Assistant retention problem

March 19, 2015
I am a solo practitioner with a fairly small practice. I have one business assistant, one hygienist, and one chairside assistant. Over the past 12 months, three different chairside assistants in my practice have quit. In all three situations, they quit without notice. The first two assistants did not get along well with my business assistant, and the third one called me at home to say she would not be back due to the "stress in my office." Since she refused to elaborate, I'm left to wonder what she meant, although I suspect it has something to do with my business assistant. The stress of having to hire someone new again is really taking its toll on me. Am I the only one who seems to hire people who can't get along with one another? Any suggestions?

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA

Dear Dianne,

I am a solo practitioner with a fairly small practice. I have one business assistant, one hygienist, and one chairside assistant. Over the past 12 months, three different chairside assistants in my practice have quit. In all three situations, they quit without notice. The first two assistants did not get along well with my business assistant, and the third one called me at home to say she would not be back due to the "stress in my office." Since she refused to elaborate, I'm left to wonder what she meant, although I suspect it has something to do with my business assistant. The stress of having to hire someone new again is really taking its toll on me. Am I the only one who seems to hire people who can't get along with one another? Any suggestions?

- Dr. Ed

Dear Dr. Ed,

It is no coincidence that three staff members have "divorced" you within a year. When even one staff member leaves because of interpersonal conflicts with another staff member, you should be concerned.

This reminds me of a situation several years ago in a client office where one staff member bullied other staff members, particularly new hires. The doctor shared with me that the "bully" assistant was excellent at chairside, but several other staff members had left because of her. When I interviewed each staff member privately, I found two staff members in that office who were on the verge of leaving because of harsh and abrasive treatment from the bullying assistant. I'll never forget the defensive stance this assistant took with me when I interviewed her, and she let me know quickly that she didn't want me there. Can you guess what my recommendation was to the doctor? Either terminate this bully assistant, or risk losing more excellent team members.

New hires are like tender bedding plants you put in your garden. Before you plant, you first have to prepare the soil by removing the weeds and breaking up the dirt. The tender bedding plants are purchased and carefully planted, paying attention to spacing. From experience, you understand that adequate moisture is essential for any bedding plants to take root and grow, especially right after planting. So you water accordingly.

Your new hires should not be "planted" in unprepared soil. You first have to make sure that your office "soil" is well prepared and free of gossip or other negative forces that could stifle growth. After you make your choice, you should treat your candidate like a tender bedding plant by making sure he or she gets plenty of "moisture" in the form of praise and careful direction.

If people tromp through the garden with heavy boots, the tender plants will be broken and are not likely to survive. The same is true for your new staff members. When they are thrown into work situations with inadequate training and high or unrealistic expectations, the result is likely to be an inability to thrive. Unfortunately, too many new hires are cast into "sink or swim" situations that sabotage their chances of successfully integrating into the practice. They are carelessly "planted" into toxic work situations among coworkers who have little interest in whether the new hire does well or not. Coworkers might even become jealous if they see the boss praising the new hire while neglecting the other staff members.

My recommendation to you is to hire two people - a new business assistant (after you terminate the one who is responsible for three people leaving) and a new chairside assistant. If you refuse to deal with the root of the problem, it is unlikely that your turnover situation will improve.

All the best,

Dianne

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA,is a consultant, speaker, and author. She helps good practices become better through practical on-site consulting. Her book, "Manage Your Practice Well," is available at www.professionaldentalmgmt.com. For consulting or speaking inquiries, contact Dianne at [email protected] or call her at (301) 874-5240.

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