Some senior living companies operate with their own version of zero tolerance and it leads to terrible results.

Once or twice a month there is a news story about an insane zero tolerance discipline incident at a school that results in the suspension or expulsion of a student (often grade school age) for chewing a sandwich in the shape of a gun or a kid going bang bang on the playground.  We read these stories, shake our heads and wonder how school leaders can have so little common sense. While the reasons for zero tolerance are sound, blind implementation is just plain ridiculous . . . more than ridiculous it is destructive.  It has gotten so ridiculous and embarrassing that the Obama administration has recently called for schools to get rid of zero tolerance. Some senior living companies operate with their own version of zero tolerance and it is an easy trap to fall into.

Senior Housing and Zero Tolerance

A while ago I was talking to an executive director who recently moved from a small, family-owned, regional chain to one owned by a large national chain.   At the family-owned company he had a great deal of autonomy and, while there were policies and procedures, they were minimal and crafted in such a way as to allow executive directors a great deal of flexibility in how they ran their buildings.  His biggest frustration in making the transition to the national chain was the amount of bureaucracy he had to deal with.  This bureaucracy falls into two categories:

  • Policies and procedures that allow very little flexibility in how the building is run.  In particular he found there were lots of things he hadn’t been doing that he was now required to do and others that he had been doing and were working well for the community that he had to stop doing, not for any particular reason except policy.
  • Getting approval for anything took multiple steps and multiple forms which made it more difficult to have face time with residents, family and staff.

I suspect most of these policies were created in reaction to someone doing something boneheaded in a company community.  The idea being that a policy will keep that thing from happening again.  I would like to suggest this approach completely misses the mark:

  • People occasionally do stupid things.  In fact I bet somewhere sometime even you have done something stupid.  Just because something stupid happens it does not mean a policy is needed.  Rather it may mean that person needs better training on something specific or, more likely, better training on how to think about things. Or perhaps that person needs to be let go.
  • Having a big book of policies and procedures can lull you into thinking you can hire less competent people.
  • Having an environment where local management has no autonomy is discouraging to great leaders. If a great candidate joins an organization like this they will either shut down and stop trying, or they will leave for more promising opportunities.  I predict that the person I was talking with will move on in less than a year.
  • It sends a message to staff, up and down the chain of command, that meeting the minimum standards of the policy and procedures book is good enough.  It takes away the incentive to go the extra mile.

Well run buildings stay full, have happy residents and staff, make a good profit and don’t get sued.  The reason they are well run is not because there are volumes of policies and procedures that are followed, but because, starting with the executive director and continuing all the way down to the housekeeping and food service staff, they have great relationships with residents and families.

Next Up:  How the right culture is the best inoculation against being sued. Steve Moran

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