Staffing Crisis Keeps Bad Employees in Senior Living Too Long

Senior housing providers on the whole may be far too reluctant to let bad employees go, and this could be just as detrimental as the plethora of other staffing challenges they’re facing.

That’s according to Paul Gross, the founder and owner of Ohio-based assisted living and memory care provider Blue Bird Retirement. Blue Bird currently operates two senior living communities in the Buckeye State.

“Because we have a staffing challenge, we take too long to fire,” Gross explained last week at PointClickCare’s 2017 SUMMIT in Orlando, Florida.


“People say, ‘Oh my god, I can’t fire so-and-so because I don’t have anybody [to replace them]—but that [line of thinking] contaminates the whole workforce,” he said.

One rotten apple can spoil the bunch, in part by preventing the best workers from having maximum impact.

“We’ve all seen that our best and our worst employees inside our buildings are constantly competing to influence all the other employees,”  he said.


Now Gross is determined to always let unqualified or incompatible employees go, even when there isn’t a clear replacement lined up.

Still, this approach hasn’t been widely adopted by other senior housing providers—and for potentially good reason, as other panelists at the SUMMIT explained.

Don’t jump the gun

Firing shouldn’t always be the first course of action when dealing with an employee who isn’t meeting expectations, Heidi Elliott, vice president of operations at Edina, Minnesota-based Welcov Healthcare, argued. Welcov currently has more than 50 locations throughout Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming.

First, she said, administrators should determine why an employee isn’t performing at acceptable levels.

One of Welcov’s employees, for instance, hadn’t shown up to work for three days, and that employee’s manager called Elliott to say it was time the employee was fired. Instead, Elliott told the manager to find out why that employee hadn’t been coming to work.

As it turns out, the worker was in a domestic abuse situation, and she was embarrassed to share that information. Once she did, though, Welcov was able to present her with various resources to get help, and she started coming to work again.

“She is one of our most loyal employees today,” Elliott said.

All of this isn’t to say senior living frontline staff should never be fired, however. Some turnover is actually good for senior housing communities, Gross argued.

“We talk about a real high turnover ratio,” he said. “Well, you don’t want zero.”

The tambourine man 

Better engaging frontline staff is a great way to protect against them leaving of their own accord, which is another staffing issue that routinely plagues senior housing providers, according to panelist Chris Casteel, managing director of health care operations at Watermark Retirement Communities. Tucson, Arizona-based Watermark currently operates 51 senior housing communities in 20 states.

That’s why Watermark decided to open its Watermark University programming up to staff, in addition to residents, Casteel said at SUMMIT.

“Watermark University [presents] an opportunity for residents to showcase their passions with other residents,” Casteel explained.

Through the program, residents teach their peers new skills and information in various “courses” throughout the year.

More recently, Watermark opened Watermark University up to frontline staff and other associates.

“We have housekeepers teaching [residents] conversational Chinese, conversational Portuguese,” Casteel said. There’s a maintenance worker in one of Watermark’s communities who, after teaching music courses, is now known among residents as “Dan the Tambourine Man.”

Watermark believes that its direct inclusion of staff in resident programming helps administrators develop better relationships with their subordinates and gives greater variety and meaning to employees’ day-to-day grind.

Plus, it benefits residents, too.

“In order for our residents to thrive, our staff has to thrive,” Casteel said.

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

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