Scrubbing an underperforming employee in veterinary practice


What to do when it isn't working out.

Q. An employee who's been with us for just over a year isn't working out. She doesn't seem to know how to do anything—not even mop the floor, rake the leaves, or take out the trash. Working with someone who's not reliable and mostly just a body sitting in a chair is frustrating. How do we show the practice owner what we see?

Before completely writing off any employee, take a look at the training provided, says Brenda Tassava, CVPM, CVJ, a hospital administrator at Broad Ripple Animal Clinic and Wellness Center in Indianapolis, Ind. "Too often, we hire people who share our love for animals without really looking at the skills this person might bring to the table," Tassava says. "In small practices, we also tend to assume that new team members will catch on as they watch how others perform the job."

First, look at the elements you control, she says. Does your practice have written job descriptions and a consistent training program? That's the first place to start.

"Believe it or not, we can never assume that someone should know how to sweep and mop a floor, rake leaves, or even take out the trash," Tassava says. "We all come from different walks of life, and until we take the time to assess their skill level, teach them how we would like them to perform tasks, and then assess their ability to perform those tasks, we have failed them. These might seem like simple things to do, but too often we forget that we have to start from the beginning with every new hire, or these types of situations will creep into the practice."

Tassava says it's a good idea to start by conducting a team meeting where everyone discusses the importance of doing things the same way, every time, for efficiency and better patient care.

"Start with the basics, by reviewing everyone's job description. If you don't have written job descriptions, ask everyone to contribute to writing them. You might be surprised by everyone's perception of their position without job descriptions in place. Once you've established job descriptions and expectations for the job, it's a good idea to move onto team training on even the simplest of tasks: how we sweep and mop the floor at ABC Animal Clinic; how to clean a cage from step one to step five; how to answer the phone and guide the caller at ABC Animal Clinic; and so on."

Once everyone shares the same expectations and you've provided consistent training, if your issues with this employee continue it's time to address her performance individually, Tassava says. Be prepared to offer clear examples of how she deviates from your expectations. Then you know you provided her with adequate training and support to perform the job, and the ball is now in her court to take the initiative to improve to meet the practice's defined expectations.

If you have job descriptions in place that outline clear expectations and you have provided training, the responsibility for performance lies with the employee, Tassava says.

The next step is holding her accountable for her lack of action towards successfully meeting the expectations of her job. "You can do this in a variety of ways, but it must be consistent within your practice. In other words, how does your practice handle disciplinary issues?" she says. "In this particular case, I would sit down with the employee and outline where she's falling short and what you need from her. Then I'd ask her if she is able to perform these very basic functions of her job. If her answer is 'yes,' then ask her to commit to that in writing by preparing a personal action plan."

A personal action plan should spell out an employee's goals, how she plans to reach these goals, and a concise timeline, Tassava says. Give her a deadline for writing her personal improvement plan. And once you have it, hold her accountable for sticking to it and improving her performance.

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