Employee Firings Need Not Burn
This is the third in a four-part series on hiring and firing in the dental practice.
by Sally McKenzie CEO
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It’s the stuff sleepless nights and angst-filled days are made of. For most employers, dismissing a staff member is the most anxiety ridden of all management responsibilities. In dental practices, doctors will go to great lengths to avoid even the slightest staff conflict and the thought of confronting an employee can be utterly paralyzing for those who got into this profession to “do the dentistry” and nothing else. Consequently, many dentists will tolerate low morale, inappropriate behaviors, and utterly ineffective systems as well as considerable personal misery.
Certainly, every effort should be made to help employees succeed so that staff dismissal and attrition is minimized. In fact, if you implement a few common sense human resources strategies, you’ll make significant strides in reducing the number and level of employee headaches you’ll have to face. For example:
- Provide clear job descriptions to employees, so they know exactly what is expected of them.
- Train new employees but don’t overwhelm them. The new hire will be far more likely to succeed if the training program allows them to assimilate information and tasks at a steady rate rather than a rapid-fire pace.
- Give the employee some form of personnel policy manual. This document spells out the office code of conduct, dress code, policies regarding tardiness, overtime, sick leave, office policies and procedures. All employees deserve to know the rules of the game and what they need to do to continue playing.
- Give ongoing direction and constructive feedback. Too many practices wait until there’s a problem or crisis before they give staff any feedback.
- Be specific. Don’t candy-coat the feedback and don’t beat around the bush. Tell employees what they’re doing well and what needs to be corrected.
- Know when to cut your losses.
All that being said, there are times when an employee – new or long-term – simply must be dismissed. They may fail to follow established office policies; they may be dishonest, argumentative, or difficult to get along with. They may fail to carry out responsibilities, or they may refuse to be a team player. They may gossip about patients, the doctor, other team members or bring down the practice morale with snide comments and cutting remarks. They may be late routinely or divulge confidential information. They may not follow directions or they may be secretive about steps they take in performing their responsibilities so as to make themselves seem irreplaceable. Unfortunately, there are a multitude of reasons why some employees don’t work out.
Whatever the reason, problem employees need to be dealt with directly and clearly using a system of progressive discipline. Unless the employee’s behavior is so egregious that you are forced to take immediate action, the team member should be given the opportunity to improve her/his performance over a 60-90 day period. But don’t just call them aside and encourage them to try a little harder. Explain to the employee verbally and in writing the specific issues that are not satisfactory and document exactly what needs to change in the employee’s performance.
With the employee, develop an agreement that spells out what she/he needs to do to improve performance. It should be in writing, signed by both doctor and employee and placed in the employee’s file. Monitor the staff member’s progress, give regular feedback, and document every step and every conversation in the process.
If the team member is violating established practice policies, such as coming in late, leaving early, disregarding patient protocols, etc. note the incident with an “Employee Performance Notice” or similar document. The warning notice states specifically the type of violation committed. It also should include an area for the employee to acknowledge or deny the incident and provide her/his version of what transpired. The notice also should state exactly the type of disciplinary action that the practice will take – warning, suspension, termination, or other. In addition, it prescribes what the consequences are should the incident happen again. And, finally, it includes a signature line where the employee signs, confirming that they fully understand the notice, its purpose, and the repercussions.
Ideally, at the end of this 60-90 day progressive discipline plan the employee has had the opportunity to see the errors of her/his ways, make the necessary improvements, and everyone lives and works happily ever after. Unfortunately, the fairytale ending seldom occurs.
Next week, walking through the fire.
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