Promote perks to potential staff

Given that most employers try and attract the best talent with whizz-bang benefits, it’s a little odd that often they are not widely trumpeted during recruitment. They should be marketed in a clear, straightforward manner. By Victoria Furness

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You want the best talent but cannot offer the best salary, so what do you do? According to most employers caught in this predicament, the answer is to compensate with a compelling benefits package that gives a competitive total reward offering. The irony, however, is that outside the realms of senior management, many employees receive little more than a cursory reference to their potential benefits package during the recruitment process.

Suzanne Russell, account director at employee communications agency, Caburn Hope, says: “In the past, organisations have been very vague about the often excellent employee benefits they offer, despite the substantial investment they make in providing them.” So what can organisations do to avoid a communications breakdown at this critical stage? There are some key golden rules that need to be followed in any benefits communication. The first is making sure that benefits are expressed in clear and jargon-free terms. “Too often the subject of benefits is wrapped up inside uninteresting and out-of-date leaflets. Even HR managers would have trouble understanding what the subject is about,” says Russell.

Tim Roberts, managing director of Talking People, an internal communications consultancy, also favours simplicity. “I am still a fan of the one-page document that runs through the employee benefits and enables the recruiter to relate the candidate’s own experiences to the benefits [package].” Media company Emap has followed this strategy and developed a one-page document entitled ‘Coming on Board’, which it sends out to prospective employees to outline the benefits available.

Stewart Grant, group benefits manager at Emap, says: “Our strategy in employee benefits is to make people aware of what is on offer and then let them ask questions at interview if they want more detail.” The tone of any benefits communication is also important and ties into a candidate’s perception of an organisation. “It is increasingly becoming an objective by many companies to talk with respect and empower employees. A company that introduces candidates to exciting, well-designed tools treats that candidate with respect straightaway, rather than if it had sat them in a classroom and lectured them on employee benefits,” says Caburn Hope’s Russell.

The message also needs to be consistent from top to bottom. Often this might mean bringing together two separate teams – such as the reward and new hire teams – to work on the overall communications strategy. Karen Scott, director with Scottish recruitment consultants Hudson Executive, warns: “If you leave the communication of the benefits package to HR, the message will not get through. So make sure that key industry spokespeople know about available benefits.” Equally crucial is tailoring the message to suit your target audience. “Look at market segmentation, what your culture is and whom you are trying to target.

If you work at B&Q, for example, and are trying to recruit the over-55s, there is no point in telling them about parental leave extension,” she adds. At the same time, Talking People’s Roberts warns organisations not to narrow down their message too much. “You cannot always assume, for example, that a young person will not be interested in a pension scheme. He or she might be talking to other people behind the scenes.”

While job adverts offer a teaser of what is in store for candidates, interviews present ideal opportunities to run through the benefits package in more detail. Jez Chance, marketing manager for UK staffing at pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, says: “Typically, when people get to the interview stage, they are pretty au fait with our flexible benefits package, AZ Advantage. However, the devil is in the detail and recruiters are trained to get into the detail of what is included in the benefits package [at interview] and how it compares to a candidate’s current offering.” Following up the recruitment process with a survey asking candidates about their experience is a good way of gaining valuable feedback and improving the communications strategy.

“You can also find out what your competitors are up to,” adds Hudson’s Scott. In a tight labour market, using innovative communication methods to convey the benefits package can give one company a clear advantage over its competitors. “An online tool, for example, can be used by a recruitment manager to show a candidate what their total rewards package will look like. So instead of empty words, the benefits package becomes real,” says Caburn Hope’s Russell. AstraZeneca, meanwhile, has developed a unique lifecycle model to demonstrate its benefits package to candidates in easy-to-understand terms.

“The lifecycle model helps simplify the large choice of healthcare and security benefits we offer. Employees not used to that degree of choice can be overwhelmed and the lifecycle model helps put the concept in reality for them. This is demonstrated at the interview stage, but we are also looking at offering a web-based model,” explains Chance. Another forward-thinking communications strategy is to use existing employees as ambassadors to extol the virtues of working for an organisation.

“If you see a senior manager who is the company’s face talking about the benefits package publicly, it is inevitable that people will want to work for them,” argues Hudson’s Scott. So far, this area is relatively undeveloped and there are only a handful of companies – such as John Lewis and Tesco, for example – that have had any success in this area. But it is becoming increasingly evident that more organisations need to realise the value in clearly communicating their benefits to potential employees. Otherwise, they risk not only wasting resources, but also losing the potential leaders of tomorrow to their competitors.

Case study: Reed Business Information

The media industry is not renowned for offering exceptional benefits, so it is little wonder that firms which do are eager to shout about it. Andrew Grove, HR manager for recruitment and resourcing at Reed Business Information (RBI), says: “We use our benefits material to sell the company because we still offer a final salary pension scheme and 28 days holiday a year, so we always make sure job adverts highlight these.”

The need to communicate RBI’s employee benefits package to candidates has become more pressing over time and was the instigator behind the development of a glossy brochure a few years ago, which is sent out with offer letters. As well as offline media, RBI has embraced the internet. “We advertise almost everything online, whether through (which we own), our own website or the recruitment microsite that we are developing,” says Grove.

Legal pitfalls to avoid

There have been several changes to benefits legislation, such as parental leave in recent years so employers need to ensure that any offer they make to new recruits is fully compliant. In addition, solicitor James Carmody at Sprecher Grier & Halberstam warns organisations about the extent to which they can make benefits contractual rights.

“If you are offering health insurance and abandon it because it becomes too expensive, you could be sued for the cost of an employee not having health insurance. If you want to withdraw an offer, you have to do it with the consent of all employees concerned.”