Hard pill to swallow: Talking with that toxic team member

June 11, 2019
Emily Shiver, CVPM, CCFP

Emily Shiver, CVPM, CCFP, is regional director of operations at the Family Vet Group, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Shiver resides in Florida.

Your veterinary practice has a toxic employee you need to deal with, and youre fearing for the worst. Not to worry! Follow these simple steps and youll be amazed at how little there is to worry about.

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Ah, the toxic employee. Identifying them is the easy part. You know, the one creating drama, destroying morale, chronically late for their shift, underperforming, fostering an unwanted practice culture. You turn your head and let it continue because you tell yourself that person is one of your most skilled employees and the clients love them-when, in reality, you just want to avoid having a tough conversation.

This is a difficult situation to navigate, but there's never a good reason to avoid addressing employee behaviors because it means having tough conversations. In fact, it's even more critical when trying to retain a skilled employee who's exhibiting toxic behaviors. The impact that these toxic employees have on your practice is profound, not just on morale or culture, but also on revenue. Sure, this will be uncomfortable at first. You're not alone if these things race through your mind:

• Why should I talk to this employee when they're just going to be confrontational?

• I don't know how to initiate the conversation or how to navigate their response, especially if it's emotional. I don't know how to react to tears!

• I've done this hundreds of times before. In a matter of days or even hours, it goes right back to the way it was before.

• They will just behave worse and act out after I try to talk with them.

• I will lose a team member, which will make us short-staffed. Clients ask for him by name. Which means we may lose clients!

Trust me, these tough conversations are worth it, and you will gain confidence with each one. Each team member will react differently in these moments. Some become confrontational, some try to turn it around on you, some cry, some yell, some walk out, some shut down. You create a picture of what their reaction will be in your head and that increases your anxiety going into uncomfortable moments, especially if you're just starting out.

Taking these simple measures will ensure that you, your toxic employee and your entire veterinary practice will be better off by the end. Now, take a deep breath and let's get started.

Preparing for the conversation

First and foremost, you need to schedule a time and place to meet. I prefer a quiet location where you won't be interrupted. Beforehand, you'll need to print out what I call a Performance Blueprint. This is a list of issues, ideas for improvement, expected implementation timeframe and consequences if they fall short.

Next, you'll need to prepare your talking points. Write them down-this way you stay on track! Try to limit this to two to three points maximum. If you present them with a laundry list of issues, they'll feel attacked. Two or three issues doesn't seem so overwhelming.

How to have the conversation (in five easy steps!)

I've had so many of these conversations (some worse than others) and have learned to present them in a way that makes it known I'm on their team, I want to help them improve and I will be committed to giving them the tools they need to make the changes happen. If you take this approach, you will be shocked at how many never act out in the ways you imagined.

Step 1: Always ask how they're feeling. “Happy,” “sad” or “mad” do not count. Having a laminated list of feelings they can choose from is helpful. This also shows the employee you have a desire to understand exactly how they are feeling. Then share how you're feeling. This sets the tone and may even affect how they receive the conversation, so choose your feeling words carefully. I like to use words such as “concerned,” “curious” and “determined” because these have more positive connotations.

Step 2: Be transparent. There's a problem or two that needs to be addressed. Simply stating, “I have some concerns that I would like to work through” will do just fine to initiate the conversation. It's important for you to remain calm and empathetic, while being committed to finishing the conversation. If emotions are high or the employee becomes confrontational, I typically excuse myself or them and say we'll take a 10-minute break, but must reconvene to finish our talk.

Step 3: Review the concerns. Be sure to use statements and questions that allow for elaboration. A few examples would be:

• Frequently tardy for their shift. “Tell me about a typical morning. What are some roadblocks to arriving on time?”

• Discussing with other staff members lots of complaints about the new reminder system. “Tell me how the new reminder system is working. I would like some feedback.”

• Bringing home issues to work. “I want work to be a safe place for all staff. All outside worries can be left at the door.”

Bonus tip: Try not to use the word “you.” Your goal in this step should be to present the issues while preventing your employee from feeling attacked. They should feel you're on their team, willing to help create a plan for improvement and committed to giving them the tools necessary for them to improve and succeed.

Step 4: Talk through the Performance Blueprint. As you talk through each point, fill out each section of the blueprint. Make sure you give them a copy and check in on them daily. Be prepared to follow through with the plan you have set in place, including consequences.

Step 5: End the conversation by going back to feelings. This will give you an indication of how receptive the employee has been to the conversation and how the employee may respond moving forward. Words like, “determined,” “hopeful” or “excited” show a positive outlook and a willingness to change, while words like “depressed,” “disappointed” and “defeated” indicate a resistance to change-not to mention a negative perspective that may lead to the employee moving on.

After the conversation, follow up on the Performance Blueprint with established consequences. You mustcelebrate little victories!

Ultimately, tough conversations are unavoidable, but necessary to maintain a healthy, positive culture in your veterinary practice. As you implement these conversations consistently, these conversations will get easier, and you will be able to determine which employees need to move on, while retaining and growing the employees that support your practice's vision and mission.

Emily Shiver, CVPM, is practice manager at Cleveland Heights Animal Hospital in Lakeland, Florida.