90 days to perfection: A week-by-week guide to training new staff members (Proceedings)


How do you take a new hire and mold them into a productive team member in 90 days? Methodically. The key to developing successful staff members (or quickly weeding out those that won't benefit your practice) is to have a training plan in place before they start.

How do you take a new hire and mold them into a productive team member in 90 days? Methodically. The key to developing successful staff members (or quickly weeding out those that won't benefit your practice) is to have a training plan in place before they start. While there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to staff training and development, there are some general guidelines that will benefit any practice, large or small. The most important step is to recognize you need a process; otherwise it's hit-or-miss and we know how that usually ends up.

First Day of Work

Successful practices provide consistent exceptional client service by recruiting, developing and maintaining happy and motivated team members. Our staff will not treat our clients any better than they are being treated themselves.

The first day of work is like any other first impression: you only get one chance to make it favorable. The first step is to set the tone of exceptional work ethic by having the practice owner and manager meet the new hire. Arrive at least thirty minutes before the new hire is scheduled for work. This is to ensure that the management team is ready and waiting for the new team member rather than other way around. What does this simple action say about your practice's work ethic? That you're prompt and prepared and that this meeting is important to you. This meeting must occur for any full-time employee.

Both the practice manager and owner warmly greet the new hire when she arrives thirty minutes before opening. The practice owner gives her some background of the hospital and discusses his or her practice philosophy. He reviews his hospital's mission statement and explains what it means to the hospital team, clients and patients. He discusses any awards or recognitions that the team has received and why being a veterinary healthcare provider is such an important profession. This is your one and only opportunity to share your compelling story for why you love what you do and why you're honored to have the new hire join you on your quest. A practice owner that fails to see the value in sharing this information with a new hire needs to remind themselves why they do it. We must transfer that enthusiasm and drive to our employees if we are to truly succeed in our mission to provide the most advanced and compassionate in pet health care.

The office manager then reviews the job description and the employee manual and assigns her a staff mentor. She outlines the new hires task training schedule and gives her a training materials notebook and video. She then meets her mentor and is instructed to "velcro" herself to this person and to "just observe everything." The new team member's first three days will be spent absorbing the practice atmosphere and learning the workflow.

Alternatively, this scenario occurs at many practices during a new hires first day. The new employee's day starts by waiting twenty-five minutes in the lobby because no one knew she was coming. By the time Dr. Me shows up, two appointments are waiting. He welcomes the new hire with a "Don't you hate Mondays?" tells her to "get to it." and disappears with a grunt into an exam room. The new hire spends her first few days interrupting one activity after another and feels that she is making a general nuisance of herself. Dr. Me remarks that "they sure don't teach them much in school anymore" on Wednesday.

To start new hires off on the right track, we must give them direction. Make their first week less about specific job duties and more about adopting your practice culture. If we fail to properly orient and lead our new hires, they will become discouraged when they don't meet our expectations. Develop specific and detailed job descriptions, codes of appearance and ethics and task training materials for each position. Review training objectives and schedules. Practice owners and managers should meet with each new staff member and discuss what the practice stands for and where it's headed. It is important to instill in our staff the sense that they are part of something big and important. Everyone wants to be on a winning team. We must explain the rules and how we keep score in order for our staff to play the game well.

Week 1 – "OLA"

During the first week or employment, it is critical our staff understands overall practice workflow and process. To do this, we adopt a "hands-off" approach during the first 5 to 7 days. "Observe-Listen-Assist" is our new hire's mantra. The goal is not to jump into work but rather gradually immerse into the role. By de-emphasizing "work" an deemphasizing learning, we have found our new staff members to more rapidly progress during training. Of course, this doesn't mean they just stand around idly. We expect them to assist whenever needed: learning basic restraint (on a great patient!), grabbing a bag of food or helping someone to their car. We have found this also reduces stress and frustration in new hires by simply allowing them to acclimate to the new (and often VERY different) work environment of a veterinary hospital. Whatever you choose, I suggest you take it easy on new team members during the critical first week.

Weeks 2 to 4 – Learning by Example

Weeks 2 to 4 are spent learning the basic job duties. Assigning a senior staff mentor is doubly advantageous during this period. First, it allows the new employee a channel for learning that is less formalized and more personal. New team members can get a "real-world" view from someone who's been there and done that. Secondly, it creates pride in the mentor for being chosen and trusted with the success of the new team member. Learning through example is a powerful and productive training technique. Mentoring also fosters team building and loyalty. Involve your entire team in creating a job experience that new staff won't forget.

We use phase training checklists that allow a new hire to progress a more-or-less their own schedule. Some new employees will complete the first four weeks' training within two weeks while others may require more time. It is important for the practice manager to review these checklists weekly to ensure a new hire is staying on track. If they are, congratulate them. If not, it may be time for a serious discussion about whether this job is the best fit for everyone.

At the end of Week 2, we typically pull the new employee aside for a short "How're things going?" talk. We often suggest areas they should work on in the next two weeks before their first informal evaluation. We also use this as a "pep talk" session for staff that show great potential. For others, this may be the time to release them or discuss what they need to do to be successful in our practice. Don't be afraid to be direct at this time. If a new hire is unwilling to accept direction and advice at this stage, it does not bode well for a successful long term working relationship.

Train Their Brain

The ultimate goal is to create a practice culture where continuous learning takes center stage. Regardless of education or experience, every new team member completes the same staff-training program. You will then be able to ensure consistency in both technical skills and client communication by providing this unified approach. Meanwhile, many new hires are undergoing "trial by fire" training – and they're getting pretty hot. Inconsistencies in protocols and procedures confuse new hires. They don't understand their place in the hospital or what the hospital standards are.

Develop a phase training program that teaches new staff your basic procedures and policies. Your hospital's vaccination schedules, the medical benefits of spaying and neutering, anesthesia and surgical monitoring for your patients, basic verbal and non-verbal communication techniques and senior care guidelines are just a few topics to include. To promote accountability, give written tests over each training section.

Initial staff training followed by weekly training sessions creates team members with the right attitude, knowledge and skills. Staff training is preventative medicine for your hospital. It helps keep your team running smoothly and avoids costly disruptions of staff turnover. More importantly, staff training allows your team to deliver consistent excellent client service and patient care. Our goal should be to make each client interaction the best it can be – every time.

Practice Makes Perfect

Education gives us technical skills and knowledge. For us to successfully use our education, we must effectively communicate with our clients. Clients don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Part of our new hire's training involves role-playing. With a senior staff member, the new team member will practice not only what she says to clients, but also how she says it. If they sound or appear unsure or unconfident, the client is less likely to follow our recommendations. By role-playing, our new hires can perfect their skills without potentially damaging a trusted client relationship. In addition, it provides a system for maintaining uniformity in the information we provide our clients. Consistency creates credibility. If a client hears one thing one visit and something different the next, the hospital's credibility is in jeopardy. Once you are certain a new staff member can articulate your hospital's information and image, they can be trusted with your clients.

Too often, we focus on the science and skills of our profession and forget communication. Only 15% of our success is determined by our technical ability and knowledge. 85% is directly related to our ability to communicate these skills to our clients. Verbal and non-verbal communication techniques create trust and build bonds with our clients. Poor bedside manner will lead to empty beds. Let new team members make their mistakes on the practice field rather than the playing field.

Week 4 – First Informal Evaluation Education, Recognition and Appreciation

As team members progress through their phase training and learn their new job duties, it is important that we recognize their accomplishments. In a recent survey of Fortune 1000 companies, the number one reason employees changed jobs was limited recognition and praise. Mark Twain once said "I can live a month on a good compliment." Make it your goal to catch someone doing something good everyday – and tell them. Celebrate success and always express appreciation. Too often we focus on the negative and drain our team's precious positive energy. Never underestimate the power of a kind word.

At the completion of Week 4, set aside 15 to 30 minutes to privately talk with the new employee. Review the phase training checklist and discuss areas of strength and areas where they need to improve. Make this a casual conversation; focus on being non-threatening. This is a time to make subtle corrections and acknowledge areas of progress. Be sure to set goals based on this conversation and place on your employee goal board. Examples of goals include "Restrain 5 cats fore venipuncture next week," or "Learn canine distemper virus, parvovirus and adenovirus type 2 and review with Stacy and Dr. Ward by next Friday." This will be repeated at the end of Week 8.

Set People Goals

We have an extensive performance evaluation schedule:

      Week 2 – Informal Evaluation and Initial Phase Training Goals

      Week 4 – Informal evaluation

      Week 8 – Informal evaluation

      Week 11 – Submit Employee Pre-Evaluation Form

      Week 12 – 90 day – Formal Evaluation

      6 month – Informal Evaluation

      12 months – Formal Evaluation

      Formal Evaluations every 6 Months until 3 Years Employment

After our new hires complete their fourth week, they and the practice manger establish personal goals for their first 90 days. They identify areas where the new hire could improve such as her knowledge of anesthetics, causes and classification of diarrhea, and confident communication of the practice's payment policies. She works with her mentor for each of these specific goals and given additional training materials. Approximate phase training section completion dates and the 90-day formal performance review are scheduled during the fourth week meeting. Working together, the new hire and our existing team commit to making her the best team member she can be.

Unfortunately, in many practices things don't go so well for their new employees. Still floundering in a sea of job uncertainty, the new hire from the earlier example feels like she's drowning. Every day is met with conflict, ambiguity and indecision. She has no sense of direction or purpose. After four weeks, she gives up. The arc of her once bright start now dimmed, she takes a secretarial job. The veterinary profession suffers another casualty.

After 90 days, our new hire has completed her initial training and met her first personal goals. She is fulfilling her dream. At the weekly staff-training meeting, the practice owner stands up and announces that the new team member is now an official member of The Team. "As I've grown older, I've learned that it's not what we say that counts, it's what we do that matters. This young lady is a doer. She has taken the tools and guidance that you have given her and is living her dream of a veterinary healthcare provider. Please stand up and congratulate our newest team member."

Evaluation Reminder Tips

One of the chief complaints staff members share is that they're constantly overdue for an evaluation. In fact, the lingo to ask for a raise within our employees has now become "Isn't it time for my evaluation?" A simple way to prove to your staff that you're committed to evaluations and making them better (as well as keeping you and your busy practice manager on schedule) is to schedule each employee's evaluation date on your computerized appointment schedule. Simply put an appointment block at the beginning of the day (i.e. "Sally's Evaluation"). This will serve to remind you, the employee and your entire team. This external accountability will put added pressure to complete evaluations in a timely manner and demonstrate to your staff that these evaluations are important.

Our new hires are only as good as we make them. It is our duty not to let down our new employees. Through thoughtful preparation and leadership, we can make our team the best it can be. The greatest teams are made up of motivated and giving individuals. Our goal as people managers is to build a great team. Our success is determined by ability to lead and motivate each person to achieve their potential.

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