Social media: Benefits friend or foe?

Social media can help employers elevate appreciation for their benefit packages, but there are potential pitfalls to consider along the way to informing employees about various coverages and programs.

Employers of all sizes are increasingly using social media not just to educate employees about their benefits, but also to create meaningful social connections, notes Elizabeth Byerly, a director in the communication and change management consulting practice at Willis Towers Watson. Mobile apps and wearable devices can be utilized for friendly competitions that encourage healthy activities, she says, and instant messaging, and YouTube videos can shed light on particular initiatives.

She explains that peer-to-peer platforms can actually help shape benefit programs, while a chat room or Skype call can be used to learn about such benefits-related topics as how to maximize a health savings account.


Gregg Nevola, vice president of total rewards at Northwell Health, describes social media as “a really great tool for us to communicate to our employees.”

As New York’s largest private employer with about 61,000 employees from Long Island to Staten Island and Westchester, Northwell finds that the approach comes in handy. With so many disparate locations — 21 hospitals and 450 ambulatory physician sites — Nevola says, “we rely on social media channels to help us reach our employees and level the communication playing field.”

About 150 wellness liaisons at Northwell use Instagram and Facebook to spread the word about their benefits offerings, along with countless photos and postings that personalize employees’ wellness journeys. They help employees load apps on their smartphones and encourage workers to be fully engaged.

Nearly 25,000 participants are on the company’s wellness platform, which helps employees support and challenge one another.

In addition, an employee-advocate service pushes out notifications to more than 18,000 subscribers who are urged to join various wellness challenges. Social media also is used to promote meditation rooms in some of Northwell’s hospitals and adjacent walking paths.

As part of a rewards platform, Northwell employees who participate in program challenges throughout the year earn points that can be used toward gifts or travel. Last summer, employees pegged the number of steps they walked to a wonders-of-the-world theme, while recent months featured U.S. attractions.

Social media also can be used to showcase intangibles to recruit and retain top talent, as well as to improve benefits appreciation. Case in point: a day-with-pay program that allows employees at Ceridian, a human-capital management software company, a paid day off for volunteering at a community activity of their choice.

These types of initiatives resonate with prospective employees who want to know how social responsibility fits into a company’s corporate mission and purpose, says Maurice Fernandes, the company’s employment brand manager. He says social media also is a great way to promote learning and development benefits.

“Transparency is going to be a major theme for job seekers,” he says, “especially in 2017.”

Downside assessments

Despite the positive power of social media, there are downsides to consider, cautions Stephanie Pronk, innovation group and health transformation team leader at Aon Hewitt. These include employees who have problems connecting with others or even an addiction to such forms of communication. And with so much talk about the spread of online fake news lately, she notes the importance of disseminating credible information that helps employees make healthy and positive choices.

“There’s also an opportunity for somebody to get into that social setting and shame people,” she says, noting how sometimes it can be more difficult to stop cyberbullying than face-to-face negativity. It is critical, she says, to ensure safe, private, appropriate and comfortable interactions online.

Another area of concern is information overload. “Think how many messages we get in a day. We get bombarded,” observes Pronk, adding that when information is deemed valuable, it’s easier for employees to take positive action steps that improve individual health outcomes or morale.

In addition, there are legal concerns that need to be addressed when developing a social media strategy pertaining to employee benefits. When gathering or providing confidential information, any such tools must be password protected and encrypted, according to Michelle Capezza, an employee benefits attorney for Epstein Becker Green who co-leads the firm’s technology, media and telecommunications service team.

“Agreements with any vendors for these services should address security and breach issues,” she says, “and protocols should be followed to protect the sensitive data in accordance with company policies and applicable laws.”

One larger aim of social media is to influence positive benefits behaviors, which Byerly describes as a key piece of the employee value proposition. All the data points gathered from various social media platforms lay the groundwork for creating a more meaningful narrative about the benefits package and “making very smart strategic decisions in a timely and agile way,” she believes.

With technology tracking which emails or text messages employees are opening, when those messages are being read and on what type of devices, Byerly says, a “data story” is created that can inform an employer’s benefits strategy. “It helps to better plan your communication and engagement, but also how much you’re spending on certain things, what people are paying attention to and what they’re not,” she adds.

Fernandes notes that social media has become a huge part of people’s lives in a short period of time, swelling to more than 400 platforms. A growing comfort level with mobile devices and enterprise platforms has led to greater engagement in those tools, he observes.

There are generational differences to keep in mind when devising a social media strategy for communicating employee benefits information. For example, “Facebook has some of the highest engagement with older generations,” Fernandes says. “So if that’s the audience that you’re trying to engage with, then you definitely have to have a strong social media strategy on that platform.” The same can be said about younger workers who are more comfortable on Snapchat, “which has become a lot more prevalent in business.”

From an analytics perspective, Fernandes notes that while having a high number of followers on a particular network or platform is a good mark of success, what’s becoming even more relevant is who’s engaging with the content being shared.

“I review on a monthly basis how are our posts are doing and which ones are getting the most attention,” he says. “The ones that are getting the most attention, that’s the ones we spend most of our resources and time on.”