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Getting, Nurturing, and Keeping Valued Human Service Workers!

By Mike Flaherty, Organizational Consultant at The Rural Institute

Human service providers are devoting a greater degree of attention to staff retention than ever before. Program managers’ lives are consumed with getting, training, and most importantly KEEPING motivated, conscientious professional staff. It is estimated that the average cost of hiring a single new staff person is in excess of $5,000! Retaining staff is economical. Keeping staff results in net savings because agencies avoid the high cost of finding, hiring, and training new staff.

Most providers focus on low pay as the primary cause of staff attrition. However, research by the DuPont group over the last two decades indicates that money issues are not the primary reason staff leave; money issues are well down on the list of reasons for staying in a job or quitting. Most employees indicated that work environment/culture and management attitude toward employees are much more important in maintaining long-term staff happiness, loyalty, and longevity. The best long-term “fix” for successfully retaining staff goes beyond pay issues and is more comprehensive.


Staff retention is only one management concern, but it is often the most problematic, expensive, and time consuming. The same underlying problem of getting and keeping qualified staff impacts small and large agencies alike. In those agencies large enough to support a Human Resource Manager, the issue of finding and holding onto qualified and motivated staff may be somewhat easier than for smaller agencies. In reality, the majority of Montana provider agencies are small and located in rural areas. Financial and programming constraints often cede the personnel management responsibility to the director or, in some cases, a committee tackles personnel problems.

Management often frames the retention issue in a negative context—staff attrition. The first and most important step for each agency combating attrition is to evaluate its personnel management practices. Sound, common sense management directed at getting and keeping qualified line staff can build an agency culture that bonds staff and management together. Look hard at the staff turnover rate and the reasons staff give for quitting. In some cases, self-evaluation may not be enough and managers should look to outside help for more objective feedback as to why staff are quitting or staying. Based on these findings, management can then structure a more comprehensive personnel management system. The personnel management system should focus on four areas:

  • Hiring for Values,
  • Nurturing Staff and Skills Acquisition,
  • Supporting Team Members, and
  • Growing Competent/Self-Confident Staff.

Hiring for Values

Attrition is only the negative outcome of a much larger personnel management process that begins with recruitment. In many cases the quick departure of “burned out” staff triggers a crisis management response of finding immediate help to plug programming holes. Recruiting and hiring in crisis mode feeds and fosters staff attrition; a revolving door of staff hiring and leaving results. Management needs to pay more attention to recruitment if it wants to slow down that revolving door.

The smart manager makes hiring decisions based on the “big picture”—that agency’s vision or mission. The first step in the hiring process is recruiting a candidate pool that know and understand what the agency’s long-term mission is all about as well as the intermediate goals and objectives. This means actively seeking persons that share the agency’s vision and the mission, much the same as choosing a team member for a competition who shares common goals. Management should seek to be proactive, willing to take adequate time and spend the resources to find the best fit for each position.

Managers should also look for prospective employees with the potential to learn and grow with the agency. The smart manager seeks persons with the commitment to problem solving and producing outcomes. Hiring efforts should always seek persons willing to take risks and grow with the agency. Managers should insure that potential hires understand that they are considered a long-term investment for the agency. The DuPont studies further emphasize the value of “investing” in staff, beginning with the recruitment process. Investing in personnel from the start builds and maintains competent staff.

Nurturing Staff/Skills Acquisition

Ongoing training, staff skills enhancement, and challenging duties are all critical elements for new (and old) staff satisfaction. More than just improving skills, training sends a clear message from management to line staff that staff are appreciated and valued. The cost of sending staff to training may be an immediate concern, but its pales in comparison to the cost of replacing staff who feel inadequately trained or prepared to do their jobs. That also means the staffing budget should be seen as an investment, rather than a cost. New information and tools in the human services field are developed everyday, and this demands that new and old staff alike regularly keep pace with best practice technology.

Training improves staff competence and confidence, which are immediate benefits to managers. Managers also benefit from assurance that their team has the skills to best serve customers. Well-trained staff “appreciates” the value of agency service to both customers and constituents. Most importantly, well-trained staff are likely to stay with the agency longer. Well-trained staff make fewer mistakes and make the job of the manager easier. Managers are freed from spending time on personnel issues and are able to concentrate on decisions that further the agency’s mission/vision.

Supporting Team Members

Staff that have a stake in the welfare of their agencies become a great resource—comfortable in the knowledge that they and their input are respected. Management’s message should be, “you are valued and trusted.” The message of trust is powerful and empowering. Also empowering is being listened to—having one’s opinion valued in troubleshooting sessions, brainstorming activities, as well as in the development of new policies. Asking for, valuing, and implementing staff ideas in the decision making process is an excellent way to say, “your ideas are important to the agency and its team.” Staff who are trusted return long-term value to agencies. They form a loyalty to other staff and management alike. This fosters an organizational culture that keeps good employees who are bonded to the agency’s mission.

Employers typically expect their staff to be loyal, but many fail to accept that they, in turn, should be loyal to their workers. Loyalty works both ways. Management demands staff loyalty in spoken and written directives, but what should be expected from managers in return? A culture of loyalty begins with open and sincere communication between management and staff. Most important is management’s willingness to listen and respond to staff concerns, questions, and suggestions. Personnel who are afraid of management repercussions are likely to hold back full efforts, thinking of their own job security rather than the good of their agency and its customers. A management culture that sincerely believes and practices “staff loyalty” has more time and energy to spend meeting positive customer outcomes.

Growing Self-Confident Staff

Smart managers recognize their staff is the agency’s team and communicate this. Smart managers are like coaches, recruiting the best prospects, giving specific directions, and most importantly allowing their team to execute their work without undue interference or second guessing. They match staff to the work environment so staff always succeed. Success builds self-confidence. Success also builds management respect, and personnel that are respected and supported are happier and more productive. Staff who are comfortable take risks and accept real decision making opportunities. Management should adopt a continuous process of staff stewardship that builds staff competence and confidence.

Typically money is viewed as a sole reward for staff longevity and performance. New duties, promotions, continuing education opportunities, etc. are other ways of recognizing and encouraging staff performance. Rewards for jobs well-done can also include opportunities for promotion. Loyal and hard working staff can be the best candidates for management positions. Recruiting inside your agency before seeking outside candidates is also cost effective. The time to train staff promoted from the inside is minimal when compared to the extensive time often required to orient employees from the outside.

The Bottom Line

Starting with recruitment and hiring, management needs a comprehensive plan if it hopes to retain competent, confident, and caring staff. These staff members are more likely to return the investment with years (rather than months!) of commitment. Less time and money will be spent replacing staff. The bottom line is measured in cost savings and these savings will offer agencies greater fiscal flexibility for rewarding loyal, productive staff.

Contact Information

The Rural Institute
52 Corbin Hall, The University of Montana
Missoula, MT 59812