Devereux’s Initiative to Recruit and Retain Direct-Service Workers

Mary Imbornone

Recruitment and retention of quality entry-level, direct-service staff is an ongoing problem for many agencies — one that affects both quality of care and the bottom line. With projected increases in the need for social services in the next decade, the issue is going to grow even more acute. One large national agency, Devereux, has found at least a partial solution to the problem. Below, Mary Imbornone, national director of training & development for Devereux and Youth Catalytics board member, talks about the agency’s recent staff development initiative.

Three years ago, Devereux partnered with the University of Minnesota’s Research and Training Center on Community Living (RTC) in an on-the-ground test of the RTC’s new workforce recruitment/retention initiative. Devereux’s intent was to solve a problem that both hurt its services and cost it money: the endless revolving door of front-line workers.

Devereux’s New Jersey center, one of its 14 sites, seemed a perfect pilot location: It dealt with special-needs populations of all ages, and, like many other agencies, had been experiencing high turnover in its direct-service workforce.

A contingent of Devereux human resources staff traveled to Minneapolis for training in the RTC curriculum, and was given permission to customize it to Devereux’s own needs and break it into one-hour modules for easier implementation back home. Back in New Jersey, Devereux trainers rolled out the curriculum — they called it the Removing the Revolving Door Program — methodically, over a period of several months, concentrating first on the magnitude of the site’s workforce problems, then at solutions.

“The first part of the education process is to work with the supervisor to calculate what your turnover rate is and what it’s costing you to have all these people go out the door,” Imbornone said. “That’s an attention-getter.”

The exercise revealed that the amount of money the agency spent chasing, then losing, good workers was “huge.”

“Part of the activity is to fantasize about what you would do with that money if you didn’t have to give it away, or throw it away. If you’re a frontline supervisor, you’re struggling, money’s tight already, and you’re spending money on this when you’d rather be spending it on bonuses and salaries.”

Once supervisors were convinced of the direct and indirect costs of seeing good staff walk out the door, the process turned to changing it. But how?

“One of the premises of the program is that there’s a strong correlation between direct-care staff and their relationship with the frontline supervisor in terms of whether they stay,” Imbornone said. “The research says that people don’t quit jobs, they quit supervisors. If you don’t pay attention to their needs, their dreams or aspirations, what’s keeping them here and engaging them in the work, they’re going to walk. If you treat them like an FTE, a number on a schedule, you’re going to get what you put into the relationship.”

But wasted money is only part of the reason to attack the problem, said Imbornone. The other is the quality of services themselves.

“I should add here, to be clear, that the intention is not so much to save money,” she said. “It’s about the lives of individuals with special needs that are so terribly disrupted every time someone walks out the door. The client’s devastated, the treatment is interrupted, you need to start all over again.”

The process in New Jersey included about 30 supervisors. Below are highlights, broken down into the components they considered:

  • Marketing. “We looked at our ads and the way we were marketing, and started building better ads and descriptions. The training that supervisors received included an activity where they compared our ads with the 20 others agencies posted in the local Sunday paper, and identified elements that would draw them to one ad over another. Frontline supervisors suggested key words and phrases that would be attractive to special marketing niches — the college kids, the retirees, the stay-at-home moms. New Jersey also began to utilize some template software developed by the University of Minnesota group to create flyers that targeted each of these groups.”
  • Recruitment. “Everybody needs to be a recruiter, and you look for people not just at job fairs, but wherever you travel. The group developed recruitment cards that led to small bonuses for staff who recruited successful applicants. These were cards that could be handed out by any staff who encountered someone who seemed to demonstrate some of the skills and attitudes that we are looking for. If they were hired on as an employee, the frontline recruiter received 50% of a small bonus. If they made it past the 90-day point, the frontline recruiter received the other half.”
  • Realistic job previews. “People come into the field with unrealistic expectations — ‘We’re gonna save the world, it’s going to be easy.’ We don’t tell them about the hard parts. The toileting issues, the getting hit across the face when the client becomes violent. After training supervisors on what an realistic job preview is, and the potential benefits, we said, ‘Go back with this information and create a realistic job preview.’ They did it in the form of scrapbooks that were made available to applicants before they were interviewed. They included letters from staff about their first day on the job, sample work schedules, notes from families about what they looked for in the ideal person to care for their son or daughter, photos of typical activities, a data sheet, tips and testimonials from veteran staff.
  • Interviewing job candidates. “Research says that we form impressions about the applicant in the first few seconds of the interview. Structured interview questions get the interviewer to focus on and measure the essential skills. Past performance is the best judge of future performance. That’s why the questions typically began with ‘Tell us about a time that…’ instead of the old ‘What would you do if…?’ and focus on specific challenges the applicant would face in the role for which they are interviewing. Example: ‘Tell us about a time that you had to communicate with a customer who was upset. What steps did you take to resolve the issue? What was the final outcome?’ We’re focusing on competencies: those skill sets that are essential to succeed in this field.”
  • Post-hire mentoring. “Supervisors decided to assign mentors to newly hired employees. Since we finished the pilot and expanded the Removing the Revolving Door Program organization-wide, different centers have elected to use this as one of their retention tools. At least two of the center teams that I spoke with recently have a formal application process and some rigorous training, and provide a formal agenda of the areas of focus and support for the mentor/mentee relationship. It’s viewed as a development opportunity to acquire “mentor” status. Typically, it’s a relationship that runs a minimum of the first 90 days.”
  • Social networking. The group created networking materials explaining after-work social life at the agency: clubs and teams and other opportunities to get together.
  • Structured observation tool. “Most organizations use observation as a training tool. The structured observation tool is a document that our supervisors build through one of the training sessions that focuses the new employee on key learning points, and has them either asking questions or making note of what they see. For example, a structured observation tool for meal time might include items like: “How did the staff begin the meal? Where were they positioned at the table? What clients appear to have special diets? What mealtime behaviors did you observe being rewarded with praise?”

The program is now being implemented in all 14 Devereux centers around the country, with latitude given to the various centers to decide what they want to prioritize.

The results? “We’re making real progress,” said Imbornone. “We just had the HR conference and we had a center there that talked about getting their turnover rate down around 20 percent a year. They went through a period when they kept 100 percent of all staff for a period of two to three months.”

While the program isn’t a silver bullet, Imbornone said, it has slowed down turnover and improved quality of service. And that’s meant enormous benefits for both clients and agency.

Email Mary Imbornone for more information. For additional resources, also see the website of the Research and Training Center for Community Living at the University of Minnesota.