Saying goodbye: Terminating a long-time veterinary employee


It's never easy to let go of someone who's been by your side from the beginning at your veterinary practice. But sometimes it's the only option left. Here's how to do it with grace.

She's been with you longer than you can remember. When her name is mentioned, "loyal" and "devoted" are the words that come to mind. The thought of having to say goodbye is unimaginable.

As a leader in a veterinary hospital, you've been down this road before—perhaps too many times. You find yourself trying to ignore signs that indicate the end is near. But as time passes, the problems become more persistent and severe. Still you wrestle with the decision. Is saying goodbye really the best option for everyone concerned?

It's difficult to let go of a long-term employee. After all, she's most likely been with you through the ups and downs. She can tell stories of the good old days when the practice was smaller, vaccine schedules were simpler, and the battle with online pharmacies didn't exist.

But something has changed with this team member. Perhaps an air of entitlement has set in, her performance has started to waver, and her respect for others has diminished. If this is the case, it's time to make a hard decision.

Condoning elite status

If I interviewed your team members, would they identify someone (or multiple someones) as untouchable? If so, you have an employee with elite status. This employee abides by a different set of rules than the rest of the team. Perhaps she uses a cell phone in the reception area, argues with other team members inappropriately, shows up late, or parks her car in the client parking area—all without repercussion.

You may not have intended for the behavior to reach this point, but you can bet your team members have noticed—and don't like it one bit. A special set of rules for a certain employee breeds feelings of resentment from others. At this point it's only fair to level the playing field. By condoning an elite employee's behavior, you limit the rest of your team's ability to grow and prosper in a nurturing and cohesive environment.

Still, many practice owners and managers in this situation hesitate to take action. They balance the team member's actions against her many years with the practice and conclude that long-term service outweighs elitist behavior. They don't realize that while they're sweeping the problem under the entry mat, practice morale, productivity, and even profitability are plummeting. Frustration is turning to anger, and some team members are definitely entertaining job offers elsewhere.

Adjusting to change

The good news is that if you find yourself in this situation, you're not alone. Plenty of veterinary practices need to say goodbye to a certain member of the staff. In fact, many of these problem employees share certain characteristics. Here's a look at the most common reasons you may need to terminate a long-term team member:

The practice is changing directions. All practice owners and managers need to make changes periodically to meet clients' needs and desires and maintain a competitive advantage. And long-term employees often struggle with these changes. They might ask, "What was wrong with the way we've always done it?" or "Why are we changing this? It will never work."

Now, it's normal for all team members to show some hesitation or resistance during times of transition. But it becomes a problem when this resistance stifles your growth as a practice. For example, if you incorporate a new service into your practice but a technician who isn't on board gives clients a halfhearted explanation about its importance, how can you expect those clients to comply with your recommendations? Or if you incorporate Sunday hours, how can you allow one team member to stick to her old schedule while requiring the rest to work those hours? When you create a unique set of rules for a long-term team member, you're labeling him as different or special. By doing so, you're telling the rest of your employees that they're not as important.

During times of change, you need your senior staff to be on board and to desire success for the practice. So sit down with them and explain how the changes will affect them. Define in detail their continued and valued role with the company. Turn doubters into supporters and watch as they become one of your best advocates.

So what if you take these steps and your team member still refuses to get on board with change? In a group setting, perhaps you notice how, while most team members are excited about new developments, he's claiming that the new initiative isn't working. In that case, have a one-on-one meeting to discuss the matter and allow the employee to air his grievances. Then listen to and observe the rest of your team. In most cases, you'll find that the majority don't harbor the same destructive attitude. If the problem employee can't get on board, it's time to say goodbye. (See "How to fire a team member".)

The team member is experiencing personal life changes. Like everyone, team members experience frequent life changes, some of their own choosing and others out of their control. These shifting circumstances can affect their focus, performance, availability, and personal priorities. As employees' needs and wants change, it's important that you sit down with them and discuss their expectations and wishes—and yours, too.

If all goes well, you can create a plan that leaves everyone satisfied. But be careful. Let's say an employee of 10 years decides she wants to personalize her shifts so she can meet her daughter before and after school. While you might generally deny a request like this, it can be hard to say no to a long-term employee. And if you say yes, what will your other team members—particularly those with kids—think? Before you agree to a special request, take a step back and ask yourself, "How will this affect the rest of my team? Will this change meet the needs of my practice?" After all, you still have to run a profitable hospital, so you can't accommodate every request. A good management team will be there for its staff during short-term crises, whether it's a death in the family, a medical issue, or some other crisis. But long-term circumstances can be a problem when a team member can't perform his or her duties anymore.

Do everything you can to make your team members happy, but understand that you can't create a position just to fit their lifestyle. Maintain a level playing field to the best of your ability. If an employee needs off early on weekdays to pick her kids up from school, perhaps she could work a few weekends each month. Look for these kinds of compromises to keep things fair for everyone.

The practice is growing rapidly. Veterinary practices can enter periods of expedited growth when they build or remodel, offer extended hours, launch new services, or run successful marketing campaigns. If the management team doesn't handle this growth well, it can lead to unnecessary hiring, inconsistent customer service, inefficient systems, inflated expenses, and team burnout.

When rapid growth occurs, long-term team members may feel like things are spinning out of control. Before, they felt comfortable and had a handle on practice operations. Now with new systems being implemented—more staff being hired, lots of training taking place, schedules switching around—they're uneasy. And they won't hesitate to share their opinions with anyone who will listen. You might hear comments like, "It's so cold and corporate now," or "All management cares about is money."

When this happens, it's time to sit down and have a heart-to-heart conversation. Explain the benefits of practice growth and the opportunities the success will present to the team member. Reiterate the important role your employee plays and how her support is vital to the success of the practice. Perhaps she has a different opinion about how to meet your practice's goals. But if she continues to challenge the goals themselves, it may be time to part ways.

The team member is burned out. When we as owners and managers are striving to grow our business and become a better resource for clients and patients, we leverage our trained and dedicated staff members heavily. And in doing so it's easy for us to overwhelm them. These employees want to impress management, and the thought of saying no to any request pains them.

However, as a practice grows, so does the responsibility of its management team. It's up to you to keep from overloading any one team member. Delegate duties equally and fairly and mentor key employees. Monitor your team closely for signs of burnout. These signs can include an unusually short fuse, tardiness, increased sick days, complaints from clients or staff, poor attitude, questionable decision making, or boundary pushing.

It's important to keep senior staff members challenged and motivated. When you see signs of burnout, sit down and discuss your concerns with the team member. She'll either deny the problem or acknowledge it. Feel free to accept some of the blame—perhaps you put too much on her plate. If you can find a way to set goals and guidelines and solve the problem, great. If not, try describing the situation to someone outside the practice. It's easier for outsiders to see what needs to be done—and sometimes that means termination.

Letting go

Letting go of a long-term employee is a gut-wrenching process. No one enjoys inflicting pain on someone they care about. So prepare to experience a sickening roller coaster of emotions. But don't let those emotions dictate your decision. Focus on objective data. Ask yourself what's best for your practice, your team, your clients, and the pets you serve to help guide you in the right direction.

If you do say goodbye, you may not experience instant relief. In fact, you'll probably enter a grieving process, and so will the rest of your staff. Make sure to show respect and appreciation for the accomplishments of the former team member. As with any grief, time will heal most wounds. You'll feel new momentum in pushing the company forward, and by maintaining one set of standards for all team members, you'll experience more healthy, mutually beneficial professional relationships.

Brian Conrad is practice manager at Meadow Hills Veterinary Center in Kennewick, Wash. Please send comments to

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