Getting Technical columnist Sandy Walsh is a veterinary practice management consultant, speaker and adviser. She is an instructor for Patterson Veterinary Management University and continues to work in a small animal practice. She has over 35 years of experience in the veterinary field and brings her in-the-trenches experience directly to readers.Read Articles Written by Sandy Walsh
We owe it to everybody on the veterinary team to take all reasonable precautions to prevent a violent or dangerous workplace situation, whether the circumstance involves a potentially volatile client or an upset employee. Here are the most common threats you might face on the job and the steps you can take to de-escalate them.
You don’t think an upset client can turn violent? You don’t have to look farther than the internet to read some frightening news headlines.
- Man Gets 3 Years for Stabbing Vet Workers After Cat Dies
- Calgary Vet Physically Assaulted Over Sick Guinea Pig
- Man Armed With Cane Accused of Assaulting Staff, Threatening to Kill Veterinarian
- Gunman Threatens Veterinary Staff in Connecticut
- Man Beats Up Veterinarian After Dog Dies in Surgery
- Dog Owner Arrested After Confrontation With Vet
- Florida DVM Assaulted by Distraught Pet Owner
- Man Threatens to Bring AK-47 to Veterinarian Office After Cat Dies
- Veterinarian Office Receives Death Threats After Viral Facebook Post
We recognize that emotions run high because of the human-animal bond and the connection that clients have with their pets, especially during stay-at-home orders and with the shift to curbside service and social distancing. We don’t interact or connect with clients like we used to.
Scenarios we see every day in our practices involve clients being separated from the pets, pets with serious medical conditions, pets who die and financial concerns. All are potential triggers. Upset clients sometimes blame us when a pet is sick, especially if we cannot see the patient right away, which happens more and more during the pandemic. Add the financial obligation and the situation gets only worse.
How can we prevent or de-escalate a volatile interaction? Communication is the first line of defense. When clients know what to expect during a visit, especially anything involving changes in protocol, they will be less likely to respond negatively.
Here are a few things you can do when faced with a contentious client:
- Listen to and acknowledge the concerns. Sometimes the pet owner just wants to be heard. Patience and empathy go a long way.
- Pair up when a difficult conversation is going to happen. Having an additional team member present might help diffuse the situation. When tensions are high and you feel your emotions escalating, consider having another team member take over. Clients are notorious for yelling at the support staff but not the doctor. Don’t hesitate to involve the veterinarian.
- If the client yells or uses abusive language or profanity, respond that the conversation is over if the behavior continues. Sometimes you have to shut things down and walk away.
- Differentiate between a client’s yelling about the situation or directly at you. It’s time to take action when an outburst becomes personal or the anger is directed at staff or threats are made. This client needs to leave immediately and the police should be notified. You never know when a client plans to make good on a threat. Better safe than sorry. You don’t want to be the subject of one of those headlines.
- Sometimes it’s best to part ways with a client. More pet owners have been “fired” over the past year than ever before.
You must have a plan for dealing with threats by current or former team members. Establishing an employee code of conduct is the first step. A zero-tolerance policy should be outlined in your employee manual to address verbal and physical threats to co-workers or management.
When the expectations are clearly defined and communicated to the team, addressing volatile situations is easy. Many of the client de-escalation tips will work with employees as well.
Here are some recommendations:
- Be the employer of choice. Provide fair wages, fringe benefits and a positive work environment.
- Immediately listen to and address employee concerns.
- Deal with bad behavior or conduct violations when they happen.
- Take disciplinary action when needed, up to and including employee termination.
- Have a witness present during terminations.
- Conduct exit interviews and make changes to the practice when necessary.
- Inform the team when an employee has resigned or been let go. The person should not be allowed back inside the hospital other than as a client.
- Alert the team if threats of violence have been made by the employee or his or her family members, and remember to contact the police.
When a team member is dealing with a personal issue outside the workplace, such as domestic violence, privacy issues should take a backseat to workplace safety. Management should be notified if at-work safety is a concern, especially the situation involves a restraining order, an order of protection or threats of violence.
The rest of the team need not know the specifics of a protection order, but they should be told of a specific individual who poses a threat.
Just like other businesses, veterinary practices are susceptible to robberies and burglaries. We possess items of value, specifically cash and drugs.
The most important message to convey to the team is that nothing is more valuable than human life. Everything else can be replaced. Employees are not expected to be the hero when a threat occurs.
Basic security measures such as these are essential:
- Do a risk assessment of the hospital grounds. Identify vulnerabilities and establish safety procedures.
- Lock the front door after dark and keep all other doors locked at all times.
- Install video cameras inside and outside the practice.
- Install an alarm system that includes an employee panic button.
- Ensure that your parking lot is well lit, especially where employees leave their cars.
- Have a buddy system for employees inside the practice and when they leave at night.
- Maintain exterior landscaping to remove hiding spots.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s General Duty Clause requires employers to take reasonable steps to protect workers from any and all hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. The clause does not include a specific safety standard regarding workplace violence.
In any event, employee safety and well-being are left to chance at veterinary practices that go without a well-defined protection plan. Don’t wait for something bad to happen at work before you do something that might have prevented heartbreak. Here’s where to learn more: