Children's Voice July/August 2008

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Management Matters

A Little Effort Goes A Long Way

Strategies for Preventing Staff Turnover

By Kathryn Brohl

Nationwide, child welfare organizations struggle with retaining good staff. Managers know that staff turnover is costly. High turnover can delay permanency outcomes, create low morale, and result in higher caseloads. According to one Florida organization, the cost to hire a new case manager is nearly $13,000.

Ultimately, children and families suffer when they are assigned multiple case managers and when decisions about their future are forestalled due to worker turnover. In addition, administrators and supervisors bemoan the fact that, many times, just when a new worker is trained and beginning to deliver quality services, they leave.

Worker turnover can be attributed to different things that may include a change in agency mission or management, or lack of appropriate supervision. One agency, Children's Home Society of Florida (CHS), was challenged to address its worker turnover issue when it received statewide child protection service contracts as a result of Florida's three-year transition to privatization/community-based care in 2000.

As a result of these new contracts, CHS hired former state child protection professionals, but shifting from government to private employment eliminated overtime compensation for these professionals. Consequently, CHS divisions that had service contracts with community-based care organizations were challenged to address low morale in these newly hired workers.

One CHS division in Central Florida, after receiving a contract to provide child protection services in 2003, sought to address the morale problem by implementing innovative strategies to "embrace and inspire staff." They knew that when staff stayed on the job longer, client outcomes improved.

"We didn't want children and families to go through the trauma of establishing a relationship with a new worker every time a staff member left," said Andry Sweet, CHS Central Florida Division's Executive Director. "We knew a stable workforce was the key to providing the best service to our clients."

How It Began

In 2004, the CHS Central Florida Division began addressing the morale problem by surveying staff. Some of the survey comments were distressing. One employee remarked, "People feel like upper management does not care about them. People feel that CHS has been disloyal to their staff with the community-based care contractor." In addition, only 42% of staff agreed or strongly agreed with the survey statement, "Overall, I am satisfied with my job."

While somewhat painful, these remarks and others helped set goals for implementing initiatives to retain and engage staff. Management began by setting the following goals:
  • Create opportunities for staff to communicate directly with management.
  • Conduct team-building activities to build trust among staff.
  • Inform staff of changes on the horizon.
  • Consistently reward and recognize staff in various ways.
Next, an employee task force was formed. Employee task force members were identified as "goodwill ambassadors" and chosen because of their longevity with the organization or commitment to engaging coworkers and making positive connections within the division.

The group consists of one representative and "back up" representative from each department. All comments shared with members remain confidential to avoid any perceived retribution. According to Jo Howard, a long-time CHS volunteer coordinator and one of the founding task force members, "The task force was designed to address concerns generated from the survey in order to improve communication, team-building, and provide a safe, anonymous venue in which to raise concerns."

Sweet reports that, initially, employees were tentative about participating because they were unsure if senior management would follow through on the recommendations. "At first, people were hesitant and brought forth very simple requests such as 'The water cooler has been broken for a month and no one's fixed it.' This was great because we were able to take care of easy fixes and staff witnessed immediate follow through," she said. "After that, suggestions really started to pour in. Not all suggestions could be implemented. However, it opened the dialogue between staff and management about the challenges of managing a nonprofit budget."

The Results

As senior management consistently responded to staff need, staff participation grew. As a result of the implementations generated from the task force, staff turnover improved to 37% over Florida's average of 45%, and division employees were staying on the job longer--length of stay on the job increased from 2.7 years in 2004, to 3.7 years in 2007. In the process:
  • cases were closed more quickly;
  • more clients were reunified and/or adopted, and;
  • the number of caseloads dropped.
Eileen Ford, another CHS employee and administrative secretary, sees a difference since the task force was formed. "Through the task force members, our voices have been heard. We usually get some type of satisfaction. CHS has taken the initiative to listen to its employees."

How Did They Do It?

Following are suggested strategies and activities that CHS found influenced staff retention:

Motivational Messaging

Motivational messaging creates unity, improves communication between management and staff, motivates the workforce, allows staff to see the more human side of managers, and supports a positive work experience.

In the CHS Central Florida Division, Sweet writes a weekly "state of the union" staff memorandum providing division updates, motivational information, and acknowledgments. In addition, every quarter she meets with staff in-person to exchange information and address staff concerns and questions.

Management and supervisors are encouraged to recognize and congratulate staff through face-to-face or group contact, e-mail, cards, or personal calls. The division newsletter also recognizes staff efforts. Supervisors are given a recognition kit filled with pens, candy, note cards, and other items to pass on to staff to congratulate and recognize their efforts. In addition, management and other staff learned to share motivational stories with staff one-on-one or in groups.

Creating an Employee Task Force

Begin by surveying staff and creating initial goals and objectives from the survey feedback. Then identify a team leader from management and ask each department/site location to select a task force member with enthusiasm, leadership and listening skills, and the ability to rally support and build a team.

The team leader personally contacts task force members and gains a commitment (through a commitment form) from them that they will meet with the task force on a monthly basis for at least one year, solicit input from their departments/sites, and maintain confidentiality.

Before monthly task force meetings, members meet with their departments and/or send e-mails asking for input, gather ideas from their local/site suggestion boxes, and prepare a report to take to the meeting. The task force meeting agenda includes updates, concerns and suggestions, activity planning, newsletter discussion, and suggestions about communications from management to staff. Task force members, with the help of co-workers, also are responsible for planning and implementing activities in their location.

Quarterly Employee Retreats

Retreats create teambuilding and networking opportunities, reenergize staff, and build a positive working environment. A retreat can be as cheap and simple as a potluck luncheon, or a half- or full-day retreat with training at a local venue. If cost is involved, first secure a budget from a management team leader.

Ask each task force member to select a representative to become a "retreat-planner" who will solicit ideas from staff, recruit helpers from their worksite, and stay within budget. (If your organization has many sites in different locations, it is recommended that you do quarterly retreats in those locations or at least nearby to have optimal attendance, but try to do at least one retreat per year for all staff.) Onsite retreats generally take four weeks to plan. Offsite retreats may include parks, bowling alleys, restaurants or museums, and require about eight planning weeks.

An emcee is identified to direct retreat activities that can include any of the following:
  • Ice-breakers

  • Team spirit days--Make the theme a tailgate party and invite staff to wear their favorite team jersey to a barbeque. Enlist someone to download college fight songs, the NFL theme song, and other sports-themed music.

  • Diversity day delights--Create a two-hour potluck luncheon where everyone brings a dish from their native culture and then shares a family or cultural tradition.

  • Trivia contests and puzzles--Instructions are available online for creating personalized puzzles and trivia questions--these can be most effective when specific to your organization.

  • Deal or no deal--Choose three contestants who take turns selecting 10 cards held by 10 staff members, ranging from $0 to $10. Every third pick the banker (a retreat-planner) calls the emcee on a cell phone and offers the contestant money in lieu of continuing. The contestant is asked, "Deal or no deal?" and the contestant with her or his selected "lifeline" partner considers whether or not to accept the deal. (Before the event, ask staff to create support signs for each contestant.)

  • Jeopardy--Allocate about 30 minutes for the activity and give three contestants a cowbell, kazoo, and a pair of cymbals. Identify three categories, and assign each topic under each category, with dollar amounts. Contestants sound their instruments first before attempting to answer a question. The winner receives a group prize awarded to their department or site/location.

  • Talent contests--Recruit people to give five-minute performances. Select three impartial judges who will score the acts. Gift cards or homemade awards can be presented to winners. Be sure to take pictures for staff to post and enjoy later. Mother's Day Brunch

    A Mother's Day brunch was created to acknowledge working mothers within the organization. The brunch demonstrates appreciation for the challenges working mothers face every day. Coordinated by managers or supervisors, invitations are sent three weeks in advance. The organization may prepare or purchase food and incorporate fun activities, such as a raffle and parting gifts, into the celebration.

    Welcome Wagon

    The Central Florida Division Welcome Wagon's function illustrates that new staff members are important because it shares relevant information, provides important networking tips, and contributes to teambuilding with the organization.

    Identify one Welcome Wagon designee per location (and a back-up) who is responsible for welcoming new employees. The designee or an administrative assistant prepares welcome bags each month based on the anticipated number of new hires. Keep the bags at a secure and central location. Welcome bags include the organization newsletter, desk items such as pencils, pens and note cards, and a key lanyard. Also included are snacks, phone lists, and menus from local restaurants.

    The designee welcomes the new staff member on their first day by placing a welcome sign on her desk, presenting a welcome bag, and introducing her to co-workers. They also share contact names and phone numbers, answer immediate questions, and follow-up at least twice over the next month to see how the new staff member is doing.

    Leadership Book Club

    All staff are invited to meet for breakfast each month to discuss various assigned leadership books and explore leadership theories and how they might be applied on the job. The book club gives staff the opportunity to study and apply leadership theory in a collaborative learning environment, and informally mentors them while attracting some who do not generally participate in traditional leadership venues.

    Suggestion Boxes

    Suggestion boxes are as effective as the responses by management to the suggestions. When suggestions are implemented, staff observe follow through. Designate someone at each office to oversee the suggestion box. Locked suggestion boxes can be obtained from most office supply stores with preprinted suggestion cards. Place the boxes in a conspicuous area and create a schedule to prompt employees to make suggestions, schedule pick-ups, deliver to management, and follow-up with staff on suggestion ideas. A follow-up e-message is sent to staff to let them know which suggestions will be implemented.

    Drop in the Bucket

    The Drop in the Bucket program is based on the book by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton, How Full Is Your Bucket? This is an on-the-spot recognition program in which an employee recognizes another employee by completing a "drop" form that identifies an action worthy of recognition. A copy of the form is placed in the receiving employee's box and another copy is placed in a bucket located in a centralized place in each work location. At the end of each month, a designee pulls one "drop" out and the recognized employee participates in lunch with his immediate supervisor or another member of the management staff. All "drops" are listed and acknowledged throughout the work location via e-mail.

    Making A Difference

    While addressing staff need and taking action doesn't necessarily raise salaries or prevent layoffs, it does go a long way toward teambuilding and communicating complex challenges facing managers and staff within an organization.

    Good morale is an essential piece of preventing staff turnover and creating supportive working networks. Investing back into employees has been a priority at the CHS Central Florida Division and has successfully retained staff.

    John Marcelle, another Central Division administrative secretary, says, "This is a team building effort. Our concerns don't fall on deaf ears. We understand that some issues can't be resolved immediately, but employees feel they can say what their issue is without feeling exposed."

    Kathryn Brohl MA LMFT is Director with the Children's Home Society of Florida, Center for Applied Innovation. She is the author of The New Miracle Workers: Overcoming Contemporary Challenges in Child Welfare Work, and Working with Traumatized Children: A Handbook for Healing, both available from CWLA Press.

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