Extras! Extras!

Voluntary benefits bring goodwill with a small price tag, but watch out for liabilities.

But the fact that legal liabilities are relatively easy to avoid doesn’t mean an employer can choose vendor alliances carelessly. A mediocre vendor reflects poorly on the corporation and damages any goodwill earned from offering the voluntary benefit in the first place. “There’s still a great responsibility for the company to screen its vendors,” observes Pete Fornal, president of HR Consultants, based in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. “If your employees’ customer-service experience is not good, you need to change providers.”

Talk Is Not Cheap

One key mistake employers make is not in how they choose the voluntary benefits to offer, but in how they communicate those benefits to their workers. “Employers think that the only time they need to communicate is during annual enrollment,” says Herbster. “They communicate it once and then forget about it.” She advises employers to have a link that describes benefits—and allows for registration—on a Web page that workers access frequently.

Another way to communicate, points out Aon’s Sullivan, is to hire an enrollment company. Enrollment companies—such as Worksite Communications in Tallahassee, Florida, and Ward Services in Columbia, South Carolina—specialize in getting employees to sign up for programs through one-on-one meetings and telephone- and Web-based services. “You can’t just jump in and do 10 voluntary benefits overnight,” warns Sullivan. “Talk about 2 or 3 at first.”

Above all else, experts encourage employers to be honest in their communications—even if that means admitting that the voluntary benefits are as much about saving corporate dollars as they are about pleasing pet lovers.

But the process of vetting vendors and communicating with employees takes time, which is why not every company offers voluntary benefits. “It takes effort to communicate about the benefits, sign everyone up, and process the paperwork through the payroll system,” says Fornal. That effort, however, may pay off in better employee morale—no small thing these days, when workers are forced to dig ever deeper into their wallets.

Ilan Mochari is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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