Save Your Staff, Improve Your Business

Here's how an HR professional in an Ohio social services agency dramatically reduced turnover.

By Sonya M. Latta, PHR Jan 1, 2012
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After four years of financial struggles and layoffs at Rosemont Center Inc., annual employee turnover had soared from 41 percent to 72 percent. Our Columbus, Ohio, mental health and social services agency bled with each loss of a dedicated staffer. Board members reluctantly acknowledged the hemorrhaging in terms of quality of service as well as recruitment and training costs. By June 2010, board Chairman James Schmidt decided to take action.

Our small community mental health and social services agency provides services to youth and low-income families. Programs include outpatient therapy, foster care, day treatment and mental health services for Somali youth. We receive funds from federal, state, and local agencies, insurers and private donors.

Our 62 employees include social workers, counselors and therapists. Until 2010, Rosemont provided some services through residential programs—and at its peak the staff numbered 150. However, the residential programs began closing in 2008 as a result of cuts in funding; the last one closed in 2010.

In 2007, the turnover rate was 41 percent. Nationwide, the community mental health workforce has average turnover rates from 50 percent to 60 percent, so Rosemont's past turnover was lower than average. Yet during the layoffs, annual turnover reached 71 percent, 74 percent and 72 percent, respectively.

Low employee morale and motivation accompanied the turnover. When this happens in a social services agency, it is possible that negativity among staff can affect the quality of services. As Schmidt explains, "We wanted to understand the root causes that were specific to our situation so that we could implement changes to improve employee morale and performance."

This is where I came in. In June 2010, I was a recent graduate from Penn State University with a master's degree in human resources and employment relations. I was one month into my promotion to HR director—the agency's sole HR practitioner—and a certified PHR. I was charged with examining turnover.

Time for Change

I brainstormed an action plan. I reviewed the accuracy of the agency's turnover rates, dividing the number of terminations by the average employees on payroll each year.

I put together a small task force to assist in identifying potential causes. When asked why we had such high turnover, Melanie McClellan, director of evidence-based programs, cited:

  • Demanding work.
  • Work/life balance issues relating to night and weekend work.
  • Low salaries.
  • On-call responsibilities without additional compensation for certain programs.

McClellan's thoughts on turnover were right on.

McClellan and the rest of the task force members met weekly to review exit surveys and previous employee satisfaction surveys and put together a list of other social service agencies in Ohio. We wanted to interview managers of similar agencies in search of solutions that would improve employee satisfaction—and drive down turnover.

There were no surprises in the list of job attributes that began to emerge as needing improvement to reduce turnover and improve morale.

Meanwhile, I began analyzing three years' worth of those surveys and exit interviews.

There were no surprises in the list of job attributes that began to emerge as needing improvement to reduce turnover and improve morale. They were: career development and training opportunities, benefits and compensation, administrative leadership support, organization culture and communication, and work/life balance.

Next, my task force members began phone interviews with managers at other social service agencies in Ohio to see how they handle these challenges.

I began to focus on our current workforce. I put together a random pool of current employees to interview about their perceptions of these five attributes of their jobs. Employees in the pool received a written summary of the areas identified as needing improvement. The summary compared benefits and practices at Rosemont to those at other Ohio agencies. We discussed the attributes during a group interview.

I compiled data from these sources in a document showing possible improvements, how other agencies provide those benefits and practices, and how current employees say we should provide them.

Taking cost into account, I then developed my recommendations for change in each of the following areas:

Career development and training.  Introduce internal job bidding for promotions and transfers to retain employees. Bidding allows employees to apply for positions within the agency even if they are not vacant at the time, instead of looking outside the agency for other employment. Maintain and enhance Rosemont's status as a provider of free continuing education units to our clinicians and reinstate previously frozen staff development funds.

Benefits and compensation. Do a salary study and revamp Rosemont's salary scale to ensure salaries are competitive. Explore offering more than one plan for medical benefits.

Administrative leadership support. Develop a better system of support for directors and supervisors, and a workforce planning and recruiting model for clinical positions that would reduce recruiting costs and onboarding time.

Culture and communication. Develop and encourage a culture of openness so employees come forward with concerns or suggestions. Maintain and enhance employee events to keep up morale.

Work/life balance. Promote employee assistance programs and offer training on how to manage work/life balance.

Achieving My Goals

With backing from the board, I translated those recommendations into goals and took steps to achieve them. The goals, and subsequent changes, include:

Reduce agency turnover to below 50 percent. Turnover fell from 72 percent in fiscal 2010 to 48 percent in fiscal 2011. Contributing to that result was the introduction of job bidding.

For the salary study, I gathered information from state agencies and other sources to rebuild Rosemont's salary scale. Compensation for all positions is now more competitive with others in our industry. Salary ranges were expanded from 11-step pay grades to 15-step pay grades to increase the potential amount employees on each grade can earn. Annual cost-of-living pay increases were reinstated and increased to 3 percent on average, as opposed to the previous

2.5 percent. We expanded benefits options to give employees more choices. We began promoting the services of the employee assistance program to assist employees with maintaining work/life balance. For example, free on-site training on reducing burnout was conducted.

Rosemont Center Inc.

Services: Outpatient therapy, foster care, day treatment, and mental health services for Somali youth.
Ownership: Private nonprofit.
Top executives: John Krulcik, chief executive officer; Sonya M. Latta, director of human resources.
Employees: 62.
Fiscal 2012 budget: $5 million.
Location: One facility in Columbus, Ohio.
Connections: www.rosemont.org,
(614) 471-2626, hr@rosemont.org.

Reduce recruiting and onboarding time and costs. This goal was achieved by forecasting staffing needs by looking at trends. One large general job posting for clinicians was created for a six-month window, allowing candidates to apply for any clinical position during that time. Directors and supervisors were trained on how to conduct a structured interview and asked to hold one interview, and evaluate the candidate, each week. We generated a bank of candidates who wanted to work at Rosemont. When a position opened, we had several candidates to choose from. This reduced onboarding time and costs because only one advertisement was placed, rather than ads for each open position.

Design a stronger system of support for program directors to increase self-sufficiency. According to Day Treatment Program Director Nathan Toops, "the agency has never had any formal training for program directors or supervisors on effectively managing staff, how to avoid legal mistakes as a manager, and other areas related to HR." So I developed a free training program and trained supervisors on interviewing applicants, selecting candidates, leadership, coaching, performance management, performance appraisal, workplace safety, and avoiding mistakes. This had a positive trickle-down effect on staff members, who said they were starting to feel more supported by their supervisors.

Improve career development and training opportunities. The state licenses Rosemont as a provider of continuing education. The designation allows us to provide free units that count toward licensure. Therefore, the directors and I put together a training agenda and distributed it to staff members, thereby increasing participation. In addition, the agency reinstated the annual funds given to each employee to attend off-campus training and pay for licensure exams. With the backing of the board, our chief financial officer reinstated staff development funds.

Encourage a culture of openness between all employee levels. We introduced quarterly all-staff meetings to begin fostering such a culture. We began talking to all staff members about the direction of the agency and program developments. Other new gatherings for staff have included a health and wellness fair, potlucks, sporting events and after-work gatherings for holidays.

To board members, this retention study means less financial stress on the agency with regard to onboarding and turnover costs and higher employee morale resulting in improved service for the youth and families Rosemont serves.

For me, the lower turnover rate—and subsequent improvement in staff morale—marks the first milestone in my young career as a human resource professional. I have made a significant contribution to an agency that offers so much to my community.

Until September 2011, the author was HR director at the Rosemont Center in Columbus, Ohio. She is now an HR generalist with KDC Columbus|Tri Tech Laboratories Inc. in New Albany, Ohio.

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