Helping team members be their best: Appraisals and goal setting (Proceedings)

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Somewhere along the way, good veterinary team members figure out that one of the most important components of our jobs is to be a teacher.

The first step with appraisals, as with training, is to make your expectations clear. Employees should know what they are being judged on, how often and by whom. Our performance evaluation forms are now included in our office manual. We also spell out expectations and consequences. What, specifically and exactly, do you want people to do? Here's what I advise my team members to do to minimize problems in their professional life:

1) Leave your personal life at the door. In other words, your problems, successes or failures with relationships, money, health or your personal pets don't belong in the office.

2) Be polite even if you are really pissed off. You catch more bees with honey, as they say.

3) Apologize when something goes wrong, even if you didn't do it. Then try to make it right. Say, "Gee, Dr. smith, I can see how this upsets you. What can I do now to help make it right?" instead of "I didn't do it, Sharon did it."

4) Help others and do your own tasks without complaint – even if you don't enjoy that particular task. It takes self-control and willpower to not look or sound bored, frustrated or negative, doesn't it?

5) Learn to understand different personality styles and to work with individuals who have different points of view.

6) Last, do those things that your boss wants you to do, even if you don't really want to - and even if you don't really like him or her. Maintaining good relationships and doing things the way your boss wants you to or the business needs will eventually get you the raises, promotions and good references that allow you to succeed in your career.

We are all a product of our heredity and our environment. We have our own styles, habits and thought processes. But we are all human and we share many of the same foibles and frustrations. The more you are in control of your own responses and feelings, and the more understanding you have of your own triggers and weaknesses, the more effective you will be as a professional person. However, we also need to have very clear codes of conduct in our policy manuals in order to avoid confusion and to give employees explicit guidelines. Here are some examples:

"The professional atmosphere of the hospital is to be maintained by employees while present in the hospital. Employees are expected to be neat and clean and to maintain their jacket or scrubs, as well as clothes beneath their uniforms in a clean and pressed state at all times. You need to ensure you have clean lab coats on hand to change in case it becomes soiled. If you handle animals as part of your job you may want to keep a clean pair of pants on hand for sudden messes. You should also have a spare, clean smock available at all times. Uniforms may be washed here at the clinic. Smocks hung up immediately after drying usually don=t need ironing but if yours tend to be wrinkled please press them at home or use the steamer located in the drawer next to the washer/dryer in the pack/prep/scrub room."

Still, employees show up in wrinkled clothes. When they do you need to speak up, tell them their dress is not appropriate and either get them to fix the problem or send them home. If you don't, everyone in the hospital will think it's OK to show up in wrinkled uniforms.

"Improper appearance distracts from our ability to communicate with clients about the care of their pets, and makes us look unprofessional. Unacceptable attire or appearance includes visible tattoos, pierced body parts other than ears, hair color that is not a normal color for natural hair, sweat pants, baggy jeans, shirts or sweatshirts with obscene words or slogans, shirt untucked, exposed abdomen, excessively long fingernails and black, purple or other lipstick that does not complement normal skin tones. Women may wear multiple earrings with restraint and discretion. No earrings are allowed for male staff members. No wrinkled or soiled clothing."

This, too, gets people sent home to change. I don't care if my employees pierce their tongues or eyebrows as long as the clients can tell they did it. Tattoos get covered up, extra rings get removed or you go home for the day.

Remember that consequences don't have to be about firing people. You can send them home without pay, cut benefits, do remedial training or reduce their pay or job responsibilities. Don't get caught in the trap of thinking that your only remedy is to fire someone. That's what makes us keep problem employees way too long without addressing their problems.

Here is another example: "It is also expected that all employees will respect the privacy and integrity of clients, doctors and other staff. Any conversation, discussions or other information gathered from the hospital is to remain in the hospital."

This one gets reminders frequently at staff meetings, because people love to gossip, even if what they heard or saw is something to do with the hospital and shouldn't leave the building. Make sure you address this frequently if you expect it to actually happen. You might want to have your employees sign a confidentiality agreement every year, just to remind them.

"Promptness in reporting to work is a basic requirement. This usually means you should arrive for work and punch in 10 minutes before your start time. In other words if your start time is 7:30 you should be in the building by 7:20. By 7:30 you should have your coat off, your uniform on, and your work station ready. "

We used to keep a tardiness chart and track this because it was such a huge problem. We assigned so many points at the beginning of the year and if you were late too many times you first get your pay docked and then you get fired. Our office assistant copied the time card sheets after each payroll and we keep them in a binder. Each month everyone's points got posted. Nowadays I have a team with better work ethics, as we gradually weeded out the problem employees.

"It is expected that all employees will maintain a cheerful and efficient demeanor at work. Personal problems do not belong in the workplace. Surliness or rudeness to other staff members or to clients is not in the best interests of this hospital and does not foster our clinic mission statement. It is extremely important to attempt to maintain a good relationship with your fellow staff members and clients."

I have problems abiding with this one myself on Monday mornings. Again, I can't say this enough, don't put up with it. Send people home when they can't be pleasant. After the first few times things will improve. The downside is you have to be pleasant and professional yourself or it's not fair to hold others to a higher standard than you hold yourself to.

"No swearing or loud or abusive language or rude humor that can be overheard by clients will be tolerated. Negative discussion of clients is discouraged. Realize that clients may overhear discussions not intended to be heard. Be discreet and polite at all times."

This, too bears repeating and reminding almost on a daily basis. Our manual goes on to state the following:

"These 18 things will never be acceptable or excused at Best Friends Veterinary center:

1.) Animal abuse or neglect

2.) Stealing

3.) Unexcused absence or tardiness

4.) Deliberate or careless damage to hospital property

5.) Use of alcohol or narcotics on hospital property

6.) Use of abusive or profane language

7.) Refusal to follow orders, instructions or protocols

8.) Altering or falsifying time cards or other documents or reports

9.) Giving false information when making application for employment

10.) Fighting, whether provoked or otherwise

11.) Continued inefficient or careless performance on the job

12.) Personality conflicts or attitude problems

13.) Any public demonstration of disloyalty to the principles of the hospital (misconduct off the job reflects serious discredit in the community)

14.) Breach or willful misuse of confidential information

15.) Other behavior disruptive to our production which the team member fails to correct

16.) Use of language or behavior that may be considered offensive to clients or teammates

17.) Failure to follow safety rules or protect the health and well being of clients and coworkers

18.) Failure to be courteous, tactful and friendly to clients

Unfortunately, having these things in an office manual doesn't mean your employees will connect their bad behavior with the items listed. "Oh, I didn't think asking someone else to punch my time card was falsifying it." "Oh, I didn't realize that dropping my pants and mooning someone in the office was sexual harassment." You will inevitably have employees do crappy things and then have to figure out what the consequences will be.

For the falsifying time cards problem we made a general announcement that the next person caught punching in for someone would be fired along with the person they were punching in. For the mooning incident, the employees involved were summarily sent home for the day, were put on 6 month probation and were asked to submit letters promising they would never participate in such behavior again. However, I was so disappointed in them that our relationship has never been great since and I eventually let those involved go. I found it hard to treat an employee respectfully who disrespected me and the practice that way.

I try to present high standards to my team and to expect great things from them. For example, each employee in a veterinary hospital dedicated to excellence is expected to demonstrate a commitment to quality in her/his attitudes and actions. This includes participating in team efforts to establish and meet quality and service standards. If the practice is working on improving compliance, for example, each employee needs to be focusing on that goal. If AAHA standards are being reviewed it's everyone's job to help achieve and maintain those standards.

Each staff member is therefore expected to define, measure and review the quality of his or her performance on a regular basis. It helps to view all work as a process - get a little better every day.

We all have two choices when it comes to disagreements, plans and problems. We can gripe about them, which we often do automatically, without thinking about how negative it sounds or how it makes us look like we're not team players. Focusing on the negative also gives you a bad attitude and a sour outlook. Instead, you can work to make things better. It's a lot more effort to work to make things better, as negativity comes naturally to most of us. Working on staying positive, however, is usually worth the effort.

The goal is to spend less time complaining about how life and work aren't perfect, and work together to improve our relationships and communication with each other – while still keeping things on a professional level. As Gandalf said to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, more or less, "We cannot always choose our circumstances, but we can choose what to do with the time that we are given."

We all have the power to make changes and improvements. We are responsible for whether the clinic is a good or bad place to work, because we all can help make it better. Every obstacle presents an opportunity for improvement. Every disagreement provides a way to see things with a little more perspective. You choose how you look at things and you choose how to react to them.

Even so, people do dumb things. Our disciplinary plan to address bad behaviors was written up after I attended a seminar on "Employee Discipline and Performance Mistakes." I found it very helpful to understand what I could do legally and what was actually workable in practice. If you always stick to this protocol when problems occur you will rarely have reason to worry about a lawsuit for failing to document what's going on.

Discipline shall be dispensed in the following seven step manner

1.) All employees shall be required to read this office policy manual in its entirety, and sign and date the last page. A copy of this last page should be given to Dr. Boss or the practice manager to be placed in your employee file. Infractions will be described in the manual and those pages reread, resigned and dated by the employee when infractions occur.

2.) The second altercation shall be addressed by a supervisor with an oral reminder. The day, date and nature of the infraction will be documented in the employee's file. The time and place of the oral reminder, the employee's explanation or excuse and response to the reminder about the infraction will also be documented. Employee must sign the documentation. If he or she refuses to sign, the documentation must be witnessed by a third party. Oral reminders may be repeated as necessary.

3.) Any further altercations may lead to a counseling session with a supervisor, who will document the session, and the decision reached by the supervisor and the employee to solve the problem.

4.) The employee must sign the document. If the employee disagrees with the supervisor's write up he or she may write his own. If neither supervisor nor employee will sign the other's document, a witness must validate and sign both papers.

5.) Further infraction will result in a paid decision-making leave. Employee has the choice of whether he or she wishes to remain employed by Best Friends Veterinary Center, and if he or she decides to stay must write a written plan to solve the problem.

6.) Meeting with supervisor to discuss written plan. The plan must contain:

  • Their decision

  • How and why they made that decision

  • An action plan to fix the problem

  • The employee's understanding that one more unacceptable but similar infraction within a reasonable time frame will result in self-termination. The time frame will be set by the employer, not the employee.

  • The plan is signed by supervisor and employee. Failure to complete a plan is insubordination. The next infraction will result in dismissal.

7.) Upon a further infraction within the previously set time frame the employee has made the decision to self-terminate.

This plan puts the ball in the employee's court and makes them responsible for solving the problem.

Now on to performance evaluations. Unfortunately, there isn't room in these proceedings for the forms we use. In general, here's the deal. We try to do performance evaluations every 3 months, although I usually only manage 3 times a year. Some of them are short – how's it going, what can I help you with, are you meeting your goals. The beginning of the year one is usually longer, to recap last year and set goals for this year. Most of the evaluation is filled out by the person being reviewed, not by me or my manager, so most of the time involved for me is the actual review session, not the prep work.

Despite the prior discussion about discipline problems, I am a firm believer that most employees are not fools. They know what their strengths and weaknesses are and what they should be working on. So I let the employee do a lot of the work for me.

I have played with lots of different forms and formats for reviews. I have found most of the published ones to be way too vague. "Has telephone skills, yes or no" is not very objective or helpful. We use the same questions on our 30-60-90 day goal forms as a scoring sheet for reviews. So instead of "Appearance, good or bad" it lists exactly what we want to see: "Shoes are quiet, low heeled and conservative," never, sometimes, often or always.

The first section of the Performance Evaluation Forms is filled out by a supervisor, usually with input from coworkers and team leaders. The points on this section count as half of the total score earned (or not earned) at the review. These are all things that I can be somewhat objective about and can solicit opinions about from the employee's trainers or mentors. The second part is all about goals – for skills obtained, CE attended, teamwork, profitability of the practice. These forms take some time and effort on the part of the employee, but they encourage a lot of thinking about their role in the practice and how they can contribute to the team. Because it leaves most of the work up to them I can do quite a few reviews in a relatively short period of time. It takes me about 10 minutes per employee to fill out my part of it and 1-2 hours to go over this with them. Employees having problems, not meeting goals or who are relatively new tend to take longer. Because we have a 90 day probation period I also have a review form specifically for that. Again, I'm sorry there's not room for it here but I'm always happy to e-mail materials to you if you want them.

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