Hiring in the Home Care Industry

Itay Shalev, Owner of Comfort Keepers Chicago

Itay Shalev, Owner of Comfort Keepers Chicago, joins The Best Team Wins Podcast to discuss people best practices and hiring in the Home Care industry.





















































Adam Robinson: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast, where we feature entrepreneurs whose exceptional approach to the people side of the business has led to exceptional results. My name is Adam Robinson. And for the next 25 minutes I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring.


  Today on the program, Itay Shalev is the owner of Comfort Keepers, Chicago. Boot-strapped and open since 2011, he has about 70 employees today. Itay, we are so excited to have you on the show to learn from you today.


Itay Shalev: Well thanks for having me on, Adam. I really appreciate it.


Adam Robinson: So we’re here to focus on the people side of your business. So before we do that, let’s get the 30-second overview of your business and what you’re doing.


Itay Shalev: Sure, so Comfort Keepers, it’s our company. As the name implies, we like to keep the comforts at home. We help, primarily, seniors stay in their homes, but really, it can be any adult over 18. Our main goal at Comfort Keepers is to promote independence and the quality of life. It’s really the highest you can achieve for whatever the individual might need.


  A lot of seniors, these days, it’s their overwhelming preference to stay in their home for as long as possible and not have to go elsewhere. And we can help with that additional support. We’ve been proud to have been doing it for seven-plus years here in the Chicago area. And we’re also really proud to be part of a international franchise. So Comfort Keepers, there’s over 500 locations all around the country, all around the world. And our office is right here in Chicago.


Adam Robinson: Excellent, and if listeners want to learn more about the brand or about your location in Chicago, where would they go?


Itay Shalev: Probably, the easiest place is just to go to the website, comfortkeepers.com, just two words together, comfortkeepers.com, and you can search right there. It’s an easy search tab there. You can just go enter your zip code, enter your city, state, and there’s all the numbers there at your fingertips to call.


Adam Robinson: All right, excellent. Look, I know hiring caregivers can be particularly difficult. It’s a tough economy for everybody. Everyone’s working, pretty much, who wants to be working. But in an industry where the labor market is particularly tight, I have heard it said that in home healthcare the biggest impediment to growth is additional talent. So how are you finding quality candidates in a major metropolitan area like Chicago where things are pretty tight?


Itay Shalev: Yeah, it’s a great question. I will say, just from a … how many people we have here in the city, I don’t think we’re as hard hit by this problem as elsewhere in the country, as I hear from other owners across the country, because I talk all the time to owners in markets that are big and small. Here in the city we’re fortunate, because a lot of it boils down to a numbers game.


  We look for, probably the number-one thing that we look for is do you have the passion to do this work, because, as you were talking about, there’s many ways to work these days. There’s no shortage of jobs out there, and specifically for home care, you need to have the passion to really wanna help others. So for us, it’s almost like finding different needles in a big … but we have just a huge haystack that we can look at, so it just takes time. We have to look through applications that come our way.


  Probably the one, single, biggest, most helpful way in the past here, that we found for recruitment, is word of mouth. So what’s true on the client acquisition side is also true for us, we found, on the caregiver acquisition side. And that is, if we have amazing caregivers, we have people on our team that are working out well, we tell them, “Hey, refer somebody you know.” We give bonuses for that. As opposed to going out and recruiting on job boards and doing it randomly, word of mouth is really, it’s been a key for us in this last year.


Adam Robinson: So let’s dig into that a little bit. It sounds like you have a robust referral program. Walk us through the genesis of that and how you operate that, ’cause it sounds like it’s been pretty effective for you.


Itay Shalev: Yeah, it all started organically. I think a lot of being an entrepreneur, having your own business, I think, a lot of us can relate to this, sometimes we hit upon things by happy accidents, and then we systemize it. We found that throughout our years, that there were caregivers who’d referred other people. And they just did it, because we like to think of ourselves as good employers, good people to work for, and they did too, so they referred other people to us.


  And what we found, essentially, is that when you monetize it, when you give people a reward, saying, “Hey, if you recruit somebody, we’ll give you compensation for it,” it goes a long way. And it’s not just about the money, it’s just, I think, a lot of it’s just showing the appreciation. We used to do it in a way that was over time. If you’re a caregiver, and you recruited your friend to work for us, we would give you compensation over time for how many hours they worked.


  What we realized from that was that it wasn’t giving them the reward and recognition up front, so we changed the compensation to immediately. So if we hire somebody that you referred to us, you will receive $50 after 30 days. And then after 60 days, you get another $50. So they’re eligible for every person they refer, they can get 100 bucks after two months. It’s not right away. They have to work for us for a short period of time, but then the caregivers are rewarded.


Adam Robinson: And what have you found to be the result of this from a candidate-quality standpoint?


Itay Shalev: Yeah, I think that it goes way up, because you’re no longer relying on just the random people who see your ad. You’re more relying on people. It’s, essentially, if you have a caregiver who’s a great person on your team, chances are they know other really high-quality people. High quality can attract other high quality.


  The other piece of that is accountability. So we know that … What we’ve found from doing this is that if we attract caregivers, and we all have this team mentality that they were brought on, in a way, you feel more accountable to doing a good job with our clients. You don’t think, “Oh, you’re just this one random person. You’re really connected to our team from the get-go.”


Adam Robinson: Have you, in your seven years in business, seen a change in the labor market, not just in terms of availability, but in terms of available quality talent for the particular kind of skills you hire for?


Itay Shalev: Yeah, for sure. I think a lot of it is we’re just running up with … there’s all the retailers, Amazon, all these companies that have sprung up. They’re, essentially, offering a similar pay scale to what we offer, because this is more, in terms of the healthcare industry, this is one of the more entry-level jobs out there. So we’ve definitely noticed.


  Now what we’ve had to do is just diversify our pool and also who we’re looking at. We can’t focus on any one segment of the population. You have to just go for a variety, because ultimately, the nature of our business is 24/7. We need folks out there who are willing to work at all times of the day or night. It can be young people. It can be older people. It can be mid-career, maybe they’re looking just to add something after their nine-to-five jobs. Or it can be students. Or it can be recent retirees. It’s wide open, in terms of the kind of people who can do this kind of work. The number-one thing they need is a passion to help others. A lot of it just goes back to that.


Adam Robinson: Let’s go all the way back to when you first bought the location and opened up. How has your hiring process evolved from then to now?


Itay Shalev: Some of it’s remained the same. I think, what’s been refined a lot is how much more quickly we’re ale to … You have to be a good judge of character from the outset. Our questions have, probably, been refined, in terms of what we’re trying to get to the essence of who you are. One of the top questions we ask … and we may have asked this at the beginning, but you’re not necessarily sure what answer you’re looking for when you first start this business or any business.


  A question employers always ask is, “Why do you wanna work for us?” right? For us, that’s become one of the key questions. So we may have asked that at the beginning, but we’re not quite sure of what answer we were looking for in the beginning. Whereas now, we understand much more clearly when we ask that question, “Why do you wanna work for Comfort Keepers?” we’re looking for passion. We’re looking for why it is that you wanna help others. Does that answer your question?


Adam Robinson: It does. What are some examples of answers you don’t wanna hear?


Itay Shalev: Oh, I’m just looking for something to pay the bills, anything along the lines …


Adam Robinson: Yeah, not a great answer.


Itay Shalev: No, but people will say it in such a way that they think they’re not quite saying that, but that’s, essentially, what they’re telling us. This is not … Working for Comfort Keepers being a caregiver, it’s not just any other job. It’s a very private thing. You’re going into somebody’s home. You’re helping them in their most private, vulnerable moments, so you need to show us that you’re passionate about helping others, that you’re willing to listen to people’s stories, you’re willing to engage with them, make sure they get the most out of their lives.


  Other hiring practices we had from the beginning, that we’re very proud we still have to this day, before hiring, we interview each caregiver. It’s usually two people from our office staff. And now it’s myself and also my wife, she’s a co-owner in this business. We each sit down with applicants, and she’ll sit down with them separately.


  We just went through a hiring round today, where she sat down with one person for 15, 20 minutes and then I sat down with them for another 15, 20 minutes before we feel like we’re comfortable to bring them back. Even after we bring them back, they still have to onboard and train with us and sit back with us. So we like to spend time with our team before they ever go out.


  Is that standard? I don’t know, actually. If you interview, or you get to know other home care agencies, how many people do it in such a personal way like that? My impression is … One thing we stopped doing was bringing caregivers in en masse and having a group of them come to do a group interview. And I know that it still can be a hiring a practice in other places. For us, it just didn’t allow the time to really get to know somebody adequately.


Adam Robinson: Yeah, I suppose the question is what problem are you trying to solve? If you’re solving for the owner’s lack of time, and people, sometimes, skipping interviews, group interviews solve that problem. But they don’t solve the problem your customer cares about, which is, I like my caregiver.


Itay Shalev: Right, we would rather, for us, our focus has been quality over quantity. So we would rather only meet with six people in one day. And if two or three of them don’t show up, that’s okay, because they probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway. So sometimes we understand when we schedule interviews for people to come in, there’s a certain amount that are gonna cancel. That’s just kinda part of why we’re in the business of what we’re doing.


  I meet with families all the time about our services. I constantly get this. I get this feedback from families, like, “Hey, we were doing this on our own. We hired somebody privately. It was going really well for a month, and then they just came back to us and said they can’t work anymore.” It’s like, “Welcome to our world. This happens all the time.”




Adam Robinson: With 70 employees, I can imagine leadership and management of the organization is increasingly complex. Talk to us about how you run the business. What qualities do you think make for a good leader in this space and for managers of people in general? And then what are the challenges that you’re facing?


Itay Shalev: Sure. I think one of the challenges with a home care agency is we’re the administrative end. And really, our most important focus is our caregiving team and the clients in the home. Obviously, there’s a physical separation between the two. So a lot of what it takes to be an effective leader, to own and operate a home care agency, is to trust your staff. You have to delegate and trust people to take care of our clients in the best way possible, because we just can’t see and know everything that’s going on in the home.


  One of the ways we do this is that we have a nurse field supervisor, just a fabulous woman, Terry, that she goes and checks in on many of our clients in their homes. It’s part of our requirements as a franchise. All Comfort Keepers offices do this. But she checks up on them probably more regularly than what’s required, so checking in at least monthly with our clients to get feedback on our services to see how we can help coordinate services any better, and trusting people to do their job. And then obviously, you have to build in checks along the way.


  The other way that you can kind of trust and delegate is to make sure you have really good operational software. We have ClearCare as our system. I don’t know how familiar you are with all this. And some of this might be kind of inside baseball for us, the home care industry. But our software, essentially, it gives us a window into the home in almost real time. The caregivers, they have to clock in and out for all the shifts. They have to update all the tasks. They can also leave us general comments and updates on what’s going on in the home, and we can check this anytime, anywhere.


Adam Robinson: That’s great. I think the point you’re making is it’s systemized. You have a systematic way to manage what’s going on, and that makes leadership scalable.


Itay Shalev: Exactly. No, otherwise, you just can’t. You’d be like a chicken with your head cut off. I mean, you can’t check in on all clients at all times, so there has to be a system in place. And you just need to be able to trust your team to do it with weekly accountability checks along the way.


Adam Robinson: Do you have core values in your specific organization?


Itay Shalev: It’s interesting you said that. It’s something that we probably do. Maybe they’re not written up on our wall or anything, but it’s something that we have … Some of the themes that we talk about all the time is the passion to help others, and more specifically to our industry, to seniors, right? We have to have that passion for helping others.


  Another core value we have is to be proactive. We have to think about, as we get to know our clients, what are their needs? What are things that we might anticipate that they could benefit from, because a lot of this goes to issues and problems that can come up. Ideally, we want to tackle any potential issues before they snowball and get unmanageable. So it’s like trying to address the problems before they even become problems.


Adam Robinson: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. Directly, or indirectly, what are you doing to make sure those values you just mentioned are authentic and real on a daily operating basis out in the field?


Itay Shalev: Yeah, part of that is we have to make sure that our team knows what’s going on with clients, ideally, before they walk in the door, that they’re appraised of situations as they’re going on. We also ask them for feedback all the time. So we try to practice what we preach. We can’t tell people, “Be passionate, be proactive,” if we’re not doing it ourselves. We’ll check in on our team. We’ll ask them how things are going.


  We also tell them all the time, before they accept cases with a new client or even during, we ask them, “Hey, how’s it going? Is this still the schedule you want?” because we want to be proactive with our team to make sure that this is the job that they wanted to sign up for, because going back to what we were talking about in the beginning, in this industry where our caregivers, our team, they could probably find jobs elsewhere pretty easily. So if they’re happy and engaged, then our clients will be fine.


Adam Robinson: Well said. Let’s shift a little more to the tactical in how you reward folks. What’s your philosophy around compensation and career-pathing for your business?


Itay Shalev: You do have to look at pay, because it’s their livelihood for a lot of our team. So our philosophy has always been to pay above whatever the market rate is. That can just differ on what’s your market, and where do you live, and where do you work? Here in Chicago, we just try to pay … We’re always researching, staying up to date on what are the current, average, caregiver wages out there. We just try to pay a little bit above that to stay ahead of the market.


  In addition to that, we want to offer more rewards. So there’s the caregiver referral bonus that we offer them. We’ve offered, it’s been for a few years now, paid time off. So we’ll offer them up to five days of paid time off. We just rolled in benefits for supplementary health insurance in vision and dental. We started a program where we’ll pay half of one of those, and we might even include a little more of that in the next year ahead. That’s a few of the things we’ll offer in addition.


Adam Robinson: Taking it back up, big picture here, as we round out our conversation, what do you think’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned thus far, after seven years in business, about managing the people side of your business?


Itay Shalev: Pay, and compensation, and financial rewards, it only goes so far. We have to always tell our team how much we appreciate their service. A lot of the compensation I think of is emotional, to give them a pat on the back when they deserve it.


  We put on our calendar, for example, all of their birthdays. We always send them a birthday present on their birthday and acknowledge it, because we want to all feel connected together. Ultimately, it’s about helping others. I tell this all the time to my team, that we can only help others after we’ve taken care of ourselves. We always try to make sure that they realize how much we appreciate them.


Adam Robinson: That’s great. Is there a particular book that was influential in your background, in terms of business education or leadership education, that you could share with our audience?


Itay Shalev: A good leadership book, I’d highly recommend The Street-Smart Entrepreneur by Jay Goltz. I read that book. It’s a lot of practical tidbits. I read that in the first couple of years of owning-operating Comfort Keepers. And there’s lots of lessons in there. I remember reading at the time, like, “I’m glad he told me this now. That saved me some hard lessons down the road.”


  And if there’s just another book I could throw out there to recommend, current book that, I think, helps to summarize our philosophy, not just on our business, but on life in general, it’s a book, the title of which is Happiness is a Choice You Make, something like that. It was written by a New York Times journalist.


  He spent one year interviewing six older adults. All of these adults are 85 and older. The essence of the book was, what is it about these senior’s lives that’s led them to a happier existence, and what can we learn from that, all of us other adults out there? Ultimately, it’s about living a healthy, happy, productive life. We learn from our seniors every day. They’re one of our greatest resources for learning. We can all do this. This book is a great way to start that.


Adam Robinson: If you were to come back on the show a year from now and report to us on whether or not you successfully tackled the single biggest opportunity that you have in front of you in the business today, what would you be telling us happened?


Itay Shalev: I hope I will have told you that our referral bonus program, which we started about three months ago, and which it’s been pretty successful so far, that that’s really taken off. That has also led to more client acquisitions, because what we found out is that when you bring great caregivers onboard, who have the passion to do this, your client base and your business is going to grow as a result. It’s all about focusing on the quality of our caregiving team, and that will lead to all the growth elsewhere.


Adam Robinson: Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the final word you’ve been learning from Itay Shalev, Owner of Comfort Keepers, Chicago. Itay, thank you so much for being with us on the program today.


Itay Shalev: Yeah, thanks, Adam, I really appreciate it.


Adam Robinson: And that’s a wrap for this week’s episode of The Best Team Wins Podcast, where we’re featuring entrepreneurs whose exceptional approach to the people side of their business has led to incredible results. My name is Adam Robinson, Author of the book, The Best Team Wins, which you can find online at www.thebestteamwins.com. Thanks for tuning in, and we will see you here next week.