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Hard to handle


While some are just picky prima donnas, others actually are looking for an opportunity to hang the boss out to dry.

It is an accepted reality that when a veterinarian decides to become an owner of a practice, either alone or in partnership, she can expect to be faced with occasional or even chronic staff discord. You can hire consultants until your bank account is dry, but realistically, as a practice owner, you will almost certainly have whining staff members from time to time.

I tend to be a believer in moderation in most instances, and generally speaking, that applies to managing staff complaints.

On one hand, you can drive yourself crazy trying to satisfy every want and desire of every receptionist and kennel person. On the other, there is a fairly substantial subset of veterinarians who ignore virtually all staff dissent. Still, others have the entire workforce so terrified that they keep all their discontent to themselves or share it only with other unhappy workers. My recommendation is that the correct stance lies somewhere in the middle.

The moderate, reasonable — but not overly — sympathetic approach can be recommended as a general principle. However, there are a number of staff complaints that deserve much more focused attention. There are a few areas in which staff members need to be listened to with great attention, as you would to a fire alarm or perhaps an undercover intelligence agent.

First and foremost, it is absolutely imperative that practice owners give undivided attention to any employee who complains about or describes, even in jest, sexually oriented comments made by one worker toward or about another. Employers are unlikely to be damaged by claims of sexual harassment in the workplace as long as they tend to the problem as soon as they notice a potential problem exists.

It is much simpler to dismiss a worker's complaint that he or she is being sexually harassed — or that a co-worker is being harassed — than it is to investigate and intervene. But the omission to act can be a big mistake and carry with it serious legal consequences. Instead, I suggest that the rumors, gossip or complaints concerning such behavior be looked into and thoroughly documented. This will help support a possible later decision to dismiss an employee for cause. These steps also can protect an employer against a successful claim by a harassing employee that he was the victim of a wrongful discharge.

Paying for overtime

A second problem involving employee complaints involves a practice's alleged failure to properly compensate for overtime and to provide adequate breaks. Each state has requirements for how non-salaried workers are to be compensated for work performed in excess of a full work week, on holidays and under other specific conditions. If an employee grouses that he has been unjustly denied time-and-a-half or double-time pay, do not let the complaint die on the vine. I occasionally run into practices where the owner will blow off such complaints, figuring that the employee is probably wrong anyway, and if not, tough. (Why not save the few bucks anyway?)

You cannot afford to adopt a cavalier attitude with respect to compensation or break-time complaints. What sometimes happens in these instances is that the unhappy employee will just accept payroll improprieties or mistakes for a while and then eventually begin to boil over with frustration. That is the point at which, instead of complaining to you, they complain directly to the state labor department. Governments love to investigate. In these situations, that is what they will do.

When the labor department is finished with you, they are likely to call their buddies at Workers' Compensation; those guys have sales-tax compliance problems on speed dial.

New hires

Third, every once in a while, practices hire a new receptionist or technician who seems obsessed by the safety of the clinic building. These are the workers who suddenly bring it to your attention that a rear-door is blocked with boxes or that floors are being washed without the benefit of "wet-floor" signs. This situation lends itself to a double dose of watchfulness on the part of the practice owner.

Initially, such zealous employees should be listened to because they may actually be more observant than you are in identifying potential problem areas that could result in legal liability. It is very common for people who have worked in the same location for many years to simply accept unacceptable building and maintenance conditions as "how it has always been." New blood in the practice sometimes can help identify these areas and give ownership a chance to remedy them before they turn into a big fire hazard or an expensive OSHA violation.

However, it is useful to keep a close eye on staff members who perpetually complain about the least little problem in the physical plant or about the way the practice handles potentially dangerous conditions. Once in a while, a new hire will spend half her time complaining about risks here and dangers there, almost to the point of obsession.

I suggest that such employees be watched with extreme care. While some are just picky prima donnas, others actually are looking for an opportunity to hang the boss out to dry by contacting state safety authorities.

Still, other employees are scoping out a chance to file a carefully planned but fraudulent workers' compensation claim. Having witnessed this behavior personally as a legal consultant, I strongly advise handling such individuals with kid gloves.

Dr. Allen is a partner in Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., a law practice specializing in business and legal counsel for veterinarians and their families. He can be reached at www.veterinarylaw.com or call (607) 648-6113.

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