Problem employees: Is it you or them?


Pinpoint-and help-the real trouble team members in your practice.

Time means nothing to her. I swear, she's always late for work and every team meeting. When she is around, she's not really present. Clients might be standing two feet from her, but she doesn't acknowledge them. Instead, she lets me walk across the room to help them. It's probably better that way, though, because her customer service skills are abhorrent. I mean, is it just me or is she awful?

At first glance, it's easy to assume an employee like the one above is just bad. But maybe the subpar performance is due to outside circumstances: you. Without even realizing it, you might be sabotaging a co-worker. How do you figure out if your own words and actions are partly to blame? Start by identifying your team member's problem behavior. Choose from the following main trouble spots, then see whether you can do anything to help turn an abysmal employee into an awesome one.

The problem: Unmotivated

Lucy Lazy thinks of her job simply as a job. Sure, she doesn't wish any harm on the patients, but she's not truly committed to caring for them or their owners. Her bare-minimum effort brings other team members down, and some even resent the idea that she does less work for the same money.

You're part of the trouble: Generous wages, benefits, and rewards can get team members going. But focusing solely on the money—either offering incentives or cutting hours and pay—will only net a short-term improvement. If you have a say in salary and you're hoping a monetary hint will make disengaged employees get the point and do better, you're hoping for a miracle. Think that because you don't have a say in the finances you can't help? You're thinking incorrectly.

Be part of the solution: Rather than stressing wages, a truly inspirational environment encourages team members to grow and be decision-makers. To get co-workers connected, ditch the one-size-fits all approach and help people do the jobs they want to do. For example, if Lucy awakens from her slumber when there's talk of a group gathering, capitalize on her desire to socialize. Ask her to be involved in projects that require teamwork. Pair her with a mentor—better yet, be the mentor yourself—who will occasionally take her to lunch. While dining, discuss the wonderful work other team members are doing and spur her to join them.

Is your Lucy more likely to complain that the practice is unorganized? Suggest that she come up with a list of areas in which the clinic could improve. Ask her to write details about why systems are failing, as well as specific ideas for making these systems better. For example, if Lucy cringes at the mention of going through patient records, ask to help her create a form—or suggest she create one on her own—that neatly and succinctly presents the need-to-know information, such as past recommendations. When she's encouraged to complete tasks that align with her interests, she'll become more engaged in work.

The problem: Unprofessional

From her dirty tennis shoes to her dirty mouth, Ann Amateur just isn't professional. She doesn't care about the image she projects, and you wonder if "late" is her middle name. Her lousy client care makes team members worry their efforts are all for naught.

You're part of the trouble: Even though you're aggravated with Ann's sloppiness, never chastise her in front of clients or co-workers. This is true even if she lets expletives fly within earshot of a waiting room full of pet owners. Why? Publicly criticizing employees is the quickest way to ensure they're demoralized and even more disconnected from your practice.

Perhaps worse than openly criticizing Ann is saying nothing. But be clear: Complaining to co-workers behind Ann's back won't change anything. Undertaking a respectful conversation with Ann—or her manager—might.

Be part of the solution: Ann might not realize her behaviors are unacceptable. To solve this, make sure the practice's expectations for professionalism are thoroughly outlined in the employee handbook. For punctuality, the book should say something like, "It's acceptable to punch in as much as 10 minutes before your scheduled shift and no more than two minutes after." Also include the consequences for failing to meet the requirements. When every team member has a copy of the handbook, you can refer to it when explaining why someone needs to make a change.

If you're not in a position to complete the handbook, show Ann exactly how professionalism is done. Even if she sports ripped pants, wear your pressed uniform. No uniforms? Don business clothes. Illustrate the best ways to talk to clients and team members. This way you can be sure Ann has a strong example to follow.

The problem: Unskilled

You've told Nelly Void time and again how to put together a surgery pack and she still can't get it. She's friendly with a positive attitude, but she hasn't picked up on the way things are supposed to run.

You're part of the trouble: Throwing team members into a trial-by-fire situation without thorough training ensures they'll get burned. Convinced your training program is up to snuff? Consider the notion of different learning styles. If you've verbally explained how to create a surgery pack, for example, try writing the instructions on a piece of paper. The point is, don't keep doing more of the same. When employees aren't grasping concepts, maybe the trainer isn't delivering the information effectively.

Be part of the solution: Implement phase training—breaking job descriptions into phases and moving on only after an employee masters a section. One method for carrying out this training is see one, show one, do one. It goes like this: The novice watches the expert perform a task (see one), then the novice demonstrates the task in front of the expert (show one), and, finally, the novice completes the task alone (do one).

When all else fails

Sometimes people just aren't right for your practice. Hanging on to adequate or inadequate employees is worse, in the long run, than going through the hiring process. If you're a manager, how do you know when it's time to let an employee go?

For new team members, the first 90 days is as good as it gets. Yes, they'll learn more as time goes on, but their attitudes and aptitudes aren't likely to improve. To protect your practice from a bad hire, implement a 90-day introductory period. During this time, openly discuss any issues with the employee and try to resolve them. If, after 90 days, the new team member isn't succeeding, it's time to end the work relationship.

Grappling with a long-term staffer? Begin the pre-established disciplinary process. (Your practice has one of these, right?) If it turns out a tenured employee is unwilling or unable to meet expectations, it's time to part ways. Find out how to gracefully and effectively end a team member's employment. Click here to watch Mark Opperman, CVPM, explain how to fire an employee.

It's difficult to take a hard look at yourself, so congrats. Simply by considering ways to help under-performing co-workers, you're on the path to improving your practice—and yourself.

Debbie Allaben Gair, CVPM, is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and president of Bridging the Gap, a veterinary consulting business in Sparta, Mich. Send questions, comments, and examples of your tough team members to

Debbie Allaben Gair

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