Sharpen up your veterinary team with employee upscaling


How to replace underachieving team members with overachievers.

You can't write your veterinary clinic's success story without a hospital full of the sharpest, to-the-point team members around. And with state unemployment rates hitting 10 percent or higher, now is the time to look at this job market as an opportunity to boost the quality of your team by letting go of underperforming team members and hiring overachievers. This may sound a little mercenary and opportunistic—and maybe it is—but it's also a reality that can benefit your practice.

Not long ago we had an employee market, and it was hard for practice owners and managers to find qualified applicants. Now the pendulum has swung the other way: Lots of people with college degrees are flipping burgers. Post a job listing on the Web today, and you'll be overrun by highly qualified applicants. The time is right to improve your team. I'm not suggesting you terminate your entire staff and hire a brand-new one, but it may be time to consider some strategic upscaling.


Many of you have heard me lecture about "10" employees—on a scale of 1 to 10, they're the best of your best. They take initiative, they want to work, they bring positive energy to the practice, and they collaborate well with other team members. At the other end of the spectrum we find the "1" employees. How do you know if you have a "1"? If a "1" doesn't show up for work for a few weeks, nobody misses them.

According to the law of "10s," you can turn an "8" or a "9" employee into a "10," but you'll never make a "5," a "6," or a "7" into a top performer—let alone someone at the bottom of the scale. Trying to turn a poor employee into a "10" is like fitting a square peg into a round hole. It won't happen. Instead of managing your team members, you'll spend all your time trying to "fix" them.

With the job market being what it is, maybe it's time to lose those "1s," "2s," and "3s" and upscale your team with "8s," "9s," and—hopefully—"10s."


Many practice owners and managers worry about replacing employees in a down market. When the job market swings back, won't these high-performing new hires leave the practice? Won't they find a job that pays better, fits into their earlier line of work, or offers better benefits?

Well, my crystal ball is just as good as yours, and none of us can predict the future with any certainty. But I do know that this isn't happening in practices that have upscaled their teams. These practices have found individuals who've always wanted to work in a veterinary hospital but weren't able to for one reason or another. They're discovering great receptionists, assistants, and even managers who are thrilled about working in the veterinary industry. And as for pay, well, wages and salaries only get better at hospitals with highly competent team members. They know what they're doing, leverage doctors well, and charge appropriately for services. Upscaled team members allow a practice to be more profitable.

I think fear of attrition is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you spend your time thinking team members are going to leave, they probably will. On the other hand, if a new employee comes into a practice that's supportive and challenging, treats team members well, and provides a reasonable salary and benefits, why should that person ever want to leave?

Another interesting fact: "10" employees want to work with other "10s." High-performing team members don't enjoy putting up with lazy and unmotivated coworkers, and they'll come to resent a practice owner or manager who lets that happen. A team will often sink to the lowest common denominator, whether through lots of quitting or loss of morale. So there's another great reason to upscale: Good workers breed more good workers.


A practice manger recently told me she didn't think she had a single "10." "I don't even think I have any '7s,'" she said. "Can I just fire everyone and start over?" The answer is, you can, but I wouldn't suggest it. Instead, identify the weakest employee and actively seek to replace him or her. Then start the process over again until you have all "8s," "9s," and "10s."

Does that sound like a tedious process? Maybe it is, but think about what it would be like to work with all "10" employees. Many of the day-to-day squabbles you face as a manager would magically disappear. You could manage your practice instead of babying employees. Wouldn't it be nice?


If you're going to let team members go, make sure you follow the employment laws in your state. Are you an at-will employer, and have your employees signed a statement stating they acknowledge that fact? Even if you've done everything right, be careful. I recently consulted with practice owners in California that thought they were doing everything by the book. They declared themselves an at-will employer, stated that fact in their employee manual, and asked their employees to sign a statement of acknowledgment. When they fired an employee, they simply told her, "You're an at-will employee, and we've decided to no longer employ you." But the employee went to the state labor board, and because one of the practice owners had previously told her she'd have the job for life, the labor board found in her favor, deeming her termination a wrongful discharge.

Even if you're an at-will employer, provide employees with a first warning about misconduct (put it in writing, too), a second warning, and then, if necessary, termination. Document every step. This may sound harsh, but, in my opinion, employees who can't respond to clear instruction about how to improve their performance really terminate themselves. I think it's more unfair to the other employees in the practice if a poor employee is allowed to continue.

So is upscaling a good idea? You decide. There's a cost to replacing an employee; some say it's as high as one year's salary. But there's also a cost to keeping marginal team members. Like you, I respect employees and hope never to need to replace them. But there are almost always those who don't do their jobs, complain about the work, aren't motivated to help, and still feel that the practice owes them something. Those employees need to be replaced.

Let your team members know what you want them to do, train them to do it, reward them when they do it well, and hold them accountable to get their work done. If they can't do the job—and do it well—maybe they shouldn't be working in your practice.

Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member Mark Opperman, CVPM, owns VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. Opperman will be teaching on a variety of topics, including how to develop "10" employees, at the Veterinary Economics Managers' Retreat Nov. 5 at CVC in San Diego. For more information, visit

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Angela Elia, BS, LVT, CVT, VTS (ECC)
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