10 Principles of
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.
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.
Hire people who genuinely like children
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 children.
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.
Use employment interviews to set realistic 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 staff.
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.
Do not attempt to institute a new procedure or a change
unless you are prepared to follow through
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.
Teamwork and team players are developed by a process,
not by hiring "team players."
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
Do not be too hasty to make decisions involving changes
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.
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.
Employees are nearly always trying to do the right
things to the best of their ability
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.
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
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?
Provide more praise than criticism; write more
commendations than disciplinary memos
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.
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
Highlight strengths, contributions, and accomplishments
in routine evaluations, not weaknesses
I like to use three sections for
1. Strengths the employee brings to the
2. Accomplishments during the evaluation
3. Areas of focus for the next period.
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.
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.