Q&A: Retaining Staff by Hiring Right

Mary Imbornone

Mary Imbornone is national director of training and development at Devereux in Villanova, Penn. Devereux is a national, multi-site human services organization with 5,600 employees, and in the last few years has undertaken major initiatives in the areas of hiring and staff retention. Although the agency is still integrating the new practices across its various sites and programs, data on retention show the new strategies have been successful.

Q: Everybody in human services knows that finding and retaining staff is difficult. What was going on in 1998 that convinced you that Devereux needed to overhaul its hiring and retention practices?
A: It wasn’t one particular thing. As programs continued to expand and we reached out to try to identify additional staff, we realized there were fewer out there. And in our conversations with executive staff and human resource people throughout the agency, we heard we were recruiting people the usual ways and not finding them. We were also having increasing turnover. We began to track our turnover rates and began to see more clearly what was going on. Some people thought it was just a hiring issue — but when we looked at the data, we realized we were hiring plenty of people; we were just turning them over. About a third of those were people we probably shouldn’t have hired in the first place. The turnover in those cases was involuntary, and we knew that if we could knock that back, we could save millions of dollars. If you think about the costs of having to recruit people, train people, get them up to speed — it’s enormous.

Q: In fact, you’ve looked closely at the financial costs of turnover — did you actually calculate a figure?
A: The cost of the 1,000 child care staff who turned over in 1998 was $10 million dollars.

Q: What about the ‘soft’ costs of hiring mistakes? 
A: We had issues with workmans’ comp claims; it’s not uncommon when you hire someone who’s not committed to the organization for that person to move quickly through all their leave time and require even more, which creates difficulties for themselves, their supervisors and their fellow employees. And in terms of unsatisfactory customer service, we had conversations with families who would just form a relationships with a staff person – or see their children just forming a relationship — and then they next time they would come to visit, that staff person wouldn’t be there. Where was that person going?

Q: One of your assumptions was that hiring the right people would improve retention. But common wisdom has it that, because of low salaries, retention will be low no matter what you do.
A: Research shows that it’s the assumption of executive directors that if you give people more money, it will solve everything. Yet if you look at the surveys put out by human resource journals, and when you poll people, money isn’t the first thing, it’s number four or five. People are looking for a place to develop, a place to feel valued, a potential career path. And interestingly enough, many of the young people coming in today — the Gen-X’ers — are much more interested in retirement plans and investment benefits than we ever thought. They’re very future-oriented and saavy.

Q: One of the changes you made was in the overall hiring process. What was the typical experience like for prospective employees, and how did you change it?
A: What we discovered was that it was an inconsistent process across all the sites and departments. There were delays – our response wasn’t as good as we thought for picking up applications, getting people in, interviewing them and getting them on board. In some places people would have an application on their desk, but because there wasn’t a supervisor available to meet with the person for week or so, the applicant wouldn’t get that first call for several days. We’ve learned that if you don’t have a swift process, you lose people. Speed counts.

There were also inconsistencies in the process in terms of who was actually performing the interviews — we weren’t convinced that all the right parties were involved.

If I were to give one piece of advice, I’d say don’t assume anything. You need to look carefully at exactly what you’re doing. Get feedback from people who have gone through the hiring process.

Q: Why did you decide to adopt a pre-employment screening tool?
A: We’d been hearing information about screening tools at conferences and in the literature, and if you go out into the non-human services world, into retail, many business are already using pre-employment screening tools — about 50 to 52 percent of companies use them. Human services is quite a bit behind. So we did some research and started to explore what was available.

Q: What specifically did you want it to tell you about prospective employees?
A: We went in kind of blind. We started looking at the tools that were out there based on the competencies we thought we needed in the organization. So it was a matter of educating ourselves about what the options were. There are pre-employment tools out there that will tell you about people’s computer skills; we wanted to know more about performance issues, behavioral issues.

Q: Eventually you decided to adopt the Employee Reliability Inventory, or ERI. It measures honesty, courtesy, emotional maturity, job commitment, safe job performance and some other factors. What were the internal objections to its use? How did you overcome them?
A: Whenever there’s a change, there’s always an element of resistance. We said, ‘We’re not discounting your knowledge or ability to read applicants, but let’s add as many decision-making tools as possible to the process.’ So we added more data and more consistent data, a structured interview, structured reference questions, and what happened is that ERI often supported people’s instincts.

Q: Did it also help you identify problem candidates — people you might have hired otherwise?
A: We were looking for a tool that could eliminate the tiny percentage of candidates who would actually be a risk to an organization. One example I can offer is where an applicant came in who had significantly high risk scores in the area of honesty. In the process of the follow-up questions, he told us that in previous employment he had taken a client’s medication and sold it, but wasn’t doing that anymore.

Q: The candidate must have felt very safe to make that admission.
A: When a score comes up indicating a potential high risk, structured interview questions go with them. There are questions relating to the honesty factor, to the customer service factor, to all the areas.

Q: You even changed the questions you ask references.
A: Under the old system, you would call and simply ask to verify the period of employment. You might ask other questions, but get shut down. Under the new system, we had some structured interview questions, some of them driven by the ERI, so if you receive information from the ERI — a warning sign about a potential problem — you can pull up the pre-scripted interview questions from the tool. They’re open-ended, but very specific. In many instances, previous employers are more open to responding to those kind of questions.

Q: What’s an example?
A: Say you’re particularly interested in emotional maturity. You could say, ‘These are some of the characteristics that are important for the job that so-and-so is applying for. Do you see any cause for concern?’ And then list them and wait. Characteristics could include ability to work under pressure, ability to pay attention, ability to keep his mind on the job, ability to consistently exercise sound judgment, ability to follow company procedures, and a few more. You pause after each one. And then say, ‘Could you give me an example of his or her work performance that demonstrates this quality?’

Q: Aren’t there legal issues involved with the use of screening tools? For instance, could an applicant legally challenge your decision not to hire based on the ERI?
A: We decided we would never use the ERI as the determinate of a hire, but think of it as data. But people should be aware that there are laws out there that govern this, and if they decide to use a tool, they should be sure it’s been validated with the EEOC requirements and the 1978 Unified Guidelines on Employment.

Q: To improve your retention rates, you made other changes as well, relating not to new hires but to old ones — people who had been in the agency for some time but weren’t entirely satisfied.
 That came from doing an organizational survey to try to get some feedback from people about what they liked and didn’t like about the organization. One thing people said is that they were looking for timely feedback, and didn’t want to wait for a year to go by (for annual evaluations). In looking at the data, we found we had a huge number of overdue assessments. One immediate way to adjust the feedback issue was to decrease the number of overdue assessments.

Q: But supervisors don’t have time, which is why they didn’t do them in the first place.
A: It’s pay now or pay later. Either do it now, or see the person walk out the door and go someplace where they can get better feedback.

Contact Mary Imbornone at MIMBORNO@devereux.org