Wednesday, June 15, 2011

County takes aim at employee morale

New HR generalist hopes to boost corporate culture

Express Staff Writer

Susan Potucek

Blaine County's new human resources person may have only started a little over a month ago, but she's already looking to make changes in the county in an effort to boost employee morale and improve customer service.

Susan Potucek, human resources generalist for the county and former human resources manager for the Red Lion Hotel in Twin Falls, presented her plan for making changes in the county's corporate culture in a budget request earlier this month.

"Employees should feel good for what they do throughout the day," she said in a later interview. "That's the crucial part. A happy employee can give a happy service, and so being a customer-service-oriented county, we are here to serve the public the best way we can."

Deep changes in corporate culture can be made with very little cost to the county, Potucek said.

"It can be something as simple as a thank-you note, a pat on the back. Stuff like that can make a real difference in employee morale," she said. "How does someone know they're doing a good job if they're not told they're doing a good job?"

To that end, Potucek has laid out her plan for making sure county employees feel appreciated and as though they are contributing to the larger mission of the county. Many of her proposals are as simple as making sure department heads communicate more openly with staff regarding expectations, but some are more complex.

One major project she hopes to roll out is the implementation of a handbook or reference for employees to carry with them to remind them of the county's "shared values," which include concepts such as integrity, community and service.

The idea came from a handbook the Red Lion Hotel board of directors developed when Potucek worked there. Nicknamed "the little red book," the handbook contained the chain's principles of customer service, mission statement and general conduct guidelines.

Employees were required to carry the book with them at all times and refer to it when necessary.

Though Potucek said the county version may take the form of a note card or a poster hung in visible places, the concept is the same.

"It's just a double-check every time they make a decision," she said. "Is it the best decision for the customer, [and] is it the best decision for the county?"

Potucek admitted that reception to the book at the Red Lion was "stand-offish" at first, but that managers eventually grew to see it as a good training tool.

Eventually, she said, the county version of the handbook may be used as part of a larger employee incentive program, in which employees would be rewarded for being able to recite the shared values or mission statement on command.

"You'd imagine at some point, we could make this fun," County Administrator Derek Voss said during Potucek's budget request. He said small prizes for remembering the county's principles would make staff feel their efforts to promote the county's vision were being rewarded.

Commissioner Larry Schoen said he believed a program of this sort would help the county provide better customer service.

During a visit to a hospital a few years ago, Schoen said he was struck by the number of places in which the hospital's code of conduct was posted—and the excellent bedside manner he believed was a result of the code's visibility.

"[It was posted] everywhere in the hospital," he said. "It was saturated. This type of practice really can work."

Production of the handbook or other reference material would be funded through insurance savings the county procured by participating in training through the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program.

Employee participation in an online training program saved the county $8,000 in insurance premiums. Voss requested $2,000 of those funds be used to produce the handbook and implement an incentive program.

The goal, Voss said, is to have employees who are engaged in their work and therefore more productive.

"I'm thrilled if someone is happy, but it's not our job to make sure they are happy," he said.

Commissioner Angenie McCleary said she would support an increase in employee incentive programs and agreed with Potucek and Voss that employee engagement should be a top priority.

"If you have employees who understand why they are doing their jobs and feel valued and understand why what they are doing is important, you really can be much more effective," she said.

Voss said that the county's human resources programs were still a work in progress and that none of the proposed projects were in final stages.

"We're just beginning to detail the important functions of human resources in Blaine County," he said. "We will continue to refine this and make improvements."

Katherine Wutz:

Turnover affects LUBS

Two senior staffers have left the Blaine County Land Use and Building Services Department, causing director Tom Bergin to adjust his vision for fiscal year 2012. "Times are and times will be different," Bergin said during a budget request hearing earlier this month. "We will have to move on without their presence. We also will need to adapt and change." Regional planner Jeff Adams and county planner Shana Sweitzer have left the department, and Bergin also referenced the resignation of Planning and Zoning Commissioner Doug Werth earlier this year. Calls to determine the reason for Adams' and Sweitzer's departure were not returned, though Bergin referenced several possible causes in his budget hearing, including lack of employee incentive and wage increase freezes. "We've endured the consequences, just as any other department has, of having a very limited performance-based culture," Bergin said.

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