Monday, December 17, 2012

Report of Finding:

Management / Staff Relations:
Observations: This is a very important consideration because it directly impacts on client care. Under paid, under-appreciated employees will put in the hours but will never put their hearts into their work. Working for the Calgary Drop-In, I was exposed to the best practices in management/staff -relations (not perfect, but what is?) which provided the benchmark for my observations of other facilities. The shelter industry suffers from a shortage of funds (there is always more need, than dollars) and the people who go into human services truly want to “make a difference”, unfortunately this leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. 
         The worst offenders when it comes to pay/benefits/hours are the religious based shelters. Paying minimum wage, part-time hours (no benefits) and erratically placed on-call, short shifts; leave staff frustrated and resentful. Clients cannot build any kind of real trust relationship with the staff because in a few short months each has moved on; not because they don’t love the work or their clients… simply because they also need to eat and pay rent.
         Another issue is the use of too many unenforceable rules. Perhaps it is fear of litigation or the need to exert control over a generally chaotic environment (probably a combination of both). A couple of places had a flat out “NO TOUCHING POLICY”. This policy meant that a young woman passed out on the floor was dragged to the dorm by her equally drunk cousin, who fell down twice in the attempt. It meant that staff could not intercede in altercations, and police were being called in for minor skirmishes; which created a lot of resentment between the Ottawa Police and the Shepherds of Good Hope. The no touch policy left staff feeling vulnerable; when a client became confrontational staff would all retreat to the front office and someone would try to talk her down through the Plexiglas.  Failing that, once again the police would be called.  This was by no means the only shelter with a no touch policy but it is by far the worst case scenario because we are talking about hundreds of clients. Even in less volatile situations a no touch policy only prevents good touching (a pat on the back, a supportive hug, a reassuring hand squeeze)… it does not stop clients from assaulting each other or staff.
           Another widely used and misguided rule is the, “NO fraternization” rule. Any contact between clients and staff outside of the work environment is forbidden (not merely discouraged) and can result in dismissal. I have known many good, compassionate people who lost their jobs for acts of kindness and support given outside the parameters of their job. A worker in Hamilton was fired for giving a client a ride, who was walking to the shelter on a rainy night. The shelter management sites liability issues… what if the staff was attacked by the client?…what if there was an accident? …what if the client imagined (or was) sexually harassed? 
There is under the law a level of culpability (personal responsibility for risk) assumed by both drive and passenger.
These kinds of imagined “what if ” scenarios are the excuse for much of the wrong-headed un-enforceable rules which plague the system. Essentially the more rules an organization has, the less your staff feels trusted and supported by management. Agencies adopting the more flexible Policies & Procedures approach had better relationships with their staff. The staff were then more effective with clients because they could tailor their interactions to the clients’ individual needs. 
Conclusions: Agencies that have Policies & Procedures instead of Rules & Regulations have better management / staff relations and promote better client outcomes.  Any money saved by underpaying your staff must be offset against the ongoing cost of training their replacements.
Recommendations: First let me make the following suggestions regarding compensation/hours/shifts. Pay your people a decent starting wage for your region. If there are no other shelters (or similar human service support agencies) then; what do bank tellers make to start, or what do new hires with the construction industry make? Adjust compensation for education and experience (which would include small annual increases). If a staffer is not productive get rid of them… quickly… you cannot train lazy, selfish or arrogant out of a person, let them go before their seniority (for unionized shops) saddles you with this dead wood forever. These types of people are a burden to fellow workers and damage the moral of the whole team.  Anyone who is productive enough to keep on the job, is productive enough to deserve an annual raise.  For part-time staff give them stable hours on a specific schedule… this will allow them to get a second part-time job so they can continue to work for you until you have an opening for them full-time. Know your employees, hire good people, then get out of the way and them to do their job…if you are a large organization then know your management and trust them to do their jobs. Happy staff, is productive staff and nothing makes a person happier than a workplace where they are treated with respect.
           Now regarding the issue of un-enforceable rules; you cannot hope to cover every possible contingency, so stop trying. The best RULE I was ever given was, “never do anything you are not prepared to justify”.  This was a great rule because I could not act impulsively when following that rule. Another great RULE is to always “Always err on the side of compassion.”
            A few suggestions around fraternization; zero tolerance for counselor/ client romantic or sexual interactions. Notice I said counselor not staff… the reason for this is that some agencies are so large that many clients and staff have little or no professional interaction. Those situations need to be addressed individually. Personally my policy is to never get involved with anyone from my workplace (staff or client) I find it just complicates things.
            Another RULE would be zero tolerance for racism, sexism, any of the isms, homophobia, and bullying in any form. That applies to every dynamic…  shelters (as the name implies) need to be safe nurturing environments, where everyone is treated with kindness and/or respect.  

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