Administration and Leadership, Columns

Employee Attrition Starts (and Ends) with Leadership

Issue 10 and Volume 39.

It’s been said that employees don’t leave EMS organizations—they leave their managers and situations. If you have employees retiring when they could stay longer, leaving in droves or applying for other jobs en masse, you’ve got an attrition problem. You either need to change your management style or change the situation that’s making employees head for the exits.

Considering how much effort and money—and how long it takes some organizations to train an employee—the prospect of employees walking out the door isn’t a good scenario for any EMS organization. Being an EMT or paramedic is a skill set not everyone has.

Although there are many more EMTs in the field than paramedics in the United States, getting the right EMT and retaining them isn’t something that should be overlooked. Because there are fewer paramedics than EMTs, it might be even more important to hire and retain the right paramedic in your organization. As EMS managers, you should be engaged in the process of trying to keep valued employees.

Preventing Turnover
I’ve seen EMS organizations where employee turnover is like the revolving door at Macy’s during a sale. The managers say, “They’re leaving for better pay.” However, that’s not always the case. The Saratoga Institute in California has data from 19,700 exit interviews and surveys conducted on employees who left 17 different business organizations in the early 2000s. The institute found pay and benefits weren’t always the motivator for leaving a job—88% of employees left organizations for something besides pay.

One of the reasons employees leave organizations is because they’ve lost total trust in their senior leadership. And if the senior leadership doesn’t demonstrate the value they have for their employees, the relationship breaks down. Some organizations think it’s an “us versus them” mentality when it comes to relationships between senior management and their subordinates. Management can see the subordinates as the enemy, make fun of them and talk disparagingly of them, and this attitude is usually reflected in any interaction they have.

If employees lose trust and confidence in their leadership, the team has a serious problem. Usually, an indication of loss of trust in senior leadership is found in sick leave usage and attrition rates. Basically, employees don’t want to be at work because they’re avoiding being at a place where they don’t feel valued. If they don’t want to be at work and are unhappy, they’ll start looking for a job somewhere else.

Leadership sets the tone for any organization. One of the best examples of valuing employees was David Neeleman, CEO and founder of JetBlue Airlines.

Back in the early 2000s when the airline industry was rocked after 9/11, JetBlue had 12 consecutive quarters of profit and, of all the airlines, had the highest percentage of filled seats. What was their secret? Neeleman valued all 6,000 of his employees. It was said he knew most of them by their first names and would ask them about their families and personal lives. He constantly looked for ways to improve morale, including letting reservation agents work from home to avoid travel costs. He routinely would help clean cabins and, if he were on a flight, would pass out the peanuts. When Neeleman was at JetBlue, the attrition rate was very low.

How many EMS managers have you seen pay this kind of personal attention to their crews? Never mind that they don’t even have 6,000 employees. How many EMS managers sit in their office and never come out?

Another leadership mistake that can cause high attrition rates is allowing employees to feel their organization isn’t managed very well. If senior leadership doesn’t convey a clear vision for the future, reacts with knee-jerk rules and memorandums and doesn’t have a plan for going forward, the organization looks like a rudderless boat just bobbing in the water.

When you were little and teams got picked in the school yard, it seemed like the cool kids and the best athletes got picked for one team and the other kids got picked for the other team. Nobody wanted to be on what everybody knew would be the losing team. The same is true with EMS organizations—nobody wants to be on the sinking ship.

If you want to keep your employees, you must value them and engage with them.