Make sure employees have easy access to important documents.


Out of all the dumb assumptions in employee communication, perhaps the most problematic is this: “If we build it (or post it or print it), employees will understand.”

A U.S. District Court case demonstrates that, in the case of benefits, this assumption is not just dumb—it’s illegal.

As described in a column in Employee Benefit News (free registration), the facts of the case are these:

  • A plan participant had life insurance through her employer’s ERISA plan. When she became disabled and stopped working, she also stopped paying premiums on the insurance policy.
  • The participant then died, and her beneficiaries made a claim for her life insurance benefits. The insurer denied the claim. Although the coverage allowed premium waivers for disability, the participants had not requested a waiver.
  • The beneficiaries sued, saying that waiver requirements had not been sufficiently communicated because the participant did not have direct access to the insurance policy’s summary plan description (SPD).

How did the court decide? That the beneficiaries were right. Although the SPD was posted on the intranet, employees never received notice the document was available. Plus, someone who didn’t have intranet access (like the disabled employee) would not be able to receive it.

I’m sure your company’s attorneys are all over this one. And the more cautious ones will insist that every SPD will need to be sent (think long emails with extensive attachments or expensive packages mailed to homes) to every employee.

But over-communicating is not the answer. (It never is.) Even the attorney who wrote the Employee Benefit News piece (definitely a cautious type) writes that the real issue is making sure that employees:

  • Know the significance of documents: what they contain and why they’re important.
  • Have easy access to documents—both electronically (sorry, but a kiosk doesn’t count) and in paper form.
  • Understand what to do.

Of course, the last part is tricky, isn’t it? The court only cared that the employee in question received the SPD—and that’s what the lawyers will naturally focus on.

What we communicators care about is more profound: that employees understand their benefits and know how to take appropriate action.

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