Theft, practice romance, illegal pets: Handling 4 sticky situations
Here's how to wash four sticky ethical problems right out of your hair.
When it comes to your day-to-day dealings with clients and co-workers, chances are you've experienced a situation that left you red-faced, flustered, and fumbling for the correct response. Maybe you witnessed some inappropriate PDA between Dr. Jones and a team member or discovered someone helping herself to the practice's pet food. These types of sticky situations can happen at any time, in any practice. Here's how to handle them.
HAIRY SITUATION 1: Your co-workers are romantically involved
According to a 2009 CareerBuilder .com survey on office romance, 40 percent of respondents admitted to having dated a co-worker at some point in their careers. And most folks don't have a problem with such couplings as long as they don't have a negative impact on the workplace, according to a study from Ryerson University in Toronto. Still, a practice romance can cause serious problems, such as a hostile work environment or favoritism, says Marty Miller, MBA, SPHR, a human resources consultant with Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. in Flemington, N.J.
What should you do if your clinic co-workers are engaging in puppy love—with each other? First, check to see whether your employee policy manual offers any guidelines. If such relationships are prohibited, then your next step is to talk to your direct supervisor, says Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR, founder of interFace Veterinary HR Systems in Appleton, Wis. (If your direct supervisor is involved, then go up the chain of command one step.) If dating isn't prohibited, then determine whether any other policy is being broken, such as fair and consistent treatment or appropriate professional behavior, Dobbs says. If no policies are being broken, "then you're simply dealing with your own personal opinions and reactions, and you don't have anything to tell," Dobbs says.
If you're the one in the relationship, Miller recommends telling your boss about it. If you're involved with a veterinarian or manager, consider requesting a transfer to another practice location or requesting schedule changes to avoid working together, if possible. And keep your behavior professional and your performance up to par. "Understand that, by dating a co-worker, you're giving people a pretty good excuse to look closely at your work," Dobbs says.
HAIRY SITUATION 2: A client brings in an illegal—or intoxicated—pet
For veterinarians, treating an illegal pet "may be one of the areas where the legal obligation and ethical obligation are at cross purposes," says Douglas C. Jack, LL.B., a veterinary-focused lawyer in Toronto and a past president of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association. Legally, a veterinarian is under no obligation to treat every pet presented to the practice, Jack says, although the doctor is obligated to treat a pet once a veterinarian-client-patient relationship has been established.
If a pet's illness is the result of ingesting illegal drugs, a veterinarian's first responsibility is to stabilize and treat the pet, says Dr. Charlotte Lacroix, JD, owner of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. in Flemington, N.J. Then, he or she must decide whether animal cruelty might be involved. If it is, the ethical responsibility is to take action. On the other hand, if the poisoning seems accidental, the next move is teaching the client about the health risks to pets. "If someone is just insensitive and careless, when they're educated, they understand the gravity of what they're engaged in," Dr. Lacroix says. "And maybe they'll educate their friends too."
As a team member, those decisions to treat (or not) and report (or not) aren't yours to make. "While you may be the one to discover these types of activities, it's not the job of a front office team member to move to action," Dobbs says. Rather, you should alert the practice owner, manager, or the attending veterinarian to the situation.
HAIRY SITUATION 3: A team member is stealing from the practice
Your practice probably has a policy manual that prohibits theft, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. If you think a co-worker is stealing, don't confront the suspected employee; instead, alert your direct supervisor, Dobbs says. But tread carefully: "Any allegation of embezzlement needs to be supported by clear and cogent evidence of the theft," Jack says. "It's inappropriate to accuse someone wrongly of being a thief if you don't have valid evidence."
Indeed, Jack had a case where an employee was accused of stealing pet food from the clinic. "But as it turns out, it wasn't the employee, it was the guy who fixed the X-ray machine," he says. If you do bring a concern to your supervisor, Dr. Christopher J. Allen, JD, president of Associates in Veterinary Law PC in Endwell, N.Y., cautions against naming names unless you have ironclad documentation. "Say, 'I'm very concerned about money possibly being misappropriated at the front desk and I think you should look into that,'" he says. "And if you're pressed for a name, say, 'I'm not free to say but you should look into it.'"
HAIRY SITUATION 4: The head technician is taking medical shortcuts
"This is extremely difficult, because typically it's not the job of the front office team to intervene in the medical protocols of the practice," Dobbs says. But that doesn't mean you should ignore suspected wrongdoing, especially if you're a fellow veterinary technician. Dobbs, Jack, and Dr. Allen all agree: Take any concerns to your immediate supervisor. In this case, Dr. Allen says, you can name names when you present an articulate, documented description of your concerns. "Only a veterinarian can judge what is indeed a shortcut," he says, "so you need to tell the name and describe precisely the behavior and ask the doctor to look into it to see if he or she feels it is below the proper standard of care."
As a team member, Jack says, it would be "fairly remote" for you to be held liable for any exposure. "Ultimately, if a medical shortcut falls below the standard of care, the person responsible is the owner of the practice," he says.
No one likes to be confronted with situations like these, but sometimes they're inevitable. Make sure that your practice has an employee policy manual that addresses some of these ethical dilemmas and that you're familiar with the policies and protocols. And talk about what to do in these and other situations before they occur, Dobbs says. Her advice: Discuss potentially unethical or illegal situations at team meetings so the practice owner or manager can explain how they should be handled. "Are there policies that need to be written, revised, or expanded?" she says. "Are there protocols that need to be explored or explained? And what do you do if the practice owner or manager isn't on duty in the practice when these events occur? The answers must take the safety of the patient and staff into consideration." When you know the answers to those questions, you won't go blind into your next hairy situation.
Erika Rasmusson Janes is a freelance writer and editor living in New York City.