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Relias Vitals+Vision Podcast, Season 1

Episode 10: Rapid-Fire Healthcare Retention Strategies

With Hassan M. Abdulhaqq, DBA 28

Join Leigh as she sits down with Hassan M. Abdulhaqq, DBA, Vice President of Talent Acquisition, Development, and Engagement at AHRC and Stevie Award Winner.  Hassan discusses his “rapid-fire retention strategies,” how the simplest, most common sense practices are the most effective, and much more.

About Hassan M. Abdulhaqq

Dr. Hassan M. Abdulhaqq

Hassan M. Abdulhaqq, DBA, works as a human resources executive, professor, and keynote speaker, and has held leadership positions with not-for-profit and financial institutions for more than 25 years. He now serves as the director of human resources at AHRC Nassau, a Long Island-based not-for-profit. He holds a Doctorate in Business Administration and has served as an adjunct professor of business for Columbia University, New York University, Stony Brook University, Webb Institute, and more. Hassan has twice been awarded a bronze Stevie Award for the American Business Award Human Resources Executive of the Year, and Long Island Business News named him one of Long Island’s 50 Most Influential Men in 2012. He is a diversity officer for the Organizational Development Network of Long Island as well as a member of the National Black MBA Association.

Key takeaways

  • [2:30] Hassan explains why taking a back-to-basics approach to retention is a place where every organization should start.
  • [5:15] Hassan outlines his signature “rapid fire retention strategies” and explains how these simple and commonsense practices are so effective.
  • [13:30] Leigh asks what organizations can do to attract the best talent — and keep them once they’re in the door.
  • [23:27] Hassan closes by explaining how his experience as the oldest of nine children has shaped his journey and informs his awareness as a retention expert.


Leigh Steiner:

Welcome to the Vitals and Vision podcast. I’m your host, Leigh Steiner, a Partner for Behavioral Health Solutions at Relias. In today’s episode, we’re going to dive into the topic of rapid-fire retention strategies. I’m thrilled to be joined today by Dr. Hassan Abdulhaqq, a distinguished Human Resources Executive, Professor, keynote speaker with over 25 years of experience in leadership roles with not-for-profit and financial institutions.

Currently, he’s serving as the vice president of talent acquisition, development, and engagement at AHRC Nassau, a Long Island based not for profit. Dr. Hassan brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field. So welcome to Vitals and Vision.

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

Thank you so much. If I had this every day for the rest of my life, I’d probably be living until 120 years with you speaking and making me feel this good. So thank you very much for that welcome introduction.

Leigh Steiner:

Well, let’s just jump into it. Obviously, employee retention is a pressing issue across healthcare, and why don’t you just take the lead and start off with perhaps an environmental scan of the retention challenges in the field?

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

Great question and great start, Leigh. And again, my response to your opening speech and introduction of me is apropos. And I say that because you talk about retention and across every industry, you turn on the TV, the news, you read, you hear, you listen, you experience retention, people leaving agencies and one of the things that I have talked to, not only just my learners, but employees and leadership, is that we have to go back to the basics. We have to go back to some simple basics.

Acknowledging employees, giving small thanks for jobs that are already in the job description, trying to get to know people taking the time to pause and be sincere about our interaction because what’s happening there is we’re losing sight of that and people are not feeling important. They’re not feeling listened to, heard. And that in itself is a challenge, especially when we are now experiencing five generations in the workforce. So different generations react and respond to different ways of leading and communicating and managing. But all generations respond to the basics, trying to understand a person’s name, being patient and saying hello, good morning, looking them in the eye. That’s the basics. You wanna feel important.

Leigh Steiner:

Oh, I love this. From my positive psychology background, I heard you talking about gratitude. Talk a little bit more about that. We need to keep that in the forefront of our mind, but how do we encourage that among leaders and managers in organizations?

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

The upcoming focus that best-in-class agencies are teaching and breeding are emotional, intelligent employees, right? First of all, empathy, self-awareness, relationship building. When you talk about the importance of just having workshops, conversations, interviewing for this, teaching this, it’s important at every level in an agency. So getting understanding body language, right? Trying to put yourself in another person’s shoes, right? Not losing it. Taking that time to say I feel and not you, not pointing the finger because interaction should not be conflict all the time. So and when you do have conflict learning how to respond, learning how to talk, and learning how to do self-reflective “What could I have said or done differently?” first. And really take it on, really look at the body language and the nonverbals is key.

Leigh Steiner:

I’ve read your phraseology of rapid-fire retention, which is very catchy and I like it a lot. And it communicates a great deal. Talk a little bit about what are some more of the rapid-fire retention interventions or actions that you teach, that you recommend that people take.

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

Bingo. So from the basic, from the basic of remembering and sending out notices or saying happy birthday to people, that’s a retention strategy. Getting to know your team and your employees, that’s a retention strategy.

When you’re sending out communication to your team, be it an email or just a dialogue, you say hello, you don’t send just an email out with a with a with some sort of request without saying hello. That’s a retention strategy.

Acknowledgment, we praise publicly and condemn privately if we must, right? And those are things that help retention. Another important thing to remember is when you take a look at just having the employees be part of a solution, engaging your employees, right?

Employees want to be heard and listened to. We just talked about that. What does that mean? When you’re having your meetings and you’re going to have standard meetings, try to involve them. Have your employees at some point give parts of your meeting. So if you have an agenda, you say, hey, Leigh, next week when we have our team meeting, I want you to talk about this particular piece. What do you mean, Doc?

Well, we’re gonna be talking about hypothetically, lateness, give your understanding of lateness and how it affects the agency and how it affects the program, how it affects the department. Have different people talk about certain things because that helps them get engaged and involved.

Number two, focus groups is a retention strategy at every level. And we don’t have time to have the long, two-hour focus groups, Leigh. We’re talking about a 30-minute structured focus groups where people can log on to a Zoom or Teams and ask for some thoughts and ideas.

But if we wanna do so, be prepared to follow up on things. Do not ask questions and don’t have a follow-up or a resolution or something because people feel that they’re not being heard, and they leave.

Finally, an important part of a retention strategy is to understand this. People leave supervisors, not jobs. So what does that mean, simplified? It means let’s have some workshops for our supervisors, how to communicate. Let’s have some workshops for our supervisors, how to be a better teammate, how to be a better supervisor and leader.

So those are some of the short-fire retention type strategies. Lastly, and I can go on and on, but I’m gonna give you the top ones.

Employee appreciation days, acknowledgement. Employee appreciation, and we’re not talking about having spending a lot of money, because a lot of non-for-profit agencies, not all, but a lot of non-for-profit agencies, have champagne tastes and beer pockets. So, utilize that opportunity to create certificates, right? To create a speech around a small item or something where you can give a person or just acknowledge. Those things are critical in retaining employees, especially our top talent — high performing employees.

Leigh Steiner:

Yeah, so as you review those retention strategies, I hear obviously some of them are probably HR focused. A lot of them are supervisor management leadership focused. How do you in an organization begin to develop and instill that culture? 

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

It’s from the top down, right? It’s first having your leaders, your C-suite, your executives, acknowledge it and make it part of the strategy for the agency. Then it’s action items, right? Then it’s engaging all levels and employees to ask questions and how to do so. What do you think? What do you believe?

Best in class agencies have a quarterly employee feedback form when they ask questions, something very simple. We call today in HR, stay interviews. As an employee, as a manager, as a supervisor or a leader. What can I do as a leader to make you feel more engaged? What can I do as a leader to be a better supervisor or a leader? Give me some thoughts and ideas. That’s a stay type conversation.

Leigh Steiner:

You know, what strikes me as I hear you talking is that actually, these may be rapid fire, but they’re actually difficult because it requires managers, supervisors, leaders to really be in the now and focused on the people around them, expressing appreciation, asking for their input.

And at some level, if you’ve got the money, it’s easier to just like increase somebody’s pay and assuming that a single action is really your best retention strategy. And as you say, people leave supervisors, they don’t leave jobs. Do you find that agencies tend to focus on one area and say, hey, that’s my fix for retention?

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

The answer is yes. First of all, there’s no one size shoe fits all, right? You said something before I forget, I wrote this down, so I didn’t forget. A servant-to type leadership approach is best. What does that mean? We are in the business as leaders, as managers and supervisors to serve our employees.

We should be hiring people to tell us what to do, not for them, not for us to tell them what to do. So what does that mean in essence? Is that servant-to leaders? All right, I’m here to serve you, tell me what you need, how I can support you, and you direct the activities based off of that. So that’s important.

And when you say something about throwing money at a situation, we are in a tight economy. So even the best-in-class agencies that have money to give bonuses, that have the opportunity to give competitive pay, they’re still struggling. They’re still struggling. So it’s really important to understand the motivational factors behind … for our employees.

Let’s go old school, Leigh, when we talk a little bit about some of the Abraham Maslow’s theories, right? Where are our employees on that hierarchical need? We need to find that out because that’s important.

Leigh Steiner:

So you’ve addressed a little bit organizations with budgetary constraints, which is probably every organization that we know. But how do they manage those budgetary constraints to be able to still focus on keeping and retaining their employees?

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

And that is the million dollar question. And here’s one of the few solutions, possible solutions, depending on the agency, right? The number one ongoing popular solution is you have to have an agency, a department or a program or mindset of creativity. We have to be creative. I say this every time I go to a non-for-profit agency, is that we are limited on funds, but how can we be creative? What can we do outside of paying money to an employee or situation? We have to be creative.

Okay, that sounds good, Doc, that sounds good, but what do you mean by that? I mean, when’s the last time you had a focus group? Your entry-level people, part of the solution process. Your middle managers and your managers, part of a solution process. On a Zoom, if you can’t get them together, put them on a Zoom for 30 minutes, then put them in breakout rooms. We have no money, this is the problem. Come with us, help us come up with a possible solution that you can bring to the table. That’s important.

Leigh Steiner:

So we’ve been talking a fair amount about retaining existing employees. Talk with me a little bit and our listeners a little bit about getting talent in the door. And what are some of the strategies that help you pick the right people to get in the door so that they’ve got a…so that they are greater likely to stay.

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

Well said. Twofold, so that’s a two-part response. The first part of the response is, I wanna know what my competitors are doing. Number one, I need to know what my competitors are doing lately, right? If I don’t know what my competitors are doing, I’m blind, right? I may be offering hypothetically a certain compensation, and my competitors, all my competitors are offering more.

Okay, I don’t understand it, I didn’t look, I didn’t do my homework, okay. What about my benefits package? Do I have something competitive benefits package? Am I a leader, a lagger? Or middle of the road. I need to understand the strategy that we’re gonna use because that’s key. Because certain organizations, they’re middle of the pack with other agencies, but their benefits package is a little bit more robust. So your talent people, your recruiters, your managers need to know just like a fine restaurant, though the waiters and waitresses know everything on that what they offer, the same thing with folks who are bringing in talent. That’s key.

Then when you bring in the talent, it’s important to now ensure that I want the best and the greatest. One of the tools in the toolbox that I talk about often is behavioral interviews. We believe that behavioral interviews are the best predictor of success. Past performance typically is indicative of future performance. So I’m gonna ask questions like, tell me a time when, right? The more you speak, Leigh, in the interview, the more I’m listening. I’m looking at body language, I’m listening.

Right, so behavioral interviews are key to keep some great talent. And then when they’re in orientation, orientation is not about just the first day. Orientation is throughout the first 30, 60, 90 days. And if you can, let’s pull it out a little bit more into the year, five, six months, touch points. It is said, Harvard Business Review, we lose employees more than in the first year than any other time during their tenure. So that’s imperative for us to understand that data so we can work with that.

Leigh Steiner

It cost a lot of money to lose an employee.

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

Listen, now that’s monetary. What about things that are non-monetary like morale? Right? Morale is effective. You keep hiring people that’s not a great fit. Important.

Leigh Steiner:

I think at some level we’ve addressed this, but the concept of burnout, obviously a new person coming in is generally excited to be there and invested in their job, but after a period of time, there’s sometimes a phenomena called burnout. Would you talk about that?

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

Burnout is the last resort to losing an employee. So it starts with work overload, then stress, then burnout. Some of the best-in-class agencies are looking at ways to keep their employees away from burnout and understanding that stress is gonna be a part of the job. And how do we manage that stress? I’m gonna share this with you. Yoga has been prevailing in best-in-class agencies, right? Health and wellness checks have been prevailing in best-in-class agencies.

Opportunities to connect with doctors and psychiatrists and things to help you, right? Financial, mental, whatever. So burnout, also, when you talk about making sure that your employees take time away from the desk. If they don’t have a full hour, okay. They’re gonna need five minutes to get away from that. You make it mandatory. All right, Leigh. You know, you’re one of my hardest workers and you’ve been at that desk all day. You know, but I’ve got so much work. Leigh, get up out of the desk. I don’t care if you take a walk around the building. Breathe in, breathe out, go. You make it mandatory because that’s important.

And lastly, if you have the opportunity to have an environment where you can share a nice little quiet room with a little bit of music. Or just sharing stories or just opportunity for us to get together or something. That’s important too. Because all that reduces burnout.

And lastly, which is important is, again, back to number one, ask employees. What could we do as an agency to prevent you from getting to this point where you burn out? They’re gonna say, we hire more people. Okay, we’re doing the best we can in that area. If you had a magic wand outside of hiring more people, what else could I do as a leader and what else could we do as an agency to do something?

Acknowledgment. First of all, workload acknowledgment. That’s important. Having leaders and managers say, listen, Leigh, you and I, we have a lot of work to do. I’m rolling up my sleeves. I’m here. We can do this together.

Again, that’s important. These things are key when you’re dealing with burnout, and that’s just a small list.

Leigh Steiner:

I wrote down about 20 questions while you were talking there. Let me ask the one about hiring more people. In the sense of how does an organization, and you’ve talked about, I need to know what my competitors are doing. But how do you feature your organization in a way that is attractive above your competitors?

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

I’m gonna tell you, it’s about, it’s not about posting and praying. It’s about taking a look at our job descriptions. What are we posting out there on Career Builder, on LinkedIn, on Indeed? How are we posting our jobs? Are we saying something, hopefully that’s true, great place to work, right? I wanna talk more about that than the title, right? I wanna say something like, long tenured job, great growth, internal mobility. I wanna use certain buzzwords to attract people, attract folks from our competitors.

And again, the best-in-class HR teams, recruiters, talent acquisition folks, whatever you wanna call them, Leigh. It’ll take about 30 minutes to take a look at what my competitors are doing, what are they posting, how they’re posting their jobs, right? So that’s important.

On top of that, if you can have something on your landing page where you have employees like Leigh who’s happy about our agency. So if they say five something, five seconds. Oh my God, my name is Leigh Steiner and I have been working with this agency for five years, and I love it. So if you’re looking for a great place to work and you’re looking for a place where you can grow, come work for our agency. That’s from your employees> That’s posted, 10 seconds, on your landing pages. Those things are key in attracting good talent.

Leigh Steiner:

One of the things I would imagine that I would be attracted to about your organization would be managers and leaders who have emotional intelligence. And is that something you talk about your best-in-class list, you know, of what agencies with best in class do? Is training leaders, managers in emotional intelligence one of those?

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

First, let me answer your question in an emphatic yes. Okay, so we don’t go out there waving signs, emotional-intelligent leaders are needed in our agency. We should, but we don’t do that, right? Cool. So one of the things that we do very well, and best-in-class agencies do very well, is you have workshops focused on how to be emotional intelligent. It starts, and Leigh, you’ve been doing this question, it starts with self-awareness at every level. What can I do better? What can I add? Right? It’s about me first. Then it’s about how do I get along with others?

How do I empathize with others? So these EQ can be taught. EQ, emotional intelligence, can be taught. So it’s about training and spending that time, right? And your training, Leigh, has to be engaging. I’m not talking about lecture. I’m a professor, right? And you’ve been doing this for quite some time. I am not sitting for 90 minutes or two hours just lecturing about emotional intelligence. I’m gonna make some case studies, some scenarios, I’m gonna challenge you, right? And these things are important. So I’ve helped agencies do it, I’ve helped learners do it, and that’s important to do.

Leigh Steiner:

So at your experience at the Association for Habilitation and Residential Care, you work with people who have intellectual disabilities and their families. How has that direct work really informed your understanding of this issue?

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

That is, that for me, that’s profound. Let me tell you why. My background and quickly is and for profit working in banking for over 20 something years before coming into not for profit. Right. Being it being immersed in this area is, was important. And then being creative, and say, listen, some of the folks, and we call them “people we support” in the field, part of the interview process. Right. Having some a part of the interview process. Or, if it’s allowed, videotaping the interaction with me and folks that we support or employees that we support and posting that out there. So the experiences, for me, have been humbling because we’re doing more “with,” than siloed. So more “with” the folks that we support than something siloed. I’m not just gonna speak about them. They’re gonna be sitting right next to me. Very similar to inclusion, right? Very important in everything that we do.

Leigh Steiner:

You have such a distinguished career. Among other recognitions, you’ve been awarded a bronze Stevie Award for the American Business Award Human Resources Executive of the Year. And I could go on. But I’m interested in what captured, and you began to get into it there. But what took you from working in financial institutions and that business sector into this human services arena?

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

Okay, so first of all, I’m the oldest of nine. So I had one of the responsibilities being oldest of nine is being responsible for my siblings, right? So that in itself humbled me. I had to help them with their homework and a lot of stuff. So that in itself will expose me to just helping and doing for others, which is key.

As I moved, as I got more mature. Notice I didn’t say older, mature. I started really helping and reaching out to young men and women of color who were previously incarcerated and helping them stay out of the penal system. So that was an aspect of me. But none of that was able to help me with the lifestyle I wanted, and the money that I really felt that I needed and deserved. So banking was it.

You’re getting performance bonuses. We are one of the top paying roles in different industries. But then, Leigh, quickly, it’s all about the expense to revenue and a lot of layoffs, rebudgeting and refinancing. So year after year, when I had to lay some employees off because of budget constraints and stuff, I was so done. I was just so done.

And I said, listen, I’m gonna do something that I’m compelled to do anyway. I think I was raised to do. I’m gonna get into non-for-profits to help people. The bad part about that, Leigh, was the money wasn’t there that I’m used to.

So I negotiated with some of my C-suites, different jobs I had and said, if you’ll allow me to teach at least once or twice and do the job, I’m okay. I can teach on a Saturday. I can teach at night. I can offset that income. They allowed me to do so, and I’ve stayed a non-for-profit happily ever since.

Leigh Steiner:  

That’s a wonderful story. It’s a wonderful story. Yeah. And it reminds me something else about retention, that when you feel that you are part of a bigger mission than yourself, and that you believe you’re contributing to those around us who may be marginalized, it’s, yeah.

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

Mm-hmm. And Leigh, and it’s interesting, you said that. Everything that I teach, it centers around this concept. Do something that you do not believe is a job, and it won’t be a job. Something that you enjoy, and it won’t be a job.

I absolutely love what I do. I love the people that we support. I love the employees. My biggest challenge, and I said this before, is the corny analogy you just heard is a non-for-profit. We have champagne tastes with beer pockets, right? That’s my biggest challenge. But then that same challenge allows me to ask employees, ask supervisors and managers, what can we do with not a lot of money? What are some of the creative things that we, and we’ve been successful in doing so. So you’re absolutely correct.

Leigh Steiner:

As we bring this to a close, I want to ask you if you were to leave our listeners with the most important message from this conversation. What would that be?

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

Good question. I would leave with two things. The world, the world that we’re living in is changing. So if we think we’re successful now, and where we are today is gonna change. So what got, and this is an old adage, I’ve heard it and I don’t know who said it, but I remember it today. What got us here, will not get us there, right? So whatever thoughts, whatever ideas that you had now or had before, you gotta change. Our cultures are changing. Our society is changing. The way we’re thinking about everything is changing. So we have to assimilate.

And lastly, I would say, and this is for our non-for-profit leaders and employees. Things get improved when it’s measured. Things get improved when it’s measured. We gotta measure our successes. Where we are today, and where we wanna be. And that’s how we get things improved. And definitely in a non-for-profit, it’s key. So those are the two things I would leave.

Leigh Steiner:

Dr. Hassan, thank you so much. I sense your emotional intelligence across the wires here. It’s been delightful to talk to you. Thank you for your wisdom.

Hassan Abdulhaqq:

Thank you. My pleasure. Thank you. Have a great day. Thank you.

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Meet your host

Leigh Steiner, PhD, is a Partner for Behavioral Health Solutions at Relias. Leigh has extensive national, state, and community experience in organizational development, executive development, coaching, and consulting. She served as the commissioner for mental health for the state of Illinois from 1989 to 2002. Leigh has also served as an adjunct lecturer at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and as a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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