Retaining direct support professionals (DSPs) is a seemingly never-ending challenge for organizations that serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Agencies are always looking for ways to help new hires understand and get excited about the job, engage their employees, and recognize the experience of their veterans.
A peer mentorship program for your DSPs is a great way to increase employee engagement and retention. By making your best DSPs peer mentors and giving them a small pay raise, you create a step on a career ladder. And you provide your new hires with much-needed guidance and support.
More than a third of new DSPs quit within the first six months. A peer mentoring program can increase the likelihood that your DSPs will stay with your organization by:
- Easing the transition from training to the work setting
- Reducing a new employee’s anxiety about their job
- Giving a new employee a safe place to express concerns and get feedback
- Teaching problem solving, critical thinking and clinical skills
- Creating opportunities for social engagement between employees
Steps to Implementing a Peer Mentoring Program
Getting a peer mentorship program up and running takes work and commitment from people at every level of your organization. While the program isn’t free, it costs a lot less than finding and training new DSPs.
Step 1: Get buy-in from every level of the organization.
A peer mentorship program requires an investment of time and money, so it is important that everyone in your organization understands the value of the program and is committed to making it work. It is especially important that the people who make decisions and control the resources are on board – administrators, managers, executive-level leadership and your board of directors. If they are involved in the beginning, they are more likely to continue to support the program as it goes through evaluations and revisions.
Managers and front-line supervisors can make or break the program, so their buy-in is also critical. If they talk negatively about it to the people they supervise, the program will be dead before it begins. And of course, you want to let your current DSPs know about the benefits of the program and get their input during the development process.
Step 2: Create a peer mentorship committee.
This committee will be in charge of designing and implementing the program and monitoring its results. Include people from all parts of your organization on the committee – leadership, DSPs, supervisors, and individuals who receive services.
Appoint a program facilitator to lead the committee. A natural choice would be the person who is already responsible for the hiring and training of new DSPs, or it may be someone who is especially passionate about the idea. The facilitator will be the one who pushes along the development of the program, oversees the implementation, monitors its success and addresses any problems.
Step 3: Develop your mission, goals and outcomes.
Your peer mentorship committee is in charge of this process. Creating the right mission for the program is critical because it will determine how you define success.
Let’s say, for example, your mission is “To improve the quality of life of the people you serve.” Then one of your goals might be to provide excellent and consistent person-centered services. Your outcome measures might focus on the satisfaction of the people you serve, how consistently there was staff available to cover all shifts, and whether or not each individual’s goals were met.
On the other hand, if your mission is “To develop a workforce committed to the organization’s values,” you would need to break those values down into measurable components to create your goals. Depending on what those goals turn out to be, your outcome measures might focus on retention of highly committed staff and employee engagement.
Make sure that your outcome measures are SMART – specific, measures, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
Step 4: Develop your program.
Now that they have established the goals of the program, the committee needs to build it. Here are a few questions the committee will need to answer:
- How long will a mentor-mentee pairing last? Four months is the minimum time necessary for the program to be effective. Six months would be better.
- How often should the mentor and mentee meet? At least one hour a week is recommended. The committee may want to require the mentor and mentee to set up a regular meeting time. If you decide that they should meet in one of your offices or facilities, make sure they have privacy so the mentee can speak freely about their concerns.
- What training are you going to provide to the mentors? In addition to training on the program itself, they may need training on leadership or communication topics, like coaching, constructive criticism or conflict resolution. The committee may decide to mandate some trainings and leave others up to the discretion of the program facilitator.
- How will you support the mentors? Ongoing support is critical for the success of the program. The facilitator should touch base with the mentor every week to see how the mentor-mentee relationship is developing and to discuss any problems. It is also a good idea to have all of the mentors get together once a month to talk about how things are going and troubleshoot challenges.
- Who will be eligible to be a mentee? Will the program be available to all new hires? Will it be available to current employees who are struggling?
- What will be the size and scope of your program? If you have a large organization, you might want to begin with a pilot program at one location in order to iron out any kinks before launching the program organization-wide. You also need to decide whether to include all new hires or only selected individuals.
In addition, the committee should develop a mentor-mentee agreement. This conveys the commitment by both parties to participate in the program and outlines their roles and responsibilities. The agreement should also include the frequency and schedule of interactions.
Step 5: Develop the mentor training.
Begin your training by clearly outlining the program’s goals and the outcomes you are seeking to achieve. Express appreciation for the mentors’ willingness to share their expertise and their commitment to improving the organization’s services. Drive home the point that a positive attitude can make or break the program.
Focus your training on leadership, communication, interpersonal and problem-solving skills. Teaching interpersonal skills will teach your mentors techniques for developing relationships. These skills come naturally to some people, but those who struggle may still make great mentors; they just need more coaching on interpersonal skills. Training on communication skills can help mentors identify communication blockers and communication enablers. Another great idea for training is to simulate mentor-mentee sessions.
Make sure your mentors can identify when they need to get additional guidance from supervisors or administrators. They need to know when a conversation should remain confidential and when an issue needs to be shared with others in the organization.
Step 6: Develop a budget.
There are four factors that will make up your budget for this program:
- Mentor wages and benefits – Are you going to give mentors an increase in their hourly wages? Or an annual bonus? Certainly, an increase in their hourly wage is the most effective way to drive home the message that your organization values the peer mentorship program and the experience of your mentors. You also need to consider the amount of time you expect the mentor and mentee to spend together. Finally, account for the wages of the members of your peer mentorship committee and the time they will put into development and oversight of the program.
- Program facilitation – Will you do a meet-and-greet session for your new mentors and mentees? Will you provide food or refreshments during committee meetings? What other supplies will you need?
- Training costs – Your program facilitator will need to provide training to your mentors when they first enter the program and on an ongoing basis. The facilitator will need to monitor the program and check in with the mentors regularly to determine what addition training would help the mentors be more effective.
- Incidental costs – This might include marketing costs, such as flyers to let your current DSPs know about the program, and other small expenses.
The costs generally come to about $1,000 for each mentor-mentee relationship for a four- to six-month mentorship. That is less than half of what it costs to replace a DSP.
Step 7: Do an orientation for your managers and front-line supervisors.
Once you’ve developed your plan, do an orientation for supervisors so they understand how the program works and how it will help them do their jobs more effectively. They need to see that the mentor can be an asset for helping them manage the DSPs they supervise. Engage the supervisors in helping you identify DSPs who would make good mentors.
Step 8: Find your mentors.
Market your program to all staff members in your organization. Let them know about the goals and benefits of the program. You want the recruitment process to be transparent.
When picking your mentors, you want to look for the following qualities:
- They embody the mission of your organization.
- They have a minimum of one year of experience (but a minimum of five years would be better!).
- They have a solid knowledge of policies and procedures.
- They have a history of good performance evaluations.
- They have positive rapport with co-workers and those receiving services.
- They demonstrate strong problem-solving and communication skills.
- They have a record of dependability.
Step 9: Pair up your mentors and mentees.
This is the responsibility of the program facilitator. They should consider the communication styles, learning styles, personality characteristics, and hobbies and interests of the mentors and mentees in order to make matches that are more likely to be successful.
Have the mentor reach out to the mentee before the onboarding process begins. The mentor should express enthusiasm about the mentee joining the organization and that they will be working together. You may also want the mentors to attend the first day of onboarding.
Step 10: Monitor implementation.
The program facilitator needs to monitor the implementation of the program closely in order to detect and address any issues. This is an ongoing process – the facilitator will regularly monitor to ensure that the program is being implemented appropriately and recognize any barriers to success that may not have been considered. Facilitators also hold the mentors and mentees accountable for attending their regular meetings.
Step 11: Evaluate the results.
How results are evaluated will depend on the outcomes the committee identified. Some tools for evaluating results include turnover rates, exit interviews and surveys of your employees and the individuals you serve. Evaluate the cost-effectiveness of your program. Look at the expenses and see if the program came in on budget. Bring your program committee together to review the results and consider changes to the program and the budget.
Your program committee should continue to conduct evaluations of the program regularly – at least every quarter – as long as it is running. This will give them a chance to explore new ideas and catch problems before they undermine your program.
Barriers to Success
Common barriers to success of a DSP peer mentoring program include:
- Lack of commitment from company decision-makers
- Lack of support from other stakeholders, such as supervisors and administrators
- Inadequate training and support for mentors
- Lack of transparency in the mentor recruiting process, which can breed resentment in your DSPs who are not mentors
- Poor mentor selection
- Lack of resources
Make sure there is no confusion between supervisors and mentors. The mentors should not be involved in conducting formal evaluations or documenting performance problems. While mentors may have the “inside scoop” on their mentees’ performance, attitude and challenges, they should not be involved in any supervisory or management processes.
Make sure your supervisors honor the mentor-mentee’s meeting schedule! It is tempting to pull a mentor away from their mentoring activities when you need them to fill a shift. But doing so will undermine your program and send the message that the mentor-mentee relationship is not important to management.