Peter H. Tanella
Legal Lingo columnist Peter H. Tanella chairs Mandelbaum Barrett’s National Veterinary Law Center. He earned his JD from Quinnipiac University School of Law and served as a Deputy Attorney General with the New Jersey Attorney General Office, Division of Law. where he was general counsel to numerous state agencies. He has advised hundreds of veterinarians on practice acquisitions, sales, mergers, partnerships, joint ventures and associate buy-ins, the structuring of management service organizations, and the development of practice succession strategies. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.orgRead Articles Written by Peter H. Tanella
The demand for veterinary care remains strong, presenting practice owners with challenges such as short staffing, larger caseloads, reduced efficiency, and increased employee burnout and turnover. As a result, I recommend that practices focus on creating a strong staff family to ensure the hospital’s success. After all, happy employees leave favorable impressions on clients and deliver tremendous value to the practice.
Developing a positive culture doesn’t happen overnight. In my experience, the key to creating and maintaining healthy employee relations is communication. Most workplace dissatisfaction, tension and even litigation start with the inconsistent application and enforcement of policies and procedures and employees not knowing what is expected of them or how the practice should operate.
Effective communication includes:
- Establishing clear performance expectations.
- Identifying job duties and responsibilities.
- Educating employees about policies and procedures.
- Being receptive to employee concerns.
- Providing constructive feedback.
Hospital owners should consider implementing the following four best practices to build the foundation for a positive workplace culture.
1. Formulate Job Descriptions
Job descriptions should set forth the qualifications for a given position, the duties and responsibilities, the expected work hours, the supervisors and the pay range.
Establishing objective qualifications helps ensure that your practice hires individuals with the education and experience needed to succeed. If an applicant claims bias in the hiring process, the qualifications support a defense that the decision was based on legitimate, non-discriminatory criteria.
In addition, the listing of job duties and responsibilities puts employees on notice of exactly what is expected of them and eliminates situations where someone says, “That’s not my job.” It also creates objective criteria from which you can evaluate employee performance.
Note that some states address wage gaps by requiring employers to publish salary ranges for each position. Such customs can motivate employees to perform better if they know a strong work performance might result in higher compensation.
2. Distribute an Employee Handbook
Every veterinary practice, regardless of the size of the hospital or the number of employees, should have an employee handbook. An effective manual introduces employees to the practice’s culture, mission and values. It places employees on notice as to what is expected of them in regard to punctuality and attendance, attire, client interactions, workplace communications and personal cell phone use, for example. The handbook explains the fringe benefits offered and how to utilize them. It sets forth employee legal rights and indicates the steps that team members should take if they believe their rights were violated.
A handbook helps a practice comply with federal, state and local laws and can be a crucial defense in certain litigation. For this and other reasons, handbooks should not be downloaded from the internet or prepared by just anyone. Instead, practice owners should retain an attorney specializing in employment counseling to prepare and periodically update the manual.
Distribute the handbook during the onboarding process. Employees should acknowledge its receipt in writing.
3. Prioritize Regular Communication With Employees
Staying in close touch with team members fosters their connection and commitment to the practice. Hospital owners, supervisors and managers should conduct one-on-one sessions and team meetings and keep employees informed by email about how the practice is doing, any changes in policies and any plans for change.
Just as important as communicating is listening. Your staff is on the front lines and might have valuable insight into which policies and procedures are effective or need revision. Among your options are listening meetings, annual or semiannual surveys, and an electronic suggestion box. Rewarding employees who offer practical ideas will cause them to think critically about their job and feel valued.
Another consequence of regular communication and listening is that your employees will hopefully communicate more effectively with pet owners, one of the best ways to ward off malpractice and legal liability claims. Furthermore, it’s a great way to promote the practice because satisfied customers are often the best marketers.
4. Conduct Performance Evaluations
Formal performance reviews come with multiple benefits. For example, they:
- Improve performance by providing feedback that motivates employees to do well and grow. Employees often work harder when a manager shares positive comments. In addition, because performance appraisals often help determine bonuses, they can give employees an incentive and reward for hard work.
- Clarify expectations about daily job responsibilities and what a manager wants from subordinates. Employees should be encouraged to ask questions and talk through any uncertainties.
- Address areas for improvement before they’re irreversible.
- Evaluate current goals and set objectives for the next period. Continuous goal setting helps ensure that employees improve as individuals and contribute to the practice’s overall mission.
- Document an employee’s development and performance. If a team member isn’t meeting expectations or underperforms continuously, the evaluation serves as the basis for possible discipline or termination.
DID YOU KNOW?
According to a 2021 study by the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association, about 16% of practices never survey employees. Nearly 30% do it annually.