Civic Warriors Podcast Episode 4: Implementing an Employee Recognition Program
Changing the internal psychology of our workforce.
Christoper Perry, President and CEO of Spectrum for Living, shares how creating a progressive employee recognition program motivated his employees, deepened client-family relationships and established a new pillar of success within the organization.
Listen in as Withum’s Brad Caruso and Heather Campisi chat with Christopher on how The Alex Awards program recognizes and rewards employees who go “above and beyond” in service to the Agency’s mission. Christopher touches on the operational execution of the program as well as its impact on Spectrum for Living, its employees and the many adult disabled clients they serve.
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Civic Warriors: Innovative, dynamic, gritty, determined warrior.
Hosts: This podcast is about the innovators, the leaders on the front lines of adversity, the all around good people doing good deeds. They are the civic warriors of the world. Our guests are the leaders in the nonprofit industry effecting change. They try, they fail, they overcome through their stories. We can join forces to become civic warriors.
Brad Caruso: Welcome everybody that’s out there. Uh, Heather Campisi and Brad Caruso. In our profession, we meet a lot of individuals. We work with a lot of organizations and everybody does something unique. But, but at the end of the day, the, you know, every, every organization has its purpose, has its mission and goes about fulfilling that mission in different ways. So with us today is Christopher Perry. Chris is the executive director of Spectrum for Living. And Chris and I have worked together for, uh, about a year now talking about, you know, working through, through the audit, but, but a bigger picture working through some, some other things at the organization like organizational change. Um, all organizations now are going through change or going through times where, um, you can’t always do it. You can’t keep doing what you always did. And so I think that’s an important point that we all try to figure out. So, you know, I guess to start, Chris, why don’t you tell us a little bit about Spectrum just to give frame of reference?
Chris Perry: Sure. Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me be a part of this podcast. Uh, Spectrum for Living is an organization that serves over 1000 adults with disabilities here in the State of New Jersey. We have a vast, a footprint of, uh, 28 different facilities, uh, some of which are residential, some of which are adult, uh, day programs. And really our ultimate objective is to afford adults with disabilities, uh, the best opportunity for them to reach their fullest, uh, potential. And, and for them to have a rich, recreational life and to have all of the things that we would normally want for a family member of ours. So that’s really a Spectrum in a nutshell. Uh, the organization has been around for 35 years, as you alluded to with some other organizations you’ve worked with. Uh, it was an organization that had been doing the same thing for those 35 years, you know, transacting business the same way without changing. And so, um, I, uh, started with Spectrum February, February of 2018 as our President and CEO. And I’ve, uh, I’ve certainly enjoyed my time with the organization thus far.
Brad Caruso: That’s awesome. Yeah. And you know, I think some of the key highlights there is just, uh, you know, you mentioned creating a family for both your clients and in order to create a family, you know, what’s, what’s the link that does that? You know, from our perspective, it’s your employees.
Chris Perry: Correct.
Brad Caruso: It’s the tone from the top and it’s, it’s how the, the organizational, uh, message carries down to those employees. Um, you know, in the nonprofit world, the majority of community based organizations are funded by payroll, uh, or, or their main expenditures or payroll. You know, usually what we see is about 60, 70% of, uh, organizations, dollars are spent towards payroll. And so if you think about that, in order to have a lasting impact on an organization, you have to keep your employees happy. You have to keep employees for a long period of time. And how do you do that? Right? And that’s what- that’s what I struggle with. Cause you know, we’re accountants and sometimes we can’t answer that question, but that’s why we have intelligent like-minded individuals like Chris here who can help us with that.
Chris Perry: Right.
Brad Caruso: Um, so, you know, I think that’s great. And so in order to have that lasting impact, you know, you want to retain your employees and you want to find a way to, um, you know, make them happy so they can make your clients happy. You know, if you’re serving over a thousand a thousand individuals with developmental disabilities, you know that, that can be taxing, that can, that takes a toll on employees. It takes a toll, um, over time. And so you have to find ways to keep everybody happy so that you can continue to carry out your mission. Um, so the one thing that we’ve talked about and the one thing that sparked my interest significantly, um, you know, and you were super excited about it, which is the one, you know, I love when people are excited about something because it means it’s gonna get done well. If you’re excited, you have to be excited to do something well. Um, was your, uh, employee recognition program. So why don’t you talk a little bit about, about why, you know, what made you think about it and, and what made you decide we want to, we want to go through with this and, and tell us a little bit about it.
Chris Perry: Sure. Uh, so when I first started with the organization, I, uh, conducted town hall meetings with our staff, at varying levels of the organization, uh, at all 29. We had 29 facilities back then at all 29 of our locations. And a common theme that I, that I heard about was, you know, we have a very high turnover of our direct care staff, uh, the staff that directly serve our adult clients. And also in addition to that, uh, high turnover, we had low morale. And so those are two pernicious issues that plague many agencies that are operating in this space. But my challenge, the challenge put before me was, well, what are you going to do about it? And so, um, there were some other issues, you know, related to compensation, which I’m not going to necessarily touch on in my dialogue with you all, but that somewhat affects that turnover and that morale issue.
Chris Perry: But within the scope of power that I had to, uh, to manage this particular challenge. Um, in response to challenge, I created a program called the Alex Awards. And the Alex Awards was named after one of our founding parents, Alexander Gallione, whose son was a, a client of ours for many years prior to his death many years ago. And, um, the Alex Awards is really designed to try to change the internal psychology of our workforce at Spectrum. Um, one of the issues that our direct care employees face is dealing with difficult families of the clients that we serve. Families are dealing with their loved one, having a disability. Uh, many of our, our, our clients have had this disability these disabilities since they were born. So the families have been dealing with this, this, this loved one of theirs with this significant disability since the birth of this particular individual. And that carries with it a certain psychology in and of itself. And so we take these clients in and then we’re not just serving the client, we’re also serving the family.
Brad Caruso: You’re creating a family environment.
Chris Perry: Right. And we very much rely on that, a positive interaction with our families in order to best serve the interest of that client. But as I alluded to a certain families, many of them can be very demanding and can say things to our direct care staff that are demoralizing. And so the Alex Awards program is not just, we’re not just giving money to people. It’s deeper than that. So the, the function of this program is to allow Spectrum for Living families of clients, uh, to allow Spectrum for Living clients themselves, particularly our higher performing clients that are not as significantly disabled as some of our other clients. And also to allow, uh, Spectrum for Living employees to once a month nominate a Spectrum employee to receive an Alex Award.
Chris Perry: We created an internet portal on our website with that’s easily managed, where it’s through Google forms and basically anyone of the three different types of people that I just mentioned can go in once a month and nominate an a, a Spectrum for Living employee to receive an Alex Award. And so how the program works from that point on is we review these submissions on a monthly basis and we, uh, the executive office, my office determines who is going to receive an Alex Wward.
Chris Perry: And, um, so the first, the, there are four different levels of an Alex Award. You can receive a bronze award, a silver award, a gold award, or a platinum award. The first award that employee can receive as a bronze award. And that comes with a $25 monetary incentive as well as a certificate, a recognition certificate. Uh, the second level of course, is the silver award that comes with a $50 incentive. Uh, the next level that they can receive as a gold award that comes with a $75 incentive. And then the last award they can receive as a platinum award. And that comes with a $100 incentive. Right now it’s $100 incentive with that platinum award. And yeah, so, you know, so how it works, you know, so we select these award winners, uh, every month, uh, an agency wide e-blast is sent out announcing the winners. It also contains, and not just the list of names of the winners, but also an includes pictures that, you know, I go out as president and CEO and I personally hand deliver these awards, uh, which, which in and of itself, you know, I’m, I’m kind of, I’m really just a guy with a job, a pretty important job, but people, people tend to look up to the president and CEO and they like seeing their president and CEO in action, visiting the facilities. I, I visit our facilities regularly, but in addition to that, I like, I like to be the chief ambassador spreading goodwill within the agency. And so that’s another function of this as well. So I will say it’s certainly been a well-received. Uh, you know, we’ve been doing this for about seven months now. It’s been extremely well received and we are now at a point where we’ve, we’ve had, uh, repeat nominations for certain employees. So we are giving awards at those higher levels, the, the silvers, the, the golds and the platinums.
Brad Caruso: Now, do you feel that, um, you know, and I know one of the, one of the facets of this is that employee recognize employee. He felt that was a very important factor in making this work?
Chris Perry: Extremely, extremely. Because we wanted to encourage our employees to realize that they themselves can be goodwill ambassadors. Right. Um, and so by thinking of their coworker in a positive way and not just nominating your buddy that you may be close with at work, right. But actually nominating them for something that they did that’s above and beyond what their normal job description says they should be doing. That’s what we’re really trying to identify. And it also has the tangential effect of encouraging people to go above and beyond. Some people are motivated by the recognition. Some people are, uh, you know, they’re motivated by the monetary incentive that comes with the award. Some are, you know, motivated by both, but some are just really people that are out there just going above and beyond. And some people are so humble, they’re like, you know what? I don’t really want the award. Can you give it to somebody else? And those are truly exceptional people within our agency that have that response to receiving an award. And some people will turn around with the monetary incentive they receive and they’ll treat their coworkers to pizza, you know, with the money. Yeah. So it’s just creating, it’s changing this, the internal psychology at Spectrum.
Brad Caruso: Yeah, it’s, it’s just, it’s creating that, that collaborative culture, which in my experience that that is what makes a not-for-profit run. You know, most, most individuals don’t, don’t join or work for a nonprofit because, because they want the biggest paycheck of, you know, that they’ve ever had in their career. Most people do it because they care about the mission, they care about the work or they like doing that type of work. So it’s true. I think that’s true. No question. That’s, that’s a super important and the point that resonated with me, just, just the fact that you’re the ambassador of this I think is what’s making it work. Um, you know, our CEO, I grew up in our, in our company, in public accounting is just a tough profession in general because, um, it’s sometimes it’s hard to keep people, sometimes people use it as a stepping stone to the next career. And, and people always ask, you know, what makes you stay in public accounting? Cause it’s a little wacky. You know, you work crazy hours, you do weird things, whatever that means. And, uh, you know, the thing that always made me stay with my boss, you know, our CEO now, Bill Hagaman still walks around and says hello to everyone, still knows everybody’s name. And when I grew up as an, you know, an intern sitting outside his office every morning would say hello. It was just, you never felt like he was the CEO. You just felt like he was working alongside you even though he was the most, he was the guy with the most power and you would never know it. So I think, I think that’s a, you know, that’s a key aspect to it.
Heather Campisi: So tell me, generationally, how is this program being received? Because you see the shift within the industry of a lot of, well, a lot more people want this work life balance and you see that more with the younger generations, millennials. How is this across the board resonating with those who work here?
Chris Perry: I would say it’s been a well-received across all generations that, you know, we have younger employees, we have, uh, you know, employees are approaching it retirement age as well. I’d say it’s been very well received. And uh, and you know, we have, uh, people across generations nominating people to get awards as well, which to me is another indication of the, the buy in for this program. Internal to Spectrum.
Brad Caruso: Do you see, um, cause this is, this is published internally? Is there any external aspect to this right now? So as far as, cause you know, you mentioned one of the challenges is, is kind of creating the collaboration not just with you and the employees, but you, the employees and the families of the clients that you serve. Do they see this too? Has there been any feedback?
Chris Perry: Yes. The families are also active participants in this program. We get about one quarter of the submissions every month are from family members of Spectrum clients. About one quarter? Yes. So, and that number I think is increasing. The more that they come to know about the program. Uh, we hold family meetings about twice a year with, you know, across all 20 now 28 of our facilities, uh, to meet with the families of our clients. And, uh, at the family meetings we did last fall, we actually rolled out the Alex awards and shared it with them. And so we had in month one of this program, we had family members buying in nominating employees, uh, getting know. And it also is encouraging. The funny thing is many family members, they’ll come and visit their loved one, but they don’t take the time to get to know the staff member that they may see repeatedly upon visiting. So it encouraged them to have a dialogue with them and say, Hey, what’s your name? Like, get to know them more.
Brad Caruso: Sure.
Chris Perry: And so it’s, it’s just had such positive, tangential, some, some effects I’d say that necessarily weren’t necessarily contemplated, but are now certainly well-received outcomes of, of having implemented this program.
Brad Caruso: Okay. Yeah, yeah. Good stuff. Yeah, it’s exciting to hear. You know, I always think about, you know, when I think about employee benefit programs, I mean most people’s head goes straight to monetary. You know, I think whenever I talk with folks it’s, you know, we have to save money on health insurance or we have to offer better benefits. And we had, you know, I think most, most individuals or people in your role, I think don’t always, don’t always consider that. Sometimes you can implement something that doesn’t cost a lot. It doesn’t cost a lot probably for you. And you know, how much, I guess just a general question. I mean, did it cost a lot for you to implement this other than your time?
Chris Perry: No, not really. I mean it’s, so our budget, you know, we have about 650 employees across our agency. Our budget is to give out $1,000 per month in Alex Awards. And, uh, that’s just in year one. We are contemplating increasing the amount, uh, next year in order to increase the number of Awards that we’re able to get out. Um, but yeah, so it’s, it’s not, it’s not particularly high cost, but we had, you know, in my estimation, we had to do something more, more immediate and more impactful to address some of the issues that I discerned when I first started. You know, we, we offer a rich benefit program, um, in terms of our health insurance, in terms of our 403(b) plan. But not everybody partakes in that. Um, you know, some people have a health insurance benefits through a spouse’s employer, so they may not be in our health insurance plan or they may not be particularly interested in investing in our 403(b) plan for their own retirement. Sure. Um, but we, and then we also have a referral bonus program as well. Uh, so, and that works by, you know, it’s a, it’s $1,000. If somebody refers another person to come and work at spectrum and that person comes and they make it through six months of employment than the employee who referred them will get $500.
Brad Caruso: Oh wow.
Chris Perry: And if they make it through a year, then the employee who referred them will get another $500. But this Alex Awards program was really designed to, uh, to, to kind of address some of the other issues that we had in terms of employee employee relations as well as family employee relations. And, uh, and that’s what, so that’s ostensibly why this was put into effect.
Brad Caruso: So I, you know, it sounds like it’s had a positive impact both internally and externally. You know, you’ve been able to, uh, you know, take, take the thoughts of many stakeholders, formulate them and say, you know, we have a, you know, call to change issue or call it whatever you want. And then you were able to turn that into now a very positive, you know, and I bet I bet now when you, when you go and visit, um, you know, each, each of the residences, I, you know, I bet there’s even more of a positive. Like now people know who you are, probably more than they did yesterday. Um, you know, it’s easier to have conversations whether they’re easy conversations or difficult conversations. It makes it that much easier because now it’s, you know, you’ve created that collaborative environment.
Chris Perry: Yeah, I would definitely say that. Uh, I mean I was approachable from day one with the, uh, the town halls I did when I first started. But now when, when, now when I show up, it’s a, people are expecting Alex Awards, but sometimes, sometimes when I show up, I’m not necessarily there to deliver an Alex Award, but, uh, it has certainly enhanced my ability to communicate with our workforce and yeah, and really the challenge for me is there’s so many people doing such good work across all of our facilities that I wish I was able to give out more awards. Like it’s, it’s just, it’s, it’s almost not enough. So we are in year two, you know, like I mentioned, we are contemplating increasing the amount of awards that we’re giving to address that.
Heather Campisi: So having that as an internal challenge that you’re seeing now that everyone is so motivated to move forward with this program and just be more involved. Have you thought about how this might impact your, you know, let’s call it enrollment of those individuals with disabilities that you’re helping, right. You have a thousand right now. Is that something that you’re excited to look forward to that you maybe have thought about? This might be, um, something that’s coming down the pike. What’s going so great. And the word might get out there.
Chris Perry: Yeah, I would say that, you know, we, so we’re serving, uh, you know, just over a thousand individuals. Our capacity right now is limited, but we also are always exploring new opportunities. There are many towns in the area, in the four counties that we operate that, that are looking for ways to increase affordable housing. And of course the, um, the apartments that Spectrum for Living runs our affordable housing units for persons with disabilities. And so we, we do partner, we have partnered over the years, over the past 35 years with many towns to increase their number of affordable housing units by opening up new group homes in their towns or apartment complexes. So we are always looking to explore and develop, uh, uh, new residences. But I would say, you know, the, the, uh, our employee recognition program at this point is not really having an effect on that. Uh, but I, but it is something that we’re, we’re hoping will impact that in the future.
Heather Campisi: And have you looked at, you know, now that everyone is more involved in the morale has lifted, have you looked at those statistics on your turnover and seen, uh, you’ll fall off with that, that people are really being more involved and they want to stay now that they’re becoming more engaged?
Chris Perry: I can’t say that it is, had a, uh, significantly, uh, impactful, um, you know, and significantly as significant impact on our, uh, turnover. That turnover issue that we’re having is a, is a, it’s a result of a confluence of many different factors. But I would say in terms of making Spectrum, uh, a nicer place to work, a more caring place to work of the people that continue with us that don’t leave to make more money elsewhere, it has certainly had a positive effect in that area.
Heather Campisi: That’s wonderful. I think when you, when you have that in an organization, those are the people that you want to keep because they’re here for the, their heart’s in the right place, I think. Yes, they’re excited about the mission and how they can get more involved.
Brad Caruso: So, so I guess I guess with that, you know, I’ll end with this, you know, Spectrum makes a significant impact on the lives of many families and you’ve been around and met and many of your residents. I think the one thing I noticed about Spectrum is many of your residents have been living with, with Spectrum for, for years. You know, you have, you have a, a population of individuals that you’ve cared for for a long period of time. And I think, um, you know, the public sees it, the families see it. Um, you know, everyone, everyone respects Spectrum and you’ve done a great job to, to really care for, for many people’s loved ones. And I guess, you know, if someone were to support you, what would that look like? How can someone support Spectrum for Living so you can keep doing your good work?
Chris Perry: Well, so there are a number of different avenues that we receive support. Of course, philanthropic support is the most helpful for us.
Brad Caruso: The almighty dollar does help.
Chris Perry: Yes, it does help. But I would also say, you know, we have different avenues. We have a, a robust volunteer program, we rely heavily on the support of volunteers to come in and volunteer with us, uh, given our significant staffing issues that we’ve had over the years. And, uh, so volunteers have been very helpful in bridging that gap for us in terms of, uh, providing that enriching life experience for our clients. So those, those are, I think, two big areas that I think, uh, people that want to give to Spectrum, how they have found, um, an avenue to give to us.
Brad Caruso: Hey, listen, if you want to volunteer, you know, not everybody has money. And I think Heather had raised on the generational, um, question. You know, we’re both millennials, so we get, we get a rap for this, but you know, we may be more likely to volunteer than to give a dollar. And I think it’s important for everyone to know that sometimes that helps agencies more than a dollar. Um, now granted you need dollars to survive and we’ll always take your money. But I think it’s important and I think a lot of, a lot of folks just who I run across and even my family members and you know, they know what we do. We work a lot with the nonprofit community. I think people don’t always realize that that’s sometimes that volunteer effort is just as important, if not more important than the the donation. So yes.
Chris Perry: Yeah, most definitely.
Brad Caruso: Yeah. Awesome. Good stuff.
Brad Caruso: Hey warriors, thanks for tuning in. On the next episode of Civic Warriors , we’ll talk with Jonathan Alston, founder of 4 Little Souls, about how childhood charity took a few small steps and now impacts many young people in his community. Make sure to subscribe to Civic Warriors , and thanks for all your support. Have a great day.