Last night I watched Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and was struck by a scene featuring sailors mucking decks, while being berated by their supervisors.

I wasn’t too surprised when moments later several jumped ship, all too happy to leave the “employment” of Blackbeard behind, at the first sight of land. I’m not accusing practice owners of running their “ship” like Blackbeard, but when the economy is down and your ship is the only option available, it’s easy to keep your sailors on board. When the tide changes, and it is, and other employment options become available, the risk of losing team members increases. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid losing your top talent.

In Jobs Report: Turnover at veterinary hospitals might worsen as economy improves, study says Rachael Whitcomb explains that with the job market improving, the dissatisfied employees who have been sitting tight during the recession, are at a higher risk of jumping ship. Rachael cites a 2009 study by the American Animal Hospital Association which puts annual turnover at 30%. Another more recent study by Metlife estimated that 34% of small business employees would be somewhere other than with their current employer at the end of 2011. Both studies confirm what I’ve been seeing and that is 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 resulting in the laying off of employees or at the least, pushing your 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 amongst employees, makes them 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?

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
  • Room for advancement
  • Sense of belonging to a "team"

Most practice managers and owners are aware of the above, but knowing it and creating an environment that offers it is something different all together. For example, I spoke with a practice recently that just lost an associate who had a passion for doing acupuncture and left to start her own business. In doing my due diligence, I spoke with the associate as well and she left only because the 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 have to leave because an owner wouldn’t take the time to get to know his employees and help them grow within the practice. To avoid this situation, consider the following:

1. Make a list of meaningful projects that need to be completed. For some practices it could be the need to create a reminder system for clients, for others it could be addressing the flow of the practice, for others it could be the management of employees or even the revision of job descriptions.

2. Evaluate the potential for new services such as dentistry, obedience classes or nutritional counseling.

3. Meet one-on-one with each employee and ask her what her professional interests and goals are. You may have an employee with a hidden talent or interest that, if utilized, will benefit the practice and keep her on board.

4. When hiring a new employee, ask him the same questions. If he doesn’t have answers, you’ll dodge a bullet by not hiring him. Assuming he has thought about his future and has answers, consider whether or not they mesh with the practice’s goals or needs.

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, not through asking unfortunately, that one of her technicians was a computer whizz. Upon discovering this, the clinic was able to utilize her in integrating a new computer system. The tech 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 timeline than if she’d tried to do it herself in her spare time. Giving staff the opportunity to pursue their interests, when also in the best interest of the clinic, will leave them with a sense of empowerment and appreciation.

Cultivating a sense of team 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 be. Staff members are more likely to stay if they feel like they are an integral part of the team and that their co-workers depend on them. Foster this sense of team by:

1. Cross-training. Client service representatives and technicians often do not appreciate what the other does because they have never done it themselves. Create an orientation program for all new hires, and put your current staff through it, that requires them to spend a few days in each part of the hospital. Yes this will take time, but it’s better to invest time on the front end than lose staff, and production, on the backend.

2. Utilizing staff meetings (But don’t have a staff meeting just for the sake of having a meeting). Our staff meetings incorporate some sort of CE as well as strategic planning so that each member of the staff is kept aware of our “vision” and has the opportunity to add their 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.

3. 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.

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 even 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 above suggestions won’t overcome a year’s worth of pushing and burning out your staff, but by addressing the factors that lead to job satisfaction, you can begin rebuilding, or even building, a bond with your staff. Doing so will increase staff morale, quality of medicine, customer service and help in keeping your team from jumping ship at the fast approaching sight of land!