ReWORKing Welfare Technical Assistance for States and Localities. 18. Promoting an Employment Focus

03/01/1997

Because work first programs are defined as much by their philosophy as by the services they offer, the clear articulation of the employment message to staff, service providers, and participants is a crucial part of program implementation. Program administrators need to find ways to emphasize the importance of employment and to focus staff on getting people jobs. In addition, unless all those who interact with participants communicate the same message, participants may not understand what is expected of them. This section offers a number of suggestions for promoting an employment focus in your program, and discusses the benefits and risks of establishing performance standards for staff.

Suggestions for Promoting an Employment Focus

  • Emphasize employment repeatedly, and from the top down. It should be clear that support for the new focus comes from a high level, whether that is the governor, the welfare commissioner, or the county administrator. Senior administrators should set the tone by promoting the importance of the program's mission. All levels of management and supervisory staff should follow suit, sending a consistent message down the line. Similarly, the employment message should be reinforced in all interactions with participants as well as in any written materials or notices that participants receive.
  • Link the focus on employment to the daily work of staff. Let staff members see how their daily work promotes the goal of employment, and help them relate what they do to the message given to participants. Shorter-term or activity-specific objectives (such as bringing participants into orientation or increasing education completion rates) should also be related to the larger goal of employment.
  • Use a new language. A change in the program message can be signaled by a change in the language used by program administrators and staff. Including the word "employment" or "work" in the program's name-and repeating it frequently in the context of program activities-can be a powerful way of sending a new message to both staff and participants. Terms like "outcomes," "job placements," and "job contacts" are other examples of a new language for work first.
  • Adopt a motto. Slogans can help clarify the employment message and can make it stand out. For example, Los Angeles adopted the motto "A job, a better job, a career" when it shifted from a program of education and job search to one with a strong emphasis on work first. The motto is part of the program logo and can be seen on posters, in handouts, and on pins worn by staff and administrators. It makes clear that the immediate goal for participants is employment, and conveys the philosophy that even a minimum-wage job is a positive start.
  • Make sure that the message is heard and understood. In Vermont, all Department of Social Welfare staff showed that they understood the new philosophy by signing a poster proclaiming the program message. For participants, signing an employability plan or other "contract" is a concrete way to show that they understand what is expected of them in the new program.
  • Market the program. Promoting the program and its goals through the media and other means can reinforce the employment focus, foster a positive public image of the program, and make staff and participants feel proud to be a part of it. Marketing the program can also help sell the message to prospective employers and the public.
  • Promote the employment focus in agreements with service providers. It is important to communicate the program message not just to your own agency's staff but also to any other providers who will work with program participants. (See section 20 for suggestions on how to do this.)
  • Monitor outcomes. Some program administrators either may not want to institute formal performance standards (discussed below) or may be limited in their ability to do so by union contracts or other factors. Even without formalized standards, however, employment and other related outcomes can be monitored and included informally in staff evaluations, and benchmarks can be set for desired outcomes.
  • Give staff flexibility in achieving desired outcomes. As you emphasize the goal of employment, give local offices and staff members flexibility to try different approaches to achieve that goal. Staff may better respond to the new focus when they feel that they are given the freedom to carry it out.
  • Reward success. Publicly acknowledge the success of individual staff members, units, and offices in meeting program goals. In addition, honor the accomplishments of partner agencies and service providers. High performance can be rewarded with public recognition, certificates of achievement, or prizes, such as gift certificates or movie passes.
  • Change the culture of the office. Posters, signs, and videos in the waiting area can all "advertise" the message and heighten the emphasis on employment for the program as a whole. Having pots of coffee available in the waiting area can create an atmosphere of professionalism and respect. Staff should follow the same rules relating to professionalism, punctuality, and "dressing for success" that are recommended for participants.

Performance Standards

How staff are evaluated sends a strong message about the program's goals, and instituting employment-focused performance standards can clearly communicate the program's expectations for staff. One program that has made extensive use of employment standards is in Riverside County, California. Each staff member must achieve at least 15 job placements per month (out of a caseload of approximately 120) in order to meet the standard. In addition, each district office sets performance goals, which are higher than the standards (the current goals range from 20 to 30 participants entering employment each month). Staff members who achieve 30 placements in a given month receive an award. Staff achievements are posted daily, by individual and by unit. The performance of different offices is also publicized, so that they compete against each other.

Administrators in Riverside credit their performance standards for much of the program's success in increasing employment among participants. While staff have multiple job responsibilities, the prominence of the standards makes it clear that employment is the main goal of the program and the main (though not the only) criterion for evaluating staff. Staff with lower performance regularly seek out higher performers to learn "how they do it."

There is no fixed rule for how high to set performance standards. Most programs start with a somewhat arbitrary guess and then adjust the standards according to how well staff do in meeting them.

Despite their potential for heightening a program's employment focus, performance standards present some risks, as discussed below:

  • Performance standards can lead to "creaming." Because they are evaluated so heavily on the basis of the end goal of employment, staff may concentrate their efforts on those participants who are most likely to succeed. There may be little incentive for staff to expend a lot of effort working with participants who seem a long way from employment (though administrators in Riverside believe that their program's high performance standards force staff to work with their entire caseload). Combining performance standards with some process standards (such as caseload coverage, described in section 13) can discourage creaming.
  • An overemphasis on employment can detract from individual client needs and from other program goals. Recognizing incremental steps toward employment or combining employment standards with other performance measures (such as completion of education) can help counteract this.
  • If not monitored, performance standards can lead to inflated outcomes. In an effort to achieve high outcomes, staff may report employment that is not confirmed or does not last.
  • Performance standards can have a negative effect on staff morale. This is especially likely if the standards are perceived as unrealistic or unfair. Involving staff in setting the standards can help make them more realistic and counter staff resistance.
  • Putting staff in competition with one another can discourage cooperation. Measuring the performance of larger units rather than of individual workers or giving credit to all staff who help a participant gain employment can encourage staff to work together.