Why Tommy Comer Prefers To Hire with Heart

Commonwealth Senior Living's chief human resource officer focuses on finding the best people for the company’s elder care communities, regardless of their professional experience

For years, the elder care industry has struggled with a difficult hiring landscape—by the year 2030, senior living communities are expected to have a shortage of 2.5 million workers across the country. It’s a daunting human resources challenge, but Tommy Comer, chief human resource officer for Charlottesville, Virginia-based Commonwealth Senior Living, has found innovative ways to address those shortcomings. Borne of his passion for supporting and developing frontline employees, Comer’s solution is simple, yet elegant—provide enticing incentives for interested job seekers, then give them training and experience once they’re on board.

His passion for professional development started long before Commonwealth, when he was a twenty-year-old worker at a big-box retailer. When his supervisor quit right before the holidays, Comer approached his manager and volunteered to take over those duties right away. After working in human resources for other industries for eleven years, he joined Commonwealth in 2014 to develop the company’s HR department.

Tommy Comer Commonwealth Senior Living
Tommy Comer, Commonwealth Senior Living

When Comer first came on, the biggest challenge was creating an HR department for an organization that had existed for twelve years without one. His first move was to visit Commonwealth’s communities, ask the employees questions, and gather data. From there, Comer modernized handbooks, updated job descriptions, and removed unattractive perks from frontline positions, such as not being able to take a vacation in your first year of employment. Overall, though, Comer worked to disrupt the top-down, corporate-driven decision-making that typified Commonwealth’s culture, in favor of something that made the frontline employees feel more valued.

Even with all these changes, however, Comer recognized the inherent challenges of hiring for senior care communities, even ones as attractive as Commonwealth. “It’s no secret that the hiring landscape is extremely challenging,” he admits, noting that workers need to have a certain level of rigidity in their schedules, and be willing to work the stressful hours required of senior care. Although the ideal candidates would be certified nursing assistants, there aren’t enough nurses to take all the positions available, Comer says.

Given these challenges, Commonwealth takes the novel approach of opening their qualifications to people without senior care experience. For Comer, the most important attribute of a senior care worker is someone who has “the behavior and traits of a great caregiver,” as well as the interest. To that end, Commonwealth seeks out interested workers, regardless of experience level, and trains them as needed to perform the duties of senior caregivers.

“We want really good, kind-hearted people who want to take care of residents. Other than that, we’re willing to look at anything.”

In keeping with his “hire-for-heart” approach to professional development, Comer has several initiatives in place to bring passionate caregivers into the fold, even when they lack the necessary experience. For example, workers benefit from an active referral program that rewards them for bringing other caregivers to Commonwealth, which pays them persistent bonuses the longer their referral stays at the company. He has also instituted a program in which the company pays for worker training, including a forty-hour personal care aid course. That kind of training can often be a barrier for prospective employees, Comer says. “It usually means money spent and missed work for those people.”

The company has also been experimenting with hiring nurses from other countries, including Jamaica, and bringing them to Charlottesville, offering them international work sponsorship opportunities. “We want really good, kind-hearted people who want to take care of residents,” Comer says of his workers. “Other than that, we’re willing to look at anything.”

Comer’s work has yielded impressive results, leading to dramatically improved hiring speed and a modest decrease in turnover—doubly admirable given the industry typically sees a 50–60 percent turnover rate.

However, these hiring measures have occasionally met some small moments of adversity. “There are some family members who get concerned about relatively inexperienced caregivers,” Comer says. However, he tries to educate stakeholders about the realities of the world we live in. “There are simply not enough ten-year veteran certified nursing assistants walking around—we have to be patient.”

At the end of the day, these novel hiring initiatives are part and parcel of Comer’s HR philosophy, which stresses the need to be “approachable, trusted, but full of brutal honesty.” To be a leader in human resources, Comer says, “you have to have some courage, and be willing to say what has to be said regardless of your audience.” It’s an intense but lonely job, one which requires you to understand the business and connect the big picture with a comprehensive HR strategy. And one Comer is up to challenge of doing.

Chipping Away at Financial Insecurity

One of Commonwealth’s more intriguing and fun initiatives, Comer says, is the Commonwealth Cares Golf Classic, a charity golf tournament designed to raise money for the company’s employee assistance fund. Now in its third year, the Commonwealth Cares Foundation has raised about $500,000 to help employees deal with unexpected financial emergencies. Aside from taking care of Commonwealth’s workers, Comer loves that the tournament forges connections between executives and frontline employees. “Hearing our employees’ stories is an eye-opening experience,” he says.