Veterinarians who choose practice ownership or hospital management positions quickly find out they could use a crash course in human resources management. While veterinarians may be well-trained and well-versed in how to manage medical cases, most of them have little experience in managing people. Surveys of managers in various professions show that more and more time is spent resolving staff problems or concerns, often leaving little time for other management duties.
Human resource (HR) issues within the veterinary practice are handled by the owner, hospital director or a practice/office manager. Regardless of who handles the HR issues, it is important to have set policies and an action plan for all areas of the practice. In short, every practice needs a policies and procedure manual that clearly outlines protocols. The manual should be reviewed by an attorney to ensure it is valid and not in violation of employees' rights. The practice owner, whether heavily involved with HR issues or not, should be directly involved in assembling the procedure manual.
Practice management seminars both within and outside the veterinary profession can provide the nuts and bolts of how to plan a policy manual and what to include. In addition, they provide employee management training, which oftentimes includes how to enforce established policies.
Managers should focus their energy on preventing staff problems. Job descriptions, frequent staff meetings and reviews, staff training and continuing education help diffuse potential problems with staff. Regarding new hires, be diligent in checking references and conducting working interviews, which weeds out many individuals. Always hire on a 90-day probation period so employees who do not live up to their potential can easily be dismissed. Even so, you will still have issues and undesirable behavior among staff. If the problem cannot be resolved, then termination is inevitable.
Five Common HR Issues
The five following human resource/employee management scenarios are the most common situations all practice owners and managers must know how to handle.
Chronic Absence and Punctuality
You have a hard working staff member who everyone likes, but there's one problem. Sue works hard when she's at work, but it seems that once a week or so she has some reason or excuse why she can't come in that day. Initially you buy into the excuse, but now it's more prevalent. You don't want other staff to become adversely affected by the situation. How do you prevent the problem from becoming more serious?
Chronic absenteeism should be discussed in the policy manual as unacceptable and as grounds for dismissal. Once you've identified it as a potential problem (it happens several times a month), discuss each incidence with the individual. Make sure she knows it is not a small matter, but one that impacts other staff members and the care of the patients. Ask her if she really wants to work at the hospital and how she plans to correct the problem. Let her know that continuation may result in dismissal. When one person loses a job because of this, others will certainly be more careful about their attendance.
Punctuality follows along the same lines. Some workplaces allow staff members to be late three times before they are dismissed. While you don't want to lose a generally good staff member, you also don't want to baby these employees or bend the rules. Doing so causes other staff members to resent the special treatment or believe your policies are bogus because you never enforce them. The key here is to keep your high standards and be an innovative problem solver. Determine the problem or cause of the absenteeism or tardiness. Parents may have day care problems or need to pick up sick children and need their schedules adjusted. If a solution cannot be found and the problem persists, then the employee should be terminated.
Policies against gossiping or spreading rumors should be part of a signed job description. Nothing is more infectious or hurts staff morale more than a staff member with a bad or negative attitude. When someone is negative in the work environment, meet with that person to discuss your and the employee's concerns. Ask such employees what the practice might do to make her happier; she may have good insight on some problems. Ultimately, if the employee's negative attitude continues, let her know that if she is not happy she should go elsewhere. This is not only for the good of the practice but for her peace of mind as well. After all, who wants to work somewhere if you don't enjoy it? Most of the time the person will agree and look for another position; if not, initiate dismissal. Staff moral should improve immediately.
Unfortunately, alcohol and drug abuse is common in today's workforce. Oftentimes it is hard to determine potential substance abusers during the interview process or the 90-day probation period. Oftentimes, managers learn of a problem from other staff members who work closely with the individual. Managers should suspect a problem when a staff member's performance and attendance are erratic. Confronting an individual about your concerns can be difficult because you may not have proof. You can discuss it in regards to performance and they might admit it. Frequently, you will have just cause to dismiss the staff member based on performance/attendance alone.
Keep controlled substances under lock and key, and keep an accurate controlled-substance log. Keys to the safe should be given to a limited number of doctors or technicians. Any abnormalities in inventory count should be taken seriously and investigated. Never underestimate the possibility that someone on staff could have an addiction problem. Drug and alcohol abuse is a serious problem that costs employers money caused by poor performance and absenteeism.
Managers deal with everyday situations that may call for a reprimand, and it's important to know how best to handle them. Ideally a practice should hire right, train right and avoid the substandard employee. Even so, a manager may have to discuss behavior or performance-related issues with staff members. A few rules and philosophy can help make the reprimand process more of a win-win situation. First, discuss concerns with staff in private–no one likes to be scolded or embarrassed in front of co-workers. Be straightforward with your concern and always ask the staff member if she realizes what the problem is and how she can correct it. If it is a repeat problem then plan to meet again in a week or two to review what progress has been made.
For first-time problems, a verbal discussion or warning is sufficient. Even verbal warnings should be documented in the employee's file. For serious infractions, a second offense should warrant a written warning, again well-documented and signed by the staff member. A third offense will result in termination.
Staff are hard to come by these days, and most managers hesitate before firing someone. However, keep in mind that dismissal of an employee who is not an ideal match is better for the practice and staff.
It is important to keep an enthusiastic attitude toward your staff. A good manager knows how to find good people and keep them, set high standards and reward staff for jobs well done. When problems occur, the manager should look for ways to help the staff member get back on track. The manager is a support system for the staff, but the staff does have a responsibility to perform up to expectations.
If a resolution is not possible then termination is necessary. The previously mentioned three strikes system works well. Again, policies should be outlined in the hospital procedure manual. In addition, unacceptable behaviors should be outlined so an immediate dismissal can be enforced. These include poor or cruel treatment to patients or boarders, insubordination to a manager or doctor and no-shows at work without calling in.
If you fire an employee, first make sure you document everything so you can prove just cause. Firing someone is not a pleasant task, but failure to respond to your corrective action steps is grounds for termination.
Terminating the employee should be done in a straightforward manner. For example, "Sue we've talked about your attendance several times and yet it still is an ongoing problem. At this time we can longer employ you."
Firing typically is handled by the practice manager or owner and termination should be done at the end of day workweek. This gives the employee time to burn off steam and helps to avoid excessive confrontation.
Fire an employee when other staff members are at the workplace, but do it in privacy. In some cases you may want to have another employee present as a witness. Once fired, the staff member should turn over her keys and any other hospital property. Her employment with you is over, and she should not be allowed to work any longer. Keep it simple and focused on why she is being let go, and wish her well.
Managing a veterinary staff can be gratifying as well as challenging. A manager must be able to lead and motivate the staff to live up to their true potential. Managers must be strong, thick-skinned individuals. Even in the best of circumstances a manager must know how to handle stress. Providing leadership in this area helps keep the staff calm and focused, so they can most effectively handle patients' and clients' needs. Here are a few keys to stress management that can help managers and staff better cope with life at a veterinary clinic.
• Keep a positive attitude and look on the bright side of life.
• Develop time-management skills.
• Identify and be true to your core values.
• Learn to say "no".
• Embrace change.
• Learn to laugh at your mistakes and see humor in everyday activities.
• Engage in aerobic exercise regularly (20 to 30 minutes, 3 to 5 times a week).
• Eat a healthy, balanced diet and regular meals.
• Create balance and moderation in your life.
• Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing.
• Take time out for yourself.
• Be grateful for the good things in your life.
Dr. Rothstein owns five veterinary practices in southeastern Michigan and is president of The Progressive Pet, which provides management services to veterinary practices and corporations. He can be reached at (734) 761-9554 or JVLR1@aol.com.
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