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Practice Management

Keep Your Top Talent From Running for the Hills

by Stith Keiser
    Woman running

    Last night, I watched Hell on Wheels, a new series on AMC set around the United States’ westward expansion via the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the 1800s. I was struck by a scene of railroad workers digging up the earth with picks and shovels while being berated by the foreman. While the workers sweated under the hot summer sun, a party of horsemen rode up and offered a bounty to anyone who would join a posse in the search for an outlaw. The foreman made it clear that the workers weren’t allowed to leave and quickly “encouraged” them to get back to work with the sharp lashes of his tongue and whip. I wasn’t too surprised when later that night, under the cover of darkness, several of the workers ran for the hills, all too happy to leave the employment of the foreman in exchange for greener pastures.

    Now, I’m not accusing practice owners of running their businesses like that railroad foreman, but when the economy is down and your crew is the only option available, even unhappy, disgruntled employees will stay out of fear of finding nothing better. Just as with the show, though, when better opportunities start riding in, the risk of losing team members increases. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid losing your top talent.

    Are Your Employees Ready to Run?

    In her article “Jobs report: Turnover at veterinary hospitals might worsen as economy improves, study says,”1 Rachael Whitcomb explains that with the job market improving, dissatisfied employees who have been sitting tight during the recession are at a higher risk of riding off into the sunset with another employer. Whitcomb cites a 2008 study by the American Animal Hospital Association that put annual turnover at 30%, as well as another, more recent, study by MetLife estimating that 34% of small business employees wanted to be somewhere other than with their current employer by the end of 2011. Both studies confirm what I’ve been seeing: given the improving economy, employees no longer have to settle for a practice they’re not happy with.

    Many practice owners have been compensating for declining client visits and decreasing revenue by trying to make do with less, often laying off employees or, at least, pushing their current staff to the max to avoid having to hire. Getting more from less sounds like a great strategy, but the long-term effects, most commonly burnout, lack of feeling appreciated, and job dissatisfaction, make employees all the more likely to seek alternative employment now that opportunities are increasing.

    The question remains, then, how can practice managers and owners who have pushed and burned out their staff to compensate for limited resources rebuild a bond with their employees and retain them as the job market improves and their own situation gets better?

    Lay the Tracks for Employee Loyalty

    Studies show that while money is a great “reward” for hard work, employees actually place more value on the following when it comes to job satisfaction:

    • Feeling of empowerment
    • Feeling appreciated
    • Having room for advancement
    • Having the sense of belonging to a team

    Most practice managers and owners are aware that employees want fulfillment in their work, but knowing that and creating an environment that offers it are altogether different. For example, I recently worked with a practice that had just had an associate leave to start her own business. In doing my due diligence, I spoke with the associate, who had a passion for acupuncture, and she told me that her only reason for leaving was that the practice owner wasn’t willing to help integrate acupuncture into the clinic. The owner may have had his reasons for this (maybe the clientele wouldn’t support it), but it pains me to see an associate who was happy at work leave because an owner wouldn’t take the time to get to know his employees and help them grow within the practice.

    To avoid the above situation, consider the following:

    • Make a list of meaningful projects that need to be completed. Examples include creating a reminder system for clients, addressing the flow of the practice, managing employees, or revising job descriptions.
    • Evaluate the potential for new services, such as dentistry, obedience classes, or nutritional counseling.
    • Meet one-on-one with each employee and ask what his or her professional interests and goals are. You may have an employee with a hidden talent or interest that, if used, will benefit the practice and keep the employee on board.
    • When hiring a new employee, ask the same questions about professional interests and goals. If the candidate doesn’t have answers, you’ll dodge a bullet by not hiring him or her. If the candidate can answer, consider whether his or her responses mesh with the practice’s goals or needs.

    Don’t Stop Halfway

    A common mistake I see many managers make is that even if they have the foresight to ask the above questions, they fail to follow through with them. Discovering that one of your associates has an interest in dentistry does neither you nor her any good if a plan is not developed to allow growth in that area. I recently had lunch with a client who found out (unfortunately, not through asking) that one of her technicians was a computer whiz. Upon discovering this, the clinic was able to use the technician’s expertise in integrating a new computer system. The technician was ecstatic that she was given the opportunity to contribute to a meaningful project, and the owner was able to have the computer system up and performing at its fullest in a much shorter time than if she’d tried to do it herself. Giving staff the opportunity to pursue their interests, when also in the best interest of the clinic, will give them a sense of empowerment and appreciation.

    Bring Everyone Together

    Cultivating a sense of teamwork is another valuable strategy for holding on to your staff. Some practice owners view the disconnect between front desk staff and technicians in the back as coming with the territory, but it shouldn’t. Staff members are more likely to stay if they feel like they are an integral part of the team and that their coworkers depend on them. You can foster this sense of teamwork by:

    • Cross-training.Client service representatives and technicians often do not appreciate each other’s responsibilities because they have never performed them themselves. Create an orientation program for all new hires that requires them to spend a few days in each part of the hospital. Put your current staff through it as well! Yes, this will take time, but it’s better to invest time on the front end than lose staff—and production—on the back end.
    • Having staff meetings.(But don’t have a staff meeting just for the sake of having a meeting.) At My Veterinary Career, staff meetings incorporate some sort of continuing education, as well as strategic planning to keep all staff members aware of our “vision” and give everyone the opportunity to add his or her two cents. Staff members who feel included and are given the opportunity to control their destiny are more likely to stay with the practice because they believe in where it’s headed.
    • Having fun! Whether you have a staff party for Halloween or Christmas, have a summer BBQ, or go bowling, allow your team the chance to laugh together and interact outside of the often stressful office environment.

    Recognize How Far You’ve Come

    The above strategies are great techniques for rebuilding a worn relationship, and never underestimate the value of a sincere “thank you.” More than likely, you’ve been working just as hard this past year as your staff, and you may appreciate all they’re doing, but if they don’t know it, you’ll lose them. Take a moment to say “thank you” or treat your staff to coffee and doughnuts. What you do isn’t as important as the message you’re conveying by taking the initiative to show your gratitude for what they’ve done and reassuring them that they’re doing it for the greater good of the team and the practice.


    Performing just any one of the suggestions in this article won’t overcome a year’s worth of pushing and burning out your employees, but by addressing the factors that lead to job satisfaction, you can begin rebuilding—or start building—a bond with your staff. Doing so will increase staff morale, quality of medicine, and customer service and help keep your team from mounting up and running for the hills!


    1. Whitcomb R. Jobs report: Turnover at veterinary hospitals might worsen as economy improves, study says. DVM Newsmagazine May 24, 2011. http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/dvm/Veterinary+news/Jobs-report-Turnover-might-worsen-as-economy-impro/ArticleStandard/Article/detail/723553. Accessed November 2011.

    Stith Keiser is CEO of My Veterinary Career.


    Did you know... 51% of veterinarians reported a net decrease in patient visits over the last two years, while 42% said that revenues decreased in 2010 as compared to 2009. Read More

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