Vol. 51, No. 9
One employer builds its talent base by hiring quickly and rotating hires through various jobs.
Early this year, an organization that provides care for people with disabilities faced a serious shortage of crucial workers—those who do the daily hands-on caregiving, largely in group homes.
The organization, Ability Beyond Disability, based in Bethel, Conn., needs about 600 such direct-care workers but was over 10 percent understaffed, operating with about 70 slots unfilled. Conventional hiring practices, typically involving multiple applicant interviews over several weeks for each slot, were coming up short. While recruiters and hiring managers were scheduling appointments and trading e-mails, many applicants were taking jobs elsewhere.
Moreover, Ability Beyond Disability, like other employers in health care, was being buffeted by high turnover among entry-level and lower-paid workers—even though its retention numbers typically have been better than industry averages. Turnover among direct-care workers nationwide is estimated at about 44 percent, according to various sources drawing on government and trade association statistics, while it has been 23 percent at Ability Beyond Disability.
The organization also was finding that some new hires, after going through several interviews and accepting specific jobs, were leaving because they didn’t like the field in general or their particular assignment.
So, to bring in new direct-care workers faster and keep them longer, the organization made two major changes in its hiring process. The first was to begin making hiring decisions almost right away—within 48 hours of the first interview, often a lot sooner. A decision to hire is contingent, of course, on the applicant passing a background check, a physical exam and a drug screen.
The second change was to start hiring not for specific openings but for direct-care work in general. Within days after an interview, a successful applicant is on the payroll, undergoing extensive training and visiting the employer’s group homes to see the real world of caring for people with disabilities. For about two months, sometimes three, the new hires—called intern floaters—are exposed to a wide array of jobs in a variety of settings before they commit to a particular post. ›
That is important because Ability Beyond Disability, with about 800 employees altogether, staffs a wide variety of positions and serves about 800 people with disabilities in more than 100 locations. Direct-care workers and supervisors run the 36 group homes that the organization owns in Connecticut and New York and also, through its Supported Independent Living program, provide care for people with disabilities who are living in more than 80 condominiums and apartments. The group homes typically focus on specific types of disability.
Why It Had To Happen
The revamped hiring system at Ability Beyond Disability is, in some ways, an extension of the organization’s regular practice of starting the hiring process quickly. “We were interviewing on the spot but not hiring on the spot,” says Lori Pasqualini, chief financial and administrative officer. She heads the organization’s HR function and spearheaded the new hiring approach.
The aim in restructuring the hiring procedures, says Recruiter Maren Milliard, was “to reduce the turnover rate and clean up the whole process,” to keep from losing good candidates because one or another element of a job, such as the schedule, would not work for them.
Previously, Milliard explains, a candidate for a direct-care job would come in and talk with HR, and the discussion would include matching the person’s availability with the needs of a specific job or a particular group house. The application would then go to a residential coordinator, a hiring manager would set up an interview, and the applicant would see only one facility and a half-dozen or so residents. Overall, Milliard says, it was, “Here you are, this is where you’re going to be.”
Now, new hires have choices and are urged to “try different areas” within the organization, to sample many types of direct care before taking a regular post. In effect, Milliard says, the hiring procedure is now a two-way discovery process that lasts for weeks. In fact, she adds, the new system’s overall flexibility eases some pressure on HR and recruiters because there is less emphasis on providing the perfect candidate for the particular job.
The preferences that intern floaters develop during their site visits are generally linked to the atmosphere of a given facility and the needs of its residents. Some workers find they are more drawn to working with people with one particular type of disability rather than another. Specific jobs include assisting with cooking and caring for residents, administering their medicines, helping with hygiene and providing recreation, therapy and transportation.
Hiring on the spot is not as chancy as it may seem, Milliard says. In fact, the risks and potential costs are lower than they are in conventional hiring. Under the new system, when new hires depart they typically aren’t leaving a specific job that must be filled quickly. Further, if a new hire doesn’t work out at a particular group home or in a certain job, that person might catch on with another house.
Before the new system was implemented, Pasqualini says, buy-in was obtained from HR and the organization’s trainers—whose ranks were nearly doubled, to 65 from 37, to handle the substantially increased training regimen.
Although full-year results of the new approach are not yet available, there’s already evidence that it’s working. During the first nine months, Ability Beyond Disability hired 240 direct-care workers and lost 150, which left the staffing level up by 90. The gap in direct-care staffing has shrunk to just 1 percent, down from 10.5 percent. And retention appears to be improving; turnover has declined to 21 percent from 23 percent.
From a staffing perspective, it “has been great,” says hiring manager Marion Sheppard, a 20-year veteran who supervises two group houses that are home for nine people with brain injuries. When she needed extra help in the past, she says, she was able to get substitutes from the organization’s roster only about 10 percent of the time, and she’d have to pay overtime to plug the staffing gaps.
Now, Sheppard can get temporary help through the scheduling office, which keeps track of individual houses’ needs and individual floaters’ schedules. As a result, she’s now getting subs about 75 percent of the time, she says. And the fact that these individuals are immersed in both classroom and on-site training means “they’re not just bodies—that’s the nice thing,” she says.
Moreover, workers brought in under the new system this year are enthusiastic about it, which the organization’s HR leaders see as a positive influence on retention. New employees say they like the training and support, the exposure to various direct-care jobs before committing to a position, and the system’s way of helping them connect with jobs best-suited for their skills.
A Strategy for Years Ahead
It’s too soon to tell if the organization’s new staffing approach would be useful for other employers in human services or for companies that rely on many lower-paid workers who interact with customers. But it’s a commitment for the long haul at Ability Beyond Disability, says President and CEO Thomas H. Fanning.
Just look at the demographics, at the coming “shortage of direct-care workers,” Fanning says. As the nation ages and the supply of entry-level labor tightens, competition for workers who find satisfaction in helping people with disabilities will increase. An organization that brings those workers in the door quickly, shows them the true nature of the work from the start and encourages them to explore its variety before deciding on a regular post will have better hiring and retention results over the long term, he says.
Fanning adds that retention is especially important for organizations like his because people with disabilities place a high value on consistency in caregivers—on knowing who’s taking care of them and seeing the same caregivers every day.
How It All Begins
Applicants for direct-care jobs are not hard to find, Milliard says. Many are college students preparing for careers in nursing or other health fields, and some are experienced human-service workers who want to explore another specialty. “We get a lot of people who know who we are,” she says.
Applicants are interviewed at the organization’s headquarters in a suburban office park. They know from the start that if they’re hired it would not be for a specific job but for a period of training and of becoming familiar with the range of the organization’s direct-care jobs.
Some applicants decide the work is not for them after they watch a nine-minute video on the realities of life for many people with disabilities.
The next step is the interview, conducted by Milliard or one of her two colleagues on the recruiting staff. Milliard says that in each interview she looks for signs of a compassionate personality and an interest in human services. “It’s really about their attitude,” she says. They should show they are “sincere, want to help people.”
A hiring decision can be made on the spot, and within days of being hired groups of new employees begin two weeks of extensive orientation and formal training. It starts on a Monday, when I-9 forms are collected. Some days the floaters receive classroom instruction on taking care of people with disabilities. Other days they visit group homes, shadow direct-care workers doing their jobs, talk with residents and learn the spectrum of the needs of people with disabilities—and of the particular types of work done in the given facility.
While new hires are learning about each home’s operations, they’re also being sized up by staff and residents. “You get to know a lot” about the new hires during their visits, Sheppard says. Staff members watch the floaters for signs of discomfort at being around people who have disabilities. The new hires have to demonstrate “a very high work ethic” and be “motivated,” Sheppard says. Often, she adds, their first question is whether there are any openings at a particular home. “I stress to them, try out other areas.”
It’s indeed worthwhile for new hires to see a range of jobs before choosing one, says Patricia Foisy, who was hired under the new system. She had been working with the mentally ill for another employer when she joined Ability Beyond Disability this past spring. “Each house has a different level of medical need,” she notes.
When Foisy arrived at the house where she now works full time—a home for seven adults with acute brain injuries—“I saw nothing but wheelchairs,” she says. “I didn’t know if I could do this.” But she met everyone, the chemistry worked and, with a note of amazement in her voice, she says, “I was actually able to pick the house where I wanted to work.”
Foisy says she’s “like the mother hen” for those in her care; “they’re like my kids.” They range in age from 34 to 48; some were injured in bicycle accidents when they were teenagers. One is retired, two are unemployed and others have jobs. One, for example, works in data collection at a General Electric facility and also does clerical work at Ability Beyond Disability’s headquarters.
Kym Brevard, who had worked in a medical facility before joining Ability Beyond Disability under the new hiring formula, chose a “behavioral” house. The four male residents are subject to outbursts because of a condition that becomes manifest in infancy. She learned of the organization at a job fair and was approached by a recruiter. She was impressed during orientation not only with the level of training but also with the amount of support she saw being provided in the group homes to employees and residents. “That’s the key,” she says. “That’s why I chose the house that I chose.”
The more satisfied employees are in their work—and the more training that they receive—the better it is for retention, says Sharon Danosky, vice president for development and community relations. But the key to keeping the best people—the whole purpose of the hiring philosophy and practices at Ability Beyond Disability—she says, is to choose “persons with the right soul and spirit.”
They must be, Danosky says, people who can be “responsible for another person’s life. And that’s awesome.”
Terence F. Shea is associate editor for HR Magazine .