Rogues, boors and bad apples: How incivility kills happiness in veterinary practice

April 19, 2019
Bash Halow, LVT, CVPM

Bash Halow is a practice consultant and owner of Halow Consulting as well as a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager, a Licensed Veterinary Technician and (best of all for us) a regular Fetch dvm360 speaker.

Extensive research links workplace incivility to lost productivity, lower profits, increased callouts, and an uptick in adverse and sentinel events. Its time we address incivility for the role it plays in ruining veterinary businessesand our lives.

Eric Isselee / stock.adobe.comIn 2012, I conducted an informal online survey of 82 members of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA) asking them about workplace incivility. Those of you familiar with the VHMA know it's stocked with high achievers. Members tend to be well-educated, employed at profitable practices and superior in their management skills, yet here were some of their responses:

  • 32% admitted to admonishing an employee in public

  • 86% said interpersonal issues were a problem at work

  • 65% agreed that interpersonal conflict at their practice affected performance, safety or patient care

  • 42% admitted they were dealing with personal issues at their practice that had lasted longer than six months.

When I look at these results now, it's not the behavior itself that alarms me; it's the seeming passivity to it. Why do we think it's normal for work settings to be a possible source for abuse?

Tolerance for incivility is pervasive

According to Christine Porath, professor of management at Georgetown University and frequent speaker on workplace incivility, rudeness at work is rampant. She reports in the Harvard Business Review that 98% of employees have experienced rude behavior at work. According to Porath, “We know two things for certain: Incivility is expensive, and few organizations recognize or take action to curtail it.”

Incivility at work is usually perpetrated in four ways. Here's a closer look.

The rogue leader. Usually this is a practice owner, manager or cranky veterinarian who consciously gestures, chooses words or remains silent for one reason: to demonstrate disapproval and to inflict pain. Ask them why they do this and they'll find some way to put the blame on the victim-it's like a person on trial for beating a dog who blames the dog.

What's really going on is that they're lashing out from an internal roiling reservoir of anxiety, fear, panic and anger. As one therapist told me, “These people tend to be very unhappy, but instead of maturely sharing their grief, they kick others as a warped way of signaling how they feel. It's as though they're saying, ‘See how much that hurts? Now you understand what I'm going through.'”

The boor. These perps are practice owners or other leaders who are oblivious to their boorish behavior. They don't understand that, given their position in the company, a missed hello or a forgotten thank you is exponentially more impactful than the same omission from someone of lower rank. They don't get that looking at their cellphone during an annual review signals to the employee, “I don't really care about you.” They miss the fact that “Thank you” in the absence of eye contact or a smile actually says, “'Preciate it, dumb-dumb. Now get back to work.”

 

Barrel of bad apples. This is the practice where everybody's onboarding process involves a hypodermic's worth of snark. I remember visiting one veterinary hospital where the technicians were so foul-mouthed and nasty that I thought they'd graduated from the Voldermort School of Veterinary Technology. As it turned out, their real trainers weren't worthy even of that dubious distinction. Rather they were two bitter senior doctors who passively contaminated the rest of the apples in the barrel with their rot.

Get 'im! A fourth and final category might be labeled “Get 'im!” This is when an entire team decides to gang up on one poor undeserving individual. Once I visited a practice where a slightly weird but ultimately kindhearted and well-intentioned individual was employed. Foreign-born, he was distanced from the rest of the group by language and cultural differences. For whatever reason (though I think we really know the reason), the team decided to “get 'im!”

One day he was in a cage recovering a large German shepherd from anesthesia. As a joke, one nurse snuck up behind him and yelled, “Hey, stupid!” When she did, he jerked, and the dog awoke and bit him, permanently disabling his hand. Hysterical, right?

Incivility affects everyone-including the perpetrator

Not too long ago, a tough-acting young doctor fixed her eyes on me and pronounced, “I don't care if people think I'm a bitch. I speak my mind.”

To which I replied, “People who don't care how others feel about them are called sociopaths, so unless you have some bodies buried beneath the floorboards that you'd like to discuss, let's review why you think it's OK to be mean to the people you work with and how that decision really makes you feel.”

It's a myth that “letting her have it” and “giving him a piece of my mind” actually make someone feel better. Saying, “I don't care if they don't like me” is more posturing than anything else. As psychologist Charles Ehrhart says, “Blowing up in the face of what you believe to be an injustice or a personal slight is at first cathartic, but it's a release that's fleeting. People who lose their cool, who are willfully mean, carry the weight of that interaction with them for hours if not days after the incident. It costs them the same anxiety, shame, remorse and lost productive time as those to whom the explosion was directed.”

Consequences for victims and businesses

For the victims and the businesses, too, the consequences of workplace incivility are startling in their reach and cost. According to Porath, among workers who've been on the receiving end:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort

  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work

  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work

  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident

  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender

  • 66% said their performance declined

  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined

  • 12% said they left their job because of the uncivil treatment

  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers

  • 71% said they erred more frequently.

When 4,500 human medical professionals were questioned about stress related to workplace strife, an astounding 27% said it led to an increase in patient deaths.

There's more. When 4,500 human medical professionals were questioned about stress related to workplace strife, an astounding 27% said it led to an increase in patient deaths, Porath continues. Customers who witness an act of incivility in a place of business toward a customer or another employee are 80% less likely to do business with that firm. And employees who watch incivility from the sidelines, regardless of whether it appears to be deserved, are 50% less likely to help out other employees than their counterparts who did not witness the uncivil gesture.

 

In addition, incivility has been linked to:

  • a decrease in creativity

  • short-term memory loss

  • weakened immunity

  • cardiovascular disease

  • weight gain

  • increased appetite.

What to do about it

Surprisingly, three strategies that are regularly recommended-confronting the perpetrator, avoiding conflict and intervention from management-have not been found to be effective. According to Porath, 85% of people who directly confront the perpetrator of an uncivil act are just as unhappy with the outcome as those that remain silent. Only 15% report that intervention by a superior works. Here's what's more effective.

Hire for culture. Look for clues to the individual's sensitivity to how others feel and how they are perceived. If previous employers and work references are forthcoming, ask how the prospective employee related and interacted with others.

Hire people you like. In the absence of genuine concern, there's not much you can do-coaching, reviews, bonuses and every other method of motivation fall flat. So it's important to hire those you like and want to see succeed-but be careful. Too much emphasis in this area can create a team that's myopic and prone to groupthink. Hire people you and the rest of your team like, but ask yourself if you're hiring for cultural health or blind acceptance of your leadership.

If you can't change the perp, change yourself. Porath's research shows that developing resilience to incivility is a significant foil to workplace strife. Workers who focus on their job's most fulfilling tasks, who seek out support from trustworthy friends and coworkers, and who look after their health by resting sufficiently, exercising and eating properly are significantly better at coping with toxic workplaces. She calls this process “thriving” and says those who embrace mental and physical health are 52% more likely to weather incivility better, to suffer less from uncivil acts and to worry less about a potential “hit” than their counterparts.

Conclusion

Colleagues will often tell me they can't stand people; that's why they got into veterinary medicine. That's bluster. Caring for animals is not an end in itself but an extension of our need as humans to love other humans and be loved back. In my work, I visit happy practices and sad practices. The prominent quality that distinguishes the two is caring-and it's not just reserved for the animals.

Bash Halow, LVT, CVPM, is a practice consultant and owner of Halow Consulting and a regular Fetch dvm360 speaker. He contributes regularly to dvm360 magazine, Firstline, Vetted and dvm360.com.