Why Staffing Battles Should Not Escalate To ‘Nickel And Dime Wars’

July 18, 2017, Elizabeth Jakaitis, Senior Housing News - Senior living providers nationwide are feeling increased pressure from new competition, including where staffing is concerned.  Providers, after all, want their communities to stand out as great places to work—especially ones that are better than newer communities across town.

As it turns out, the best candidates will not be won over by salaries or vacation time, however, but with an engaging and fulfilling workplace culture, according to senior living human resource executives.

“We’re purposely avoiding the nickel and dime war,” Mike Burkhart, director of human resources at Tucson, Arizona-based Watermark Retirement Communities, told Senior Housing News.  “When it comes to salaries and benefits, another community will always be able to up you by a nickel.  Instead, we’re focusing on creating our cultural definition of who we are within the market.”

Providing team members with support, recognition, training and growth opportunities are all a part of creating a strong culture.  Equally important is giving employees the space to think on their own and contribute ideas that foster an environment of innovation, Mary (Roxy) Mast, director of sales training at Newton, Massachusetts-based Five Star Senior Living (Nasdaq: FVE), told SHN.

Creating this kind of culture within a senior living community attracts strong candidates, while also keeping staff satisfied and happy to stay.  This can be encouraging news for senior housing operators worried about recruitment and retention in the face of growth and competition in the industry.

Attracting the Right Candidates

At Watermark Retirement Communities—which operates more than 40 senior living communities across the country—the response to a recent staffing crunch was to reevaluate its hiring process.

“We’ve certainly noticed increased competition when it comes to attracting the best candidates,” Burkhart said.  “Internally and with consultants, we’ve been working on creating a new and enhanced recruiting approach.  We’re focusing on culture, sharing our message in interviews and bringing on people who want to partner with us in our mission.”

Promoting culture is not just about attracting a large number of candidates; it’s about attracting the right candidates.  That message needs to be at the forefront of all employee interviews so that hiring managers can make sure that the prospective hire will be a good match for the culture, Burkhart said.  This is important to ensuring that the brand message is perpetuated; the culture only gets stronger if a provider hires people who adhere to it.

Plus, ensuring that new hires fit well with the company’s culture is a proactive retention measure, according to Burkhart.  When the culture matches the candidate’s own values and goals, they are more likely to stay with the company.

The personal values that drive most job seekers do not have much to do with salaries and benefits, according to Mast.  At Five Star Senior Living, which operates more than 260 independent living communities, memory care communities, skilled nursing facilities and continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs) across the country, these quantitative benefits are robust, but only valued to the extent that they reflect culture.

Benefits help, but it’s not what keeps people around,” Mast said.

Many senior living communities put out marketing materials and cover their websites’ career pages with details on their positive workplace environments.  This in itself is not enough, Burkhart said.

Over the past several months, Watermark has been consciously building relationships with universities, home care agencies, health care leaders and government personnel to tell them about Watermark’s culture and let them know that they are hiring. Job seekers do not often look at ads and decide to apply for a position, but they do trust recommendations from people they know or seek out, Burkhart said.

Securing High Tenures

Once strong candidates have been brought on to a senior housing community’s team, the next step is ensuring that they are happy and plan to stay.  Often people are looking for a pathway to growth and if they don’t see it, they leave, said Mast.

Five Star’s “Rising Stars” executive-director-in-training program provides this path by giving internal candidates the opportunity to participate in a six-to-twelve month preceptorship with an executive director.  After this time, they are placed in an open position.  The program is also open to new, external candidates, so it can be used as a recruiting tool.

Recognition programs are another way to keep staff feeling appreciated and valued, which can go a long way in keeping them at the company.  Five Star calls its recognition program “Way To Go,” and it gives residents and their family members the opportunity to fill out a form acknowledging a staff member who went above and beyond.

Continuing education and training programs are also a typical and useful method to help employees grow and feel fulfilled.  However, not all of these programs should be geared towards preparing team members to work up to the executive level, according to Burkhart.

“Not everyone wants to be a manager or supervisor, but everyone wants to feel needed and included,” he said.

That is why Watermark University, an educational program for residents, is also open to staff.  It gives them one more way to be involved in the community and even opens up opportunities for them to embrace their own talents, Burkhart said.

All of these positive initiatives are great ways to engage team members, but most senior housing executives will acknowledge that issues and concerns will still arise with staff despite their best efforts.  The key to handling these issues—before a two-week notice is handed in—is listening and responding to employee feedback.

Watermark has been further developing its exit interview process to get better at resolving future issues, but in an effort to avoid those altogether, individual communities offer what they call “speakeasy meetings.”  These take place when someone in a management position visits a community in another region.  The manager meets with a group of associates, usually all from one department, such as food service, and asks how things can be improved.  No names are taken, so staff lose any reservations they may have about voicing concerns.  Burkhart calls these “conversations for opportunity” in which the manager is trained to respond openly and effectively.

All of these programs and initiatives to improve the employee experience build a supportive culture in which people work well together.  To keep the positive momentum going, it all comes to hiring candidates that will uphold the community’s vision.

“All senior housing industry leaders develop effective, motivating employee programming, from mentorship programs to partnering programs,” Burkhart said.  “The challenge is truly finding someone who believe in what you’re doing.”