Th 75219

How attractive is your package?

Oct. 1, 2001
Attracting excellent staff is key to your success.

Attracting excellent staff is key to your success.

by Gregory L. Psaltis, DDS

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My office advertised for a sterilization assistant, and I was pleased and excited that Tricia, a former patient, had applied for the job. Tricia and her brother were long-standing patients in my pediatric practice until they reached the point that they "didn't feel right coming to a children's dentist anymore." I had known their father outside of the practice and became acquainted with their mother through my care for the children. I felt Tricia would be an excellent fit for our team concept. She had married and was working at a local grocery store as a checker on the night shift. She didn't like the hours and wanted to make a career change. She said that dentistry had been an idea she'd had for quite a while. After her interview and our explanation of the job, my staff and I agreed that she was the best candidate. It seemed we had the ideal situation — a qualified, enthusiastic new employee. Tricia was thrilled that she got the job and came in to review the final details. Unfortunately, our offer was clearly far below what she thought she would be earning, and she told us she'd have to "think about it a little." The next day she called to say that accepting the job would represent a significant pay cut for her, and that she and her husband just didn't think they could afford it. She turned the job down.

Today's job market has become increasingly competitive in terms of offering attractive benefit packages for workers. When I learned what Tricia was earning as a checker in a grocery store, I was quite amazed to realize that from a salary standpoint, there was almost no way we could provide a competitive offer to her in dollars and cents. As a result, she is still working nights away from her husband and family. Dentistry has much it can offer: a workplace in a professional setting with regular, predictable hours that rarely, if ever, involve shift work, and gives employees the opportunity to have actual hands-on ways of helping people. In short, there are many benefits that don't show up on the paycheck. However, to attract skilled people to your dental team, you still will need to have a benefit package that elevates the worth of the job for the applicant.

Some employees may view their paychecks as the alpha and omega of their benefits. We can alleviate this misconception by providing a detailed explanation of the total benefit package. Not only can this serve as a source of information, much like the Conditions of Employment (see "The Rules of the Game," Dental Economics, August, 2000), it also can serve as a reminder of which benefits are available.

For example, if the practice participates in a retirement plan and the employees aren't even aware of it, then the concept of the retirement plan being a "benefit" is moot. It has become more common for employees to expect certain benefits. By not establishing an attractive package, it may eliminate some talented candidates for positions in your practice.

In addition to the concept of attracting qualified people, I view the benefit package as a reflection of my own values and my desire to share those values with the people who work with me. That is, while the standard of living dental assistants can expect cannot approach that of dentists, I feel that the benefits you offer can make a favorable impact on the essential elements of their lives. This kind of consideration for your staff members helps them see some of the value beyond the actual dollars and cents. The benefit plan we offer our employees is reflective of benefits that we would want for ourselves and for our families. Let's look at some specifics of a benefit package.

Retirement plan
After medical insurance (see left), I would put a retirement plan as the next most important. My thinking on this is that most dental employees will be young and may not have even begun to consider putting money aside for retirement. Given the fragile state of Social Security, I have worked toward establishing my own future security on the assumption that I will ultimately receive nothing from Social Security. These are thoughts that never entered my mind when I was in my 20s, but are extremely important to me now. I also have a much greater grasp of how time and compounding interest can change a person's future with some careful forethought.

I have discussed these issues on many occasions with my employees. I encourage them to set dollars aside now, so that 40 years from now — when they are at retirement age — their "small monthly contributions" will have expanded into significant nest eggs.

Consult an accountant regarding the type of retirement plan that is best for your practice. Many options are available, including 401(k), profit-sharing, SARSEPP, and others. Some require significant management fees, and others are quite simple. Have your CPA review the various plans with you to help you see the advantages and disadvantages of each.

In our practice, we started a SARSEPP (Salary Reduction Simplified Employee Pension Plan) years ago. It enables each employee to withhold an amount (up to a legal limit) from each paycheck (this is the salary reduction part), and then the business adds a contribution at the owner's discretion at the end of the year. Other plans require a vesting period that enables the owner to front-end load many dollars before contributing to the employees' funds when they qualify. These are policy decisions that the dentist must make.

Vacation or "Days off"
This is a benefit that may take many forms. It provides the dentist with the opportunity to make the package more attractive without spending any money! In particular, to increase the "value" of this benefit, each employee can take vacation days at any time. The feasibility of this plan may depend on the size of your dental team and its ability to adjust the routine with people absent.

We have 14 employees, so we are fairly flexible in being able to adjust. When the practice designates the times when employees can take vacations, it may appear to be less of a benefit — unless you involve your staff in selecting those times. It is hard to fathom that a designated vacation week would miraculously encompass family weddings, graduations, time-share weeks, etc. If I were an employee again, I don't think I would want my employer dictating my vacation times.

My partner and I offer one week of vacation after one complete year of employment, and two weeks after two complete years of employment. Recently, we adapted our Conditions of Employment (see "The Rules of The Game," Dental Economics, August, 2000, pages 110-117) to incorporate our vacation time with our "sick days." That is, until a couple of years ago, we had two separate categories that were independent of each other.

My perception of the "sick days," (or "well days" as we began calling them), was that the employees felt they had lost something if they hadn't used them. Our first strategy was to pay them for unused sick days at the end of the year.

However, it dawned on us that it could become yet another benefit if we simply combined the two categories under the heading of "Days off." The incentive became that the fewer days taken for sickness, the more days would be available for vacation time. It has worked well and is perceived as an added benefit. It has also reduced the number of days missed due to marginal sickness.

There are many other benefits that are possible. Among them are uniforms, dental insurance (although you may provide the care yourself), profit-sharing, bonuses, and more. It is my belief that the more your benefits reflect both the literal value as well as your degree of caring and commitment for your personnel, the more likely you will be able to retain your existing employees and attract new ones.

Given the realities of today's economy, where, for example, Starbucks makes each employee a shareholder, you will have situations like Tricia's, where you cannot match an offer. Furthermore, there will be people who will only view the dollar figure on their paycheck as the "total package," no matter how attractive your benefits are. The best strategy is to make certain that your benefit package is genuine and reflects your own values, so that it doesn't appear cheap. If it does appear minimal, you will attract the people whose performance may reflect that notion.

Make your benefit package reflect the type of employee you are trying to attract. It's not a coincidence that it will accomplish exactly that objective.

Medical insurance
This has practically become a necessity for employers to offer employees. It is important to set the guidelines for the plan, such as the timing for when the employee becomes eligible, the plan itself, and what happens if an individual wants to use a different plan.

In our practice, we have the same plan for all employees, including the doctors. I feel it is important for the employees to know that they are offered the identical plan that the doctors have chosen for themselves. As an employer, it is wise to consider the actual needs of your employees in the same manner as you would view your own needs.

Any suggestion of a "cheap" alternative will reflect unfavorably on your practice. We offer employees the option of selecting their own health plans, but we specify the actual dollar amount we are willing to pay. If the plan they choose exceeds the monthly premiums we pay, it is the employee's responsibility to cover the difference.

We also specify that health insurance only begins once the employee has passed the probationary period, so there is no confusion about when the benefit becomes effective.

Continuing education
Continuing education is another way to provide a significant benefit to your employees if you can see it as a way to increase the skills and morale of your employees. For example, taking your entire group to an out-of-town meeting may be expensive, but in terms of the good-will and cohesiveness it generates, it may be priceless.

In our practice, we specify dollar amounts we will pay for food and lodging at out-of-town meetings, so there is no confusion about those issues. We usually have a group conversation about the meetings we could attend and together decide on which one. This has been effective. We can spend time together outside of the office and outside of the confines of our tight daily schedule.

In many cases, our employees have indicated that these trips would have been impossible for them to afford on their own, and they are grateful. Once, when we went to a meeting in New Orleans, several employees told us it was the first time in their lives they had been east of the Mississippi River.

Skills learned in continuing education may be applicable well beyond the workplace. We routinely work with a consultant who comes into our practice three or four times a year. During those sessions, we learn about issues such as communication skills, conflict resolution, future planning, and other issues that arise both in our professional and personal lives. The emphasis is on the practice setting, but its usefulness in our personal lives is a special benefit.

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