Risk Management Must Be Proactive

Prevention of elder abuse is the best way to protect yourself from legal liability.


By James Olney and Mohammad El-Sawaf

As a senior living provider, you strive to provide a safe home for residents, a safe work environment for staff and growth for your business. Yet headlines across the country say that elderly abuse and mistreatment are threatening the reputation of the industry and putting facilities out of business. 

Is your organization doing all it can to acknowledge the risks associated with your business while building trust with residents, families and staff?

Elder abuse on the rise

As of 2014, 1.4 million Americans lived in nursing homes, with that number expected to increase significantly as the baby boomer generation ages. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, nonfatal violent crimes against the elderly increased 27 percent from 2003 to 2013. 

In the case of senior care, abuse can take a variety of forms including physical, verbal, sexual, negligent or financial.

Abuse can occur with staff, residents and visitors. All are grounds for legal trouble, and all can leave you and your business liable.Now is the time to invest in your people and business to mitigate risks associated with mistreatment and continue building trust with the residents and families you serve. 

Many businesses consider risk management a reactive tool, meaning they insure their business and expect their coverage to protect them against any potential damage. While insurance is one aspect to consider, it’s important to manage your risk upfront and proactively at all levels of your business. 

In senior care, like many service organizations, being proactive means hiring the right people to care for your residents and having the right policies and protocols in place. 

Hire the right people for the job

The best place to start is your staff. They are the heart of your organization, caring for the residents who call your facility home. 

Hiring in the senior care industry can be difficult, and even more so in this competitive job market. When reviewing your hiring policies, start with the basics:

  • Review job descriptions to make sure managers are setting the right expectations upfront with candidates and new employees.
  • Consider professional experience requirements for certain roles.
  • Have a process in place to complete criminal background checks on potential employees.
  • Set competitive wages and benefits.

Also, understand that not all aspects of hiring are as clear as job descriptions and background checks. 

  • Empower your hiring managers to ask themselves, “can I place trust in this person to care for our senior residents as they would their own parent?” 
  • Support leaders in trusting their instincts and work to understand and resolve concerns when having trouble hiring for a certain position. For example, are your leaders having difficulty hiring qualified caregivers because your benefits aren’t competitive? 

Make sure you’re paying attention to the market and staying competitive for employees, not just residents. An outside partner can help you and your staff ensure you’re in compliance with employment laws while implementing best practices at the same time.

Build a culture on trust and accountability

Hiring the right people is only the first step. Creating a trust-based culture with clear protocols and procedures and open communication can help mitigate risk while increasing employee satisfaction.

  • Have regular conversations with management and staff about risks, protocols and procedures. Educate them on the policies and procedures associated with their role. Confirm that they know and understand what is expected of them on a daily basis. 
  • Provide leaders the proper tools and hold them accountable for leading people. Encourage leaders to set up regular conversations with employees to discuss their performance and challenges they’re facing. Effective leaders inspire engaged employees who want to do the right thing.
  • Don’t ignore signs and symptoms of mistreatment or employee disengagement. In the same way you encourage leaders to trust their instincts in hiring, encourage them to trust their instincts with behavior issues. Create clear reporting channels and expectations that are communicated to all employees. Encourage leaders to address rumors and take appropriate action. In the age of technology and anonymous communication channels, brushing issues under the rug can no longer exist as an option.
  • Clearly communicate consequences and apply them consistently. When employees clearly understand expectations and do not meet them, leaders must be empowered to take action. If policies, procedures and expectations aren’t enforced, it is as though they don’t exist. Difficult conversations or terminations aren’t fun, but the success of your business and the safety of your residents relies on addressing issues head-on. Consider regular manager trainings on how to have difficult conversations. 
  • Create an open dialogue with management and staff on the risks of elder abuse and mistreatment and how to prevent it. Find opportunities to have open dialogue with staff about the risk of elder abuse and mistreatment such as regular trainings, incidents in the news or changes to policies or procedures.

Get the right coverage

When you have the right people hired and the right protocols and procedures in place, then look at your insurance coverage. 

Even with the best of intentions, issues will still arise, so it’s important to make sure your business is covered. Things to consider when reviewing insurance coverages include:

  • Coverage gaps – does your insurance cover abuse claims? Is coverage retroactive or only to a certain date? 
  • Types of coverage – does your business have the right types of coverage?
    • Professional liability covers your business related to issues that arise when employees are caring for residents.
    • General liability covers your business if issues arise with visitors to your facility.
    • Cyber liability covers your business if protected health information or other personal information you may have stored digitally about your residents becomes exposed (Social Security number, personal credit history).
    • Directors & Officers (D&O) covers you and other leaders in your organization if issues arise under your leadership.

Insurance can be difficult to understand and interpret, so find a trusted partner to help you define relevant scenarios for your business. 

It helps to have a partner

Now is the time to take a critical look at your risk. Does it align with the experience you’re trying to create? 

In the next few weeks, take time to understand the risks your organization faces. Do you have the right internal resources for hiring and training? Do you need external partners to help you navigate through this process? 

The best partners will not only help you determine how to manage your risk reactively through insurance but provide business counsel and additional resources to help you mitigate risks proactively. Building a safe environment for residents, staff and visitors should be the first priority for you and your leaders.

James Olney is vice president and human resources consultant and Mohammad El-Sawaf is business insurance consultant, both for Associated Benefits and Risk Consulting. The company is an insurance and consulting firm focused on employee benefits, business insurance, human resources, retirement plans and risk management. Based in the Midwest, the company is a subsidiary of Associated Bank.