“Employees Behaving Badly: Give us your best advice on how to deal with them!”

We’ve all heard the horror stories; some are NOT urban legend!

Some more frequent stories of “Employees Behaving Badly”, unfortunately, involve social networking. How about learning that an employee:

  • Constantly texting friends and family during office hours
  • Updating “facebook” while on the clock
  • Chatting long-distance on Friday, the “admin day”, while no one else is around (supposed to be working on filling hygiene, confirming patients for the next Monday, contacting an insurance company to speed payment on claims, etc.)
  • Surfing the internet during work hours

The more egregious typically involve theft and embezzlement; most often an employee is caught:

  • Absconding funds from the office
  • Writing false prescriptions for personal consumption
  • Stealing product (bleaching gels, electronic toothbrushes)

Taking half the money received from a vendor for re-cycled precious metals (gold) and distributing the balance to the rest of the team (in an obvious effort to secure naive accomplices)

Dealing with “Employees Behaving Badly” begins with setting up an environment with good personnel management systems that proactively defuses improprieties before they happen. When they do happen, it’s important to take action right away.

No matter how many employees a person hires and fires over their career, it’s inevitable events will occur where people do something wrong which will without doubt result in conflict; it’s human nature. Managing poor behavior with corrective action and discipline, and controlling conflict in such a way that it creates an alliance rather than an obstacle, is the result of well-orchestrated people management techniques.

Often times, the education and experience of the worker and manager are different. For instance, the new employee may have had to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and has endured many obstacles in their personal and professional lives. This may have given them invaluable experience in the school of hard knocks and they most probably witnessed different management styles from previous employers along the way. On the other hand, a dentist acquiring their own practice and becoming a manager of people for the first time may not have pursued any formal business or personnel management training, and may not have learned the art of diplomacy. This imbalanced connection with a new employee and new manager may very well result in frustration, anxiety, and stress.

Building a great relationship with people on both sides is key to good management, and is ever more important in today’s changing times. A sluggish economy has forced layoffs and other cutbacks in businesses of all sizes, resulting in high stress, low morale, and concerns about job security. People have fewer options when they consider walking away from a current position. As a result, keeping a job has more to do with balancing technical and interpersonal skills.

During the late 1990’s, dentistry was experiencing wide spread growth and prosperity. In comparison, it’s more difficult to sustain growth and profit in dentistry today.

When a small business such as a dental office relies on outstanding people performance, management and people skills go a long way towards weathering the storm. One must avoid losing ones temper, not be defensive, and control their emotions in general in order to be constructive in dealing with workplace conflict and poor performance.

A manager must be able to get as much from his or her employee as possible; but no employee should be a doormat. Realistic expectations of job performance and behavior must be clarified up front. For example, a dentist would be wise to discuss with employees what will happen when a patient calls with an immediate and urgent dental need towards the end of the day. Instilling a “we will go the extra mile” principle clarifies the issue before it becomes a problem. It is wise to make clear that occasionally the office will stay open and a worker or two must stay late to tend to patients in need. Agreed, it is not the normal operating event, but it happens once in a while. Another example would be to make it clear that cel phone usage, for personal calls, texting, internet surfing, are not allowed during patient care hours; using a cel phone while clocked out during lunch, at the beginning of the day, and at the end of the day is permissible.

Keeping the practice’s big picture in mind is vital, too. Dentists must share with the team the vision they have of the office so that it becomes a component of day-to-day activities. For instance, “We will always put the patient’s comfort first” may be a valued business operating principle that can be used as a foundation for establishing patient services policy.

Good employees will try to handle all they can and resolve those things that are causing patient service problems on their own. Sometimes, the boss needs to step in to provide constructive criticism, most likely because the employee did not handle the situation properly and made a mistake. Reprimanding an employee for unacceptable behavior is hard at first, but the skills can be learned.

Suggestions for Reprimand

If an incident occurs where an employee misbehaves, violates a company policy, or otherwise causes a problem, follow these guidelines.

  • Do not reprimand in front of other team members or patients
  • Choose a time where a professional and private meeting can take place
  • One witness to the reprimand, other than the guilty party, is sensible but not required
  • Be specific about the event (date, time, policy violated, behavior, etc.)
  • Ask, “Why did this happen?”
  • Allow the employee to respond; there are always two sides to every story
  • Determine if in fact the employee is in the wrong, or if the behavior was misconstrued
  • If it turns out the employee was in the wrong, tell them why, and discuss how the event should not happen again in the future
  • If appropriate, determine a disciplinary course of action – for example, sending the employee home for the rest of the day with pay for only hours worked.
  • Be sure to include a written reprimand, signed by the employee and employer, in the employee’s personnel file. Consider these elements:
    • Employee name, date and time of incident
    • Explanation of what happened
    • Employee Statement
    • Employer Statement
    • Affirmation from the employee: “I re-affirm my commitment to adhere to the policies and standards of conduct for the company. I understand that a further infraction may be interpreted as a voluntary resignation from employment.”

Thinking of discharging an employee for bad behavior?

Although employers have good cause for discharging an employee, they do not keep adequate records to substantiate good cause for the discharge. This is a common problem throughout the dental community.

When one wishes to discharge an employee, follow a similar course of discussion as with the previously discussed reprimand. As soon as it is determined that the employee was in the wrong and it is clear employment must be terminated, dismiss the employee right away. Something simple, such as, “Based on the circumstances we’ve discussed, you’re employment ends right now.” Or, “You’re fired” works just fine.

It is very important at this point to record everything that has happened, including discussions, events, witnesses, dates, and times. Not only is this good management, events are well-documented and easy to reproduce just in case the employer must prepare to protest the payment of Unemployment Insurance Benefits. Ultimately, it is the doctor’s responsibility to provide supporting evidence to justify the discharge.

Here is a reminder list of some of the most overlooked information needed in the employee’s personnel file to justify dismissal from employment:

  1. Keep records of all misconduct including dates, witnesses and specifically, what the employee did wrong.
  2. Keep accurate records of all warnings both verbal and written, including when warned, who did the warning, and why the employee was warned.
  3. Have an accurate statement of the final incident that caused the employee to be discharged including when, why and any witnesses to the event.
    Inaccurate and incomplete employee records are common reasons why employers do not receive favorable rulings when protesting an Unemployment Insurance claim made by a former employee.

At-Will Employment Review

Keep in mind that Arizona is a right-to-work state, where employment is at-will. Meaning, an employee may be dismissed, with or without notice, at the discretion of the owner/employer for any reason or no reason, at any time. Just the same, an employee may leave a place of business at any time, for no reason, or any reason. In either case, common business courtesy would suggest providing reasonable notice of termination or resignation, although this is not required.

The exception is when an employment contract states specifically in writing the terms of employment and dismissal protocols. This overrides at-will employment. Such a contract typically includes terms and conditions of how and when both parties will provide notice of termination or resignation.

Help the team understand what they can do better!

Here are some down-to-earth approaches that employers can impart to employees that will help resolve conflict and stress in the workplace:

  1. Understand what the dentist wants: Develop a knack for interpreting how he or she will respond to situations; pay attention to feedback from him or her and address any concerns immediately.
  2. Keep the doctor in the loop: Dentists don’t like surprises and embarrassment. When things are going well, a short message or conversation, would suffice. When a problem arises, don’t hide it; explain and offer solutions.
  3. Don’t waste his or her time: Write down what you need, be ready to answer questions, and then leave if the reply isn’t immediately forthcoming. Follow up with a reminder memo, if necessary at a later date.
  4. Be a rock: Show up early, meet deadlines and volunteer for work when you have free time.
  5. Don’t take criticism personally: Keep an open mind, control your emotions and if appropriate, stand up for yourself, politely, but firmly.
  6. Don’t play games: Don’t criticize or gossip about a co-worker, or anything for that matter, and mind your own business.
  7. Know his or her quirks and accommodate them: Does the dentist prefer notes, formal memos, or straight up communication face-to-face?
  8. Pitch ideas: Make sure they’re reasoned, solution-oriented and don’t add to the workload of others while somehow skipping yours.

It may never happen in your office, but Employees Behave Badly! If events take place, act swiftly and come to a sensible and fair solution. Establish reasonable personnel management systems that will ward off problems before they arise. The practice will become less stressful, and employees will serve you and your patients well.