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IT Staffing: Retention is Cheaper Than Recruiting.

CIOs tell HMT about the strategies they use to recruit and retain healthcare IT staff in today's competitive market.


This is a timely subject. One and a half years ago, we, like most organizations' IT shops, healthcare or not, were losing key people, mostly on our main frame side for patient accounting and general financials. It was very painful--we lost a lot of long term employees with a lot of knowledge and experience who are so valuable to our organization. At time our turnover rate was more than 20%.

We put in place a program with our Human Resources (HR) division who gave us incredible support for about six to eight months as we put together a retention program for the IT staff. The IT division centered around market based pricing of jobs. Some of our job descriptions were 8-10 years old and hadn't been touched in that time.

Update Job Descriptions

We rewrote every job description in the IT division and updated them with the current technologies. We got the staff and management team involved in rewriting the job descriptions, then we went out to the market and market priced the jobs.

Once we market priced the jobs, we went through a process where we matched everybody to the job class. We had pay grade legacy type problems. For example, analysts and senior analysts were at the same pay grade. We also had problems with compensation and job classifications and job descriptions, so we cleaned all that up. And we also put into place a retention plan. It's a multi part program that includes:

* Updated job descriptions

* Market based prices

* Extra dollars in the compensation pool of the IT budget so we could give people market-based adjustments.

The Human Resource department looks at the market every 6 months to make sure the compensation matches the market. I have the latitude to give people market adjustments very quickly, especially if other employers are wooing them. We had some people who had worked their way up in the organization who were being paid very low amounts for very hot skills. We were able to address the shortcomings in terms of compensation here as it relates to what they might get if they left the organization.

Recruiting Bonus

We're very aggressive--we streamlined our recruiting practices. Another thing we do is give a thousand dollar bonus to hospital staff if they recruit an IT person. That brought us at least 6-7 people. Whenever a new person comes on board, we encourage them to let their friends know in that we have good opportunities here. If they refer new IT staff, we let that person know that they get $500 on the day the person starts and another $500 after 3 months.

I was also able to put together a Y2K program where those who worked on the Y2K program received a retention bonus--dollars that are paid out for every 6 months that they stay. That's proven to be fairly effective.

Our organization has been very receptive to my arguments that I don't compete against other hospitals for IT talent. I compete against industries like insurance companies, the local electric utility, banking, and universities. In order to do that, I have to be competitive in the marketplace--a relatively small local market. New Haven County has a population of about 350,000.

The three biggest employees in the city of New Haven are Yale University, Yale-New Haven Hospital and St. Raphaels. We compete with New Haven-the Insurance Capital of the World. They employ a lot of technology staff. We compete-not against peers- but pretty much statewide. And the marketplace in Connecticut is bid up-everyone has bid up the prices. I'm not the top competitor in the market but I don't believe I'm any slouch. That's been very helpful.

The other thing we try to do in our organization is build a better quality of worklife. We know that money is important--all the things we did on the compensation side. But we also know that how we treat a person is important as well. We believe in flexible worktime. We have a lot of working moms in IS and respect their challenge in trying to be parents and a super employee at the same time. We done job sharing and allowed people to work at home. We've done all kinds of different thing.

Promote From Within

And the final thing we've done is promoted from within very aggressively. We've tried to give people growth opportunities. We think it's the opportunities that people are working for, so we're very happy to provide them. We encourage our staff to speak up and ask to be put on a project. We give everybody a fair shot.

The retention figures lately are 9%-cut by more than half. That's a big thing. They'll probably be down to under 6% for the last quarter. We've had a really good run the last several months. We've been very fortunate.

The staff's got the same concerns [as management]-- feeling very overworked, under a lot of pressure because of the Y2K. We probably have 30 simultaneous projects going on. There's a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. We try to take it as light as we possibly can and enjoy ourselves at work. At the same time people are being held accountable for getting things done.

The final thing I can say about our organization --we're a Catholic Healthcare Organization and we're very grounded in the values of the organization. People like working here. We treat people very well--we don't burn people up. People work very hard, but we don't abuse the staff, we don't treat them poorly. We've actually talked to some of our staff who know they can go somewhere else but they also know there is potentially a price to pay for that in either increased stress or pressure or how people treat their employees. I think that's had something to do with people staying here.

We'd had some people here who are just in their forties who want to retire from our organizations. I find that absolutely outstanding. We value employee as people and try to give them intrinsic rewards. That makes the employee the best advertiser. It says it must be a decent place to work because people are getting referred to them. New employees are referring other employees. One is referring the other who refers another. It must be a good place to work. We just try to keep it that kind of atmosphere.

Some people might say I've just got too much to do, or our shop's too busy. I've got people going all out on projects just turning and burning and they're hanging in there. Our staff is an outstanding bunch of people.

Strong Candidates

The major characteristics we look for in a candidate are:

* Able to work independently

* Self starters

* High level of motivation

* Relate well to both customers and in house

* Work well on teams

* Want to learn new technologies and new skills

* Motivated to do better and do more

We've hired back staff who left the organization--both senior management and regular staff. We've been happy to do so in some cases. It's hard to go back sometime. In some cases it wasn't the right fit to begin with. It's a very dynamic marketplace. You have to be opportunistic. When our HR people recruit, we don't take two weeks to make an offer; we'll make an offer within 2-12 hours of the final interview.

The interview process goes very quickly here. We use HR, who are great people and know that recruiting is absolutely key in staffing. We have 3 open positions out of 90--almost at full staff. HR knows that in order to reach their objectives they've got to fill their positions. They've got to get people in here and get them working and productive. So I make it a very high priority to do recruiting.


We do more personal recognition than public. We do a lot of celebrations of successful project completion, birthdays, and the like. For our new staff, we have a breakfast get together with bagels and muffins. The new staff is introduced to everyone in the IS division. We take 15-30 minutes, have coffee and sit around and kibbutz a bit. This is a good icebreaker--gets the new staff person integrated with the team.

We have many long-term employees here and try to avoid a class system--newbies and the people who've been here ten-fifteen years. That's something you want to deal with as aggressively as your can. We have a rewards "tool kit"--small things--movie passes, meals, gift certificates--that we give people who go above and beyond. We'll do more formal recognition as necessary.

We're very fortunate. I work for a good organization that values people. They've given me the resources I need and HR has been very, very supportive. It's a tribute to our Vice President of HR--how good he's been to the IS division. The point is he's helping us with the market issue, helping us understand the market dynamics so we can better make the argument to senior staff about what we need to do to make things happen.

We're very lucky and I think it shows because the IS division is popping out a lot of systems work and is now pretty successful. We should be in pretty good shape for the Year 2000. But, retention is a lot cheaper than recruitment. We want to keep our people here as long as we possibly can and keep them happy.



Information Technology (IT) staffing isn't difficult, even in a market with a severe labor shortage, if you make staffing a strategic focus. With a total headcount of 31 highly skilled technology professionals, I currently have only one opening, and that's for a new position.

It's no secret that if my best employees are valuable to me, they're equally valuable to other employers. So my management team focuses a lot of energy on employee retention. We use a variety of strategies, but the most effective strategy in retaining technology professionals seems to be reiterating respect.

Today's technology professional wants a voice to state problems, share ideas, and make suggestions. We all need to hear how important we are; that we have work with meaning, that what we do 45 hours each week makes a difference. So we tell them all that often.

We also make sure that employees' ideas are heard and considered, that employees "buy-in" to projects before they begin, and that everyone understands the strategic importance of every task. I am committed to making sure that my team knows everything I know; there are no secrets, and certainly no concepts that an employee cannot understand.

On a monthly basis, the IT team reviews the organization's income statement, revenue variances, expense variances, sales figures, and medical loss ratio. These "geeks" know how to interpret financial statements better than many Chief Executive Officers (CEOs).

Retention Strategies

We also deploy a second tier of retention strategies that go a long way to make employees feel special and appreciated. We offer:

* Flextime

* Work day from home days

* Business casual dress policy

* Personal achievement awards

* Public recognition for achievements

* A pleasant work environment

* Exposure to latest technologies

* Full benefits including comprehensive alternative medicine.

And I toot the company horn often since we all like the feeling of working for a winner.


Local studies tell me that unemployment for IT professionals in Denver doesn't exist. These people can work for US West, TCI, consulting organization, or even serve as independent contract laborers if they can be effective sales people. Luckily, Colorado is a favorable destination for those willing to relocate.

Regarding recruiting, I look for 3 major characteristics in technology professionals. First, I look for candidates who will anticipate, rather than react to change. Second, I look for candidates who will serve as technology ambassadors to users, not combative techno-snobs who shove technology down users' throats. Third, I look for technology professionals with a commitment to ongoing learning.

To do this, I recruit and promote from within. We also rehire former employees (the good ones come back for some reason) and offer referral bonuses to existing employees and business contacts. We use recruiters and advertise in the newspaper--this really works! We manage expectations of potential employees and toot the company horn--we all like to work for a winner.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Industry Trend or Event
Author:Yablonka, Eric
Publication:Health Management Technology
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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