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'Employee Partnership' Pushes Engagement

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, December 29, 2008

On-site back rubs, and keys to the exercise room might make employees relaxed and more physically fit, but one observer says it won't necessarily improve job performance. Those perks might not even be what employees want or value.

Debbie Paller, vice president of the Physician & Employee Business Unit at Press Ganey & Associates, says hospitals need to do a better job understanding what employees want. With that in mind, the healthcare quality monitor this month introduced a new "Employee Partnership" model that focuses less on recruiting gimmicks and more on employee engagement.

"Our historical approach was to focus on satisfaction. We used to measure engagement and improve engagement by leveraging satisfaction," Paller says. "Through our research we found that they are two very different psychological conditions that should be leveraged in their independent states to get the maximum benefits."

The Employee Partnership model centers around what Press Ganey calls "Five Partnership Principles," namely: systems and leadership, resources, teamwork, direct management, and engagement. Systems and leadership, for example, focuses on issues like job security, input on decisions, fair wages, and recognition. Direct management focuses on coaching, trust, communication, and feedback.

At first glance, the Five Partnership Principles appear to be the same old boilerplate and buzzwords we've heard before. Communicate with your employees? Recognize achievement? Of course! But it's more than that, says Paller.

"From a hospital's perspective, they may feel they are already doing this. The question is, Are you bridging that gap to where employees are perceiving it? Perception is realty," she says.

For example, hospitals try to recruit and retain employees with "wow factor" stunts like mortgage assistance or concierge services when they should be concentrating on bread-and-butter issues like wages, professional development, employer relations, and scheduling flexibility.

"What we have found is the basic stuff tends to get lost," Paller says. "The wow factors are great, but employees, especially in these times of economic uncertainty, are looking for things that give them that stable feeling of employment." The best way to find out what employees want is to survey them. "Ask the employees: 'What do you think? Are you receiving communication? Do you have the opportunity to speak up?'" Paller says.

Beyond that, Paller recommends questioning senior management to determine if they're on the same frequency with employees. It's a little tougher for senior management, because they have to determine if they know what employees want, and if they're getting their intended message through to employees.

"'Are we communicating? Are we getting information out, and are we receiving it back? How do we do that systematically?'" Paller says. "If you get to questions you can't answer or you're giving anecdotal answers like 'We've always done it this way,' that's probably a good indication that you don't have a very systematic way to deliver on those five principles."

When you have the employee surveys and senior management feedback in hand, compare them to find gaps between what you think you're providing and what your employees think they're getting. Once you've found the gap, look for bridges.

If your employees aren't getting the message, for example, it could be something as simple as the mode of communication. You may be proud of the reams of job-related data and daily institutional updates on your hospital's intranet. But, what if your employees can't access a computer, or they don't have time to sit down in front of one? Maybe they'd prefer an old-fashioned notice posted on the bulletin board by the time clock.

Paller says improving communication with employees and responding to their needs is an incremental process, as senior leadership gets feedback and adjusts. But she says it is progress that can be measured.

"Create partnerships with your employees and you do get significant organizational outcomes," she says, including improved safety, quality, productivity, and financial measures. "The lagging indication of whether or not you are making an impact is to take a look at those types of indicators," Paller says. "While it is a philanthropic reason that you want to improve employee relationships, ultimately you want to see the results on your bottom line."


John Commins is the human resources and community and rural hospitals editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at jcommins@healthleadersmedia.com.
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