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Issues that drive associates bananas
Owners and associates, you can see eye to eye. Just get the monkeys off your back.
Becky graduated from veterinary school this year, but a diploma wasn't the only thing she carried away from campus. She also unknowingly toted away a motley mob of monkeys. Big ones. Little ones. Monkeys running up and down her back, climbing in and out of her pockets, and swinging from her head with wild abandon. Monkeys with scary names like student debt, gender issues, life balance, and motherhood. Chimps that chittered and chattered in her ears, yanked on her hair, and all in all made it very hard for Becky to concentrate on beginning her career.
And those apes weren't only annoying Becky. Oh, no. They threw bananas at Dr. Bob, the veterinarian who was considering hiring Becky. They chucked coconuts at Cory, Becky's husband. They lobbed debris at loan officers, family members, and all the other folks who were a part of Becky's life. Eventually, those monkeys ended up bothering every single veterinarian in the country.
"Ha! That's ridiculous," you say, sitting in your simian-free office. "Becky's monkeys will never bother me." Ahh, but they will. Those monkeys are big enough to hassle every single one of us unless we can somehow find a way to cage them. So let's take a closer look at these aggravating apes.
Student debt monkey
Long before Becky donned her graduation gown, she knew what she wanted from an employer. As a young veterinarian, she would need a good mentor—someone who would take the time to teach her, train her, and grow her abilities. She knew it would be important to work at a clinic that practiced high-quality medicine, with modern equipment that met or exceeded industry standards. She would need flexibility, especially since she and her husband planned to start a family in the next five years. And she wanted to work at a practice where she could maintain a healthy balance in her life, with room for her to grow mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
But sadly, like many new graduates, Becky felt like she was driven by her debt. Her student loans were the size of a small house, and she felt pressured to work for the highest bidder. She wondered how she and Cory would ever afford a mortgage. She resigned herself to driving her 10-year old compact car for yet another 100,000 miles and was already worried about the financial decisions involved in starting a family. Dejectedly pushing her dreamy doctor visions aside, she wondered if she should only consider higher-paying jobs, even if it meant compromising in other areas.
Gender issue monkey
Dr. Bob tugged at his mustache as he scanned Becky's resume. He had liked Becky when she interviewed the other day, and she seemed to be a good fit for his practice, but dagnabit, she was a woman. A young woman, at that, and he knew what those young female veterinarians did. They got married, had babies, and then they didn't want to work anymore.
Why, in the 30 years he'd been in small animal practice, he'd heard about it time and again from his male colleagues. In fact, his friend, Kevin, had recently told him that the only veterinarians he would hire in the future would be those with testicles.
Dr. Bob had never focused before on the gender of his associate, but he really wanted this one to work out for the long run. He knew what he needed from the person he hired; he'd been down this road before.
He needed a veterinarian who would be reliable, hard-working, and personable with the clients and staff. Someone who would be able to work the hours he needed covered and could help with emergency calls. He couldn't pay them an arm and a leg either, especially that first year where they were hardly making him any money. Could Becky do all this for him?
Life balance monkey
Becky had ridden with old Dr. Collums the summer after her sophomore year, and she recalled his pride as he told her how for the first 20 years of his career he'd been on call literally around the clock. Folks would stop by his house day and night, picking up mastitis medication or bringing by farm dogs with floppy femoral fractures.
His wife would beg him to turn off the porch light and come along to his son's basketball game, or maybe to his daughter's birthday party, but some forlorn farmer would always show up just as they were getting ready to leave and say, "This time it really looks bad, Doc." Dr. Collums would shrug apologetically to his family, say, "What else can I do?" and go change into his coveralls. He was pulling a calf from Fred Bower's prize heifer the night his son graduated from high school.
Communication tools Preparing for pivotal conversations
"These young whippersnappers have no idea what it's like to actually work at something," Dr. Collums had explained to Becky. "You have to put your time in. Be willing to sacrifice for the good of your profession." Becky had bounced along in the truck, meekly nodding her head—yes, yes—but inside she had been screaming, "No! Maybe? Is this really how it has to be?"
She didn't want the life Dr. Collums was telling her she should have. She wanted to continue with her watercolor classes. Volunteer at the homeless shelter. Play on the community softball team. But, if Dr. Collums was right, then she might as well forget all that—not to mention starting a family—if she wanted to be a dedicated veterinarian and find a good job.
Dr. Bob leaned back from supper, wiped off his mustache and said to his wife, "Honey, if there's one thing I know something about, it's motherhood." They'd been talking about the possibility of hiring Becky as an associate and also about the likelihood of her wanting to start a family soon. "I know all about how hard it was for you to work while you were pregnant. I felt the pain of your hormone roller-coaster rides just as much as you did, and I know you were tired a lot when the kids were young. I'm a parent. I get it."
"Honey," his wife leaned forward and said gently, "you can't get it. You're not a mom. Becky will be the one fighting morning sickness and dealing with clients professionally over the top of a humongous stomach. She'll be the one wrestling with isolation and financial concerns during her maternity leave. When she goes back to work, she'll struggle endlessly with guilt. Especially during those first years, she'll feel guilty when she's away from the clinic and guilty when she's away from the kids.
"She'll be the one getting calls from the school nurse because, when a kid is sick, he wants his mommy. You were a good father and husband, and you played a really big role in helping me deal with all of that, but it's still not the same as being the actual working mother."
"Wow," said Dr. Bob. "I guess I never thought about all that before."
Can the monkeys be tamed?
Becky was thinking about all that and more. So she threw a notebook and pen into her backpack and set off for the woods. She found her favorite log in her favorite clearing and began to jot down some notes.
First of all, Becky realized she would need to draw on the business skills she'd learned. She would need to be assertive and negotiate a fair contract, perhaps requesting some creative solutions such as asking that her benefits increase over time. Luckily she'd received some business training in veterinary school and had also been spending some time in the business section at the library to help increase her abilities in this area.
Theory into practice Baby on the way
Second, Becky acknowledged that her career track might look very different than one of her male colleague's. There would be more peaks and valleys, especially once she and Cory began having children. She knew from talking with other women veterinarians that there would be a lot of juggling acts taking place—primarily during her children's early years. She sensed that she might not want to work full-time when the kids were little, but she knew of many part-time veterinarians who were wonderful practitioners and supportive co-workers, possibly because they felt they had some balance in their lives.
At the same time, Becky had a passion for veterinary medicine. She'd invested a lot of time and money in her career as a veterinarian and had no intention of just tossing all that away. She realized that an employer would need to know that she was giving 100 percent of herself when she was at the clinic and that she would be willing to arrange her personal schedule as much as possible to meet her employer's needs. She'd remind her employer that she intended to pursue veterinary medicine as a lifetime profession.
Becky also realized it might be beneficial to initially take a smaller salary in exchange for more benefits and flexibility. That would mean staying in the same small house for a few more years and driving the same small car. However, if it meant that Becky was happy and also felt that her employer was working with her and not against her, it would be a small sacrifice, indeed.
Reducing monkey madness
While Becky was ruminating in the woods, Dr. Bob drove over to his favorite coffee shop and ordered a tall decaf. He went to a back table, opened his notebook, and started pulling at his mustache. He needed to make some decisions about hiring his new associate.
He realized there were certain things that were absolutely non-negotiable. She'd have to practice good quality medicine and develop a good rapport with his clientele. She'd need to be fully dependable and able to cover at least a certain number of hours per week.
As he sipped on his coffee, however, Dr. Bob realized that to attract top employees like Becky he'd need to take a serious look at how he was practicing medicine. There were things he could do to work smarter, not harder, like having weekly staff meetings. And by increasing his staff to doctor ratio, he could slowly switch his clinic to one that was practice-driven, not doctor-driven. This, in turn, would allow more flexible scheduling.
In addition, he'd consider using the emergency clinic in town. He had always felt it was important to be available to his clients in their hour of need, but he recognized that emergency calls could be a source of staff burnout. Dr. Bob felt his clients would adjust to the idea, and the change would free up more family time for his employees.
Testicle-loving buddies aside, Dr. Bob knew of many practices that were dealing successfully with maternity leaves and child-care issues. They'd discovered that staff turnover decreased and job satisfaction increased when employees felt hospital owners were sensitive to their individual situations. He realized that happy, committed employees were the pillars of profitable, growing practices.
Dr. Bob and Becky met on a Tuesday morning, worked through their potential concerns, and then signed the contract. Afterwards they went out to celebrate at the coffee shop and, as they sipped their lattes, Dr. Bob decided to see if Becky had a sense of humor.
"I hope it's OK. We scheduled you a 120-pound Newfoundland spay on your first morning."
Becky laughed and replied, "Hey, no problem. Just as long as my morning sickness isn't bugging me that day."
They both chuckled and sipped their drinks, neither quite sure whether the other was joking. Just then the waitress walked by and dropped two bananas on their table. Dr. Bob and Becky both looked at the bananas for a long moment. Finally, they grinned and each picked up a banana, peeled it, and ate the sweet fruit inside. It was the start of a great working relationship.
The bottom line
New associates may have some big issues on their minds—student debt, gender issues, life balance, and motherhood. Opening the lines of communication between all parties and taking the time to consider other perspectives creates the best working environment for everyone.
Dr. Karen Wheeler
Dr. Karen Wheeler is a writer and associate practitioner at Companion Animal Hospital in Eagan, Minn. Please send questions or comments to email@example.com.