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Dealing with uncivil behavior in the clinic

Atlantic City

No veterinary team is perfect, but when behaviors of team members start negatively impacting the clinic, what should the practice’s managers do?

Uncivil veterinary practice

Photo: Krakenimages.com/Adobe Stock

Drama belongs on television shows, not within your veterinary clinic. However, sometimes there are scenarios in which drama is introduced in the workplace and it eventually affects the entire clinic. This tension between employees can also spiral to the point where teams feel uncomfortable coming into work and are overwhelmed by the uncivil behavior, and they may begin to hate their jobs. Since this can happen at any clinic, how is yours prepared to deal with this kind of behavior between employees?

During her lecture, "Don’t Call It Workplace Drama–It’s Uncivil Behavior" at the recent Fetch Coastal conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Louise S. Dunn, owner of Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, shared a plan of action that veterinary teams can use at their clinic when they need a remedy for uncivil behavior.

Recognizing and dealing with incivility

Uncivil workplace behavior comes in many forms, such as a dirty look during a meeting to bullying to illegal behavior. The real issue begins to arise when the behaviors—intentional or not—are not addressed by management.

Practice owners can also not be around employees all the time. However, if issues begin to happen, there may be hints of what is going on that teams can recognize. For example, Dunn explained that rolling one’s eyes, failure to share credit, not answering calls or texts in a timely manner, and sending nasty or demeaning notes are just some ways team members can act uncivilly toward coworkers. Although some of the issues may seem small, typically the first eye roll or the first nasty message you see may not be the first time that the behavior has occurred.

“So, what happens is things will add up, and add up, and add up, [and like] an atom, they'll explode,” Dunn said. She further explained that there are often a series of incidents that lead to a blowup between colleagues. Therefore, it is critical to address problems before they build up, and train team members on how to recognize potential issues.

Practice managers and owners should make sure they are working toward creating a culture that hears the concerns of team members and addresses problem behaviors before they infect the entire staff. Sitting down with each team member who is involved in an incident and hearing them out could also get to the bottom of what caused the issue. There could be inside-the-clinic factors, such as an overload of work duties, or outside factors, such as stress at home or cultural differences. Taking the time to learn the underlying issue, if there is one, can help teams resolve the behavior and/or prevent it in the future.

Setting up for success

According to Dunn, the first time to address incivility at the clinic is when someone is hired so they accept accountability for any interpersonal relationships they may form. The clinic’s employee handbook should also have clear policies such as a code of conduct, zero-tolerance policy for intimidating behavior, no retaliation clause if the employee reports unacceptable behavior, and more. The handbook should also define the consequences for each offense.

Anyone higher up, such as a manager or supervisor, should have leadership training on business policies and procedures, different types of communication styles, and common errors they can avoid as a manager. They should also have clear guidance on what to do if an employee reaches out to them to report unacceptable behavior at the clinic.

“What we're going to do is, we're going to train and coach the leadership and the new hires, and we're going to start building teams. So, we're going to be doing this proactively…Veterinary medicine is known to be a reactive profession. An animal gets sick or injured, they bring it to the veterinary hospital. A team member does something that is not OK, then you come up with a policy, go over it with everyone, and it goes in the manual. It's reactive, not proactive,” said Dunn.

Dunn emphasized that an unprepared supervisor will not be helpful in any uncivilized behavior situation that arises at the clinic. A prepared supervisor will result in a prepared team.

In conclusion

To avoid incivility at work, all employees, from the owner of the clinic to the newest hire, need to participate in the appropriate training. When everyone understands which behaviors are appropriate at work and that when bad behaviors are shown, they will be handled accordingly, then both the team and pets being treated at the clinic win.


Dunn LS. Don’t call it workplace drama–it’s uncivil behavior. Presented at: Fetch Coastal; October 9-11, 2023; Atlantic City, NJ.

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