Negotiation tactics


Do not be fearful of making a decision. Your are negotiating a position to expand your expertise ...

From a financial aspect, what should you think about before accepting a position?

Before considering salary offers or making a request, have you decided what your personal needs are? Younger veterinarians tend to have a need for higher proportion of salary in immediate wages as compared to retirement plan contributions. The cash is needed to make repayment of student debt and other loans and obligations.

Your personal circumstances may dictate that you prefer a position where the salary is higher, but no retirement (pension, profit or otherwise) plan is offered. On the other hand, you may have very little debt and prefer a practice offering a 401k or defined contribution plan that would allow pretax dollars to be put away.

Some practices with pension and profit sharing plans might budget a portion of your compensatory arrangement into it. You might not have access to plan contributions made on your behalf without substantial penalties being incurred. Pension plans can require vesting. Vesting means you do not have an immediate right to contributions made on your behalf. If you move on to a different job, you may forfeit the amounts put in the pension plan if you were not fully vested. In such a situation, you truly would have been ahead had you negotiated for higher salary in lieu of a retirement plan.

Your ability to negotiate a better salary is contingent on the ability of the practice to generate income. Since your wages will be approximately one-fifth of what you produce for the practice, the more that you can produce, the better. Ask to see a copy of the fee schedule. Is the fee schedule commensurate with what you know to be realistic in terms of charges?

If the fees seem very low or if the average transaction fee is $20 less than other practices you have visited, you know that you might have problems living up to the salary you desire. At the same time, you need to be comfortable with the fact that the fee is fair and can be charged out to the client. If you are uncomfortable with an average transaction fee of $90 to $110 an invoice, you may not be the right fit for a practice that is charging a fair fee for the services involved.

Ask to see some medical records for recently treated patients. How are cases worked up? Does case management fit with your philosophy of medicine and surgical service provision? If not, you may be uncomfortable when co-workers and employers pressure you to conform your recommendations to that of the practice as a whole. If you believe in high-end diagnostics, working up animal illnesses appropriately and charging for it, and the practice does not have this history, you may not be able to generate the type of income you envision, even though the fee schedule looks appropriate.

Mentoring, performance reviews

Use the interview for questions about mentoring and regular job performance feedback. Most individuals enter positions assuming that they will be there for at least two or three years. In the course of that time, you periodically negotiate for salary and benefit increases, assuming you have been able to keep up with the needs of the practice and the employer's expectations. If you only wait until the end of the year to obtain feedback, you will miss the chance for gradual improvement leading to a better salary in each successive period.

Practice, professional ethics

If the practice has a set of ethics that is different from your own, not only from a medical and surgical perspective, but from a business, client and pet attitude perspective, too, you might find yourself burned out within short order and disillusioned about veterinary medicine as a whole. Ethical considerations are a very important point of interview discussion.

Particularly, if you are thinking long term toward ownership in the practice with which you seek a position, ethics become extremely important. Are personal expenses run through the practice? Is cash pocketed, rather than reported on the tax return? If so, you might want to distance yourself from such a practice. Make sure you are associating yourself with the right individuals.

Beyond wages

Most practices offer employee benefits other than wages that have value. Health insurance, disability insurance, group term life insurance, continuing professional education, dues and subscriptions, travel, vacation time and reimbursed travel expenses are possible compensatory alternatives you can negotiate. Since the practice has a specific budget in which it must work, the more ancillary benefits you negotiate, the more salary you forego.

Determine your individual needs and ask for no more. Leverage more of your compensation into salary and wages if you have significant burdens for repayment of debt.

Continuing professional education payment is not as much of a criteria for a new practitioner jumping from the university into the first practice situation. For two to three years after your graduation from a veterinary college, you possess top-end scientific knowledge available to the veterinary profession. Your efforts will be focused on how to apply that knowledge. Do not negotiate for extensive time in seminars and conventions. You already have this information. Rather, negotiate a higher wage. Once you enter your fourth, fifth and sixth years, you definitely need more time away from the practice to keep your skills honed.

Negotiation tips

An important rule to remember is listen to what the other party is saying. As my former partner always tells me, "God gave you two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a good reason." Be observant of everything you see and hear when interviewing, visiting the practice, and follow up with additional telephone calls and e-mail.

Whenever you have a question about what has been said, ask the employer to repeat it or restate it yourself, so that you are sure that you understand what is being offered. Keep a pencil and paper handy. Write down key points as you talk with the individual. Assuming that you will interview at multiple practices, be able to refer back to your notes so that you can keep each practice straight in your mind.

You might want to take a camera with you and/or a small tape recorder so that you can keep your thoughts organized and refer back to what was discussed. A tape recorder is handy after the interview process. While the events are still clear in your mind, dictate in the privacy of your car your feelings and thoughts.

A conclusion is not finality

Do not be fearful of making a decision. You are negotiating a position to expand your expertise in the profession of veterinary medicine. In nearly all cases, this will not be the first and only job you will ever choose. Learn all you can from the position that you accept. Accept the fact that each veterinary job is a little different, and your perceptions at the time of the interview will definitely change after you progress through the honeymoon period of the first three or four months of being in the practice.

Keep a diary. A diary can help point you into a direction when you are considering whether to continue on with a practice or looking to interview for the next. Your diary will help distill your experiences and keep you focused on what you want to accomplish throughout your career.

Dr. Heinke is owner of Marsha L. Heinke, CPA, Inc. and can be reached at (440) 926-3800 or via e-mail at

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