Jarrard Inc. Daily Counsel

How should we communicate about difficult staffing changes?

Employees and community members are frustrated by recent news of mass hospital furloughs, layoffs or pay cuts.

Many wonder why healthcare workers can’t be redeployed to fill COVID-19 care gaps. They fear hospitals won’t be prepared for the projected surge in COVID-19 cases later this month.

Characterizations by media and the public have not been kind to hospitals making staffing changes, with people vilifying hospitals for seemingly prioritizing their financial bottom line over taking care of the healthcare heroes who are risking their lives to ensure patients receive safe care.

Here’s what health system leaders can do to clear these muddy waters.

  1. Clarify which types of employees are impacted, define the change and explain why this is the best course of action for patient care and employee safety. Being responsibly transparent helps public understanding. For example, explain why certain team members can’t be redeployed. For furloughs and pay reductions, be clear that this is temporary.
  2. Be vulnerable and compassionate. You didn’t come to this decision lightly and struggled to make this difficult call. People need to hear this. They also want to know that you are supporting employees through this difficult time, by maintaining benefits for those who have been furloughed and helping them file for unemployment.
  3. Lead with your best intentions and not a financial message. Patients and employees need to know that you’re looking out for them, personally. Perhaps you’re cutting pay for everyone to avoid laying anyone off. People will understand this commitment to the team.
  4. Share your short- and long-term plans. Your community needs to know how you’re preparing for the upcoming surge and how this staffing change won’t negatively impact care post-COVID-19.
  5. If applicable, communicate how your leaders are proactively choosing to take hits too. Critique of executive compensation has increased amid staffing change news. If they are not taking cuts, why not? A health system leaders’ compensation is made public in your 990s. Don’t think they won’t be noticed on the other side of this pandemic. And beyond the risk of bad publicity, leaders simply need to show how they’re protecting their team members with changes to their own compensation.

Takeaway: The organizations that demonstrate their commitment to employees and, by extension, patient care are the ones that will win the loyalty of employees and patients. Those that don’t will receive questions about their culture and commitment to their mission and suffer a reputational hit from which they may never fully recover. When the pandemic is over and you need to re-staff, will your employees return to you? Or will they go somewhere else?

Tana Watanabe