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Party foul: When loose lips sink careers

Article

When an employee has too much to drink, is an apology enough to rectify the situation?

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Tass Animal Hospital was a progressive 21st-century veterinary clinic. Over the past 22 years Dr. Jim Tass built his one-doctor clinic into a five-doctor veterinary center. His secrets to success were satisfying a skilled staff, providing excellent customer service and not having partners. He lived and died by his decisions and his alone.

Dr. Tass fervently believed that a happy staff was a productive staff. He enabled flexible work schedules, offered excellent benefits and kept his door open. In return he expected dedicated medical professionals with integrity and compassion.

The annual July Fourth picnic was both a staff get-together and the boss's reward for a job well done. There was swimming, barbecue and beer and of course much wearing of the red, white and blue.

It was a warm day and Jill Simpson, a veteran technician, definitely enjoyed her beer. She was chatting with her coworkers late in the day while eating hot dogs and drinking yet another beer when she let it slip to some of the other technicians that she thought Dr. Tass threw a great party but wasn't a very good veterinarian. She also said she had to correct a lot of his mistakes. Jill added that of course he was the boss and fixing mistakes was her job.

It didn't take long for Dr. Tass to become aware of his technician's comments, and he was upset when he learned that one of his senior technicians didn't respect his veterinary competency. He prided himself in being a capable, hardworking clinician. So he arranged a meeting with technician Simpson to discuss her comments.

The meeting was awkward but also revealing. Dr. Tass asked if what he had been told was accurate, and if so why she hadn't come to him with her concerns. Her response was surprising. She admitted to having too many beers, which loosened her tongue and impaired her judgment. When she was somewhat inebriated she started posturing and bragging to impress her coworkers. She said that this often occurred when she'd had a bit too much to drink.

Technician Simpson assured Dr. Tass that she actually had total confidence in his veterinary skills. And as long as they were both being honest, she continued, she thought an office function with free-flowing alcohol maybe wasn't a great idea since it created an opportunity for staff to use poor judgment-just as she had. She said this with all due respect, because technically this party was an extension of the workplace.

Dr. Tass thought Simpson was painting herself as a victim in this situation. He did take their conversation as an apology, but in the end he had to decide if he could still trust his once-valued technician to be honest with him, his clients and his staff. He decided that he could not. He discharged his "at-will" employee, thanking her for the time she had spent at the clinic.

Do you think Dr. Tass made the right decision? Did he contribute to the incident as his technician claimed?

Rosenberg's response

There's always a risk when you mix business with pleasure. The veterinary workplace can be stressful and recreational working rewards are often a welcome relief. All of this notwithstanding, we are all ultimately responsible for what we say and do. It must be noted that all work-related functions-from parties to conventions to break room moments-mandate workplace behavioral standards.

Dr. Tass provided alcohol to adult staff members as part of a celebration. Technician Simpson used poor judgment, drank too much and said things she regretted. Whether she should have been fired is up for debate. She can't blame her boss for providing temptation, she can't disavow her self-inflicted bad behavior and, as she found out, she can't apologize and make the whole thing disappear. Unfortunately this was a tough lesson for technician Simpson to learn.

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. In his private time, he enjoys playing basketball and swing dancing with his wife. Although many of his scenarios in “The Dilemma” are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.

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