Don't shelve that veterinary associate contract

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Contract reviews lead to better work relationships and bottom lines.

Associate veterinarians and practice owners alike dread salary and benefit negotiations. The thought of discussing increased vacation time or more continuing education reimbursements can raise blood pressures. Most of us feel a great sense of relief when we're able to finalize contracts and move on to the business of carrying them out.

But remember: A finalized employment document represents more than a bunch of unsatisfying compromises. A well-drafted agreement supports and reminds participants of the promises and rights that each side is entitled to see respected and carried out over the ensuing months and years. In failing to refer to contractual commitments and obligations during the year, we often either intentionally or inadvertently overlook the obligations that are key to keeping the employee-employer relationship strong.

Regular checkup: Don't wait for negotiation time to revisit contracts.

Employment agreements often call for performance reviews, but busy veterinarians and managers frequently overlook or ignore this part of the employment contract. When the boss neglects to make time for an employee's performance review, the associate is usually hesitant to remind him. Let's face it; even if you think you're performing well, what associate wants to invite potential criticism?

Here's the big problem with avoiding performance reviews: The employer brings up problems identified in the associate's work only when it's time to renegotiate the employment contract. The associate may well misinterpret—or rather, correctly interpret—this sudden faultfinding as a ploy by the owner to offer a lower-than-expected pay raise.

By periodically referring to the employment document, the employer and associate can address unfulfilled obligations as they happen, without anyone having to be the bad guy. If the owner sees that a new hire isn't putting in the necessary hours or completing case workups, the owner can use the contract as a reference point for initiating a dialogue about the problem. The practice owner might say, "Let's go over our agreement to make sure we're all doing our parts. We can use our contract to remind us of what we mutually promised."

At this point, the employer may wish to point out particular terms of the contract that he feels the associate is neglecting. Every contract should have these terms in plain language, such as "will not leave for the day until all cases are written up with a plan for the next shift to follow" or "will work a minimum of 45 hours per week but will remain on any given day until all professional work is completed." This is a good way to bring problems to the attention of new doctors.

In my consulting and law practice, I see many cases that stem from employment contract misunderstandings. Here are the most commonly overlooked employment issues that employers should clarify or reinforce by periodically referencing the associate's employment contract:

Account for productivity

Veterinary employers are notorious for broadly criticizing associates for not contributing enough economically to the practice. What exactly does that mean? What is an associate supposed to do? Vague claims like this do little to motivate an associate, especially when the manager makes no effort to help remedy the deficiency.

Practice owners are better served by sitting down with the associate to review the contract. The employment contract frequently refers to production goals or at least promises to provide an associate concrete figures regarding personal productivity. Together, the practice owner and doctor can go over the terms that refer to productivity and the employer's promise to share information about the specifics of the employee's personal productivity.

This conversation highlights the fact that the practice is fulfilling its contractual obligations of transparency. It also serves as a reminder to the associate that the productivity issue is not going away and that the contractual commitment to "use employee's best efforts"—a common phrase promising that an associate works hard—may well come up again in the future.

Account for commissions

Veterinary practices are notorious for permitting employees to misunderstand what's credited toward associates' commission or productivity calculations. I've seen instances in which associates have discovered, sometimes after years of employment, that their clinics never credited them as the associate expected or laid out in the contract.

Some of the more commonly disputed services and procedures include:

> Dental procedures performed by technicians

> Radiographs taken by technicians

> Follow-up diagnostics on an associate's ongoing case

> Parasite control medication dispensed subsequent to an office call

> Vaccines administered by technicians on an associate's patient.

Practice owners should spell out what's counted in commissions and productivity bonuses, and associates should periodically check to make sure paychecks are right.

Account for bonuses

While it may seem odd, many veterinary associates are afraid to remind their employers to pay benefits specified in the employment agreement. Sometimes they're worried that the request will result in a critical performance review. Other times, associates become so wrapped up in practicing medicine that they can't remember whether they were entitled to the benefits in question or not. Was reimbursement for necessary CE really part of the contract? If it's not written, participants remember differently.

This failure to communicate becomes critical when and if the practice suffers tough economic times. Suddenly, the thousands of dollars originally promised to an associate for renewing the contract or moving from far away to come to work turns into a huge problem. It's not that rare for an associate to lose her job in tough times only to have to sue for promised benefits the practice simply can't pay.

With a little effort a few times a year, you can avoid these common—and often toxic—misunderstandings that get in the way of a healthy working relationship and a healthy bottom line. Just use your contract as your guide.

Dr. Allen is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians. Call (607) 754-1510 or visit info@veterinarylaw.com.

For a complete list of articles by Dr. Allen, visit dvm360.com/law

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