes to benefits education—Not only because it grabs attention, engages viewers, and improves information recall, but also because it’s free! Yes—believe it or not, you can incorporate video into your benefits education arsenal for no cost. Check out the PlanSource video library for access to free educational videos, no strings attached.

Shameless self-promotion aside, video is a proven way to convey complex topics in a fun and engaging way.

Video can be used in several ways. A video postcard is a unique and efficient way to announce your most important open enrollment information, like dates, required materials, etc. And, educational videos are a great option for hosting on a benefits website or within your benefits enrollment platform for real-time support.


Decision Support

Wouldn’t it be great if you could provide real-time support for benefits questions and concerns that pop up during open enrollment? Great news—you can!

Decision support tools are hardly new, but the features and functionality that this technology provides have come a long way over the past few years. Decision support will help explain complex benefits concepts, provide unbiased recommendations based on your employees’ individual needs and give your employees confidence in their benefits decisions. And, it does all of this while taking the burden off your HR department, which is well worth the investment in itself.

The individual experience will vary per product, but you should look for a decision support tool that can:

  • Guide employees through the benefits shopping experience
  • Make plan coverage recommendations
  • Match employees with the plan and coverage that are a true best fit
  • Explain why the recommended plan and coverage level are a good fit
  • Be a fun, relatable experience that employees actually want to use

Luckily for you, PlanSource offers built-in decision support tools. And, we partner with Jellyvision, which offers a pretty cool product that will take your enrollment experience to the next level.


Benefits Website

Benefits guides, educational videos, carrier information, prescription guides… the list of enrollment materials goes on and on. Make this easily accessible and convenient for your workforce by hosting all materials on one central benefits website. Then, you can have one single place to reference for all of your guides, forms, etc.

And, if you’re worried about your benefits website being public, keep in mind that you can ‘hide’ materials behind a private login that can only be accessed by employees.

Step #3: Solicit Feedback From Employees

In the real world, products and services often undergo several iterations and improvements that are solicited through focus groups and beta tests. While a formal ‘beta test’ might be overkill, soliciting real feedback from your employees is not!

Are you considering adding a new feature or functionality (ex: decision support) to your enrollment platform? Ask your employees! Are you considering rolling out a new benefits website and you want to make sure you have the appropriate information available? Ask your employees! Are you wondering if your new benefits materials are easy to understand? You know what to do… Ask your employees!

There you have it, our plain and simple guide to re-vamping your benefits materials with plain language. My challenge to you? Survey your employees to gauge their understanding of last year’s benefits materials. The results might just surprise you and be the support you need to improve your education and enrollment materials and processes.

Need Help Simplifying Your Communications?

That’s our specialty. We live, breathe and love employee benefits and helping employees better understand their perks. Contact us below to see how a custom communications package can help put your benefit investments front and center.

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