Is your practice a great place to work?


Your staff members devote a third of their waking lives to your practice. Working at your practice isn't just a job for you--don't let it become just a job for them. Share your vision for the practice and then give them the support and tools they need to make your vision a reality.

Ever wonder what it takes to reduce turnover? Want to end the desperate search that too often ends with a choice from a marginal pool of candidates? I know a practice in Indianapolis that's immediately flooded with highly qualified applicants when a position opens. Some practices in the city search for months to hire a licensed technician. But Broad Ripple Animal Clinic is an employer of choice.

An employer of choice is a business where everyone wants to work. If it's a veterinary practice, it has a reputation for offering the highest level of patient care and for taking good care of its employees. How do you become an employer of choice? Let's look at some traits these practices share—and then at how your practice stacks up.

A nurturing environment

Of course, to be an employer of choice, you must first know how to hire, train, and, when necessary, fire. Such employers have—and use—formal job descriptions, performance reviews, and effective training programs.

You must also treat your employees with respect and care. When you do, you'll know it by the positive energy that greets you when you walk into your practice to greet your happy, hard-working team members. A satisfied, fulfilled team exudes a positive charge that's palpable to you—and to your clients.

Setting aside space for a staff lounge is a prime way to show you care. Some practices go a step further by providing coffee and soft drinks or putting tables and chairs outside for their employees to enjoy during breaks.

At computer giant Dell, employees are given control of their work environments. Each person can choose the music, the color of the walls, and the lighting and temperature in their work areas. They're also offered their choice of snacks and soft drinks, flexible work hours, and even chair massages.

Yes, this is an extreme example—but there's a reason this company goes to such lengths for their employees. When the work environment supports employees, everyone works as a team, and employees enjoy their work, you build loyalty. And loyal employees treat the business as if it were their own.

Four problems to avoid.

So, how inviting is your work environment? What can you do to improve and to make work a more positive experience for your team members?

Competitive pay and benefits

Many employers think that they can forgo the other elements and become employers of choice by simply paying their employees more than other practices. Of course, this approach doesn't work. (If it did, this would be a very short article, indeed.)

It's true that employers of choice pay better-than-average salaries. But they can afford to because the employees are highly trained, highly motivated, and perform effectively, helping the practice generate more income.

Employers of choice also look outside of their own profession to see how their compensation and benefits stack up against other related medical professions. For a quick look, see "Checking in with Dentists and Physicians,".

As for benefits, health insurance and paid time off for holidays, vacations, and sick days are musts. Many employers of choice also offer retirement plans and employee incentive programs based on increases in practice profitability and individual employee performance.

Access to continuing education

Your healthcare team members want the opportunity to expand their base of knowledge and to use their skills. Employers of choice understand this and offer both in-house and out-of-house continuing education (CE) programs.

Remember Broad Ripple Animal Clinic? The practice requires medical and customer service CE for every team member, tying completion of required CE to employees' pay. Every Wednesday between 1:45 p.m. and 3:15 p.m., the entire team attends intensive in-house CE. One week an associate may discuss educating clients about dental disease. The next week, a receptionist may refresh everyone's phone etiquette skills.

Checking in with dentists and physicians.

Clearly, it helps if you can share the burden of leading the training sessions. So keep in mind that your pharmaceutical representatives would likely be happy to participate in your in-house training sessions. And if your receptionist's husband is a fireman, he might be willing to walk your team through fire prevention and evacuation procedures.

Team members can also further their learning by tapping Web resources. Three of the veterinary assistants at Broad Ripple are taking long-distance training to become technicians. Of course, the practice supports their efforts and reimburses them for the classes.

Yes, all of this requires you shelling out some cash. In the grand scheme, though, CE costs you little. Most practices spend less than 1 percent of annual revenue on CE, and most of that goes to doctors. In contrast, Brenda Tassava, CVPM, the hospital administrator at Broad Ripple allocates 3 percent of annual revenue to training. Last year she put $18,000 into CE for the support staff alone.

Bottom line: Your veterinarians should have a CE clause in their contracts, with a specific CE allowance, but you can't stop there. Offer everyone on your team a range of CE opportunities. If you do, your employees will be better educated, and they'll know they work at a practice that's willing to invest in its staff members.

"My team eats up CE like you wouldn't believe," says Tassava. "And when we invest in their growth, we invest in the practice's growth. We all benefit."

My questions for you: How much do you truly value CE for your healthcare team? And how much does your healthcare team value receiving that CE?

Open, effective communication

To achieve excellent communication, you need a clearly defined hierarchy so employees know who to go to with problems and concerns. And you must hold regular meetings among the owners and managers, the healthcare team and management, and all the doctors.

Of course, communication is a two-way street, so keep employees informed about the practice's performance. For example, you might share information such as gross income, number of transactions, average per client transaction, and number of new clients compared with the same period last year. This kind of score boarding helps your team see its progress toward key goals.

And communication about individual performance is equally important. Employees want to know how they're doing and how they can improve.

"You must truly keep your door open. You need to be willing to listen, open to team members' ideas, and willing to try new things," says Tassava. "For example, we have a suggestion box in the staff restroom where it's very visible. Our No. 1 job is to make sure our staff is happy and that we're working to make their lives better.

"We take every opportunity to let our team members know how great they are," she says. For example, the staff newsletter comes out the day before staff meetings—and the most recent cover story was a letter a client sent in about what great service she received from a receptionist.

Veterinarians, technicians, and assistants work in teams to see the same clients. The benefits: close-knit teams maximize communication and form closer, stronger bonds with clients who trust and listen to their recommendations.

Strong leaders and vision

"Vision is having an acute sense of the possible. It is seeing what others don't see. And when those with similar vision are drawn together, something extraordinary occurs."

—Shearson Lehman/American Express

Practice owners must be willing to set the example and do everything they ask their employees to do. That includes picking up after themselves and attending the team meetings that they require for their support staff members.

A practice-of-choice owner also conveys a positive attitude about his or her business. The owner is proud of what the practice does and the services it provides. He or she comes in each morning with a positive frame of mind and sets the tone for the day. Problems are handled as challenges; failures become learning experiences. And the practice leaders communicate a clear vision of the practice they're working to create.

Think about a team on a crew boat. Everyone's rowing with all his or her might. The boat is moving quickly—but in what direction? The rowers can't tell; they row backwards. What if there were a waterfall or rock behind them, who would see it? The practice owner is the coxswain, giving the team the direction it needs. And remember, a coxswain can only guide the boat. You need rowers to get to the destination.

An employer of choice will always share his or her vision with the team, providing the necessary direction, and then will give team members the freedom to use their own talents and abilities. Practices that lack vision and direction flounder.

You may express the path you'll take to reach your vision as a mission statement. Then you can use this statement to ensure you stay on track as you make decisions. When you really capture your mission, it's much more than words written on paper; your mission statement reflects the vision that's shared by everyone on your healthcare team.

I've listened to many employees complain that the practice owner is too strict or requires too high a level of patient care. When I hear these complaints, I consider it more a positive than a negative. These practice owners have set standards; they know what they want to do and how they want it done.

Those who like the owner's vision will stay and help the practice achieve it. Those who don't will find another practice with a different vision. However, the vision can't and shouldn't change because of the employees.

Team members have fun

As simplistic as it may sound, employers of choice help employees have fun and release stress. For example, one practice keeps water pistols handy. When things become tense, someone takes out a water pistol and starts shooting other employees. Before long, everyone's laughing. Another practice takes their healthcare team members to a paintball arcade for frustration-release on a larger scale.

Other ways to bring fun to the office: bad hair day contests, Halloween costume contests, and secret treat days where you pick one staff member and bring that person cookies and other small treats.

The whole package

Perhaps one of the most important things about employers of choice is that they don't have just a few of these attributes; they incorporate all of them—and probably more—to create well-organized, well-run personnel-development machines.

If you treat team members as disposable commodities, your practice will only attract fearful followers or employees who really don't care about your practice. On the other hand, think about what it would be like to be an employer of choice.

Would you and others know if you became an employer of choice? You bet! This is a very small profession, and word gets around quickly. If your practice strives to become an employer of choice, you'll be rewarded with a flood of eager applicants who want to help you achieve your dream. All they ask is that you let them be part of it.

Hospital Management Editor Mark Opperman is a certified veterinary practice manager and owner of VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo. Please send your questions and comments to

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