How Booker Thomas makes tough choices at HealthNet Inc.

Booker Thomas, CEO, HealthNet Inc.

Like many other companies and organizations during the 2008-09 economic downturn, HealthNet Inc. found it necessary to tighten its belt, and Booker Thomas was struggling with how to tell the staff.

“It really hit our bottom line in terms of providing services to so many people,” says Thomas, president and CEO of the $50 million organization.

“I knew that there would be a lot of ramifications throughout the organization,” he says.

The first step is to analyze the situation and lay the groundwork that the organization is facing some economic challenges.

“Try to be as transparent as possible with employees, and let them know exactly where the organization is financially at all times,” Thomas says.

This can be communicated at staff meetings and department meetings.

HealthNet’s 500 employees had looked forward to annual general wage increases as a type of reward for their dedicated service, but its leadership decided it could not grant the increases that year unless it laid off staff members.

By being upfront, contacting each employee with information and showing empathy for their situations, it can put a better perspective on the issue. E-mail may not be the most personal method, but it provides a timely announcement for all employees and can help forestall rumors.

“I sent e-mails out to each employee to explain our financial issues and that because of the economy, we have decided that we would not give the general wage increase in order to keep everyone working,” Thomas says.

Along with the matter of a wage freeze may come the issue of a hiring freeze. Employees will want to know the organization’s position on attrition. At this point, it should be stressed that the administrative team will review each case and decide if the position is critical to the operation or not.

“If we were able to hold back on support staff, we did that,” Thomas said. “But those direct patient care positions we continued to hire.”

Announcing a wage freeze, which many times may happen around the December holidays, is a tough call, and timing does little to help the matter.

“I don’t think any way is a good way,” Thomas says. “But at least they have time to plan and prepare and make other arrangements prior to Christmas if they knew of the wage freeze beforehand.”

Be prepared for reactions running the gamut of emotions. If you’ve worked your plan well, you may be able to get employees to see the situation for what it is.

“I was honestly shocked that we didn’t have more of our staff sending me e-mails how it had hurt them by not giving the increases,” Thomas says. “I felt sure that I’d get some. So after we made that announcement, I also sent an e-mail thanking employees for their patience.

“I did not get one negative comment out of all the employees. I was just elated because I expected a lot of people to go against that and have their own individual concerns.”

A leader still has a duty to put in a personal appearance to meet with employees, take questions and discuss the decision.

“I went to all of the centers ― we have nine sites now ― and explained to them why we had to make that decision,” Thomas says. “They looked at it and said, ‘We all have jobs, and we’re here to serve the needs of clients,’ and they were OK with that. That’s the dedication we have.

“I told them how I appreciated them and their patience and the support that they have for the organization and the mission that we share, and thanked them for it.”

How to reach: HealthNet Inc., (317) 782-2111 or www.indyhealthnet.org

Leadoff strategy

The time when a new employee meets the leader of an organization is an important time to explain the culture of an organization.

“I speak to every new employee, try to set the culture for the organization, and let each person know what we expect of them,” says Booker Thomas, president and CEO of HealthNet Inc.

“It’s critical right at the beginning,” he says. “I try to give them a feel for the gut of the organization in terms of what we are all about.”

This is an optimum moment to explain that employees, especially those who deal with customers, are ambassadors for the organization. A client will see his or her point-of-contact person as the organization. The experience clients will have with employees will define the company or organization in their eyes.

This is also the ideal time to let new hires know they can voice any doubts they may have at a later date regarding the position. Let them know of the options.

“I will say many of you may work for us for a few weeks or months and see that this is not your cup of tea, this is not your niche ― and that’s all right because everybody can’t deal with clients,” Thomas says.

The employee needs to know that management will work with those who request a different position, as opposed to being in a situation that they didn’t like and in which they were having some problems.

In addition, the CEO has the chance at this time to make employees aware of an open-door communication policy. Describe the feedback channels, and stress that communication is important to the success of the operation. Underscore the fact that the organization wants and needs the employee.

“Each position and each employee is valuable to the mission of the organization,” Thomas says.

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