Treating employment candidates and new employees like internal customers is key to workforce retention, according to a workplace culture expert.

Cara Silletto, Magnet Culture president and chief recruitment officer, said during a LeadingAge member call on Monday that the COVID-19 pandemic put the senior living industry to the test on whether providers were committed to an employee-first culture.

“Just like you focus so much on the residents, and making the onboarding and move-in process smooth, we have to treat our candidates and new employees as internal customers and focus on making that a smooth transition for them, integrating them into the team, making them feel welcome, listening to them,” she said. “New hires are the greatest flight risk today.”

To that point, Silletto cautioned employers to ignore data that are six to 18 months old and focus on more current “pulse surveys” to determine what employees care about and what they need. The entire team, she added, needs to understand the “all-hands-on-deck mentality” — that everyone is equal in the value they bring to an organization, whether they are long-time workers or new hires.

Senior living providers also need to adopt a mentality of flexibility and equity to address workforce challenges, she said, adding that providers can’t rely on traditional models of handing out a 2% to 3% annual raise, which she called a cost-of-living adjustment, at best.

“We’ve got to get more creative,” Silletto said. “Moving forward, we have to focus on how we’re treating people and focus on what their expectations are. Those were evolving before the pandemic.”

Another factor influencing employee retention is a strong supervisor or manager, she said. In fact, Silletto added, management can have the most influence on employee retention.

“You can go anywhere and get a paycheck and a bad boss,” she said. “If we have good managers and supervisors in place, they can buffer a lot of the issues that cause people to leave. You get the most bang for your buck if you’re focusing on management and supervisor positions.”

Complicating the workforce challenges are generational differences, Silletto said. Although many millennials were driven by passion and making a difference — and senior living used that as a recruiting tool — Generation Z just sees a lot of “starving artists,” she said.

“This younger group is immediately asking for more money,” Silletto said. “It’s going to to be an interesting struggle.”