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Detox your practice: how to eliminate toxic team members and avoid hiring them
Michelle Drake, DVM shares team management and hiring best practices that support a practice's mission, values, and culture
Content submitted by GeniusVets, a dvm360® Strategic Alliance Partner
It's hard enough to build a practice today. It's even more challenging with an employee that's working against your goals. It's critical to eliminate toxic employees or, even better, avoid hiring them in the first place.
What exactly is a toxic employee?
This word is used in many ways. Sometimes, it refers to someone who is mean, dishonest, or creates drama. These behaviors are undoubtedly toxic. Relative to the workplace, employees are toxic to your practice if they're not aligned with your mission, values, and culture and create discord. They do not fit the profile of the type of person you believe will make your hospital a great place to work.
The worst employees—truly destructive humans—would be toxic anywhere. However, an employee could have a toxic effect even if they're not a "bad" person, if they are simply a terrible culture fit and won't get with the program. Quite often, the behavior is more insidious and quietly destructive. These employees may speak negatively about other employees or complain about policy and procedure but never want to help with solutions. They create small dramas amongst the staff instead of putting energy into providing excellent care and service.
Toxic employees harm every aspect of your practice
These behaviors break down your practice culture, leading to frustrated, demoralized employees and poorly served clients. Keeping toxic employees around causes your best employees to leave.
If an employee has a toxic situation in their current job and is offered a couple of dollars per hour more somewhere else, they're likely to leave. By harming your team's effectiveness and reducing trust from your clients, toxic employees are also deadly to your bottom line.
Think of your other employees and yourself
When a practice has misaligned people, this affects everyone. As the owner, your wellbeing is also impacted. If you have someone like this in your practice, take a moment to think:
- Does this person bring positive or negative energy into the practice?
- Is this person involved in many small dramas that take away from the hospital's mission?
- Has your practice gotten a negative review or lost a client due to this person?
- How much time and energy did it take to handle that?
Factoring in these considerations can help you realize how much that toxic employee is really costing you in stress, time, and mental health.
Sorry, sometimes It's a DVM (or manager)
Many practice owners have a "blind spot" with associate DVMs and managers. They may say they avoid toxic employees, but they have a DVM who's been with them for 20 years and is constantly yelling at the staff, complaining a lot, or doing things their own way instead of what the practice has decided to do. Or, they may have a manager who plays favorites with employees.
Often practice owners make excuses for these individuals: "It's just how he is" or "I couldn't do without her." However, if someone will not get on board with your mission, values, and culture, they need to go—regardless of their role. It may not seem like it right now, but if that person is poisoning your culture, you're better off without them.
We all know that firing employees is one of the worst parts of practice ownership. Yet if you avoid getting rid of toxic employees in the name of being nice, you're delaying the inevitable and harming valuable coworkers in the process.
The good news
As the practice owner, you have the complete ability to resolve toxic employee issues. You must first point the finger at yourself, not others. You can develop a strong, healthy organization and ask that employees adhere to your culture and rules of conduct in the practice, and if they don't, you can fire them and find new employees who will.
Culture benefits are everywhere
The benefits go beyond just eliminating the most egregious sources of toxicity. If you, as the owner, can see someone is a poor team member, the rest of your employees know it too. They're watching and waiting to see if you'll take action or if you'll let this person continue to behave badly. When you take action to remove toxic people, this sends a message to your team that you care about them. It also reminds anyone on the “borderline” that they need to straighten up and bring their best self to work.
Yes, I know there's a labor shortage
Practice owners often tell me about a negative employee who drags the entire team down. My immediate response is, "And you fired that person, right?" Too often, the answer is some version of, "No, we need them because we can't find good people." The practice will remain stagnant and dysfunctional until the toxic employees decide to change their behavior or are asked to leave. Hire and train for culture and values, and you will have a completely different practice.
I'm proud to say we've had little trouble hiring doctors and staff. This doesn't mean that it's not time-consuming; it does require energy and attention. But even during the pandemic, we hired 4 new doctors and more than 15 staff members. We hire for culture and core values first, skills second. We've had many team members leave dysfunctional veterinary hospitals to come and work at The Drake Center, sometimes for less money. I'm happy I'm able to provide a better workplace for them. The reason many corporate groups throw out huge hiring bonuses is that they have to. They are not good places to work, and their turnover is very high. A great place to work is very valuable.
What to do now
If you think you may have 1 or more toxic employees, take the following steps:
- Accept full responsibility. Recognize that you have the power to change the situation.
- Clarify and write down your mission, values, and culture, and communicate these to your leadership team. Then, work to get buy-in from the entire team. You can't reprimand or fire someone for not following your values if no one knows what they are. This takes time and energy, but nothing will change until you do so.
- When your problem employee violates these guidelines, talk with them. If talking doesn't resolve the behavior, do a formal write-up specifying exactly what behaviors were out of line and why.
- If the person improves, that's great.
- If the bad behavior continues, fire the employee and communicate to your team exactly why they were fired, reinforcing how seriously you take your values.
The best solution: don't hire toxic people in the first place
With the right hiring process, you can avoid these issues altogether. Here’s how to avoid hiring toxic people:
- Have your mission, values, and culture clearly defined, and ask questions that check how the interviewee aligns with your culture.
- Listen carefully for red flags. These are best uncovered through dialogue. My hospital manager is a real expert at this. Specifically, she listens for complaints about former employers or negativity about work, clients, or family.
- Prioritize will and culture fit over skill and experience. It's tempting to hire someone with experience. But it's much easier to train someone on the skills they'll need than to train them to change already-ingrained behavioral dysfunctions.
By taking these steps, you'll be well on your way to a practice free of toxic people, where you and your employees will thrive, and your clients and patients will benefit greatly.