Hard Line on Staff Rules Increases Retention Rate

IHC in Utah has found that sometimes when you expect more from your employees and their managers, they deliver more.

Intermountain Health Care System foodserviceIt's a wonder that some foodservice operators don't just bolt in a set of revolving doors at every entrance or exit for all the employees they lose each year. High turnover is a costly reality of doing business. So, when someone, or a team of someones, nail down a solution, it's worth trumpeting.

The food and nutrition department of the Intermountain Health Care System's Urban Central Region in the Salt Lake Valley area of Utah no longer greases its revolving doors. Increasingly its employees choose to stay for long periods of time, and not because the department lessened its employees' workloads, gave them more vacation time or started throwing better employee holiday bashes.

Rather, the department is reaping the benefits of a fairly new, home-grown system that demands a greater degree of employee accountability and more clearly defines the rules of employment, some of which are more strict than before, while offering the staff more support and more opportunities to grow professionally and take on added responsibilities. A new approach to screening and interviewing potential new hires has also done its part to preemptively bring down the turnover rate.

Turnover turnaround: As recently as 2003, the turnover rate for first-year foodservice employees in IHC's Urban Central Region, was 103%, reports Pat Scott, director of food and nutrition services overseeing cafeterias and patient feeding in three hospitals (Cottonwood, LDS and Alta View Hospitals.) That revolving door has slowed considerably; turnover was 23.6% for the first six months of 2005 thanks to her team's Scheduling, Orientation, Application/Interviewing and Professional Development (SOAP) program. Each term refers to a set of processes directly relating to employee recruitment and retention.

SOAP (an acronym that includes all four processes though not necessarily in the order that employees encounter them) was the end result of months of brainstorming done by several teams of foodservice workers from all the region's facilities.

When Jimae Kenney, foodservice manager at Cottonwood Hospital in Murray, UT, and an enthusiastic spokesperson for the program, describes SOAP, she begins with the logical starting point, the application and interviewing processes."The aim was to standardize the process," she says.

All together now: One major change was the establishment of a group interview for applicants. "We have several people on both sides of the table," she says. "We have a team of interviewers as well as all of the applicants coming into the process together."

Applicants who make it through the system's human resource department screening are invited to interview en masse, and are asked a set of questions that are meant to encourage potential hires to reveal more about themselves than simply where they last worked. "We'll ask questions like 'What did you learn from your last work experience?' They have to expound and not give just a simple 'yes' or 'no'‚" says Kenney.

Once the department decides to hire an applicant, he or she must still pass all pre-employment background checks and drug screening before attending the system's mandatory orientation process. The department now avoids having to fire just-hired people who fail the screening after having been entered on the payroll or beginning orientation.

Internal opportunities: It also tweaked its own interdepartmental orientation process. Under the new system, existing employees may apply to be a trainer for new staff, and if accepted, they receive a 5% deferential for the shifts during which they train someone. "Not everybody can do this, only a few," says Kenney. "They were honored to be given the responsibility and took it seriously."

In the area of scheduling, much of the department's focus was on standardizing divergent practices in the region's facilities. This included setting unwavering policies that managers can follow, making clear the rules and consequences for not following them. How and to what degree an employee is held accountable for his or her actions no longer rides on the temperament or management style of individual supervisors.

"We have a definite policy for both attendance and arriving to work in a timely manner, and those policies are specific and measurable in numbers," Kenney asserts. "I can tell you, we have terminated people for attendance and punctuality issues, and they have been good employees, but we just had to be strong about it. We had to say, 'How can you be a good employee, if you can't get here on time?'."

Holding employees accountable to hard and fast rules such as strict limits on sick days and absenteeism, perhaps counter-intuitively, is a morale booster for many employees, particularly long-term employees. "They are so happy that we are holding people accountable for attendance and punctuality," says Kenney.

Recognizing the talent: IHC's Urban Central Region continues to hone the professional development arm of the SOAP program. Kenney says showing appreciation for employees is key. The spotlight board, for example, recognizes new hires and introduces them to the department. Similar boards honoring long-term employees are posted in the retail areas of the hospitals, allowing customers and other staff members to get to know them.

Other initiatives in this arena include an informal mentoring program in which experienced employees help newer ones through adjustment periods and a certified dietary manager course beginning next year for supervisors who don't have formal training.

The result of all these initiatives and others within the SOAP program is measurable in more than just in the lower turnover rate itself, but in the dollar savings realized by having to hire fewer people each year. IHC estimates a savings of $137,000 for 2004. The natural correlation between low turnover and increased employee satisfaction is also evident, employee satisfaction is up 12.5%.

For these efforts, IHC won a Spotlight on Innovation Award from the National Society for Healthcare Foodservice Management this year.