Listen, empathize and respond: 4 HR leaders on handling unhappy employees

During the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital and health system employees have increasingly voiced their concerns about staffing, patient care, working conditions and employee retention. A number of workers have also left their full-time hospital jobs — or their professions altogether — amid these and other concerns.  

Becker's asked four healthcare human resources leaders how they monitor whether an employee is unhappy (outside of surveys), and how they respond once you know an employee is unhappy. Below are their answers, in alphabetical order.

Ruth Bash. Chief Human Resources Officer of Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center, an RWJBarnabas Health facility (Livingston, N.J.): At Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center, we are continually taking the temperature of our workforce with tools such as stay interviews and leadership rounding. Rounding along with other initiatives helps identify, in real time, any concerns so we can work together to remove any barriers to engagement. Sometimes these conversations are about the work itself, and sometimes they are about pathways for professional growth and development. The goal every time is for the employees to feel valued and heard.

Sarah Colley. Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare (Memphis, Tenn.): When our employees thrive, we thrive as an organization, so we make it a priority to listen carefully to understand concerns and challenges. We are committed to providing opportunities for two-way dialogue through daily huddles, face-to-face meetings, listening sessions and town halls. We recently conducted half-day listening sessions with nearly 500 employees across the system. These conversations were candid and emotional and provided invaluable insights. Leaders also play a critical role in ensuring they are listening to, supporting and addressing their teams' needs. Part of our culture-shaping work involves teaching our leaders in-depth listening skills.

From employee feedback, we take action to implement solutions as appropriate. In the last year alone, MLH launched a number of initiatives based on employee suggestions. These ranged from on-site employee assistance programs to resources for back-up child care. If an employee is dissatisfied with their current career path, for example, we engage them in skill-building programs and identify advancement opportunities. Our employees are the heart and backbone of our organization, and we are proud of our 12,000 dedicated employees who are improving the lives of patients we serve.

Jim Dunn, PhD. Executive Vice President and Chief People and Culture Officer of Atrium Health (Charlotte, N.C.): Our Atrium Health Culture Commitments encourage engagement between our teammates and leaders about topics that are important to them. We recognize the importance of executive rounding and encourage each of our leaders to be intentional about building relationships with our teammates. As leaders, we have to be approachable and accessible, as we learn so much from our teammates. At Atrium Health, we also have teammate engagement task forces and Team Teal — a group of teammate brand ambassadors — who provide us with feedback on a regular basis. It's also important to have regular communications that encourage teammates to share their proud moments as well as any work-related concerns. We have many avenues for teammates to report concerns and our HR processes focus on responsiveness.  

[Atrium's response to an unhappy employee is to] listen, listen, listen, empathize and respond quickly. We consider it a gift when teammates share their concerns with us, because it gives us a chance to really understand what's important to each individual. As a leader, a critical voice can often be the most important voice you hear. Once we have understanding and we have researched a concern, we often provide a detailed, personal response in writing directly to the teammate. The environment for talent is so competitive. We owe it to both the teammate and our organization to carefully consider the feedback we're getting in order to be the best place to provide care.   

Rhonda Jordan. Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer of Virtua Health (Marlton, N.J.): At Virtua Health, 'open communication' is one of our guiding principles, and I believe it is essential for assessing colleague happiness and satisfaction — both on the individual level and among departments and teams. 

For new hires, we implement a series of check-ins to gauge an individual's feelings of belonging, purpose and general satisfaction.

For employees with longer tenure, we strive to maintain an open-door policy to discuss issues and concerns in a safe, non-judgmental environment. This cannot be strictly reactive; we are proactive in listening to what is most important to our colleagues, surfacing life-events, and advancing professional goals.

We have established a number of forums to support this ongoing dialog, including executive and leadership rounding, employee change teams and colleague communities. We are a culture-focused organization, and we hope that by feeling connected to the work, the community and one another, we foster environments in which colleagues are not only happy with their work but also proud that they contribute to something bigger and meaningful. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution [in terms of responding to an unhappy employee]. However, our leaders and human resources professionals are committed to fully understanding and responding to situations in which colleagues feel unhappy. 

We train and encourage our managers to adjust their leadership style to the employee and work collaboratively with human resources to create customized solutions to whatever the source of dissatisfaction might be. There is a formal dispute-resolution process, of course, but we also look to mentorship programs, coaching, and — once again — open communication to get at the heart of concerns and do what we can to maintain a happy, engaged workforce.

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