Don't hate: negotiate (that employment contract)

October 5, 2016
Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD

Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services exclusively to veterinarians. He can be reached via e-mail at Dr. Allen serves on dvm360 magazine's Editorial Advisory Board.

When it comes to your professional negotiations, bark less, purr more.

Less growling, whining and yipping, more negotiation. (Photo: Getty Images)In business, most folks prefer to avoid drama-even the ones who sort of thrive on it in their personal lives. Work-related contentiousness draws most people out of their comfort zone. That's when bad things happen-and bad decisions are made.

Negotiating an employment contract between a clinic and an associate can be one of those work-related experiences that turns into a dramatic, nerve-wracking event. Tension runs high for the interviewing doctor, who wants to fill a vacancy with a qualified, personable veterinarian, and for the job seeker, who may be desperate to find a position that's a good fit.

And practically speaking, minimizing drama and edginess during contract negotiation is an important goal: keeping cool will likely yield a better outcome for both the interviewing practice owner and the applicant. But there's much more to being a good negotiator than simply taking deep breaths and trying not to sweat. The key is in appropriate preparation and feeling confident that you're entering the negotiations armed with clear objectives and a coherent strategy. Here, you'll find a number of pointers I've developed over decades of interviewing associates and advising clinic owners and job seekers:  

Step 1: Avoid self-delusion

During the job application/contract negotiation process, it's easy for both sides to mentally slither back into their comfort zones, essentially kidding themselves. Here's an example: If an interviewer claims his practice has wonderful teamwork and a mentoring environment, the interviewee tends to take that claim at face value. The applicant may tuck away any lingering concerns about whether that clinic is a nurturing professional environment and move on to other contractual points.

But is this clinic actually a warm, fuzzy place where the job seeker will be happy? Well, if this is important to the job applicant, she needs to probe past the interviewer's superficial comments. For example: “Have most of the associates who've worked here in the past few years stayed on past their initial contract?” If the clinic is a revolving door, the associate may want to schedule a significant shadowing period before signing up, particularly if the contract contains a substantial noncompete commitment.

Step 2: Hone your personal communication skills

Negotiating an employment agreement is similar to the process of carrying out an effective client office visit. The applicant should imagine he's in the exam room with a client as he responds to questions and poses questions of his own. In an animal hospital, the practice owner wants to know her associates are well-mannered, pleasant and confident-but not headstrong or pushy. The interview and contract negotiation are how the practice learns whether the applicant can project those qualities.

So the potential associate needs to decide, in advance, how he will present his job desires and requirements and the written agreement that codifies it. If he effectively articulates the reasons why he's worth a more generous salary or a smaller employee contribution to his health insurance premium, his potential employer is more likely to give the request a fair hearing.

Being blunt and shooting from the hip can be costly. You could say, “Well, my last three job interviewers offered me a lot more money than this clinic.” But a more thoughtful way would be something like, “I believe I'll be very productive for the practice, and well worth closer to the average salary the AVMA has published for graduating doctors in this region of the United States.”

Step 3: Don't jerk the clinic around

If you want a divine job, then follow the Golden Rule: Treat the clinic and your new potential boss the way you want to be treated.

• Follow up the initial interview with a thank-you note. Handwritten is best, e-mail better than nothing.

• After you receive a draft contract, read it right away and make the decision about whether you want a lawyer or consultant to review it. DO NOT wait 10 days to make up your mind, then call an advisor, expecting there will be no issues and it will get an immediate rubber stamp of approval. When you unnecessarily delay bringing contract issues to the attention of the hiring clinic, you look disinterested, and worse-unconcerned with the clinic's staffing shortage.

• If you have certain non-negotiable issues, and the practice can't accommodate them, don't do what I've seen so many interviewees do. Way too often the associate shakes the interviewer's hand and says she's looking forward to possibly working with him. Then she drops off the face of the earth while the practice patiently waits for her to decide if she will take the job. If you don't want or can't take the position, let the clinic know promptly and courteously. Some future day you may want that job. And if you dis the place, they won't forget.


Step 4: Choose your negotiation battles

Negotiating the details of an associate employment contract is by definition an adversarial undertaking. It's the same as when a TV network wants a star for one of their specials-except those parties each have lawyers and agents who hammer out the details relatively free of emotion.

But the framework of the deal-making is the same. The clinic has limited financial resources, and the job applicant has financial obligations and personal commitments. So carry out negotiations the way the multi-million-dollar crowd handles them.

• Know the contract inside and out. If you don't think you understand parts or you believe they are intentionally vague, get a professional's advice and interpretation. Make a list of points referenced by page, paragraph and section ahead of the negotiation. This will keep you from neglecting points and wasting time hunting for terms … “I think I remember it being in there ... ”

• Prepare a “prioritized” list. Come to contract talks armed with a list of terms that are essential and terms that are negotiable. As the negotiation meeting goes on past 45 minutes, you will get tired, less efficient and less focused. It's also harder as time passes to be patient with the other side. Approach the key points first in the warmest, most cheerful way you can. If you simply must get a set salary of $100,000 to meet your expenses and the hospital is offering a base $80,000 adjusted by production, focus immediately on compensation. There's no point in getting into DEA license fees or gym memberships if the clinic can't promise you something you need. And there's no need to imply that the interviewer is a cheapskate; just politely explain that “my loans/mortgage/childcare and so on unfortunately forecloses the option of accepting a position that pays less than a guaranteed $X.00.”

•  Know the dollar value of benefits on your wish list. If you get a contract and it has, for example, three fewer vacation days than you want, and a health insurance program different from the one you had at your old job, you should be fully versed in the employer's cost of each of those items. Know the per diem price of a day of vacation at the salary offered. Know the cost to your former employer to pay 100 percent of the gold healthcare program you were enrolled in as well as the approximate price your new employer would bear at 80 percent of the premium for the bronze plan listed in the draft contract.

Keep calm and negotiate on

The better prepared you are to enter into the personal negotiation with your potential employer, the more successful you'll be. Additionally, when you're making a presentation of any kind-and that is what your “demands” list amounts to- the better you know the topic, the cooler you'll be under pressure. And of course, the cooler you are under pressure, the less likely you are to neglect to negotiate an issue that may come back to bite you after you sign on the dotted line. 

Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD, is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law PC, which provides legal and consulting services exclusively to veterinarians. He can be reached via e-mail at