Find (and keep) the perfect fit for your practice

July 25, 2019
Kyle Palmer, CVT
Kyle Palmer, CVT

Long-time dvm360 magazine and Firstline contributor Kyle Palmer, CVT, is hospital manager for VCA Salem in Salem, Oregon, as well as a practice management consultant for a number of other hospitals.

Whether your veterinary practice is equine, mixed or small animal-only, you have a responsibility to recruit and retain an associate that meshes well with your clients, your team and, most importantly, your patients.

Write recruitment ads that reflect the traits your associates mention about your practice, and avoid including things that you personally value about the practice. (Frantiek/stock.adobe.com)By now, it should be clear to most veterinary practices that the emerging area of concern for the immediate future is recruiting and retaining veterinarians. It's a problem for every small animal, mixed or equine practice that I've spent any amount of time in, and it's a problem that is getting worse every day-compounded by a perfect storm of factors, some of which may be out of anyone's direct control. Here's a definitive look at how you can recruit, interview and retain the perfect associate for your practice.

Recruiting

There are several components to good recruitment: the mechanical aspects (where and how to advertise), the emotional aspects (what content to use in those methods of advertising) and the marketing aspects (how to sell yourself to a candidate once you've landed them for an interview).

Before you determine where to advertise, it's important to identify what type of veterinarian you're looking for. For instance, are you a specialty practice, a mixed practice or an ambulatory practice? Are you looking for an experienced associate or are you willing to entertain a new graduate? Do you want a full- or part-time doctor? Don't forget that your outreach should reflect exactly who you're looking for; otherwise you run the risk of attracting the wrong person-or no person at all-because your ad isn't specific enough.

Most importantly, sit down with your existing associates (assuming they're happy in their position) and ask them what they like most about their job. Ask them why they came to your practice, and what keeps them with you. It may be painful, but you should also ask them what they'd be looking for if they decide to leave someday. Keep in mind, you should only ask these questions of associates who have been practicing five years or less. It's not that employees past that tenure don't matter-they do, and we're fortunate to have them-it's just that they don't represent the bulk of the employee market at this time.

After getting all of that in order, follow these steps:

Write a recruitment ad that reflects the traits your associates mentioned, and avoid including things that you personally value about the practice-you're the owner or manager and you have a much different perspective than associates. Current trends suggest you should mention mentoring, high-quality equipment, flexible schedules and a talented team of highly leveraged staff. By no small coincidence, you should also actually offer those things.

Don't be afraid to include some points about your community. Work-life balance is important to associates and, if you're located in an area that offers a variety of things to do outside of work, chances are that's an important selling point. When you're done with the ad, ask those same associates of yours if they'd notice the ad and if they'd be compelled to pursue the position. If not, keep rewriting it until they would.

Find the right place for your ad. Where to advertise is a matter of preference and, to some degree, a matter of what signal you want to send to candidates. The gold standard of veterinary career advertising has long been the AVMA Career Center. While pricey, this page serves as a great tool for national recruitment. Indeed has emerged as a leader in employment recruitment across all industries, but tends to be used less for veterinarian ads than for other team member recruitments. For an ad that is not “sponsored,” there is no charge, but you will incur fees if you wish to pay for additional exposure.

For an industry-specific site, iHireVeterinary offers opportunities for all positions. Beyond these national sites, most state and regional associations also offer online or print advertising and are less expensive than the others. Unfortunately, they require job seekers to individually visit each state or region's site rather than visiting the larger sites and screening for a state you may be interested in.

Finally, reach out to your local (or even non-local) university programs and make sure you're on their job openings boards, unless you're not willing to consider a new graduate. All of the above are great options for targeting your next associate, but the one I'd recommend passing on is craigslist. It's not exclusively a recruitment site and tends to specialize in nonprofessional positions.

Interviewing

Once you've received some response to your ads, the real work begins. Above all, remember that interviewing is a two-way street-you are being evaluated, just as you are evaluating the candidate.

Screening cover letters is the first step. This is because you'll never know who is right for your practice from just this document, but you'll probably (probably!) know who is wrong. Here's a hint: Practical recruiting starts with the understanding that you're eliminating candidates rather than selecting them, at least at first. If they didn't follow your ad instructions, such as a request for a cover letter or a request not to contact the practice by phone, toss them out. These are simple instructions, and you'll have more complicated instructions later, which they would likely also fail to follow. If their grammar isn't acceptable or if they demonstrate a lack of understanding of what our industry demands, toss them out. Call the rest.

On the phone, be careful not to ask questions that are too specific-this isn't an interview, it's a screening, and it's more important to focus on whether the candidate can string together a competent sentence than it is to find out how they would treat a hoof abscess. Instead, encourage them to ask you questions as well, and pay attention to what they ask-remember, a candidate who isn't extremely diligent about where they might work is also a candidate who isn't looking for a long-term home.

If they continue to impress, it's time to meet them in person. Here's where I may break from others by saying I don't place much value in a structured, sit-down interview. Invite them to visit and encourage them to stay all day, or even multiple days. They should spend time with every part of your team, and with every member of your senior or leadership team. Make sure all of your warts are in plain sight by not hiding certain parts of your practice. Have them see some outpatient appointments, participate in some treatments and watch how they act around horses (or whatever animal you practice on) and how they speak to clients. There's no point moving forward under false pretenses with a candidate who can't do the job or with a candidate who wasn't well received by the team.

Once you're ready to make an offer, make sure you've spoken a bit about what they are looking for in the job. Put together a written offer that addresses all benefits and answers all questions, and make sure the candidate knows that this is a negotiation, not a “take it or leave it” interaction. On their first day, your role pivots from recruitment to making sure they're still working for you after 18 months.

 

Retention

Retention is currently being impacted by a number of factors-the shifting demographics of veterinary school graduates, the shift away from a future ownership mentality and, of course, the new generation of employees in general. As noted in a previous article, new and coming graduates prioritize very different things than their predecessors. They hunger for mentorship, seek a very deliberate work-life balance and want flexibility to be present in the important events that occur in their lives. This is a complete departure from the baby boomers who were raised to work until the work was finished, and missed countless milestones while they were knocking out 12-hour days.

Here's the advice you've been waiting for: Change, and change quickly. No matter how hard you worked as a new veterinarian, no matter how many long hours you put in as an associate in training, you simply will not successfully stand your ground and hold onto the team you've assembled. Not only has the new generation of employees irreversibly changed the landscape for employers, they have also got the “mid-career” generation thinking, “Hmm … if they can change their work environment, maybe I should too!”

Mentoring takes time and delays when your new associate will start paving their way, especially for equine practitioners who will essentially be practicing together for a period of time. There's a cost to doing business to ensure your veterinarians' private lives are as important as their professional lives, and that's by defining the limits of your schedule and your practice. Animals need help when they need help, but there are a growing number of emergency clinics that will do a better job than you will after-hours.

Of course, this is not as true with equine practice, but a similar solution must exist soon or equine practice will continue to look less inviting to your associates. There's also a cost to doing business so that your associate can block out 90 minutes to watch his child in the local school play. Gripe all you want (and I have done my share of it), but you will either take action to create the proper environment for retention or you'll be looking for an exit strategy someday that probably won't exist.

5 steps to craft an environment for retention

Step 1: Analyze your fee schedule and implement the increases necessary to slow down associate integration and allow adequate mentoring. Don't be ashamed to charge your clients a number that fairly reflects your investment in the practice and your commitment to training great doctors.

Step 2: Look for part-time associates who will add to the flexibility of a schedule that your team will need to stay happy. Most practice growth happens in “half-doctor” increments, while the market is mostly full of whole doctors looking for work. There are those out there who only want a quarter- or half-time job, you just have to look for them (and practice the recruitment and retention values to attract and keep them).

Step 3: Include your associates in the operational details of your practice once they've become integrated. They should be part of your management team and should help slowly design the practice they'll one day own (if you can keep them).

Step 4: Make sure your equipment is up to date, make sure your associates have open access to the internet, make sure you're supplying and encouraging electronic communication between doctors and clients, and make sure they have their own space. Veterinary medicine doesn't happen on paper anymore-we live in the digital age, and your employees need your support in that area.

Step 5: While you should spend a lot of time looking at these topics from your associates' point of view, don't ever stop providing your own professional insight as an alternative. They may not seem like they're listening (and some may not be), and you may see no sign that your work ethic has cured them of what you might think is a millennial disease, but sharing the history of your veterinary practice still has some value. Make them proud of the profession they serve, but celebrate the ways in which they are changing it for the better.

Remember, you may have spent years practicing in the equivalent environment of walking uphill both ways, but was that your choice or the only option available to you? Would you not have rather been at the important events in your life, had you been given the chance? Would you not have preferred to be thoroughly trained rather than kicked into the deep end of the pool? What employees today are asking for is not unreasonable. In fact, it's downright responsible, and will ultimately contribute to a profession that suffers less burnout, experiences a lower suicide rate and finds associates once again eager to buy into the practice they've helped create. To put it plainly, you simply will not retain great veterinarians if you don't evolve to meet their demands.

Kyle Palmer, CVT, is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and hospital administrator at Lake Grove Veterinary Clinic in Lake Oswego, Oregon.