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How do you reduce a six-month turnover rate by 8.6 percent? Follow the stars.

That was one of the answers for Trilogy Health Services, which is seeing dining services turnover drop. In its Southeast division alone, for instance, it went from 47 percent to 23 percent. More important, the numbers reflect a stronger level of employee engagement the creation of a pipeline to promotions and advancement.

In a conversation, Eric Johnson, vice president, culinary and dining services at Trilogy, discusses the work going into this turnaround and shares some ideas on how to increase engagement.

Johnson has been in the senior living sector for a little over a year. Coming from large-scale hospitality leadership, he had to learn quickly—and the first thing he learned was the importance of the emotional connections in this field to affect retention. People in the workforce want to make a difference, whatever their jobs. But this quality can lead to either great engagement or difficulty.

Before we could talk about Trilogy’s “four-star” program, we had to talk about where the turnover issue starts: with management.

“You know what they say: People don’t quit their job, they quit their boss. So if we get the director of food service role right, train that person in the best way we can, then that will have an effect on our turnover.”

Starting at the top

Focusing on keeping the best employees you have is a strategy that can work better than trying to find new employees. That meant examining the training plan for the director of food service position. Johnson’s team took a “forensic” approach, breaking down the existing training plan and looking for gaps and better ways to use it. Onboarding went from four weeks to six weeks, which then extends into a six-month leadership skills e-learning program.

Dining services also created a company-wide dashboard for consistency of expectations across all Trilogy’s more than 110 communities. With this dashboard, “executive directors, the divisional vice president, the divisional culinary team, they can all go in new and view where someone is in their training plans. “We may have a chef who’s an awesome cook and great at relationships but struggling at financials. Through this approach, we can focus on that individual’s needs.”

Clear tracking of expectations makes the directors feel more confident as well as keeping the company accountable. “On day one, we can show you: Here’s everything you’re going to do in the next six months, and we have someone to mentor you along in that process. And if we don’t deliver on a training, there’s a technological call out for that.”

Clearing the career pathway

For the company’s other 1,300-plus culinary service team members who aren’t directors, training is part of the answer to retention. The other is making it clear what training is available, what it’s for, and what’s in it for the employee, with visible tracking and communication of advancement.

Company career path checklists show all core competencies and performance expectations. “We can now hire a dietary aide, and on day one I can show them that if they want a career in culinary services at Trilogy, here it is,” Johnson says.

When an opening comes up, the director and employee can check the career pathway checklist. If training or skills are missing, they can schedule it, and tell the employee: “When you’re caught up on these things, I have something else for you.”

Professionalism and pride

Trilogy has installed the Rouxbe online culinary school education modules from the American Culinary Federation—it’s required for all directors and assistant directors. For culinary service employees, it’s an incentive.

When they complete the first level in the training, they receive a chef’s coat and one star for the coat—and a raise. They can work their way up to four stars, and four raises—and also receive a set of chef’s knives.

In a year since the launch, Trilogy now has more than 240 four-star certified chefs on its campuses. The up to $3,000 a year in raises is “a game changer,” Johnson says; employees have told him about the economic gains they’ve been able to make in their lives and their family’s lives.

“If our employees have been trained by these standards on proper cooking techniques and food quality, just think of the impact that has on the quality of the food that we’re providing to our residents,” Johnson says.

“There’s a direct benefit for our residents in training our employees this way.”


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