8 Ways Top Hospital Leaders Encourage Employee Development

Employee development — encouraging staff members to pursue promotions, further degrees, credentialing or personal improvement in areas of weakness — is essential for building a hospital of engaged, motivated colleagues. Eric Barber, CEO of Northeast Regional Medical Center in Kirksville, Mo., and Jay Morris, JD, PhD, vice president for education and executive director for Yale New Haven (Conn.) Health System's Institute for Excellence, discuss eight strategies that give employees the tools to pursue their goals.  

1. They break down barriers between administration and staff. Many hospital administrators are trying to dismantle the hierarchy at their facilities, a structure that encourages employees to go through the "chain of command" to submit ideas. Employee engagement efforts say workplaces with the happiest employees have often fostered a strong connection between leadership and staff, meaning nurses can chat comfortably with the CEO and leaders are frequently seen in the hospital halls. "As the CEO, I don't want to be some stranger who's in an office," says Mr. Barber. "I want to be out on the floors, in the OR, in the ER, engaged with physicians, employees, visitors and the patients themselves." He says this level of visibility lets employees know they are appreciated and empowered to move up throughout the organization. Rather than holing up in an administrative "ivory tower," Mr. Barber walks the halls of the hospital to demonstrate that he is open to ideas and considers the hospital's employees his colleagues.  

2. They make it easy to pursue higher degrees.
Hospitals that encourage employee development won't put hurdles in front of staff members who want to go back to school. Information on higher degrees and credentialing should be introduced from the first days of employee orientation, and the application process and tuition reimbursement policies should be clear and understandable. Tuition reimbursement at Yale-New Haven Hospital gives tuition reimbursement and loan forgiveness for programs in nursing, diagnostic imaging, respiratory therapy and other areas. "We will pay for employees' payments up to a certain amount, which requires a certain commitment [to the hospital] after the program is completed," Mr. Morris says. Northeast Regional offers a formal program that encourages employees to seek a master's degree or technical certification and reimburses for tuition up to a certain amount. The hospital has also implemented a program called Going the Extra Mile, a sort of "clinical ladder" that rewards employees for taking classes and accepting additional projects within the hospital. "At the end of the year, there's a monetary bonus tied to whatever progress they make within that," Mr. Barber says. Information on tuition reimbursement, hospital-offered classes and loan forgiveness should be easily accessible on the hospital website and mentioned at meetings with supervisors and hospital-wide gatherings.

3. They install 90-day plans for improvement.
In encouraging employee development, look past the obvious candidates — those that clearly excel at their jobs — and identify those that might require more help, Mr. Barber says. Northeast Regional has a process that categorizes each employee as a high, middle or low performer. For the high performers, supervisors are asked to talk about opportunities to advance their careers, pursue tuition reimbursement or take extra classes. For middle and low performers, supervisors set up a 90-day plan for improvement. "It's about creating clear-cut expectations," he says. "I think the process does a good job of empowering folks to improve and making sure we do not allow slackers to pull down [other employees]. We want the high and middle performers to know they are truly appreciated and recognize their efforts." A 90-day plan is an effective tool because it gives a struggling employee an obvious set of goals and a time period in which to accomplish them.

Mr. Morris reiterates the importance of setting up clear goals for each employee at the beginning of the year. If you want employees to grow and develop in a certain direction, lay out that direction clearly and explain the steps to get there. "At the very beginning of the year, the manager talks about objectives for the year and career development aspirations, and employees work with the manager on their objectives," he says. "There should never be a surprise at a performance review."  

4. They look within the organization for executive candidates. Mr. Barber says that encouraging employee development and growth will benefit an organization when it comes time to find the hospital's future leaders. Human resources can post jobs within the organization on the hospital's intranet system to give employees a chance to review openings and talk to their supervisors. If a certain employee is a good fit for a management position, administration can benefit from hiring a new leader who already knows the hospital culture, understands the policies and feels committed to the organization. Promoting from within also demonstrates to other employees that they are valued and could be next in line for a promotion if they work hard. "Our assistant CEO was here with us as a resident and has been promoted to assistant CEO, which is a prime example," Mr. Barber says.

5. They offer career counseling and classes.
Career counseling can be helpful for employees whose resumes, interview skills or job searching techniques could use some improvement. Career counseling also gives employees a space to share their goals without feeling as if they are expressing discontent with their current position to a supervisor. Yale New Haven Hospital sponsors employee career exploration sessions where employees can get information about colleges and career development, as well as resume assistance through human resources. "There's an effort to make sure through HR we are letting employees know what's available to them and looking at their areas of strength," Mr. Morris says.

Employees at Yale-New Haven can also take advantage of classes that teach skills that might not require a degree. Courses for employees include conflict resolution, diversity and presentation skills; staff members pursuing a promotion can take an "aspiring manager" class. "Employees can sit down in a two-day session about what is required for a manager, then have a conversation with their supervisor about what is expected," Mr. Morris says.

6. They expect leaders to improve too. Don't assume that just because an employee has been promoted to a leadership position, they are finished with their professional development. Mr. Morris says Yale New Haven offers an extensive list of classes for directors, including a six-month program with the Yale School of Management that mentors leaders in partnership with the university. Managers can also take classes on interviewing and selection, performance feedback, finance, service excellence and employee engagement during work hours at the hospital. The hospital also offers a three-month course for physician leaders. At Northeast Regional, managers can take advantage of classes that teach them how to talk to employees about improvement. "It's a difficult conversation to have, and we offer continuous coaching for directors on how to have these conversations. You praise them and you coach them and then you praise them again. I've been in healthcare administration for 10 years, and I'm not perfect at this. It's something you have to work at to perfect," Mr. Barber says.

7. They partner with sister organizations. If your hospital is part of a network of sister hospitals or is located near a business school or community college, take advantage of those relationships to build employee development programs. Northeast Regional's parent company, Community Health Systems, gives the hospital administration a chance to talk with other leaders about best practices for employee engagement and development. "Every other month we get together with directors and have a leadership development institute," Mr. Barber says. "It's mirrored off the Studer principles from Quint Studer, and we use that opportunity to get everyone together and discuss common issues. We have a chance to discuss how we engage in difficult conversations with [low performing employees], for example." Mr. Morris says Yale New Haven has benefited tremendously from its association with Yale University, which assists the hospital in offering management classes, programs for vice presidents and physician leadership courses.

8. They encourage employee input. Even if employees are not looking to move up within the organization, they may want to extend their reach in the hospital by offering suggestions for improvement. Don't let employees feel boxed in to their particular roles; design multiple avenues for suggestions so that staff in any department can submit ideas and receive feedback. Yale-New Haven has an online program called Work Smart, which allows staff members to submit ideas online. The ideas are then reviewed by a committee, and feedback from the committee is communicated directly to the employees whose suggestions have been accepted. "Then those employees are recognized and rewarded," Mr. Morris says.

At Northeast Regional, the hospital has designed several ways to encourage employee input. "Around 50 percent of the employees are willing to have a conversation [about their ideas with their supervisor]," Mr. Barber says. "For the ones that aren't, we try to provide several different forums for them to provide feedback. We have a very robust employee satisfaction survey." The hospital saw a 100 percent employee participation rate in this year's survey, due in part to Mr. Barber's efforts in promoting the survey. The hospital's push for feedback is evident in the results: Last year, employee comments on the satisfaction survey were so numerous that they filled more than four pages. The hospital also has an old-fashioned suggestion box, and Mr. Barber holds birthday luncheons to give employees a chance to chat with the CEO once a year. Open forums and town halls are also held regularly to discuss hospital issues and invite any feedback.

Read more about employee engagement in healthcare:

-12 Best Practices for Making Hospitals Great Places to Work

-6 Tips to Improve Hospital Employee Engagement

-Study Reveals Most, Least Satisfied Hospital Employees

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