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Odd Couples

Working alongside a spouse isn’t always wedded bliss, especially when one is a veterinarian and the other an administrator.

Odd Couples
One consequence of a couple starting a practice is that the non-veterinary spouse might not be following his or her passion, leading to unspoken resentment.

Dr. Jill and her husband, Jack, launched Happy Critters Animal Clinic right after getting married. Because money was in short supply, Jack filled in as manager. What was supposed to be a short-term part-time solution became a long-term full-time job. A decade later, Jack and Dr. Jill are not doing well as a couple and their practice’s culture is toxic at best.

Married couples — one person a veterinarian and the other a manager — are commonly at the helm of practices. In some cases, the arrangement ends in drama and divorce. If the marriage is already dysfunctional, don’t expect the business relationship to be any different.

Here are five examples of spousal situations that can lead to trouble inside or outside of the practice, followed by a licensed clinical social worker’s recommendations.

1. Bad Habits

A rather benign example is when one spouse is consistently late to work and the other is always early. If team members are expected to be on time, the discrepancy sets a bad example.

A worse situation is when one spouse tolerates the other’s poor workplace behaviors. Examples of this include cursing and taking time for personal phone calls.

At one Wyoming practice, the veterinarian struggled with alcoholism and team members were terrified of approaching the spouse, “fearing their jobs might be at stake,” a witness reported. Realizing how dangerous the situation was, a technician was brave enough to speak up and “Our colleague was able to get the help he needed.”

2. A Lack of Boundaries

Because so many on-the-job situations are emotional, delicate or ethically challenging, work rarely stays at work. When couples are co-workers, discussing the latest crisis over dinner or during other personal time is easy. The lack of separation can create an unhealthy work-life balance, which can harm personal and professional partnerships.

Pennsylvania veterinarian Emily M. Tincher, DVM, agrees.

“When your relationship is at work, your home life will creep into your workday,” Dr. Tincher said. “Among the veterinarian-manager couples I have worked with, the whole team knew when the couple was fighting or major life events were happening. Having been privy to details of separations, mental health struggles and children’s health events made me wonder how the couples felt being the subject of office gossip as they were enduring difficult times.”

3. Unfulfilled Dreams

Couples who start a veterinary practice together often remain business partners long term. One consequence is the non-veterinary spouse might not be following his or her passion, leading to unspoken resentment.

The manager should be encouraged to pursue his or her dreams rather than stay in a position that doesn’t allow for personal growth.

4. Going the Cheap Route

Another unhealthy consequence of an unsuccessful marital business partnership is the development of scarcity thinking. A managing spouse might be used as free labor for years because finding a replacement is seen as difficult and more costly. The expense of hiring a new manager and the lack of trust in that person are often the excuses given. This scenario can harm the marriage if the spouse “stuck” in the position doesn’t truly want to be there, is resentful about not getting paid or isn’t cut out for the job.

An associate doctor recalled: “The manager spouse was supposed to find his own replacement. For years, he claimed that not a single person he interviewed was suited for the job. Ironically, he didn’t seem to enjoy being in the position. It became kind of a joke in the practice.”

5. Alienating the Team

A common problem that can arise from a couple working together in a veterinary practice is the negative effects on the team and the culture.

Jenn Galvin, co-owner and manager of Advanced Animal Care in Fort Mohave, Arizona, recalled a past job.

“I was the lead technician for a clinic that was owned by a female veterinarian who didn’t like confrontation,” Galvin said. “She hired her husband as the office manager. Since he had a full-time job elsewhere, he would come into the clinic like a tornado every afternoon and pull people aside to tell them all the things they had done wrong. Since he only had a few minutes to get this done, it was always said quickly, without tact and without time for employees to respond. It led to frustrated team members and a high turnover until we had a full-time manager step in.”

Other examples include:

  • Favoritism is shown by one spouse. This can cause team members to choose sides and form unspoken allegiances.
  • One spouse thinks he or she is above the rules. The person does things whenever and however he or she wants rather than follow protocols. This can breed resentment.
  • The managing spouse, lacking medical qualifications, makes clinical decisions or shares patient and client information over the phone. This raises ethical and legal questions.

So, if a veterinarian-manager couple is determined to work together, what can they do to nurture and sustain a harmonious relationship? Brett Judd, a licensed clinical social worker in Pocatello, Idaho, has six suggestions.

1.  Delineate Roles

Responsibilities and boundaries need to be firmly established because running a practice entails countless tasks. A spouse who jumps in to complete the other’s loosely assigned duties can feel resentment and think the partner isn’t doing his or her fair share of work. A better approach is to agree that “I am the doctor and I handle patients. You are the manager and you handle the practice.”

2. Play to Strengths, Not Necessity

If some of a practice manager’s assigned tasks are outside of his or her skill set and desired scope of work, the situation is destined to be fraught with hardship. This might be manageable in the short term, but it requires considerable emotional attunement and communication skills over time.

3. Eliminate the Pecking Order

Bossing employees around is bad enough, but it can be catastrophic when one spouse gives orders to the other. A spousal hierarchy is absent in a good marriage. The co-equal nature of a high-functioning marriage stems from mutual respect and the ability to be open and vulnerable with each other. The same relationship must extend to the practice setting.

4. Remember That Work Stays at Work

Some couples don’t set clear boundaries between work and home. When the clinic doors close at night, leave behind the worries of work unless a crisis needs to be resolved. The same is true of home life when the couple enter the practice.

5. Develop Great Communication Skills

In a business relationship, you and your spouse need to talk about very important or sensitive issues. If you have trouble discussing tough personal topics, such as money, you will struggle to discuss them openly in the practice.

6. Extend Your Emotional Antennae

When you work with your spouse, understanding their emotional state is critical. It’s like tuning a radio to the exact frequency. When you are attuned to your spouse’s signal, you clearly receive the message. Being able to respond to your spouse’s emotional needs is essential in supporting a well-balanced marriage.

Dr. Phil Zeltzman [drphilzeltzman.com] is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur, and he is Fear Free certified. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. Kat Christman, a certified veterinary technician in Effort, Pennsylvania, contributed to this article.


WHAT THE JERK RESEARCHER THINKS

We asked Missouri colleague Dr. Cyndie Courtney, aka the Jerk Researcher, for her thoughts about the challenges faced by veterinarian-manager couples in practice.

“A dysfunctional scenario that comes up over and over again is when one partner enables the toxic behavior of the other by cleaning up the social messes the other one leaves behind,” she said.

“The emotionally intelligent spouse isn’t able to change the partner’s behavior. Confronting the partner about it would create too much interpersonal tension. So, the cleanup efforts send mixed messages to the team.

“Since chances that the toxic partner will be fired are essentially 0%, employees rarely feel safe giving feedback. They either leave the practice or remain onboard unengaged, unproductive and more likely to contribute to medical errors.

“I often feel that these toxic individuals would be better off if they did not work with their spouse. If they didn’t have someone to clean up their mess, perhaps more employees would leave and the toxic individuals would realize more quickly that they are the problem, not their employees. If they had an unrelated practice manager, perhaps that manager would be more comfortable giving the practice owner candid feedback.

“If the toxic employee’s spouse is the owner, he or she might be shielded from the chance for realistic performance evaluations and meaningful personal growth, or an opportunity to find a position that is a better fit.

“Just because two partners love each other doesn’t mean they desire the same values in the workplace.”


THE OTHER SIDE

Many times, a veterinary marriage works beautifully. Here are the benefits.

Harmony

Couples with different personalities, attributes and skills can nicely complement each other. For example, one person might be a visionary who thinks up the next project or marketing campaign, and the other partner might be an implementer who makes things happen. Allowing each partner to use his or her strengths and talents is a great strategy for dividing and conquering and getting things done cordially. Even in veterinary medicine, opposites can attract.

Supportive

Working side by side with your spouse can provide a built-in support system. This is especially true for couples who start a venture. The startup phase can be simultaneously thrilling and scary. A solid support system is vital to your success. “When you have a difficult, exhausting or even depressing day, an empathetic spouse will truly understand what you’re going through and will help you put things into perspective,” said Tiffany Wagner, DVM, the owner of South Mountain Veterinary Hospital in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania. “On the opposite hand, when you have a great day or a big victory, your spouse will be right there to celebrate.”

Trusting

Your spouse is (or should be) someone you trust implicitly. Such couples can discuss major business decisions before their implementation. Making big strategic choices is much easier when your partner has your best interests at heart. Smaller decisions can be made individually and without concern about micromanagement. This allows the veterinarian to focus on clinical duties and know that everything is running smoothly on the management side.

Thriftiness

When finances are tight during the startup phase, the budget might not have room for a paid practice manager. A dedicated spouse can fill the management position without pay until the balance sheet looks better. At that point, either the managing spouse can start to receive paychecks or a paid manager position can be created.

Agreement

Some decisions and protocols need approval from both spouses. Knowing that you and your partner are on the same page is beneficial. When rules and guidelines are uniformly enforced and followed, the practice runs smoother. In turn, this helps minimize discrepancies and ensures that all issues are handled efficiently and cohesively. Running a practice is challenging enough. Illogical business decisions, poor morale and high turnover can result when the leaders don’t work as a cohesive team. When the veterinarian and the managing spouse work well together, wonderful things can happen for the practice, team, clients and patients.

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