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How an employee mentor program can slash employee turnover in half

Long-term care organizations often struggle to hang onto their best staff.

That’s especially true with nursing aides. NRC Health’s research has found that national average turnover rates for frontline staff can run as high as 60% for skilled care.

CNAs perform many of a nursing home’s most essential services. So when experienced aides leave a facility, that can seriously hamper the standard of care.

But amidst this industry-wide struggle, South Haven Living Center—a part of the Vetter Senior Living system in Nebraska—boasted some enviable statistics.

For 2016, their turnover rate was 18%. Fewer than 5% of employees left within 90 days of signing on. Even more remarkable, 88% of South Haven’s employees reported feeling satisfied with their jobs. That would be a remarkable achievement in any field, let alone long-term care.

Add these statistics up, and it’s no surprise that Vetter Health Services (VHS) scored in the top five of NRC Health’s Partner Brands for Employee Loyalty—for three consecutive years.

Jalene Carpenter

So how do they do it?

If you ask Jalene Carpenter, South Haven’s previous administrator, it all comes down to an employee mentor program.

The leadership at VHS pioneered the mentor program two years ago. They wanted to see if they could find a way to bolster employee morale, and they chose South Haven to pilot their mentor program experiment.

Jalene tapped her veteran staff members to serve as South Haven’s Mentor Team. The team worked together to bring VHS’s vision to life, deploying the mentor program that brought such dramatic results to the community.

Following VHS’s blueprint, the mentors took responsibility for new employees. It became their job to shepherd newcomers through their first days, and help them feel fully integrated into the community. This, the Mentor Team hoped, would stave off burnout and keep new employees engaged.

The idea worked, and it quickly expanded beyond South Haven into many of Vetter’s broad network of communities. But Jalene and her team are careful to emphasize that it was no overnight success. The mentoring program had to go through a couple of iterations—and a couple of failures—before it found its feet.

The South Haven Mentor Team wants other long-term care leaders to benefit from their experience. Here, Jalene shares six hard-won lessons the team learned along the way.

1. Begin with the end in mind

When Jalene and the Mentor Team first started South Haven’s new mentor program, they thought they knew what they wanted it to be.

“In retrospect, we had a vague plan,” Jalene says. “We were excited about mentorship, and we poured a lot of energy into it, but we didn’t really know what we wanted.”

So when Jalene tried it to communicate the team’s ideas to mentors, the ideas didn’t catch on at first.

“It failed miserably!,” she says. “Now I know why. We didn’t have an end in mind: we didn’t think enough about what measurable results we wanted to see. Because we didn’t know what we wanted to accomplish, our mentors certainly didn’t.”

That’s why she says that mentor teams need to form a solid plan from the onset.

“Be as concrete and specific as you can with what you want to see from your mentor program,” she says. “That will help you plan and implement it every step of the way.”

2. Don’t just communicate—over-communicate

Jalene recounts how, at first, South Haven’s mentor program inflamed some jealousies among her staff.

“We didn’t do a whole lot to let people know why we chose certain people to be mentors,” she recalls. “We had an idea of who the best CNAs were, and we chose them. The other staff couldn’t understand our choice, and they got resentful. So with that first effort, the program didn’t really work out.”

The next time around, the Mentor Team developed clear, observable criteria by which staff qualified as mentors. And then they made sure that everyone knew what those criteria were.

“I call it over-communicating,” Jalene says. “We took two solid months to teach our mentor standards before we made any picks. That way staff had a crystal-clear understanding of what we were looking for. When we made our choices, our staff understood the rationale behind them.”

This clarity of communication helps the mentor program feel more objective and more credible. That was critical to the program’s success.

3. Set the right standards

In selecting mentors, the Mentor Team had to think outside of ordinary institutional rules.

“When you’re considering who could be a good mentor in your community, disregard title, disregard their role,” Jalene says. “Look for passion. Look for leadership. And most importantly, look for patience. Remember that these people are supposed to be guides and teachers.”

The Mentor Team also made South Haven’s program extremely rigorous. Just applying to be a mentor took considerable commitment.

“It was quite a process,” Jalene reports. “We required two letters of recommendation, and we didn’t want to hear from the applicant’s friends on staff. We only took them on if they had letters from someone they had trained in the past.”

This rigorous process was self-selective. It discouraged staff members who weren’t passionate about leadership, which meant that only the best even bothered to apply.

“That was a great decision. When we set high standards like that, it meant that only very, very motivated people came to us. We knew that these were the types that would be the most successful.”

4. Make mentors feel special

Jalene makes clear that a mentor’s work is not easy. It’s a significant extra burden on top of their ordinary jobs. The Mentor Team recognized this extra commitment, and made mentors feel special for it.

“For example, training,” Jalene says. “That’s your first opportunity to show these mentors that you appreciate their leadership. So make their training special. Bring them off-site, get them good food, and make it fun. Whatever you do to ‘wow’ them at the front-end will pay off when they go out of their way to ‘wow’ new employees.”

A special training session is a great start. But of course, the efforts can’t stop there. South Haven’s Mentor Team also offered financial incentives to make mentors feel valued—but didn’t reveal these incentives until after mentors had already been accepted into the program.

“We didn’t want people signing up for a raise, so we kept the financial side pretty close to the vest,” Jalene says. “But that incentive is important. Not only does it say, ‘I value what you do,’ but it also says, ‘Here’s a raise, so now my expectations for you are higher.’ That inspires them to earn it.”

But the best way that South Haven found to make mentors feel special didn’t come from the Mentor Team directly…

5. Involve mentors in designing the program

… it came from a follow-up meeting with the mentors themselves.

The Mentor Team had monthly reviews with every mentor. During one meeting, a mentor devised a simple, cheap, elegant way to help mentors stand out in a community: special purple nametags.

“Those nametags were as good as gold at South Haven,” Jalene recalls. “Mentors wore them like badges of honor. They felt conspicuous as leaders, and they wanted to live up to that. I never would’ve had this idea if I weren’t listening to my mentors.”

Jalene points out that if you follow the previous five steps, your mentors will be some of the most enthusiastic, invested, and thoughtful people in your organization. They’ll have ideas for improvements that are impossible for you to see from the top down, and will help you find that extra connection with your employees.

That’s why South Haven involved their mentors from the get-go.

“Because that’s what this is all about in the end,” Jalene says. “This is about making your employees feel connected to the institution, to the culture, to each other. The mentor program is the best way I found of making that happen.”

6. Stick to it

With the right program, mentors can be an invaluable bridge between administration and employees. And the single most important factor to making a mentor program work?

“One word: consistency,” Jalene says. “Once you start a mentor program, you can’t waiver. It takes a continuous commitment to keep it going—the moment you let things slide, the program can fall apart very quickly.”

So find ways to sustain enthusiasm for your community’s mentor program. Hold monthly meetings, get feedback from staff, and uphold high expectations for the mentors you’ve chosen.

“If an organization can stick with a mentor program, they’ll see the benefits compound every year,” Jalene says. “New employees will feel more connected and better trained. They’ll feel welcomed into a family, not just a new job.”


Jalene believes that this family-feeling was critical to South Haven’s remarkable employee retention. In a presentation to the Nebraska Healthcare Association, Jalene shared even more insights from her team’s experience. Click this link to watch it.

And for even more ideas about employee engagement, visit NRC Health.