It’s no secret that high turnover and too many staff vacancies are a serious challenge in aging services. With the over-65 population exploding, the hiring pool shrinking, and the current unemployment rate at only 3.7%, what is to be done?
A purpose-driven approach is proving to be one successful solution. Recruiters, consultants, and 3 LeadingAge members agree that such an approach can increase employee retention substantially and facilitate recruiting.
This article explains the concept of a purpose-driven approach, ways in which it can be successful in reducing turnover and improving recruitment, and how to sustain it over time.
What Is a Purpose-Driven Approach?
“Purpose-driven” refers to a new approach to improved performance in a wide range of industries. In essence, a purpose-driven organization rejects the standard economic notion that employees act only out of self-interest. It identifies a higher level goal, such as “We are a force for prosperity in our communities,” even when stockholders need to be satisfied. Employees are respected as partners with the expertise and dedication needed to achieve these goals. The result is meaningful work for them, increased loyalty, and better performance.
LeadingAge members have the advantage of service for a higher purpose as the heart of what they do. While mission statements may vary, all are focused on quality of care for residents and clients. In fact, “If you are not purpose-driven in health care,” says Julie Rupenski, founder & CEO of MedBest, “you are in the wrong business.”
Recruiting Purpose-Driven Employees
Increasingly, candidates are looking for meaning in their work, according to Melanie Burns, senior executive recruiter at MedBest. “So a purpose-driven environment is attractive. It’s a glue that can drive the organization forward.”
Rupenski says that candidates “want a clear mission and purpose related to providing the highest quality of life for residents.”
Dan Deffet, CEO and founder of Deffet Group, agrees that employers should know how to identify professionals with a passion to be part of the lives of residents they serve.
Recruiters should also emphasize how valuable this work is, advised Rupenski. “They’ll serve a crucial role for residents and family members, many of whom are so vulnerable. What could be more important than end-of-life care, or helping a resident develop a nurturing social life when changing to a retirement community?”
“We try to help candidates from the hospitality and acute-care industries appreciate how they can self-actualize in longer lasting relationships with clients in aging services,” says Deffet. “We educate them about the nonprofit culture, faith connections, and the value of interaction with residents.
“In onboarding and orientation, it’s essential to make clear that your mission is at the center of what you do. It’s not enough to read a manual for an hour. Senior staff should be mentoring new employees, working alongside them to convey the ideals and goals of your culture.”
What About Those Millennials?
With a focus on service and care, the older adult services field is in a good position to recruit millennials, currently between ages 22 and 37. Rupenski, herself a boomer, agrees that millennials are living a more purpose-driven life than previous generations. Several sources agree it’s important to introduce millennials to the possibilities of all kinds of work in aging services, not just direct care.
“Salary and benefits are important,” says Deffet, “but not enough to motivate them to make a long-term contribution. The ability to learn and grow as a person and a professional goes a long way to increasing their commitment.” He recommends that employers seriously consider moving away from annual performance reviews.
“Millennials don’t want to wait a year to hear how they’re doing. They find on-the-spot praise [or] critique much more meaningful than hearing about performance 6 months later. This requires a large shift in how employers handle performance reviews, but it’s well worth the investment.”
Getting the Word Out to New Kinds of Recruits
Deffet and Rupenski both say that there is much work to be done to raise the profile of aging services as meaningful work. Reaching college and high school counselors, and being present at college job fairs, is only the start.
Deffet says that the recruiting message should also target individuals from unexpected fields, such as a senior executive with a multinational food corporation, or a groundskeeper in the construction industry.
“Not only is it work that offers higher morale and job satisfaction, but it’s a great alternative to factory work and its shift changes and monotony,” he says. “Employers should remember that almost any degree or background can make a good candidate.”
Retention: Clear Mission and Employee Benefits
The experts agree that employees are more likely to stay with you if everyone knows, from the top down, what your purpose is, and that it shapes the content of formal meetings, casual encounters, job descriptions, and recruiting literature.
In other words, say Rupenski and Burns, “Make sure your mission and value statements are actually what you are doing.”
“Our research shows that when people feel they have a mission and are contributing, then they are more engaged,” says Holleran Research and Consulting’s Seth Anthony, director of sales, marketing and business development. “And engagement, of course, predicts job satisfaction and lower turnover.”
Holleran President Nikki Rineer emphasizes that your purpose must be clear from the very beginning of the recruiting process. “Tell them, ‘here is how, working together, our purpose can fit with your own career goals.’”
“Aging services work is very skilled and taxing emotional labor,” says Janet Kim, communications director of Caring Across Generations, an advocate for aging with dignity and for workers in older adult services. “Meaningful work is important, but employees also need a living wage, and basic benefits like paid time off and sick days, predictable schedules, and health insurance.”
When wages can’t compete with the convenience store down the street, employers can be creative in demonstrating how they value their staff.
“One great way to invest in your employees,” says Deffet, “is to offer them a financial wellness class, and pay them for attending. Another possible benefit is an onsite ATM for cash advances on paychecks to cover emergency expenses. In this way cash is available in privacy."
Goodwin House, in Alexandria, Virginia (see below) covers 100% of an employee’s green card application fee.
Becoming a Destination for Talent
“I believe our purpose-driven approach inspires staff and leads to longer tenure,” says Fran Casey, chief talent officer at Goodwin House, in Alexandria, VA. In 2019, The Washington Post designated Goodwin House a top workplace in the D.C. area. It employs 900 staff, and serves nearly 1,200 older adults through life plan communities and home and community based services.
“In recruiting, we consider compassion and caring as essential as competence,” says Casey. “We had a skilled candidate, but peer reviews showed they just didn’t have the heart we seek. That’s something we can’t always teach. Ninety-nine percent of our staff know our mission and love it.
We hold them accountable.”
Goodwin House offers internships in administration, faith programming, and life enrichment. It is deeply connected to local high schools and community colleges that are a strong recruitment source for nurses as well as dining staff. Casey says that many remain to develop their careers through a variety of departments.
Purpose Ingrained in Culture
Whitney Center’s purpose is founded in its belief that “every individual has a right to be engaged in life toward their personal fulfillment.”
“It’s ingrained in our culture and drives our decisions,” says Karyn Lushinks, vice president of employee and business services. “And it naturally comes out in conversations.” Whitney Center is a single-site life plan community with 325 residents and 303 staff in Hamden, CT.
Lushinks says, “I think being purpose-driven is one of the factors that contributes to our retention. We spend a lot of time up front making sure we are hiring the right people for our organization.”
Job descriptions emphasize that fulfilling Whitney Center’s purpose is the most important thing employees do. A billing specialist is expected “to take time to create personal connections with our residents; to know their life stories, and what is important to them.”
In recruiting, Whitney Center uses an assessment tailored to the field, with statements like “I am empathetic when I see someone in distress,” and “I try to facilitate trust building among the people at my job.” Part of its onboarding program includes “Compass,” a full day of discussion for current and new employees about the organization’s purpose, values, and engaged behaviors, as well as getting to know residents and their stories.
Whitney Center also offers a degree of autonomy to staff, when, for example, it comes to cell phone use. “We don’t just say ‘no phones during the day.’ We emphasize that staff are here to engage with residents, and expect they will use their best judgment if private phone use is needed. In other words, we give them ownership.”
Lushinks also says that work-life balance is part of being a purpose-driven organization. “The more an employee can address their own needs, such as a sick child, the more they can be 100% themselves and perform well for everybody.”
In recruiting, says Lushinks, “Whitney Center partners with trade schools and local colleges to train RN and LPN students who spend 2-3 days a semester with us. We partner with the Senior Community Service Employment Program, funded by Title V of the Older Americans Act, which provides training for income-eligible, unemployed job seekers age 55-plus.”
Making a Difference in the Community
Christine Dewhurst, director of human resources at Kavod Senior Life in Denver, CO, says the top reason its 95 employees stay is that their work makes a difference to their community. “They feel valued and are offering value.” In 2019, The Denver Post acknowledged Kavod as a top workplace in the state.
In 2018, Kavod brought its leadership together to explore and define its performance-driven culture, using exercises in the book, The Culture Engine.
“Kavod is Hebrew for honor,” says Dewhurst, “and we identified 4 accompanying values: respect, compassion, commitment, and excellence.
“These values affect everything, including our benefit packages. We are always considering ways to support staff. We know the work is challenging and hard, so we offer generous time off and encourage employees to use it.
“It’s a work in progress, to bring our values to the forefront. We hold touchpoint conversations with staff. We want to know: ‘Do you feel you are living these values or are we merely paying lip service?’ Values are not just wallpaper.”
Jane Sherwin is a writer who lives in Belmont, MA.