A practice manager writes:
I terminated a toxic vet tech last week.
When I started working at the practice about 6 months ago, I came into a really negative team culture. The new owner hired me and the team was scared of change, so they blamed everything on me. I have been fighting an uphill battle since. Every change I try to implement, regardless of how minor it is, is met with criticism and negativity. There is always a reason why something won’t work and why the old way is better. Most of the time it’s just because “we’ve always done it that way.”
One aspect of this culture is tardiness and gossiping. The team members claim they are all very close, they are a “family,” yet there is a lot of backstabbing and gossiping that is just accepted and not dealt with. Some of the team members are unreliable and chronically late for their shift, even if it’s just 5 to 10 minutes.
One particular team member, a vet tech, seems to be the common denominator in a lot of drama in the practice. She is also one of the worst offenders of tardiness. I have spoken to her about it a number of times over the past six months. She gets really defensive, makes excuses and says that she always stays back late and is doing a better job than everyone else, so she doesn’t see what the problem is. After giving her numerous warnings and writing her up for this, I decided to terminate her employment last week.
It went horribly. She walked out of the office, and a few minutes later a vet came and resigned as well. She is threatening legal action and has been contacting the other employees. I come to work in the morning now, and no one even says “hello” to me. I organize a team meeting and no one shows up. I have to chase them around the practice and herd them into the meeting.
I have tried talking to all the team members individually, with mixed results. There have been tears of frustration on their behalf, some have actually sympathized with me, and others are just so set in their ways that I don’t seem to be getting anywhere with them. The tech who was terminated has obviously been telling them all sorts of lies, and nothing I say seems to change their mind.
Did I make a mistake terminating her? What am I doing wrong with the rest of the team and what can I do differently? I don’t know how much longer I will last in this environment, it’s really taking a toll on me.
Oh, I really feel for you. I hope you know that none of this is your fault and you didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, I doubt that there is much you could have done differently, or that anything would have yielded a positive outcome.
The problems this practice is having are rooted in fear of change. Your role is viewed as a driver of that change, so you will be blamed regardless of what actions you take. Rather than addressing how to deal with this specific situation, I want you to consider a long-term strategy.
Broadly speaking, there are two leadership styles and change management techniques you can employ. One is a more authoritative approach, where you draw a line in the sand and ensure there are consequences for anyone who crosses it. For example: Tardiness. You could write a policy, share it with everyone and explain that anyone who does not follow the policy will receive a verbal warning, etc.
This is how that course of action is likely to play out: People won’t follow the policy (or any other policy; I’m using tardiness as an example to illustrate this management style), you will terminate a few of them, a few will resign and you will be left with a couple of good employees. You will replace the ones who have left with new team members and eventually you will have a ‘new’ clinic, founded on YOUR policies and culture.
What are the cons? Well, you may also lose a few clients in the process. With a lot of new faces around, some old clients are bound to leave your practice. Things will get chaotic for a few months. You will have to train the new team members, and you will lose a lot of the knowledge employees who have been at the practice for a long time. You know what I mean: That tech who knows where everything in the hospital is; knows what insulin syringe that patient needs as soon as the client walks through the door, etc.
This process is likely to take around 12 months. That’s 365 exhausting, difficult days. The old team members won’t like you and they won’t hide it. The new team members won’t know you and you’ll have to work hard to gain their trust.
The second approach you can take is more inclusive. Prior to making any change, you would consult the rest of the team. You wouldn’t write a policy and share it with everyone — you would include them in writing the policy. When they are not following the new policy, you wouldn’t say anything until the second or third offense, at which time you would gently point out to them that there is a policy. You wouldn’t dream of writing them up for breaching it.
Here is how this second approach is likely to play out: You will spend hours discussing minor changes and debating why, for example, it would be a good idea to admit surgery patients during appointed timeslots rather than have them come in whenever they want. You will feel like you are making very slow progress. But as far as clients are concerned, the change will be minimal as most of the faces in the hospital remain the same. And that tech who knows where everything is will still be there. (Although when you suggest that you start ordering different surgical drapes because they are cheaper, she will fight you to the death.)
This process is likely to take a lot longer, so that’s really the primary negative to this approach. I’m talking years. Sure, there will be some positive changes and glimmers of hope along the way, but if you want to see real results, you have to be in it for the long haul. With this approach, the old team members still won’t like you, but at least they’ll try to hide it.
Sorry, there is no silver bullet here. You have to pick an approach that suits your management style and is aligned to the strategy of the practice owner. Once you have chosen your change management strategy, you’ll know how to deal with the fallout from terminating this vet tech.
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