Labor Relations

By Rachel Faber Machacha

Ask any seasoned human resources professional what the hardest part of their job is, and they’re likely to say disciplining or even firing an employee. Confronting an individual about their behavior can be hard on anyone, but it sometimes seems especially tough for dentists, says David Briggs, an employment attorney at Saalfeld Griggs P.C. in Salem, Oregon. The characteristics that make dentists great with clients—patience, calm demeanor and good chairside manner—are often barriers to making tough calls when it’s time to let an employee go.

Adding to the anxiety about terminating an employee is the distant but real threat of a lawsuit. Fortunately, the vast majority of the terminations Briggs’ clients make will never require legal counsel. But the possibility can be enough to keep dentists from taking action even when it’s necessary.

What can dentists do to keep labor relations positive and any terminations as smooth as possible for everyone involved? Briggs has five pieces of advice for avoiding painful and expensive interventions.

Be proactive

When purchasing a practice, dentists often focus on financial issues or how many patients the company has. Briggs recommends also asking questions about things such as the compensation and benefits package for current employees. Consider reviewing performance evaluations to determine if you want to keep all the staff after the purchase.

Changes in practice ownership can be stressful for employees, who may bristle at having a new boss. Expect a period of transition as you settle in, and make sure you clearly communicate any planned changes to the staff. This will help them know what to expect, which will make the changeover period easier.

Set expectations

If the practice doesn’t have an employee handbook, work with an attorney to create one. If it does, have a lawyer review it to make sure it complies with all current federal and state laws, including those governing leave.

The manual should clearly outline expectations for employee performance. However, Briggs cautions against creating a rubric that’s too rigid, as any intervention may require your flexibility and judgment. A basic framework for disciplinary action typically graduates in severity and includes coaching, verbal warnings, written warnings, performance improvement plans and finally termination.

Commit to communication

Briggs observes that the most common reason for termination is interpersonal conflict. It ranks ahead of performance issues related to skill competence or even attendance. He advises dentists to train office managers on good human resources communication and documentation.

However, Briggs warns against using the office manager as a barrier. “Staff may be concerned to take issues to Doctor,” he says. “But it’s good to keep an open door.”

When addressing an employee’s performance issues, there are times where it is appropriate to let affected coworkers know about it. However, it’s vital to balance an employee’s expectation of privacy with the practice’s need to ensure work is done efficiently. For example, if a hygienist has received a number of patient complaints, you may make a point of having your front desk ask patients if they enjoyed their visit, then report the results back to you.

It’s important to document your conversations with an employee when addressing a performance concern. Briggs recommends emailing yourself or setting up an HR email account at your practice and sending documentation about all interventions, including coaching and verbal warnings, to that address. That makes it easy for you to document these issues while making information searchable and time-stamped.

Offer a graceful exit

If termination becomes necessary, you need to be wary of those most likely to sue. “Employers tend to be at less risk if the employee quits rather than you terminating them,” Briggs says. “Sometimes stern discipline with a warning that you will let the employee go is enough to get them looking for another job. Other times, you may want to offer a severance package to incentivize them to go.”

The rule of thumb for severance packages is to offer the employee a week of pay for each year worked at the practice. If that’s something you offer, have the employee sign an attorney-prepared release agreement to protect the practice.

Protect against risk

Before firing an employee, check to see if you are insured against wrongful termination claims. Then answer the following questions:

Did you document the employee’s unacceptable behavior, as well as your recommendations for how they could correct any problems, in writing?

Did the employee know they were going to be fired?

Did the employee have a channel for bringing concerns forward?

Is the employee a litigious person who may be looking for a bigger audience to listen to their side of the story?

If you have concerns about any of these areas, it’s time to consult your attorney.

While terminations are never fun, Briggs reminds dentists that a well-managed change can restore harmony among the staff. “If you’re on the roller coaster, it’s time to get off,” he says.