Rigid Managers, ‘Pathetically Poor’ Storytelling Harm Senior Living Staffing Efforts

Senior living providers need to reject top-down management approaches and be bolder in how they appeal to prospective workers to overcome increasingly steep recruitment and retention challenges.

This was a key message shared by industry executives Thursday at the 2018 Senior Housing News Summit in Los Angeles. The panelists described a worsening staffing crunch, due in large part to tight labor markets across the country.

“Unemployment is at historic lows and continuing to drop,” noted moderator Ken Roos, chief revenue officer with OnShift, which provides senior living workforce software and services.


With workers in high demand across many industries, it’s harder than ever for senior living providers to offer competitive pay and benefits. In fact, labor costs are rising at a faster rate than he’s ever seen before in the industry, said Dan Williams, COO of Seasons Management, which is based in Oregon and operates about a dozen senior living communities across six western states.

Given this situation, simply competing on wages is not a sustainable solution, the panelists agreed. Rather, senior living providers need to make bold and sometimes uncomfortable changes to attract new workers and reduce turnover.

Leaders, not managers


Providers are focused on how they can appeal to members of the Millennial generation, who are roughly between the ages of 22 and 35 and are entering the workforce in ever larger numbers.

“Millennials like flexibility,” said Patrick Dooley, COO of Milestone Retirement Communities. Milestone is based in Vancouver, Washington, and operates more than 80 communities nationwide.

To meet the demand for more flexible work schedules, Milestone changed its scheduling structure to incorporate a greater variety of shift lengths, ranging from four hours to 12 hours. The result is that Milestone can now hire people who are attending school or have other obligations and responsibilities, but want to pick up short shifts when their schedules allow.

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The company is now saving on labor, Dooley noted. In the past, a community would add an eight-hour shift even when coverage was not needed for that long, and now it’s easier for someone to take a short shift in a pinch.

“I know that people cringe when I say, ‘We have to listen to our employees and fit into their schedule a little bit,'” Dooley said. “People say, wait, I’m the manager, I’m going to tell them when to work. Well, you can’t do that anymore. You’ve got to be leaders, not managers. Leaders will say … what can you do and how can we help, and work together as a team to make that happen.”

Seasons has also implemented more flexible shifts, Williams said.

“In our industry, back in the day, it used to be, we operate this way, we’ve got processes and systems that work around three shifts … that’s how we do things, and if you don’t fit into that, then you don’t work for us,” he said. “That’s evolved.”

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We are family

Senor living is “competing against everyone” for workers these days, said Dan Hutson, chief strategy officer with HumanGood. The Pleasanton, California-based nonprofit operates 18 senior living communities across California, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Washington.

To stand out in this crowded field of potential employers — including fast-food joints and retailers — senior living providers should double-down on creating a team that is bonded like a family around a common mission, Hutson and the other panelists agreed.

Milestone has undertaken several initiatives with this in mind, Dooley explained. For example, the company invested around $300 to $500 per community to start food pantries in all its employee break rooms, stocked with everyday essentials that workers might need, including products such as toothbrushes and deodorant.

“When we tour our prospective residents, we take them by the break room, because we’re proud that we do this … how we care about our staff,” Dooley said. “It’s evolved into program where other staff members bring in their bounty. If they have a peach tree, they bring in their bounty … these are team members helping out team members.”

This type of program creates a “huge differentiator” over employers such as Walmart or Taco Bell, he believes. Milestone also invites staff members and their families to come in during certain hours and use the amenities at communities, such as pools or computer rooms. This is also a benefit that a retailer, for instance, can’t offer. It also generates intergenerational interaction and adds to the sense that residents and workers are like family.

Be bolder in selling the mission

The panelists name-checked a number of companies that they admire and try to emulate when it comes to workforce practices, including Chick-fil-A and Alaska Airlines. A common thread linking these companies is that they successfully unite their workers around a motivating mission, and they have become desirable places to work as a result.

Providers and the industry as a whole have not done a good job in promoting the mission of senior living to potential workers, Hutson argued.

“As an industry, we’ve done a pathetically poor job of telling our story,” he said.

He cited another company as a potential model for putting mission front-and-center: Nike.

The sportswear giant recently made waves by including Colin Kaepernick in an ad featuring the tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” This is a reference to Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem prior to NFL games, in protest over police brutality against African-Americans. Subsequently, the star quarterback was not drafted, and he is claiming in a lawsuit that the NFL colluded to keep him out the league.

The Kaepernick ad has led to some people vowing to boycott Nike, and has given rise to debate over whether the ad campaign is admirable or harming the company’s brand.

“You’ve all seen what Nike has just done with Colin Kaepernick,” Hutson said. “It may be an incredibly savvy marketing move, but I really think it derives more from the culture of the company — it represents who they are, and some people are going to look at [the ad] and be just appalled and go out and burn their Nike shoes, but I think it’s really smart in connecting with a younger customer who really wants to do business … with organizations whose beliefs align with their own. That’s never been more obvious to us.”

Senior living companies don’t have to stir up controversy but should be inspired by Nike’s boldness in appealing to people who are socially conscious and mission-oriented, he argued. He named REI Outfitters as a company that has done effective content marketing, which not only woos customers to shop at the store but makes it clear that REI is a great place for people to work if they have a passion for the outdoor lifestyle that the company facilitates.

“We have a real opportunity as socially responsible companies,” he said.

Written by Tim Mullaney

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