PX tool Secret Code WordsMost workplaces have their own internal language or shorthand that employees use to communicate to one another. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a shorthand secret code word or phrase to to send a message to an employee without embarrassing them?

Imagine for a moment that you’re the patient.

You step into an elevator where there are three doctors.

The first doctor smiles at you. But the other two doctors don’t even see you so they continue to talk and laugh about the party they attended last night.

Awkward and a little uncomfortable? Yes, probably.
Unprofessional? Definitely.

I had a conversation recently with a friend and former Disney colleague about this very topic: elevator etiquette in a hospital setting. Specifically, we wondered what patients must think when they see hospital employees either looking down at their phones or having private conversations in public areas and all but ignoring them.

Disney’s Code Words

It brought us back to our Disney days. We recalled learning that in the eyes and ears of the customer or guest, everything speaks and everything matters when it comes to creating a great customer experience.

Private conversations are one of those things that speak to guests and let them know our focus (however unintentionally) is somewhere other than delivering a great experience. To redirect Disney employees back to putting guests first, we were reminded of some the code words we would use to remind our co-workers (or for them to remind us!) that what they were doing or saying in guest areas wasn’t appropriate.

Since Disney is in show business, we used terms like Onstage and Backstage. These were easy, non-punitive words we could use to gently remind cast members that they were onstage and in a guest area. To reinforce this concept, Disney has even put signs right at the entrance and exit to backstage areas reminding every cast member to remember that they are about to step Onstage. (In other words, keep backstage conversations and behavior to backstage areas.)

Moving From “Me-First” To PATIENT-FIRST

I believe we can do something similar in healthcare.

Back to the example of the elevator and the doctors. Clearly, the two doctors laughing about the party are focused on their conversation and not on how their words or actions might affect the patient in the elevator. What do you think the patient is thinking? What if one of those doctors is the patient’s doctor?

In this instance, the third doctor needs a tool. Some kind of non-punitive phrase — like a secret code — which they could use to discreetly remind their co-workers to be patient-first rather than me-first. It’s a good way to hold one another accountable in the presence of patients of families.

Who’s On First?

At one of our client hospitals, we helped employees develop their own secret code phrase. It’s simple and easy to remember and it’s something everyone can use to remind one another to put patients first, rather than personal conversations or behaviors. Together, we came up with “Who’s On First”, based on that famous Abbott and Costello sketch. Simple and fun — the employees loved it.

Now, if any employee spots inappropriate behavior or conversation in front of patients, they can simply say, “Hey, who’s on first today?” The message is a reminder to be patient-first and move the conversation out of patient areas.

At another client hospital, the team acknowledged that they often looked down at their phones. Oftentimes, it’s business-related, but patients don’t know that. As a result, many patients became resentful, thinking the employees weren’t fully paying attention. To hold themselves and one another accountable, they decided their code word would be “Apple” since so many team members seemed to always be distracted by their (apple) iPhones.

Secret code words like Apple” or secret phrases like We’re onstage, or Who’s On First? call attention to the problem without drawing attention to it. The employee gets the message, but the patient or customer is virtually unaware of the shift in behavior.

Code words are just one more tool in your toolbox which can be used to help preserve the patient experience. But it’s not a one-size fits all. The key is to get your employees involved in coming up with a code word or phrase. Because they author it, they’re more likely to own it. And when they own it, they’re more likely to use it to hold one another accountable.