Personnel are the most important resource in residential treatment. They provide all of the care and treatment and account for most of the budget. Effective management of this most important resource is critical. These are some principles that I have developed over 30 years of experience in agencies that applied them and agencies that did not.
1. Hire people who genuinely like children
I have found that genuinely liking children is the most important quality for staff in any position. It is more important than skills, training, education, experience, or expertise.
Look for people who talk easily and enthusiastically about liking children, about spending time with children and doing things with children. The positive energy that these people bring to a program is infectious. Their positive regard for children permeates the milieu. It carries over to the children, giving them confidence, strength, and self-esteem to meet the many challenges they face.
Nearly everyone who comes to residential treatment
wants to help children. Helping children is a noble thing. But people
who can talk only about their desire or need to help children, who are
motivated to work in residential treatment because they want too much to
help children, become frustrated when children do not readily accept
their help, heed their advice, and follow their guidance. They tend to
become angry with the children who do not do what they them, or with
supervisors and administration for failing to make the children listen.
You can teach people who like children the skills they need in order to
help them. It is much more difficult to teach people to like and enjoy
2. Use employment interviews to set realistic expectations
The most important thing in residential treatment is treating troubled children, but it is far from the only thing. There are logs and records and charts to keep, reports to write, time sheets to complete, chores to supervise, meals to prepare, fire drills to be held, hygiene to be monitored, bedtimes to be managed, errands to be run, security to monitor, and more. People who expect to spend their time counseling children are sometimes frustrated with all the other things that demand their time and attention. People who accept a job usually come to work with enthusiasm to do the job they think they were hired to do. That enthusiasm fades quickly if the job differs too much from their expectations.
When a vacancy occurs take a careful look at the
program to see what may need more emphasis or attention. It might be
hygiene, room cleanliness, meals, fire drills, activities, charting,
morning routines, or any number of other things. Pick one or two areas
and talk about them in the interview with prospective employees. New
employees are then focused on the area that needs attention and prepared
to address it when they start work. They readily learn from other staff
the routines that are well established while at the same time providing
some energy and leadership in areas that have been challenging other
3. Do not attempt to institute a new procedure or a change unless you are prepared to follow through
Procedures are not implemented by writing new policies or memos, or by training, but by constant attention. Policies, memos, and training are helpful and sometimes necessary, but they are not sufficient. Positive feedback when staff follow new procedures is essential, as is guidance and direction when they revert back to previous practice. It takes time for new habits to be formed, to become norms. When supervisors attempt to institute new procedures or other changes, then cannot attend to them on a consistent basis, staff may mean well and attempt to implement them, but old habits die hard. Each time a staff member follows a new procedure and it goes unnoticed, each time a staff member forgets to follow the new procedure, it begins to look as if supervisors don't really think it's important. If it isn't important to supervisors, it's not likely to be important to staff.
4. Teamwork and team players are developed by a process, not by hiring “team players."
Nearly everyone will be a part of the team if given a legitimate opportunity. It's the nature of people to join groups. When there are problems with teamwork, it is usually because someone or some group has been excluded from the team. Employees who are given legitimate opportunities to have input in the work of the team will be team players. This does not require that their input must be acted upon, only that the team listen to their input, consider it, and respond to it. This includes input about the needs of residents, treatment, discipline, work schedules, and policies and procedures that affect peoples' jobs.
5. Do not be too hasty to make decisions involving changes
There is seldom any urgency for instituting change, and once a decision has been made, it is difficult to challenge. When a topic comes up in a staff meeting, whether introduced by management or by staff, and people “brainstorm" solutions, it is seldom necessary and often counter productive to arrive at a decision in that same meeting. People need time to think. What seems like a good idea to everyone in the meeting may not seem to be such a good idea after further reflection in the milieu. Staff will talk among themselves after the meeting. With time to think and talk, they may come up with better ideas or new objections to ideas that were discussed in the meeting.
When I am considering a change or a new policy or
procedure, I like to tell staff what I am thinking about doing,
sometimes in a staff meeting, othertimes more casually in individual
meetings. I allow them a few days to think and talk to other staff. Then
I check back, sometimes in a staff meeting, other times more casually.
Sometimes staff don't seem to care. Other times, they have objections
that we can discuss, with one of us changing our position. Often, they
have a better idea. Regardless, I can count on their full support for
decisions that come out of this process.
6. Employees are nearly always trying to do the right things to the best of their ability
When employees do something wrong, or fail to do something that they should have done, assume that there is a good reason. There are many demands on employees' time and attention in residential treatment. Many times, these demands or priorities are in conflict. Staff cannot write reports, supervise activities and chores, serve meals, and prevent or respond to crises all at the same time. They have to prioritize. When employees fail to do something they should have done, it was usually because they were doing something else that they thought was important. Effective supervision involves reaching an agreement with staff on what the priorities are.
7. Burnout comes from lack of job satisfaction arising from conflicting expectations and demands that interfere with staff's ability to deal with troubled children, not from the children
Staff who genuinely like children rarely burnout on the children. They burn out on conflicting demands and expectations, from not being able to do what they think they need to do in order to be effective, or possibly from the conflicts between the needs of the program and needs in their private lives. Difficult children sometimes get the blame for staff burnout, but in my experience, that is rarely the case. If staff are burning out, there is something wrong. It can be fixed.
8. Provide more praise than criticism; write more commendations than disciplinary memos
I once worked at a large institution where supervisors were discouraged from writing commendations in the belief that a commendation in the file would make it more difficult to fire the staff if it became necessary. Can you imagine what morale was like there?
Criticism and disciplinary action affect the entire staff, not just the recipient. When supervisors criticize and discipline staff too frequently, staff begin to feel that supervisors are watching them only to catch them making a mistake. They begin to withhold information. They do things one way when supervisors are watching, and other ways when no one else is around. They begin to lose confidence, sometimes being reluctant to take initiative for fear of being criticized.
On the other hand, not responding to errors or poor performance may be like a slap in the face to the staff who are working very hard to meet expectations. The key is to notice when staff do things correctly or well more often than when they do things poorly or wrong. It is energizing and empowering for staff. Sometimes, complimenting staff for following a procedure well is all that is necessary to correct other staff who are not following the procedure.
A word of caution. When issuing praise or commendations, supervisors must be attentive to all staff. Nearly all staff think they are working hard and doing a good job, sometimes a better job than the staff member who has been praised or commended. You've got to spread it around.
9. Highlight strengths, contributions, and
accomplishments in routine evaluations, not weaknesses
I once had a job where in my first year I improved staff morale and stability, renovated the facility, got a grant for a new vehicle, and secured an additional source of funding. In my first evaluation, my supervisor's assistant took up most of the meeting talking about two reports that I had submitted late. I did not leave the evaluation feeling very appreciated. A few months later, I accepted another position at a slightly lower salary.
I like to use three sections for evaluations.
The first two make the employee feel recognized and appreciated. The third sets expectations for the coming period without forcing supervisors to talk about weaknesses or areas in need of improvement. If there are things that need improvement, they can be covered here, such as improving attendance or report writing. But this section can also be used for giving the employee new or increased responsibilities or helping the program to improve in a needed area, such as developing more activities. But talking about areas of focus does not so readily imply weaknesses or deficiencies.
10. If you expect staff to work extra hours
and shifts when you want them to, be prepared to give them time off when
they want it
I directed a small program that had four staff who rotated days off, including weekends, and a supervisor. Although we sometimes needed staff to work overtime, we did not pay them for it, giving compensatory leave of one hour off for each hour worked. The supervisor and I instituted a policy that whenever staff requested time off, we would grant it without question and take responsibility for finding a replacement or working the shift ourselves. Further, all overtime would be voluntary. Neither of us ever had to work a shift. Staff rarely took sick leave or requested time off from a scheduled shift, and when they did, someone always volunteered to cover.
A sister program did not grant staff time off unless they could find someone to work in their place, required staff to work overtime when there was a vacancy, and told staff when to take their comp time. With three weeks notice, a staff requested a Saturday off to attend her best friend's wedding. She could not find anyone to work. The Friday before the wedding, she quit after her shift, leaving supervisors to cover both Saturday and Sunday, along with the rest of her schedule, until they filled the position.
Staff who work in residential treatment sacrifice a lot from their personal lives. There are times when they cannot leave at their scheduled time, times when they have to work a double shift, times when they are needed to work on a scheduled day off. There are also times when their families need them or when they have pressing personal business. Staff are more willing to meet the supervisor's needs and the program's needs when their needs are considered, when it's mutual. It is a two way street.