A grand awakening

"Don't you do background checks on your employees?" - not the first thing I expected from the police officer to whom I had given a state identification number, but no less of a shocker when I heard the news.

Don’t you do background checks on your employees?” - not the first thing I expected from the police officer to whom I had given a state identification number, but no less of a shocker when I heard the news.

But as all good stories don’t begin almost at the end, let’s begin at the beginning. My practice is a very small, one-doctor operation. I have had one dental assistant and one office manager/front desk person for years. We are not a mega-operatory, multifunctional facility. We are one doctor with one operatory. It’s certainly not what all the practice-management professionals want your office to look like. That said, I have hired team members based on their written applications and my gut instincts. If I feel I am able to work with someone and she is willing to work with the parameters of my office hours, we’ll usually agree upon a salary and a starting date. Since my office is small and used only three days per week (I hear the gurus gasping!), we have unique time qualifications for our team.

Approximately six months ago, I hired a new business manager. On paper, she came highly qualified with experience in both medical and dental offices in the vicinity, one of which was a highly noted pediatric dental office not far from ours. She interviewed very well and knew all the right things to say at all the right times. After we hired her, she didn’t need much training from my former business manager. She had dental experience and was familiar with the language and operations of a dental office. She seemed to take on the office responsibilities fairly quickly.

Over the next few months however, she exhibited an inability to grasp some basic tenets of our office (of course, all offices are different). Our office runs the way I like it to run - which may or may not be like someone else’s - with our systems down to, what I thought, made it a functioning machine. I may have been more lenient than most dentists in waiting to discuss these issues with her because she had some medical problems crop up. So, I was patient.

Upon approaching her with the errors, she said, “OK, OK,” nodded and appeared to be hearing my corrections to her mistakes. She took notes during team meetings. We even had a signed document to the effect, “just in case you missed this part of the oral and written training, I want you to know how I really want things to go in the office.” I am not saying things were missing, rather that things were not done to my liking. And, as we all know, if we, the owner-dentists, can’t be the kings or queens of the little fiefdoms of our dental practices, then no one deserves that right.

I had scheduled a trip to the Yankee Dental Meeting, but never left my city because of the horrible weather at Logan. My new business manager was supposed to cover the office that Thursday, but she never made it. She called neither me nor my assistant, who would have gone in her place. The phone went unanswered and the messages from the service were not returned. She had several excuses - too many to list - but they didn’t make up for her not being there. By this point, I was thoroughly frustrated. I had been considering dismissing her for about two weeks, but since she had so many medical issues, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. She did confess that she had other things on her mind and she would be better from then on. My husband didn’t want me to dismiss her because he felt she needed the job. But it was my husband who finally asked me to have her state ID checked.

I went to the office on Saturday only to hear a patient’s voice mail: “This is Pat; my VISA card has been used incorrectly. Please do not put any more charges on it.” I called the police and I’m glad I did. A policeman arrived and I handed him the copy of my business manager’s expired state ID. He called it in and, within two minutes, said those fateful words that began this article. Apparently, my employee had outstanding arrest warrants for larceny, theft, traffic violations, and now - here’s where it gets very tricky - credit card and check fraud. Because the last warrant was more than 10 years ago, they didn’t know if it was credit card fraud or check fraud, but needless to say, she needed to be arrested. The officer explained the process. I would call in Monday morning and a policeman would come to the office, arrest her, and take her away. Simple? Well, yes, but not emotionally.

You never look into someone else’s pocketbook, but we could never understand how this woman, supposedly separated from her husband, could afford a large-screen TV, new furniture, and a diamond ring. The next thing I did that day was cancel my personal VISA account. Yes, my team has access to my charge account in case they order something for the office that needs immediate payment. The second thing I did was to call my patient to see if the bank that issued her VISA card could start a trace on the fraudulent charges.

On Monday morning, under the guise of an office meeting, we all sat in the small reception area of my office. Within minutes, two policemen arrived, arrested my office manager, asked her to return any items that belonged to me (such as door keys), and led her out.

She was booked on several outstanding warrants, paid bail, and was released on her own recognizance. She told lie upon lie to the police. Her lies ranged from the way she traveled to work - since she had no way to get a drivers license with all her outstanding warrants, she was not supposed to be driving - to her actual function at our office. She had several other claims, all false. She had two IDs on her, but we never found out which one represented her true identity. In all, it was quite an eye-opening experience.

That week, I also closed my office checking account even though I had no checks at the office. But, we did have bank deposit slips. The bank president told me that since the bank personnel were so familiar with her making office deposits, nothing would have stopped her from asking the personal bankers for some “desk checks” or blank checks with the account number typed on them. She could have obtained them under the guise of “The doctor needs a check immediately.”

To the best of my knowledge, she didn’t take any personal identity information from me or my patients. But, there is a concern about all the things she had access to during her tenure. Think about it - we are entrusted with patients’ social security numbers, credit card numbers, and several other forms of personal identification that are necessary when establishing (or stealing) someone’s identity. Only time will tell if anything was taken, and even then we may never know.

As I stated from the beginning, mine is not a mega-practice with consultants imposing their vast knowledge of management. We all learn from our mistakes, so I consulted an attorney. From now on, my application for employment will have a clause allowing our office to perform a background check on any potential employee. The candidate will either agree to it or look for employment elsewhere.

One final thought: When I informed my husband that I wanted to write about my experience with this whole mess, he asked if I was going to use my name. My attitude was that I had nothing to hide. I have a small practice - very inconsequential compared to the larger, more productive practices out there. Nevertheless, there may be many more offices - operating without the benefit of seven employment experts interviewing job candidates - that may benefit from my experience. Somehow, I do not feel I’m alone in the way I operate my office. I hope this is over, but fear it may not be. Clearly, the experience made me more aware of our social environment and its realities.

Dr. Sheri B. Doniger has been in a private practice of family and preventive dentistry for more than 20 years. She is currently focusing on issues concerning women's health and well-being. She can be contacted at (847) 677-1101 or via e-mail at donigerdental@aol.com

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