On a late November afternoon in bright, crowded meeting rooms across the campuses of Hebrew SeniorLife, the cheers are loud and the air is electric. A double celebration is underway: HSL ROCKS! – aka Recognizing Outstanding Contributions, Kindness, and Success – a quarterly celebration honoring peer-nominated individuals who have gone above and beyond, is in full swing, along with a fete on being named again to the list of Top Places to Work in Massachusetts. The sense of community is palpable.

How did HSL, the fourth largest nonprofit in the Commonwealth, achieve such success? I’d like to share some lessons learned in our journey to become an organization that has some of the most engaged employees in the state.

HSL, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, is a national senior services leader dedicated to rethinking, researching, and redefining the possibilities of aging. HSL employs 2,600 people, with the majority of them working the front lines for Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, and serves more than 3,000 seniors every day. As I reflect on HSL’s achieving Top Places to Work recognition, I’m able to define it in one word: caring.

Since our founding in 1903, caring has been the essence of HSL. We have honed it over time to best meet the needs of our residents, patients, families, and employees, and it’s more vital than ever. We are dedicated to transforming the experience of aging, helping seniors achieve goals at all phases of life, asking what matters, and promoting independence – in short, caring and empowering seniors to leverage the possibilities that life brings. In tandem, we are dedicated to employees, understanding what they need and creating an environment where they feel compelled to go the extra step to support residents, patients, and families, and taking the next step in their career growth.

About eight years ago, we began a journey to focus on ways to continue our tradition of caring at a more conscious level. We wanted to be mindful of the contributions every individual makes in support of our mission to care for seniors. Through much self-reflection, consulting advice, and employee conversations across the organization, we identified four goals that included both a resident/patient satisfaction and experience goal and an employee engagement goal. Additionally, we established six cultural beliefs that every employee follows to deliver on our organizational goals.

While I know many organizations have value or belief statements – in frames at the front entrance, in elevators, and in annual reports – how many intentionally embed them in their day-to-day actions and at all levels of the organization? At HSL, our cultural beliefs are a vital part of the very fabric of who we are, who we work with, and how we serve – every day. We take time for all staff to correlate examples of our cultural beliefs through staff meetings and workshops. Leadership works with individual staff members to connect specific cultural beliefs with the behavior needed to work together and achieve organizational goals. And we celebrate our progress as we consciously put our cultural beliefs in action.

The amazing point about working from a caring, empowering perspective is that we build trust and relationships that support the ability to be innovative and flexible. We have found when you care about not only each other but also the work you do, you can overcome real life challenges and return to what matters most.

Let me share an example of one of our cultural beliefs: “Ask What Matters.” We empower staff to talk with residents, families, and each other about what matters most when providing care and working on projects. By doing this, we are able to focus attention on addressing that priority. We build trust with residents, families, and team members so that difficult situations can be managed with sensitivity and success.

If your organization is striving to join the Top Places to Work ranks, I’d like to share some tips that may be helpful:

  • Bring values to life:  Make sure that your values and cultural beliefs are authentic and intentionally integrated into every aspect of your organization and every decision that you make.
  • Connect the dots: Work to help employees understand how they fit into the big picture, and how their roles ultimately serve as building blocks for professional and company success.
  • Innovate: While the essence of your values may not change, how they manifest themselves will and should evolve over time. Change can be good! With your employees, take the time to examine how your company values are illustrated in your current and future workplace, especially as a Top Place to Work. Your employees are your most important asset and your most powerful brand ambassadors; it is essential to listen to what they have to say and involve them in the process.


Tammy Retalic, MS, RN is Chief Nursing Officer at
Hebrew SeniorLife and Vice President of Patient Care Services at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston, MA.