Predicting and Managing Turnover in Human Service Agencies: A Case Study of an Organization in Crisis

Article excerpt

The problem of employee turnover has received much attention from researchers in organizational science (see Herzberg, et. al., 1957; March and Simon, 1958; Porter & Steers, 1973; Mobley, 1982; Cotton & Tuttle, 1986 for comprehensive reviews of the literature on turnover). However, very few of these studies have focused on employees in human services organizations, and children services caseworkers in particular. Caseworkers are the front-line, primary contact for investigations, monitoring, and counseling in all human service agencies. High levels of turnover within this critical group may have substantial negative consequences for both the human service organization and the clientele served by the caseworker.

Child welfare caseworkers usually remain in the field because of the time invested in training and preparation, and confidence in their ability to contribute to the well being of children needing protective services (Fryer, Miyoshi and Thomas, 1990). Unfortunately, heavy caseloads and more stringent state and federal regulations -- including increased personal legal liability -- are eroding the confidence and dedication of caseworkers (PCSAO Study, 1988).

These challenges may be intensified when a crisis situation occurs, caused by the death of a child under the agency's protection. Unlike most other social services, a single failure in the protection of endangered children is a tragic event for both the agency and the community it serves. Increased scrutiny from the press and political sponsors in response to such an event can create a negative environment for the organization, increase tension among the family, friends, and community of its caseworkers, and contribute to instability and turnover in an agency's caseworker population (Fryer, Miyoshi and Thomas, 1990).

This study was designed to improve our understanding of turnover in human service organizations by analyzing caseworker and organizational attributes during a time of crisis and high turnover in a large children services agency. It identifies those variables which best explain the voluntary departures of caseworkers and evaluates the effectiveness of the agency's response to the situation -- an intensive training program for selected caseworkers.

Turnover and Human Service Organizations: Caseworkers as Human Capital

Excessive turnover rates in any organization ultimately lead to higher costs in hiring and training, reduced service capacity and an increased possibility for harmful decisions (Flippo, 1980). But turnover-induced problems can be especially detrimental in organizations where the productive capacity is concentrated in human capital -- in the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) of employees (McGregor, 1988). Because human capital is embodied in people, it is not instantly transferrable. It can be acquired only by investing KSAs in a person over time (Sharp, 1982). In effect, people cannot be separated from the human capital they possess and only reproduction or sharing of such capital is possible.

In organizations that are highly dependent on human capital, a sustained high turnover rate represents a depreciation of human capital and a threat to the organization's technical core (McGregor, 1988; Abelson, 1986; Thompson, 1967). The result of high turnover in such organizations is likely to be a significant depletion of productive capacity and reduced organizational effectiveness.

The importance of an organization's stock of human capital is even greater where it is fused to the output and people are the product (McGregor, 1988). In a "knowledge-intensive human service" such as children's protective services there is a strong linkage between the organization's human capital and its final product. Both the productive process and the product of the organization are embodied in people. The services provided by the caseworkers can be seen as a productive process that intends to transform or modify the situations of endangered children from one that is threatening or destructive, to one that is safe and constructive. …