In the Spotlight: Katrina Farmer

When Employees Thrive, Patients Benefit

Katrina Farmer cares about what your life is like as an employee at Cincinnati Children’s. A little over a year into her role as vice president of employee experience, she and her team in Human Resources are focused on creating an exceptional environment where staff feel empowered to do their best work. It’s all part of Pursuing Our Potential Together.

Farmer is no stranger to culture development. She has served in the healthcare field for 16 years, overseeing diversity and inclusion, employee engagement and organizational development strategic plans. But she says her yellow-brick road story is a little different than most others.

“I thought I wanted to be an engineer,” she explained. “I was very blessed at the age of 17 to participate in a high-school co-op program at Dow Chemical in Granville, OH. This was at a time when the industry was trying to increase the number of women and minorities in engineering programs. So I checked two boxes.”

Farmer learned a lot as a co-op, specifically how to use her left brain to analyze the current state of a project and how to get to a future desired state.

The experience had a huge impact on her, and she enrolled in a 5-year engineering program at Ohio State.

But somewhere around year 4, Farmer realized engineering wasn’t for her.

“I did the thing you’re not supposed to do,” she recalled. “I told my parents I was walking away from school. And the worst part was, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew it wasn’t engineering.” It took a while, but Farmer eventually landed a job doing organizational development.

“That’s when the light bulb came on for me,” she said. “I took the current state/future state concepts I’d learned earlier and applied them to understanding what an organization’s short-, intermediate- and long-term goals are to help them figure out how to achieve them. Ultimately, I went back to school and got my bachelor’s in HR and my MBA and certification in HR.”

Defining Employee Experience

Farmer acknowledges that the term “employee experience” has different meanings for every individual.

“I think about it in terms of the Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule,” she explained. “The Golden Rule is to treat others the way you want to be treated. The Platinum Rule is to treat others the way they want to be treated. And what people consider important varies, depending on where they are in their journey with an organization.”

As an example, she compares the employee who is fresh out of college to the employee who is in mid-career or closing in on retirement. “Their place in the employee life cycle will impact their experience level in regard to benefits, career advancement opportunities or professional development.”

The important thing is, through all these phases, including when an employee leaves an organization, voluntarily or involuntarily, that people are treated with dignity and respect.

“I get kind of passionate about this stuff, because we spend a lot of hours at work,” said Farmer.

"Sometimes we don’t think about how much we are impacted as individuals by what happens to us on the job. We carry that home to our families, so it’s critically important that we are thoughtful and mindful about the environment we create.”

It’s important for another reason, as well, said Farmer. “If we create the absolute best workplace environment, our patients will get the best care they can receive. You can’t expect to have exceptional outcomes for kids unless you create an exceptional environment for caregivers.”

Strengths and Opportunities

Cincinnati Children’s already has a lot going for it in terms of culture, Farmer believes.

“One of our biggest strengths is our core value stating that we respect everyone,” she explained. “It eliminates the debate around whether you give someone your respect or they earn your respect. There is a hierarchy in most organizations, and sometimes, the amount of respect you get is directly tied to your place in that hierarchy—the higher up you go, the more respect. But here, we’ve made it very clear that everyone should be respected regardless of their job title.”

Farmer also sees our core value of telling the truth as a big plus.

“It’s empowering when we show deference to our subject matter experts and trust their choices. We need to recognize that coming to a consensus on every decision can get in the way of responding to the issue at hand in a timely way."

“It seems so simple,” she said, “but some organizations struggle with it. Calling it out that we want to be open and honest and learn from our mistakes—in other words, saying we expect each other to handle things like adults and not make up stuff or brush it under the rug—is very important to a just culture.”

Farmer sees opportunities to make our culture even better.

“In light of our recent employee satisfaction survey results, it’s clear that a lot of team members are feeling emotionally drained,” she said. “That’s why addressing this issue should be part of every team’s action plan for this fiscal year.”

Farmer has ideas for helping to ease the emotional strain, which includes helping employees as a whole get more comfortable with decision-making.

“It’s empowering when we show deference to our subject matter experts and trust their choices,” she said. “We need to recognize that coming to a consensus on every decision can get in the way of responding to the issue at hand in a timely way. A shining example of this was our response to COVID-19. We had to react quickly, and everyone stepped up and contributed their expertise. It was phenomenal.”

Looking Ahead

Farmer and her team are working on completing the certification process for Cincinnati Children’s designation as a Great Place to Work. They are also focusing on building leader capabilities via Leadership Lifts and Culture Lab sessions.

“We’re already seeing results,” she said. “Leaders are showing up in a way they weren’t before—being more authentic, focusing on impact and working collectively together for Cincinnati Children’s. The aim is that it becomes part of who we are and how we operate all the time, not just when there’s an emergency situation.”

Farmer is thrilled that, even though employees report feeling emotionally stressed, they still say they are proud to work here, they’re planning to stay here for the foreseeable future and they consider Cincinnati Children’s a great place to work.

“That’s a strength in itself when people can acknowledge that not everything is perfect but they’re not going anywhere because they’re committed to the mission, committed to the kids and they love this place.”

Farmer wakes up every day thinking about how to make Cincinnati Children’s better.

“I am so thankful and so proud to work for an institution that recognizes the importance of culture and spends the time and effort to evaluate and address it,” she said. “I envision a day when our employees will be the commercial for Cincinnati Children’s, telling others how it’s such a great place to work because they’re seeing our culture and our leaders evolve and that we truly are committed as a leadership team to elevating our people. I want employees to feel like they can bring their whole selves to work and do their best work because of the culture we’ve created.”

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