The top 6 hiring mistakes-and how to avoid them

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Keep your veterinary practice running smoothly by avoiding these costly hiring blunders.

With unemployment above 10 percent in many areas, it's an employers' market. An abundance of qualified people are looking for jobs, which means many businesses are "upscaling" their staffs—letting go of underperformers and hiring level-10 employees. If your practice's team members aren't performing as well as they should be, it might be time for you to do the same. But before you jump into the labor pool, let's look at some of the more common hiring mistakes—and learn how to avoid them.

1. Being Dr. Crisis

One of the most common mistakes I see in practices is crisis hiring. In this scenario, an employee has just left your practice and you need somebody to replace that person—fast. Your mistake is thinking that any warm body will do. Stop replacing warm bodies, or that's what you'll be doing for a very long time!

Illustrations: Steve Pica

Normally, you need a good six to eight weeks to properly hire and train a new employee. When you crisis hire, you don't give yourself the time to find the right candidate. In a rush to fill the position, you also don't provide adequate training for that employee. As a result, the team member doesn't stay with you and you feel pressured to crisis hire again.

To avoid crisis hiring, be aware of seasonal changes that could affect your practice. For instance, maybe you hire additional help over the summer. At the end of summer, many of those employees return to school, leaving you short-staffed. To avoid this, start recruiting new team members well before the end of summer.

Break the cycle by developing a ratio of 50 percent full-time and 50 percent part-time employees. If you maintain this ratio and an employee leaves, you'll have the flexibility to fill in the gaps with part-time staff until you can properly hire a new team member. Also, develop three- and four-week phased training programs so you can train new hires thoroughly for their positions.

2. Hiring Ms. Demeanor

I was recently helping a practice hire an associate veterinarian and one candidate came in for a two-day working interview. The only problem? A background check revealed that she'd never received a license to practice veterinary medicine! She'd attended veterinary college for two years and flunked out, yet she'd been practicing at another clinic and was now seeking a new position.

In another practice, an owner who was about to hire a practice manager discovered that the candidate hadn't listed her previous employer on her résumé. The reason for the omission became apparent when we did a background check—she'd been convicted of embezzlement.

I'd never hire anyone without doing a background check. You have a right to check on anything related to an employee's position. So if an employee will handle money, you can do a credit check. If an employee will drive for you, you can do a driving record verification.

Fortunately, numerous Internet companies will conduct background checks for you. Companies such as EBIinc.com and HireRight.com will check an individual's criminal conviction history, credit, license status, driving records, and employment history. These companies first verify that you represent a legitimate company yourself (so you can't check up on your neighbor), and then charge $20 to $60 for each screen. It's well worth the money.

Prospective employees will need to sign a release form to give you permission to conduct the background check. I suggest that you attach the release form to the application. If you do this, you may find that some applicants disappear—for good reason.

3. Signing Mr. Highasakite

This hiring mistake blows my mind. For the life of me, I don't understand why every veterinary hospital doesn't require a pre-employment drug screening—but they don't. Almost all Fortune 500 companies require new employees to pass a drug test before they're hired—doesn't that say something?

This summer, my son came home from college and applied for a job at Wendy's. Guess what? He had to take a drug test. (And yes, he passed!) Now stop and think about this for a moment. Veterinary practices stock numerous controlled substances on their shelves—unlike Wendy's—and the money is easy to access. Yet most practices don't require a pre-employment drug test. Something's not right about that, wouldn't you agree? Drug-testing costs just $20 to $40, and there are companies across the country that offer this service—Google "employment drug testing agencies."

Where I live, in Evergreen, Colo., there's a company called Wiz Quiz (no, I'm not kidding). If I send someone to this office to be tested, I have the results within 24 hours. You probably have a similar place of business in your community. Of course, the job applicant must sign a release form, so, again, I suggest you attach it to your employment application. Again, you may find that you don't receive as many completed applications, but the reason is no big mystery.

One important note: Conducting pre-employment drug testing is different from creating a drug-free workplace. In the latter, you perform drug tests on current employees either randomly or with cause. I strongly suggest you set up a drug-free workplace in addition to doing pre-employment drug tests. But this process takes a lot of work. By contrast, you can start pre-employment drug tests immediately. Just make sure you test everyone at the same point in the interview process. For example, have job candidates take a pre-employment drug test before their working interview. The bottom line? Protect your other employees, your patients, and your practice. Implement pre-employment drug testing tomorrow.

4. Trusting Mr. Malpractice

I've conducted reference checks that were real eye-openers. For example, I've found out that applicants have embezzled from their previous employers, had poor attendance records, or made major medical mistakes in past jobs.

Past employers are often reluctant to offer any information during a reference check for fear of a lawsuit, yet withholding facts can be just as bad. I know of one business that failed to divulge to another business upon a reference check that a past employee had physically assaulted a coworker. The second business hired that employee, who, a short time later, assaulted another staff member. The second business, along with the assaulted employee, is now suing the first one for not disclosing the employee's actions.

The rule of reference checking is this: If you've documented the facts of an employee's behavior, you can relate those facts to another employer. You can't say an employee was always late, but you can say he was late 40 days out of 60 if you have a record of this. We do other employers a great disservice when we quote only an employee's name, rank, and serial number. So state the facts that you've documented—and request the facts on your potential hires. Again, you can use an electronic service to conduct reference checks for you.

5. Retaining Ms. Halfway

Hopefully, you've heard of the concept of "10s," in which you rate your employees on a scale of one to 10, with one being the worst and 10 being the best. The concept of 10s holds that you can turn an eight or a nine into a 10, but you'll never make an employee ranked seven or lower a level-10 team member. In fact, trying to change a level five, six, or seven employee into a 10 is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Realize that the lower-ranked employee will never be a 10 and kindly liberate him or her from employment.

6. Employing Miss Fit

I've long been a proponent of the three-step interview process: an initial interview of 10 to 15 minutes, a follow-up interview of 30 to 60 minutes, and then a working interview. During a working interview, a job applicant spends one day (eight hours tops) in your practice observing the position for which he or she is applying.

This is not a training day, as you haven't yet hired the applicant. Instead, this working interview enables your prospect to better understand the job and your practice environment. At the same time, you learn more about the applicant and his or her capabilities. Keep in mind that a working interview is done on a voluntary basis and is not required; therefore the applicant is not compensated for his or her time.

I remember when I was a practice manager hiring a receptionist. One young lady who applied seemed to be perfect and, following our protocol, I offered her the opportunity to do a working interview. The first part of the day she did well. She was friendly and intelligent, and she seemed to fit right in with the team. Then, right before lunch, a client came with a pet that had long-term medical problems. The client had decided to euthanize the dog. It was a very emotional time—everyone in the practice loved that dog.

After lunch, the prospective employee never returned. Two days later she called me. She apologized for leaving with no warning but said she'd had no idea receptionists had anything to do with euthanasia. She didn't believe she'd be able to handle it and thanked me for letting her do the working interview. She said she would have hated to take the job only to find out later about this issue and have to resign.

As you can see, a working interview is not only informative for you, it also helps the prospective employee. It gives him or her the chance to find out more about the practice and what will be required on the job. I'd never hire anyone without first conducting a working interview. It's that important.

If you've created an applicant pool and gone through the three-step interview process only to realize in your heart of hearts that you don't have an eight, nine, or 10 employee, start over. Create a new group of applicants and don't go back to your original pool. Unlike wine, it won't get better with age.

I know this is a tough action to take—in fact, it's one of the hardest you'll face as an owner or manager. I've had to do it several times myself. By the time you've gone through a working interview, you really want a "body" in that position. But if you succumb to the temptation, you'll soon find yourself either firing that person or accepting his or her resignation. Grit your teeth and start fresh. Your practice will be better off in the end.

If you're guilty of some of these hiring blunders, don't beat yourself up—you're not alone. Just remember that you're only as strong as your weakest link, so hiring the right person can make all the difference. If you change your ways and make sure to avoid these hiring mistakes, you just might end up with a hospital full of 10s—and a whole new level of satisfaction and enjoyment in practice.

Mark Opperman, CVPM, Veterinary Economics Hospital Management Editor, owns VMC Inc., in Evergreen, Colo. Catch Opperman at CVC Kansas City August 28 and 29. Topics include dealing with difficult clients, succession planning, manager mistakes, and controlling inventory costs. Visit thecvc.com to register.

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