Pensions auto-enrolment: No mixed messages

If you read nothing else, read this…

• Be clear on the workforce demographic and tailor communications accordingly.
• Websites, intranets, email and podcasts can all be effective channels .
• In some industry sectors face-to-face communication and workshops can be a better option.
• Overloading staff with information can lead to apathy. Be clear and concise.

Effective communication is about knowing your workforce and providing different groups with tailored messaging, but it can also be as fundamental as reaching staff without web access

Employers need to make sure that auto-enrolment into a workplace pension is effectively communicated to staff and ensure they are aware of the cost and value of the benefit. When communicating the changes, employers need to consider three different factors: demographics of staff; reaching employees who do not have access to the internet at work; and how to best engage staff who have never considered a pension.

Although the auto-enrolment requirements will not be enforced for the largest organisations (employers with 120,000 or more staff ) until October 2012, all employers have the opportunity to enrol staff from as early as July 2012. And according to Brian Newman, HR director at entertainment firm Live Nation, getting ahead of the government’s timetable is the best way of communicating the right message to staff.

“Good communication is all about timing. If we are launching an auto-enrolment scheme ahead of statutory requirements, we are saying to staff that we are choosing to put this in place for them and that we value them. If we are simply responding to new laws, then it probably will not be perceived as much of a benefit, just the bare minimum,” he explains.

Getting employees on board

Newman also believes that getting employees on board with pension benefits as soon as they join the organisation and presenting auto-enrolment as part of the overall benefits package is an effective way of sending out an engaging message to staff.

“Capturing people on their first day helps combat some of the apathy around pensions. It allows us to demonstrate that we are committed to their total reward package. Educating employees about the pension scheme might be the difference between them making an informed decision or not.”

When it comes to informing staff about the pension options available to them, breaking information down into key points and bite-sized chunks will help to keep it clear and concise. Overloading employees with lengthy documents and instructions, however, will not be effective. Using straightforward language, rather than technical terms and business jargon, will also help make pensions and auto-enrolment more accessible. Having pension champions across departments and teams can be a way of ensuring that information is relayed properly to staff.

Paul Gilbody, director of market engagement at the Nest Corporation, says that employers should not assume that employees have a detailed level of pensions knowledge. “There are lots of issues around communication and employers have got to talk to their staff in an appropriate manner at appropriate times. Using industry terms is not necessarily going to work.”

Although research conducted by Nest Corporation indicates that online communication is favoured most by staff, it will also depend on the industry sector. For example, employees working in the manufacturing or the voluntary sectors, may not have access to email, meaning direct communication from line managers, one-to-one workshops or group presentations, might be more effective.

Kelly Bol, HR manager, reward, at disability charity Scope, says that it can be impossible to reach staff online in some organisations. “It is naive for employers to think that they can only communicate with staff online. At least half of our organisation is not online. The lowest earners and the casual workers are usually the hardest to communicate to. We must go and talk to them.”

Newman adds: “It is much easier for us as employers to communicate online, but that is somewhat missing the point. Employees who do not have access to email do not want to come home at the end of the day and log on to their computers to read about pensions. It is very difficult to reach and educate people who do not really have much of an interest.”

Also, one organisation may be made up of several different types of employees, which means compensation and benefits professionals need to carefully ascertain the best way to reach each group. Paul Armitage, consultancy director, employee benefit solutions, at JLT Benefit Solutions, says that it is crucial for employers to know their audiences and tailor their strategies accordingly: “Use different communication methods for different groups in your workforce. If, for example, you are a retailer you might want to consider using store managers to communicate messages.”

Low earners, says Newman, are unlikely to be interested in the detail surrounding auto-enrolment and pensions but will probably just want to know how much is going to be taken out of their payslip at the end of each month.

Cost constraints cause problems

Gilbody says that the Nest Corporation is aware that other communication methods, including email, call centres and welcome packs are also valuable. “The scale of the national employment savings trust (Nest) and the cost constraints we are working with make it difficult for us at times. We understand that it is all about making the scheme, and the way in which you message it, as [audience-friendly] as possible.”

However, face-to-face communications, be it in the form of one-to-one workshops, group presentations or a discussion with line managers can be costly and time consuming, especially if employers are getting assistance from a consultancy firm. “Bosses really have to be prepared to invest in communicating their auto-enrolment scheme and be prepared to pay for it. Not all employers can afford to hire a consultancy,” says Bol.

Employers also need to consider what they can and cannot say when it comes to communicating pensions. It should be a reciprocal, two way process between employer and employee. Employees can make informed decisions if they are told how much the scheme will cost them; how much the employer will pay towards it; what other benefits the scheme provides (such as tax relief). If a worker asks their employer whether it is a good idea for them to join the pension, it can outline the benefits but cannot advise them on auto-enrolment.

But The Pensions Regulator says that employees should be told that they will miss out on employer-funded contributions if they choose not to stay in the pension scheme.

Read more from the roundtable discussion on pensions auto-enrolment