Something Smelly ….

Dec. 1, 2012
I have a dental assistant who’s been with me for five years. She’s a great assistant and I love working with her.

By Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, MBA

Dear Dianne,

I have a dental assistant who’s been with me for five years. She’s a great assistant and I love working with her. The problem is that my other staff members don’t like her. While my assistant is great at chairside, she has clashed with almost everyone in the office (except me). Over the five years she’s been with me, I’ve lost two very good staff members because of her. She has a tough exterior and is a very no-nonsense person. Just today my hygienist came to me privately and complained about “coarse and hateful” behavior from this assistant. Should I fire this very competent assistant?

Dr. Rob

Dear Dr. Rob,

Once I went on a weeklong business trip. When I came home, there was a bad odor wafting throughout my house. Upon investigation, I found a rotten potato in my potato bin. It’s hard to believe one little rotten potato could so thoroughly stink up my house. In fact, I had to throw out the whole bag of potatoes because of that one rotten one. The stench had permeated every potato in the bag.

You probably know where I’m going with this analogy. You have a rotten potato in your ranks. If you don’t get rid of her, she will eventually contaminate the whole group.

There’s a reason your other staff members don’t like this assistant. More than likely, it’s because she lacks the social skills needed to function effectively within the group. She’s carrying some personal baggage into your practice that causes her to exhibit “coarse and hateful” behavior with her coworkers. The only reason her grenades have not hit you is because she’s using you as her shield. She obviously knows you value her competence at chairside, and she probably feels (since you’ve allowed her behavior to span five years) that she’s “fireproof.” I advise you to show her to the door, if for no other reason out of respect for your other staff members. The fact that you’ve lost other good staffers because of her is proof enough that she does not know how to get along well with others.

To be successful in the working world, people need two things. First, they need excellent clinical or technical expertise. That’s why we go to school and take continuing-education courses, to be good at what we do. But that’s not enough. The other thing that is a necessity is excellent communication skills. Communication includes the ability to get along with coworkers. This is especially true in small businesses where people must interact closely with one another.

It’s not your duty as her employer to be her counselor or psychiatrist. It is your duty to provide a work environment that is free from “coarse and hateful” behavior from staff members toward one another. Would you retain this staff member if her chairside skills were lousy, but she was sweet and gentle-natured? Probably not, since her chairside deficits would interfere with your ability to be productive. Consider that her lack of interpersonal skills is also costly. Losing good staff members because of her negative behavior carries a high cost in dollars and office morale.

I hope you will determine not to let this “rotten potato” damage your practice ever again. There’s only one way to deal with a rotten potato — get rid of it! Your other staff members will respect you for taking action in this situation. Then make sure your next assistant has a good attitude. Be sure to carefully check references. A good attitude and strong work ethic are the two most important traits for any potential employee. Attitude is one thing that cannot be taught.

All the best,


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 for purchase at For consulting or speaking inquiries, contact Dianne at [email protected] or call her at (301) 874-5240.

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