Recently I was in a department store fitting room trying on a sweater. A sign on the fitting room wall stated in big, bold letters: Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted!

Two thoughts immediately came to mind as I absorbed the message:

  • “Store leaders are sending a message that they don’t trust their customers!” (The message clearly assumes that some customers are shoplifters.)

  • “When their employees see that sign every day, I wonder if it impacts how they treat customers.” (Are they wondering which customers are going to shoplift?)

Of course the intent of this sign is to deter would-be shoplifters from stealing. But I have to wonder how customers and employees assimilate this insinuating message, perhaps sub-consciously, and how it impacts their underlying beliefs and ultimately their behaviors.

I started thinking about the various signs, images, and other visible messages in our nursing facilities and assisted living communities. Although many things impact a facility’s culture, it’s these kinds of tangible symbols that reflect the embedded values and beliefs of the facility and its leadership. These symbols, in turn, shape how employees think about the organization and ultimately how they behave in the workplace.

When leaders recognize a “disconnect” between organizational values and visible symbols, they can make changes that align symbols with values. Here are some examples:

  • A newly hired nursing facility administrator took immediate action to make a change in the employee parking area. She removed the “Reserved” sign in the parking space that was intended for her position and turned it into a reserved space for the employee of the month.

  • Another administrator replaced the stiff wooden chairs in the employee breakroom with comfortable furniture that made employees feel more relaxed and respected.

  • Leaders in a multi-facility organization recognized that their employee handbook was written in an accusatory tone, full of directives and warnings, as though the company had no trust in employees. They re-wrote and re-designed their handbook to be warm, friendly and readable (no legalese). They included all the things they needed to convey in their handbook, but in a more employee-friendly way!

  • Understanding the power of symbols, an administrator in a multi-story facility moved her office from the top floor of the building to an office on the first floor at the front of the building. “I want to be close to people coming into our facility and be more accessible to residents, families and employees.”

If your goal is to improve employee engagement, pay attention to the tangible symbols of your culture and make sure they align with your espoused values. What underlying messages do your cultural symbols convey to employees and how might they influence their engagement?

Perhaps you could conduct a little experiment the next time you walk through your facility. When you make rounds, check out some of the artifacts that are present and consider the potential messages they convey. Here’s a checklist of things to observe and assess:

  • Assess your employee break room. Is it clean and inviting? Is it a comfortable place for employees to relax and renew? What does it say about the value you place on employees?

  • Do you have an employee bulletin board? What’s on it? Dated materials that haven’t been changed in years? Or current information, presented in a way that encourages people to read the information? Does the information motivate and inform?

  • Are the tools and supplies that employees routinely use available and easily accessible? Or do employees have to take precious time to hunt them down?

  • Check out the materials used for new employee orientation. Do the materials communicate information clearly and concisely? Do you distribute handouts that are copies of copies of copies (and thus barely readable)? Or are the materials clean, organized, and well laid out? Are they presented in a mish-mash of loose papers or in an organized, branded, eye-appealing manner?

  • Observe the career or employment section of your website. If you were looking for a job at your facility, would you be compelled to apply?

  • Are the restrooms that employees (or visitors) use clean and well-maintained?

  • Ask new employees about their experience working in your facility. What do they notice?

No one thing tells the whole story about your culture, but in combination, they represent the value you place on employees and thus impact the level of engagement they feel.

By the way, here’s how the “Shoplifters Will Be Prosecuted!” sign in the department store impacted my behavior: I left that department store and walked over to another store where I knew salespeople would treat me with trust and dignity!

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.