I work as a director for a center that serves children with special needs. We are part of the Department of Pediatrics of a public university/hospital system. I have been the director for two years now and have an issue I am not sure how to solve. We work for a public institution, so the salaries for the caregivers who work in the classrooms are barely above minimum wage and not competitive locally. Because of this, our center is a revolving door for caregivers who are a critical part of our team. I am unable to raise the salary, so how do I keep employees, find new employees on a regular basis, and keep up the morale of the center and myself? I feel so discouraged most of the time because it’s an issue I can’t control, nor will it change in all likelihood. I am seriously considering leaving.
Dear Turnover Troubles,
Many leaders find themselves in your position. They struggle with turnover within their essential, but low-paying positions. I’ve worked with many of these leaders, so—while my advice won’t be especially welcome, it is truly battle-tested.
I think you need to re-set your expectations of what’s possible. You may not be able to ever “solve” your retention problem. The turnover numbers within your group may always be higher than ideal. However, there is a worse problem than actual turnover: It’s what we call “spiritual turnover.” Spiritual turnover happens when people stop being engaged, involved, motivated, or psychologically present at work. Their bodies may keep walking the halls, but their souls have left the building.
These organizational zombies are far more costly than actual physical turnover. They prevent your team from achieving its mission, and create safety and customer-experience problems as well. I think your goal should be to keep your employees as engaged and positive as possible—even when you know that many of them will only be with you until they find a better-paying job.
Gather Information: Begin by gathering information from two groups: a.) Long-term employees who you value and respect, and b.) Past employees who have been gone for at least three months.
Ask the long-term employees about their motivations for staying. Find out what is working for them. Is it pride in their work? Friendships with other team members? The impact they have on the people they serve? Work to build on these strengths.
Ask the past employees about why they left, what they liked/disliked about the job, and what they are doing now. One of your goals will be to reduce unappealing elements of the job. But, just as important, look for patterns in their career steps. For example, are your employees “graduating” to a better-paying job within healthcare? Within your same hospital? Are they going back to school? Are they really getting better-paying jobs, or are they stuck?
Connect to Values: Employee engagement requires a strong connection to at least one of the following four values:
- Development: Some find meaning in the growth the job offers—in the way it prepares them for the next step in their career.
- Job: Some find meaning in the tasks or the craft of the job. They identify with the profession.
- Customers: Some find meaning in helping the people they serve—in your case the children and their families.
- Team: Some find meaning in being a valued member of a winning team—in close friendships and being counted on by others.
I’ll suggest a few actions you can take in each of these areas.
Development: I hope your past employees have moved on to better jobs—and that they see their time with you as having helped their careers. One approach you might take is to turn your team into a world-class farm team for your hospital (or for professional schools). Make sure your employees get the training, experience, and coaching that will help them be most valuable to other departments. Create opportunities for employees to showcase their skills and to learn more about opportunities they can strive for. Your employees will value their time with you, because they see what you are doing for their careers. Employees will want to join your team, because they know it’s a great way to enter into a career in healthcare.
Job: My experience is that teachers take a lot of pride in their profession—and are also quick to point out obstacles that prevent them from practicing their profession. Often the best way to tap in to this source of motivation is by removing distractions and disruptions so that your employees can focus on what they do best. In addition, set high professional standards, and involve the whole team in holding each other accountable for achieving them. It’s hard to take pride in your work, if the standard isn’t high.
Customers: My guess is that most, if not all, of your employees take pride in the impact they have on the children and families they serve. Build on this pride by making these connections more visible, more personal, and more frequent. Find ways to track the impact your employees are having, and share and celebrate this impact. Create face time between your employees and children’s families.
Team: Make sure your employees feel like a valuable part of your team. Find ways to have them work with partners or in small groups. Create opportunities for them to get to know each other—and discover similar interests beyond work. Make sure each person knows that others on the team are counting on them, and value their contributions.
I hope these suggestions will help. Again, I think employee engagement is a better measure than turnover for leaders in your position.
Best of Luck,