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September 23, 2008
Benefits and Retention Strategies in a Recession

Chris Ceplenski
Senior Editor

Whether or not we choose to define current economic conditions by using the term "recession", the impact of current economic conditions is being felt in the workplace. In a breakout session at the 21st Annual Benefits Forum & Expo held in National Harbor, Maryland, HR and benefits professionals were given some valuable tips for retaining and engaging their workers during tough economic times.

In the face of slow growth, that some organizations would take measures such as a reduction-in-force (RIF) is understandable, explains George Lane, Principal at Mercer, and an RIF will have a near-term impact on the bottom-line. However, you must be careful not to lose valuable people that "you'll need when you start up again," he explains.

According to Mercer's 2008 Report on Human Capital Management for Slow Growth Times, employers should:

  1. Be looking for new ways to generate sustainable reductions in benefit costs using innovative strategies that do not adversely affect perceived value
  2. Implement creative, highly-targeted strategies to recruit and retain the optimal workforce for long-term success, and
  3. Communicate often and honestly to employees to bolster flagging engagement and productivity

Lane asserts that you should be doing these three things all of the time, but a recession underscores the importance of such actions.

Maia Lucier, Director of Compensation & Benefits for Dimension Data, a global specialist IT services and solutions provider, explained how her company has added no and low-cost ways to beef up its benefits in creative ways while continuing to strive to attract and retain talent against the backdrop of a troubled economy.

Lucier noted the importance of frequent and effective communication to employees when it comes to their benefits, noting that the extent to which employees value and understand their benefits package impacts job satisfaction and loyalty to the organization.

With this in mind, Dimension Data has leveraged its relationship with a financial advisor from its 401(k) plan, asking him to participate in new monthly "Think Financial Wellness" conference calls for employees. These 30-minute conference calls were created to address economic uncertainties for employees and consist of the following:

  • 10 minute recap of recent economic developments (in plain English)
  • 10 minute interpretation of "what does this mean for me" including retirement and personal financial planning implications
  • 10 minutes of Q&A

Dimension Data is also providing health expense communications for employees, such as an "around the office" feature in its monthly newsletter. This feature provides a profile of an employee and might explain, for example, how he/she saved money by using mail order drugs. Showing how a specific employee utilized a benefit program that saved him/her money is much more effective than just explaining the benefit, Lucier has found.

The company has also created "What you should know as a Dimension Data employee" webcasts which communicate to employees by promoting learning and development opportunities, showing them how they can utilize their benefits to the fullest extent, and communicating Dimension Data's 401(k) investment review process and due diligence (something more employees ask questions about during tough times).

Lucier also avidly supports the use of total compensation statements--she says that by providing detailed information regarding the value of their benefits, you may be able to hold onto valuable employees who would otherwise be tempted to take a job elsewhere for a small base salary increase.

Finally, in terms of communication, Dimension Data has a "Leading Talent" program for its line managers. Dimension Data wants their managers to have the ability to manage the relationship between the employee and the company. In this program, managers are taught how they can help attract, engage, develop and retain talent for high performance. They are also educated about company benefits so that they can communicate benefits value to employees.

Another component beyond having low-cost benefits and effective and frequent communication of these benefits to employees is to conduct disciplined reviews of benefits costs--not just during a recession, but even during good economic times.

Lane concluded the session with a valuable takeaway--it's important to communicate with and engage employees actively and frequently at all times, not just during a recession. "People will be more linked to the organization if they're engaged when a recession hits," he says.

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