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Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Lots of research would have you believe that recruiting compassionate, qualified nursing home workers in small, rural towns is a difficult task — or at least harder than in large cities.

However, Leslie Pedtke, 39, the administrator at Aviston Countryside Manor, has seen applications for available positions spike in the six weeks since her facility put hiring decisions in the hands of the home's own residents.

Inspired by a session at Illinois Pioneer Coalition Summit, Pedtke and a couple colleagues decided to follow the lead of Sunny Hill Nursing Home, a facility in Joliet, IL, and create an eight-member resident hiring panel.

Pedtke's 97-bed facility is in the Southern Illinois town of Aviston, which has a population of roughly 1,000 people. With the help of Countryside's activities director and environmental services director, Pedtke selected eight residents to comprise the hiring panel. So far, the group has given the thumbs-up to 12 new employees over the last two months.

Pedtke says the philosophy behind her decision to do this stems from the fact that a long-term care facility, ultimately, is a resident's home.

“I've been here since 1994 and used to feel like all the decisions had to be made by me — that's what my job is supposed to be. What we've learned with culture change is that a team approach is definitely better,” she told me. “This is a place where people live and residents need to have a voice. I feel like I come here to visit eight to ten hours a day.”

She says the process of hiring someone new can be stressful, and that it's easy to experience tunnel vision when searching for the best candidate.

“The resident committee doesn't have that problem and sometimes they make better decisions,” Pedtke adds. She says residents have a stronger gut reaction to candidates, especially when it comes to direct care workers.

Putting older adults in the driver's seat can reveal some telling generational preferences, too.

Miriam “Mimi” Neff, 81, one of the residents on the hiring panel, says this became apparent when the panel was interviewing candidates for a housekeeping position.

“We had two applicants for one position, and one of the candidates came in wearing a really low-cut top and she was rather exposed. Seems strange that anyone would come into an interview dressed like that. So that was a big reason we didn't hire her,” Neff says.

Prior to needing skilled nursing care, Neff worked as a secretary to the director of volunteer services for a major hospital, where she oversaw 400 volunteers. She says this experience made her well-suited for the resident hiring panel.

Neff says she likes being able to have input on new hires because of the instant bond it creates when a new employee starts his or her job. She suspects new employees feel like they already have friends at the facility before their first day.

When a new position becomes open at Countryside, Pedtke screens applicants with the hiring manager and then brings in a few of the top candidates for an interview with the resident panel. For a new person to be hired, he or she must garner the unanimous approval of the panel. Its interviews are always scheduled for the same time: Thursday at 3:30 p.m. Staff members always set up amplifiers so that residents with hearing difficulties can hear what each candidate is saying more clearly.

Neff says most candidates seem pretty relaxed. Since applicants live in or near Aviston, many times they have friends and relatives in common with the residents, so conversation flows naturally.

One candidate the panel hired later confessed that she found it a little more nerve-wracking than usual because she had to worry about impressing eight people rather than just one or two.

But all parties agree that it's worth it.

“We take this very seriously,” Neff says. “We need to know that they [the prospective employee] will be there for us when we need them.”

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McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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