Gain and retain an activity professional

Hiring the right activity professional is one of the key elements in providing residents with quality of life. Not only must he or she be dynamic, full of boundless energy, and able to work with special populations, but he or she also must have excellent documentation skills and be able to work with a team attitude.

The talent search

When you place an ad to hire an activity professional, make sure the salary range offered is comparable to others in your area or marketplace. Are you willing to meet an applicant’s salary requirements if he or she is certified or are you trying to just find the least expensive employee available? Most often, an unqualified hire might save a few dollars an hour, but you will find your program in great need of an overhaul and in trouble with surveyors. Your activity director (AD) is just as important as your Director of Nursing (DON). When hiring, keep in mind that familiar phrase “You get what you pay for.”

The interview process

Prepare for the interview by knowing what to ask. When hiring an AD, find out if he or she possesses certain skills needed to be a dynamic and energetic person. For example, to find out an applicant’s level of creativity, ask: “What did you do that was innovative at your last facility?” “What would you do if you had a room full of residents and the entertainer didn’t show up?” “What innovative new activities would you add to our program?”

If you want to find out if the AD candidate can multitask and problem solve, present the following scenario: “You’re on the phone with the director of nursing resolving a problem when the intercom announces that you have a call on line one, someone is in the lobby to see you, and the administrator walks in to tell you your budget report is due within the hour. What would you do?”

If you want to know about the candidate’s management style, ask the applicant to describe the relationship between a supervisor and subordinates. “Tell me about the best boss you’ve ever had and how he or she motivated you.” “Tell me about your worst boss. What made it tough?” “Tell me about a situation in which you had a difficult management problem and how you solved it.”

Reveal an applicant’s qualities using other open-ended questions. Try asking: “What brings you joy?” “If we call your references, what will they say about you?” “What previous job was satisfying to you and why?” And finally, there are three questions that I like to end with:

  1. Why should I hire you?

  2. Is there anything else you want me to know about you that we haven’t talked about?

  3. Do you have any questions for me?

Retention tools

Now that the right activity professional is on staff, how do you retain him or her? There are several key factors that need to be in place to keep him or her energized and happy in your facility. The administrator plays a key role by knowing when to step in and help. For example, there usually is a 15-minute window in which to gather residents and your AD only has two hands to get them all there. ADs feel supported when you offer to push a resident’s wheelchair to the chapel service or help serve strawberry shortcake at the Mother’s Day Tea. Your help is very much appreciated.

It is important to include your activity professional in the decision-making process; ask for his or her thoughts on matters that affect the future of the facility. The AD has great insight as to how key decisions might affect your residents and staff. By including the AD in the process, you will have greater “buy in.” Is your AD a valued member of the management team? Is your activity department a valued member of the interdisciplinary team? Do you use your AD’s talents and expertise in in-servicing? Does he or she participate in care conferences and unit meetings? Is the AD a significant part of new employee orientation? If not, change the climate in your building so that the AD becomes an important member of the management team.

Is your activity professional recognized for his or her talents through salary improvements? Cost-of-living increases based on responsibilities, programming achievements, and met goals provide direction and a chance for the AD to improve—as well as prove—his or her value to your organization. Replacing this person is far more costly than making these improvements now. There is a shortage of talented and qualified activity professionals and you are running the risk of losing a great asset for your residents if you don’t make these easy changes now.

Another way to ensure that you retain your activity professional is to assess their strengths and assign him or her special challenges. For example, if your AD has implemented a unique activity program, does the community know about it? Are you marketing this innovative program to the public through print advertising and brochures as well as on your Web site? Is your AD great at public relations? Give him or her the opportunity to speak at community events like the Rotary or Lions Club meetings. Including the AD on your marketing team can be a key factor in a facility’s success. Because you have fun and unique leisure activities available, people will want to move to your facility. Is your activity director a good speaker? Invite him or her to provide in-service training to staff. Is he or she knowledgeable about dementia activities? Ask him or her to lead a CQI project on the unit. Identify the activity professional’s talents and steer him or her into leadership roles. Finally, allow your AD time out of the building to attend professional peer group meetings and/or educational sessions.

Job performance

Regular communication is imperative to having a successful relationship with your activity director. It is not necessary to micromanage or constantly reassure him or her. But if you have a concern with how your activity professional is handling the job, the direct approach is your best option. Schedule a time for a discussion and let the AD know what you would like to talk about. (No one likes surprises!) Your “chat” will be more successful if there is a mix of several topics to discuss.

If for some reason problems continue and/or it just isn’t a “good fit” for your community, follow the rules for corrective action. At each step, make sure the employee signs the Corrective Action form and understands the expectations and the next step in the process. If the employee refuses to sign it, find a witness to sign it. The employee signature verifies that the meeting took place.

The steps for corrective action

Step 1.Verbal discussion. What is the behavior you would like to see? If you don’t see it, what is the next step?

Step 2.First written notice. When did you see the unwanted behavior? Give specific dates and times. What is the expected behavior? If you don’t see improvement, what is the next step?

Step 3.Second and final written notice. Repeat Step 2.

Step 4.Suspension and/or termination depending on the unwanted behavior.

If you interviewed and hired the right candidate, chances are slim that you will have to go through any of these steps. The activity professional is one of a facility’s best assets, just as valued as any nurse, and one you surely don’t want to lose to another facility. Another way to help retain your AD is through recognition. A simple written note of appreciation or verbal praise in front of other staff can go a long way. However, the ultimate compliment any administrator can give his or her AD is to nominate that employee for the “Activity Professional of the Year” award through the National Association of Activity Professionals.

Susan Rauch, BA, ACC, has been an Activity Director in long-term care since 1984. She is an Activity Consultant certified through the National Certification Council of Activity Professionals. For the past 12 years, Susan has been the Activity Director at Martha & Mary Health Services in Poulsbo, Washington. She is an Activity Consultant and national speaker. Ms. Rauch serves on the Board as Professional Development Trustee for the National Association of Activity Professionals and was “Activity Director of the Year” for Washington State in 1987. For more information, call (360) 394-4021 or e-mail

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Long-Term Living 2008 September;57(9):26-29

Topics: Articles , Staffing