Flex or fire? Dealing with a difficult associate


Should you bend over backward to accommodate a rule-bending, boundary-pushing (but brilliant) veterinarian to serve the greater good?

(Getty Images)Reed Veterinary Associates has served its greater-suburban-area pet owners for over 30 years. Dr. Reed and his four associates practice cutting-edge medicine and experience very little staff turnover. Dr. Reed credits this low turnover to a pleasant work environment and a flexible approach to staff needs.

Dr. Jen Call is a tenured associate who has devoted her life to veterinary medicine, and to call her an exceptional veterinarian would be an understatement. A fierce anti-war advocate and world-class bridge player with a driving ambition to become a preeminent veterinary diagnostician, she definitely marches to the beat of her own drum, and part of that beat includes an exceptionally high rate of success when it comes to aiding pets with complex medical issues.

Reed Veterinary Associates has experienced significant growth over the last few years, resulting in the addition of several new staff members. And Dr. Call has observed the clinic's transition from a small, laid-back family atmosphere to a large, structured hospital with unease.

The veteran veterinarian can be critical of her coworkers and doesn't hesitate to invade their personal space with discussions of religion and politics--this is something shes always done. However, some newer staff members have reported being uncomfortable with these types of inquiries, and Dr. Call's flexible work arrival time is becoming an issue in the larger business setting.   

Dr. Reed arranges a one-on-one with Dr. Call to discuss these issues. He requests that she refrain from the aforementioned behaviors in the interest of both propriety and harmony, but Dr. Call fails to see any wrongdoing on her part. She argues that her personal inquiries are made in the spirit of collegiality and that her variable arrival time is not a detriment to her patients.

Dr. Reed now has a true dilemma on his hands. Dr. Call has been a valued veterinarian in his practice for more than 15 years, and when he weighs her strengths versus her weaknesses, she does come out on the plus side. While she is often inappropriate and late for work, she is also honest and hardworking and a truly gifted veterinarian. Dr. Reed has to decide: Is Dr. Call a slow-growing cancer that needs to be excised, or does he just need to make adjustments so that everyone in his practice can be both happy and successful?

Dr. Reed chooses the latter. He reschedules Dr. Call's work shifts to avoid pairing her with staff that find her difficult, and her break period is shifted to the first thing in the morning to allow her some coffee and acclimation moments before dealing with cases. Finally, he tactfully reminds her to show discretion when broaching sensitive personal discussions with other staff members.

Though Dr. Reed's choice causes extra effort on his part and disappoints some staff members, he feels a very special talent like Dr. Call's is worth accommodating.

Do you agree with Dr. Reed?

Rosenberg's Response

Oh, if only things were black and white, decisions would be so much easier. Dr. Reed had to decide whether or not he should remove a clearly dysfunctional staff member and decided to assess her value on an individual level instead of as a member of a group. The pros in this case outweighed the cons, so accommodations were made.

I am with Dr. Reed. I would keep this doctor. After all, in the words of historian Laurel Ulrich Thatcher, well-behaved women seldom make history. Dr. Reed's obligation is to quality medicine, a successful business and a harmonious work environment. In the real world, all staff members are not created equal and certain accommodations can serve the greater good. Babe Ruth often ignored team rules, yet the Yankees were a lot better off with him than without him.

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. Although many of his scenarios in "The Dilemma" are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.

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