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All aboard the train(ing)

An employee survey helps Charleston Animal Society develop an employee training plan

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2013

Veterinary assistant Virginia Stallings pulls blood for a heartworm test on a dog at the Charleston Animal Society (CAS). A new training protocol at the shelter is designed to provide staff with the tools they need to reduce on-the-job mistakes that could otherwise occur during daily tasks. Sarah Boyd, D.V.M., director of shelter health and wellness at CAS, and staff member Marshall Coaxum examine a pup at the shelter. New CAS employees don’t begin their duties until they’ve had a full week of intensive study and learning the ropes.Brittany Watson Tisa, veterinary director of continuing education initiatives at CAS, teaches local high school students about scientific approaches to cruelty investigations through the shelter’s Veterinary Science Initiative (VSI) program. Megan Whetsell, a surgical assistant at CAS, brings a puppy from the recovery area back to a cage after surgery. One goal of the CAS Shelter Support System is to help staff succeed in their jobs, which could lead to lower turnover.

An employee survey helps Charleston Animal Society develop an employee training plan

Though everyone in animal shelters tries to avoid them, mistakes inevitably happen: a medication missed, an animal incorrectly restrained, an inappropriate vaccine administered, a pet cat deemed feral. In the sheltering world, employees—often with minimal training—are expected to manage a range of critical situations like accepting surrendered animals from devastated owners, documenting court and cruelty cases, performing euthanasia, providing medical care and filling prescriptions, and assisting in surgeries and emergency cases. Although shelters would prefer to have staff with formal technical and collegiate education in animal-related fields, the reality of budgets and availability of skilled workers often force most instruction to happen on the job.

Employees at shelters are called to serve as educators, animal care technicians, therapists, and investigators—sometimes all in one day. These different responsibilities require different training and support to ensure competency and success. But due to time and resource limitations, this necessary support is often sacrificed. By not providing this support, shelters may set up employees for failure, resulting in high turnover and on-the-job mistakes.

Why Do a Survey?

Charleston Animal Society (CAS), an open-admission, full-service shelter in South Carolina, recognized that both new and old employees at the facility were occasionally making preventable mistakes, such as feeding improper quantities, performing injections incorrectly, or providing adopters with inaccurate information. The shelter’s management team wanted to find out how we might provide better support and what the staff needed in order to minimize these errors. We identified the lack of a formal orientation and training program as a possible cause of the problem. Colleagues taught new hires the protocols for the facility, and there were no standard operating procedures for reference.To determine whether this might be having an impact on employees, we developed an anonymous survey to gather demographic information on staff as well as their perceptions on training, the shelter, and the degree of preparation provided for their positions. We used agree/disagree-type questions to help determine employee attitudes and beliefs and asked employees to suggest possibilities for orientation and training programs specific to their own areas. We had the employees take the survey during the weekly staff meeting and followed up with departmental brainstorming sessions.

And the Survey Says ...

The survey responses we received were largely detailed and thoughtful. The statements quoted here come directly from survey responses, reflect sentiments that were expressed repeatedly in the organization, and became the model for the orientation and training plan.

Most employees agreed they “felt lost” and “nervous” on their first day at the shelter. They agreed that “Not everyone gets trained thoroughly” and “Not every trainer teaches the same things.” They identified inconsistencies in how tasks were completed and tied these inconsistencies to mistakes they made themselves.

Staff overwhelmingly wanted more training. They requested “hands-on” training, lecture instruction, reading materials, and a “manual to follow” to avoid mistakes. They wanted “a tour … and … a day to observe what happens,” with a single experienced staffer serving as a mentor.

Staff strongly agreed that they wanted more responsibility in determining how their area of the shelter would operate. They were excited to choose training topics for their areas, develop evaluation techniques, and select a “training team” from among their peers—a “few selected people that we know actually teach well and know the correct procedures.” They also felt “new employees should be tested and evaluated by a manager.” Their enthusiasm continued in meetings between each individual section of the shelter. Staff expressed during these discussions that the survey and planning process made them feel like the management listened to their ideas and valued their insights. The current training development plan includes all employees working together to make recommendations for the curriculum.

Now What?

In response to the information in the survey, CAS has integrated multiple instructional techniques, direct managerial roles, introduction to mission and culture, and an emphasis on employee value into a full week’s program of transitional orientation and training. Many education experts agree that information given only verbally is often forgotten and should be included in a written format for future reference. In our plan, we provide a variety of learning formats—including written, visual, kinetic, and verbal—to accommodate different learning types and levels.The first morning of our orientation will involve distributing training materials, an orientation PowerPoint given by management, a tour of the shelter, and question-and-answer time. Making employees feel welcome and part of the organization is important, and as noted in Angela Heyroth’s article “Best Practices in New Hire Orientation: Review of Contemporary Corporate Programs,” if higher management is involved, there is more “buy-in” for that relationship. We will provide each new employee with a full tour, pair them with a mentor, and allow them to observe full-speed operations in their area.

After the first day, these selected mentors will guide the training through the rest of the week, teaching skills from an official checklist. During this time period, we will also provide online modules in the form of short videos accompanied by a worksheet; new hires will complete these and submit them to their manager. Our intention is to divide training into digestible chunks that can be revisited and standardized. There are a set of core modules and also area-specific modules that allow specialization within the shelter—another element that was identified as a need in the survey. We are also developing a new standard operating procedures manual for staff to use as a reference.

Evaluation of knowledge and skills is a critical part of any training system, in the classroom or workplace. At the end of the first week, employees will take a written test, and their manager will go over any incorrect answers to ensure a correct understanding. This is not a pass/fail test, but an opportunity to clarify expectations. Once their mentors have deemed them ready, new employees will have their skills observed by a manager to ensure consistency. Managers then sign off on the checklists of skills to make sure each employee is taught the same thing in the same way—a simple and effective standardization tool. Finally, module worksheets will be completed and reviewed to make sure employees have mastered the knowledge contained in the videos. We will also review incorrect answers on the worksheets, which are separate from other evaluations and are completed as the employee watches each video module. Questions emphasize important points and make sure employees are active, rather than passive, participants.

Does it Help?

One of the most drastic statistics from our survey was the rate of turnover. Among our staff, 42 percent had been at the facility for less than a year and 18 percent for less than three months. This compares to general working world rates of 15 percent annual turnover reported by the Society for Human Resource Management’s Human Capital Benchmarking Database. Recruiting and hiring new staff is expensive, and costs for turnover in the first year for general businesses are estimated to be three times the salary of the position, according to a 2007 study by the Wynhurst Group. With the considerable training needed for new staff in shelters, these costs are substantial in our field.Despite the high turnover rate at CAS, most surveyed staff did not see their current job as temporary. This may indicate the potential of training and support to increase retention of staff—other experts have noted that preparing employees for success and providing regular education helps with the turnover issue.

For example, we all know that euthanasia requires specific training. However, along with the technical details of how the task is performed, we must also provide new hires with information about why it is done. It is easy to forget that not everyone understands the reasoning behind these decisions, and training can prepare staff on many levels. Additional training on compassion fatigue and ethics allows staff to manage the stress that comes with their jobs.

As noted in “Assessing new employee orientation programs,” (Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 23), orientations are important for job satisfaction, commitment, and retention. According to Heyroth, the best orientations are engaging, involve senior leaders, create a shared vision, are welcoming and enfolding, and make employees feel valued. They immediately instill organizational values, ethics, and culture and clearly define expectations and procedures for workers. A study in Pediatric Anesthesia examined how the use of checklists—modeled on those used by aviation and Formula 1 pit crews—affected errors in patient transfers. The study found that technical errors in department transfers in hospitals decreased from 39 percent to 11.5 percent using new system checklists. Other animal-related fields, like laboratory animal medicine, also find training can empower staff members to provide consistent, high-quality veterinary care. Within our own field, Dr. Michael Moyer, a member of the ASPCA’s High-Quality, High-Volume Spay/Neuter (HQHVSN) task force, discussed how standard operating procedures can improve training, efficiency, staff accountability, and reduce adverse events at a lecture at the 2011 Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Conference called “Fighting SNAFUs with SOPs” (see Resources, below).

What are the challenges we face?

CAS has not yet fully developed and executed this program, but thus far, employee attitudes and engagement have been rewarding. Staff were more willing to problem-solve, even suggesting color-coded equipment labels so biosecurity protocols for each kennel are followed properly. However, giving tests, signing off on skills, and meeting with planning committees will use time and resources in the shelter, and may be a challenge.

In the past, short staffing has resulted in bypassing training so new employees can begin to work immediately. But we feel it is critical not to shorten training, no matter how much the employees are needed somewhere else. Studies in the field of human medicine have indicated that increasing staff compliance and buy-in is critical to improvement of patient care, and we feel those results translate well to the animal sheltering field.

Why should you care?

Establishing a basic orientation and training protocol for your shelter can maintain better employee skills, knowledge, consistency, and safety. Many shelters struggle to institute any education, training, or standard procedures for their facility. By documenting the need, creating a program, and executing a training and orientation plan, other facilities can follow the process established by CAS. Finding time in a nonprofit organization to develop a training course from scratch can be difficult, but documenting staff needs for training allows shelters to make these types of initiatives a priority in their facility. The CAS Shelter Support System will help our staff to be successful, confident, and save more lives.

We hope it will also inspire and assist other facilities to develop their own training and orientation programs. This ensures broader human and animal advancements in shelter medicine and education. Formal training and orientation not only provide for an efficient workplace, but a safer environment for both people and animals, increasing employee satisfaction and staff retention. As standards for shelter medicine and care are reinforced by resources like the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of
Care in Animal Shelters, spay/neuter guidelines, ASPCAPro, and Animal Sheltering magazine, ignorance is not an excuse for inadequacies. By educating staff and promoting standards, training, and orientation, we are protecting humans and animals while showing the public we care and are an organization worth supporting.

About the Author

Brittany Watson Tisa is the veterinary director of continuing education initiatives at the Charleston Animal Society in South Carolina. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in educational administration at the University of South Carolina.