Hire a nontoxic veterinary team


When there's poison in your practice, teams sicken and fail to thrive. Consider this step-by-step approach to involve the whole team in hiring and take your team from toxic to terrific.

When I took a job as manager, the evidence of my practice's chronic illness was a constant ad in the classifieds seeking new support team members. This was vexing, considering the healthy team of veterinarians stayed constant and consisted of some truly excellent doctors. Still, the practice bled out team members on a regular basis.

Our 3½-doctor small animal practice employs a support team of about 16. Today, six are licensed technicians, but we used to have a hard time keeping more than two on the team. My first job: Find out why. Here's the story of how I cured our staff infection and how the our team worked together to build a healthy, nontoxic practice.

Step 1: Diagnose your team dynamic

It turned out that most turnover was happening as the result of a few toxic long-term employees. Here are the signs your team can watch for to identify toxic team members:

> Employees who are obstinate and feel they're above it all.

> Co-workers who don't pull their weight.

If you notice these characteristics in a team member, it's appropriate to respectfully approach your manager in private. And managers have a duty to listen.

If you're the manager, don't assume your team members are being dramatic. Investigate by spending some time around the practice observing interactions between team members. If you're in tune with your team members, you'll see where the rift is occurring firsthand.

A word of caution: If you're the person on the team who's constantly complaining about how others aren't doing a good-enough job or don't do their part, you could be the bad apple. Team players will go to great lengths to avoid complaining about others. When they finally do, they're usually polite and reserved—or they've reached the point where they break down in tears. Malcontents want to talk about what's bothering them every day, and they won't be shy approaching the manager with their frequent complaints.

Step 2: Purge the toxic team members

Once our team had isolated the problem areas, I allowed those folks liberation from our practice so they could find a new place to work that would make them happier. I found when I presented it this way to employees, often they would admit they were unhappy, and a couple of them actually thanked me for pointing it out.

Anybody who's stirring up trouble and is driving others away isn't happy with the job. These team members need to find jobs that make them happy. You'll find as soon as you let the bullies go, the remaining team members will suddenly develop a spring in their step that wasn't there before.

Once you've culled the toxins, you can look to your team to ensure reinfection doesn't occur. I recommend periodically interviewing team members about how certain folks are doing. And during annual reviews, I ask the doctors who they like to work with the best, and I ask the team members for their favorite and least favorite people to work with. If certain team members come up in the "least favorite" category a lot, then I do further investigation to figure out firsthand how I think they're doing.

Whether you're the team member with the concern or the person who needs to improve, your next step is to consider the path to improvement. You may be asked to offer guidance or training to someone who's floundering. And you should also be prepared to receive feedback for areas you can improve.

The tough call, for both managers and team members, is accepting when it's time to say goodbye to a nice person who can't do the job. I've had to let nice people who just couldn't cut the mustard go. My team members are sad to see a nice person go, but they are also understanding that this job is not for everybody. They also don't want to work twice as hard to pick up slack for somebody who's never going to be able to do the work.

Step 3: Develop a treatment plan

Toxins cleared, who should managers hire? Initially I had a strong lead technician and a strong team of veterinarians in place. I decided to try hiring for cultural compatibility and teach the skills on the job.

To accomplish this goal, when I hire now I pick a few people from interviews to come in for half-day working interviews to mingle with the team, observe, and see if the job is a good fit.

At the same time my team members work to see if the person is a fit as well. It's a good idea for your team members to go into these working interviews with criteria in mind. Regardless of whether your criteria match mine (see "My tonic for a healthy hire") or you value other factors, based on your location and environment, culture is critical. And don't forget to listen to your gut. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to find out how your gut feels about a potential hire:

> Does the candidate fit with your team?

> Does the potential hire give you an easy feeling?

> Can you picture working with this person in your hospital?

If you answer "no" to these questions, pass that person by. I learned that lesson the hard way. The one time I hired for skill set and ignored the "Danger! Danger!" warning in my gut, I ended up very sorry a year later. I could have avoided a lot of headaches if I would have listened to my instincts.

For an effective working interview, I ask one of my team leaders to lead the candidate around. Managers, this is where I recommend you step aside. I usually go to my office. If I'm on the floor it's not a real experience. I trust my folks to tell me the truth about how they think a person fits into our practice culture.

Team members, this is your chance to be yourselves. Ask the questions you want to ask. Carry out your jobs as you do on a typical day at your practice and see how this potential hire fits into your routines.

Most candidates are willing to stay two to four hours for this interview. And I compensate with a thank-you card and a gift card.

Step 4: Get well

After we conduct working interviews, I ask my team what they thought, and they have the final vote on who we hire. Here's what they look for:

> How engaged are the candidates while they're there? We had one girl who repeatedly talked about a breakfast she was going to go home and cook for her friends as soon as the interview was over. My team was not impressed.

> Do they ask interesting, intelligent questions about the job?

> Are they eager to jump in and try to learn how things work?

> Does the personality and the vibe of the person feel right?

I hire the team's choice almost every time. On the rare occasion I vetoed their decision for a candidate, it's because I had a strong gut feeling about the potential hire, and I suspected the team didn't get enough time with the candidate to see it. In this case, the person I wanted to hire also came up high on the "we like them" scale, and it was almost a tie between the candidates.

Step 5: Follow-up care

I've had to terminate five people, for reasons ranging from stagnation in the job to an inability to work at the same level as the rest of the team. Every person terminated was actually ultimately the team's decision, not mine. Whether you're a team member or a manager, you might be wondering, "How does this work?" Let me explain.

I've noticed as my team becomes progressively more cohesive, team members are also more protective of the team's overall strength. I have an open-door policy as a manager, and my office is a safe place.

As I mentioned earlier, when I perceive a problem with the team, I'll notice several team members visiting my office at different times and politely telling me that a particular team member is struggling. At that point I do a little research on my own, isolate the problem, and try to find a solution for that person.

The team is very good about helping co-workers get better. When we reach the point where it seems the employee in question isn't going to get better, they're also very understanding of why that person doesn't work with them anymore.

Once I excuse the team member from the job, I notice the atmosphere in my hospital gets lighter and airier immediately after. A weak link or poor attitude on the team does far more damage than letting somebody go for being a poor fit for your practice. Hire the right people initially, and let the folks who make the job harder move onto a job that offers a better fit for them as well as you. Your team will thank you.

If you start out with amicable, smart people who understand the golden rule, your odds of being able to focus on growth and practicing good medicine increase. The greatest lesson I've learned is this: My gut is never wrong. By listening to your gut, your team can push past potentially poisonous candidates to find the healthiest hires for your practice.

Denise Saxon, CVT, MBA, is practice manager at Powell Boulevard Veterinary Clinic in Portland, Ore.

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