No double standard: CARF applies its own rules

New HR practices lead to excellence award

Have you ever been through a rigorous CARF accreditation survey and wondered if CARF walks the walk as well as it talks the talk? The short answer is yes, CARF does apply its own standards, those that are not specific to medical care, internally.

Because it does it so well, the organization recently was named the 2004 grand prize winner of the Workplace Excellence Award of Greater Tucson, where CARF International is based. CARF (which accredits rehabilitation, employment, and aging service providers in the United States, Canada, and western Europe) was named one of the best places to work in Tucson and also one of Tucson’s most progressive employers.

The award, sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management, was given to the company that best exemplified human resource practice. Not bad for a company that didn’t even have a human resources professional position just three years ago.

And that gets us to the explanation of how CARF applies its own standards: It starts with Brian Boon, PhD, president and CEO of CARF. Boon’s first order of business when he came to CARF three years ago was to begin an organizational assessment to identify areas that needed improvement. Human resources and utilization of technology popped up as two such areas. "There wasn’t a lot of investment in the things that our standards demand of our accredited organizations around looking at long-term strategy, financial planning, and human resource planning," he explains. "We did all this because our standards say good organizations should do this. It’s really living up to what you preach."

Boon says he was surprised to learn CARF had no official human resources position. "The function was being done through different assignments in the organization, but there really wasn’t an HR professional. I said, I’m sorry. I’ve never worked in a company where we didn’t have someone who was a human resources specialist,’" he adds.

Boon created the HR position and hired Judy Forman to be CARF’s first human resources officer. Forman reports directly to Boon."I learned a long time ago that organizational success is very much dependent upon the people, not the suits and ties," he notes. "Having HR report directly to the president/CEO sends a signal that there aren’t that many degrees of difference between the leadership positions and the frontline staff. I’ll be on the phone with the disgruntled customer just like they will."

CARF also reviewed its HR policies and procedures, staff education and training, and awards and incentives programs. "What we’ve tried to do is make our organization more responsive to our external environment. In order to do that, we had to invest in our people," Boon says.

Changes CARF made include:

  • employing a corporate balanced scorecard to monitor progress;
  • holding a quarterly president’s forum to share information with staff about company goals, financial results, organizational events, and employee satisfaction survey results;
  • investing in a new technology platform and training staff to use it;
  • integrating HR objectives into the company’s strategic goals;
  • making awards to individual employees for significant contributions;
  • giving goal-sharing rewards for team efforts in achieving budget objectives and balanced scorecard indicators.

According to Boon, while most of the CARF standards are written for the medical rehab field, there are many that CARF can apply to itself. "We look at strategic planning and financial planning and resource planning. We now have a five-year integrated strategic and financial plan. We use the standards as our own benchmark," he says. "One of the standards says to collect information on an ongoing basis regarding the people you serve. We have customer satisfaction data that we look at every quarter in front of our staff so they can see what’s working and what’s not. The accessibility standard — we had a university come out and test to make sure our own work environment was accessible to persons with disabilities."

The new efforts are paying off. In 2002, CARF did 1,446 surveys. In 2003, CARF was able to complete 1,898 surveys with no extra staff at the same time it rolled out the new computer system. Even with those challenges, CARF saw an 89% customer satisfaction rate in the last half of the year, up from 86%. Results of employee job satisfaction surveys also have increased.

According to Forman, employee involvement in the organizational changes has been a key to success. "We’ve focused on communication of business strategies so people are not working in the dark," she says. "Employees have been allowed to make suggestions. People can see what their role is and why we’re doing these things because they have the bigger picture."

Staff receive a weekly electronic newsletter and frequent e-mail communication, and they participate in all-staff forums that range from the quarterly meeting to impromptu 15-minute discussions in the lobby. Employees have also participated in focus groups to make suggestions for change. One employee group developed a value statement for CARF called RESPECT, which stands for respect, excellence, stewardship, partnership, communication, and technology.

"The feeling was that we should have an internal value statement as well as an external one," Forman says. "Another thing that came out of it was people thought they had good communication within their department but that communication could be improved between different customer service units. They said we’d be better placed if we looked at each other as internal customers."

CARF launched an intensive customer service program to deal with that issue. Each staff member went through 18 hours of training. "If we’re going to deliver excellent external customer service, our delivery chain is only as strong as our weakest link," she continues. "We even developed a customer service excellence slogan that said let’s focus on what we can do, not why we can’t do it."

CARF also beefed up its employee recognition programs. About a dozen employees receive the annual president’s award for making a significant contribution above and beyond the scope of their jobs. One winner, for example, negotiated faster, more reliable copy machines and saved CARF $20,000 a year in leasing costs in the process. CARF also pays cash bonuses to employees if the company reaches certain levels on the balanced scorecard. Managers receive $50 per year per staff member to use for departmental recognition in whatever way they choose — group lunches, gift certificates, movie tickets, and the like. Individuals also can qualify for merit pay increases.

"It’s a good balance between the team piece and the individual contribution," Forman says.

Need more information?

  • Brian Boon, President/CEO, CARF International, 4891 E. Grant Road, Tucson, AZ 85712. Phone: (520) 325-1044.
  • Judy Forman, Human Resources Officer, CARF International, 4891 E. Grant Road, Tucson, AZ 85712. Phone: (520) 325-1044.