I recently had dinner with a practice owner, Dr. X we’ll call her, who was venting about an associate she recently let go.

Dr. A, as we’ll call the associate, had been working for the practice for nine years and was virtually “minting” money. She had the highest average client transaction, well over $100 beyond the national average, had a loyal client base and practiced good medicine. Given an associate like that, one might wonder, what is there to complain about?

The problem with Dr. A is that she often showed up late for work, she didn’t participate in mandatory staff meetings, was not a “team player” and walked around with the air of “I’m the best, and I know it.” Dr. X knew that given Dr. A’s personality and attitude, that she wasn’t the right fit for her practice. She had been debating, for years, letting Dr. A go, but just couldn’t come to grips with turning such a productive associate loose. Finally, after losing several key staff members, who told Dr. X in their exit interviews that they just couldn’t stand to work with Dr. A any longer, Dr. X made the tough decision to terminate Dr. A’s employment.

What did keeping Dr. A for nine years, all the while knowing she wasn’t the right fit, cost Dr. X and the practice? In addition to losing several longtime support staff members, the decision to keep the wrong person in the hospital cost Dr. X much more. Dr. X gave Dr. A the standard 30 day termination notice and during the next 30 days, Dr. A acquired and contacted the practice’s top 50 clients, interviewed and accepted a job within a five mile radius (yes, there was a non-compete, but that is a different story) and when she eventually left, she took two technicians and a handful of the practice’s top clients with her. In the end, Dr. X estimated the practice lost upwards of a $200,000 in potential revenue due to the lost clients, and the cost of replacing the support staff and doctor. Still don’t think finding the right fit is important?

For many years, practice owners used the shortage of veterinarians in this country as an excuse for settling for the first veterinarian that came along with even the basic skills required to do the job. Even I must admit that it makes sense, at least superficially—there were so few job seekers that many practices didn’t think they could afford to be picky. Job seekers on the other hand, even though they could have their pick of jobs, knew that there were a plethora of opportunities out there. They often based their employment decisions on money, knowing they could always pick up and move when they grew tired of that employer.

Five years ago, the average new graduate could expect to receive roughly four job offers (DVM360). The Veterinary Information Network predicted that would number would be down closer to 1-2 job offers for 2011 graduates. The tables have turned and today it would seem that practice have the right to be picky, while job seekers are now in the hot seat. Even though practices that are hiring may be receiving more resumes than they would have five years ago, many continue to make the same short-sighted, poor hiring decisions they’ve always made. For practices, hiring on skill alone will get them no further than it ever has. Failing to determine, and screen for, the right candidate will cost them on multiple levels ranging from turnover to quality of medicine, to employee morale to profitability.

Practice growth has been stunted for the past few years. Given the economy, and for the first time in about 60 years, practices didn’t enjoy the “standard” 8%-10% growth rate that they had for so long. According to NCVEI, over 50% of practices did report an increase in revenue for 2010 compared to 2009, but most reported an increase of less than 5%. What is interesting is that during the past few years of the economic downturn, some practices—regardless of their geographic location—reported growth of 20%-30%. Why the difference, you ask? While there has been no specific study to address this, based on speaking with veterinary consultants, food/drug/supply reps and my own experience evaluating practices of all shapes and sizes across the country, it is widely accepted that it is customer service and client education that sets these practices apart. We’ve also noticed a strong correlation between the aforementioned and having the right staff working together on the same page.

The American Animal Hospital Association published this disturbing statistic in 2009: the average turnover rate in veterinary practices is 30% per year, making it one of the worst turnover rates in any professional industry. The cost of turnover should be obvious to practice owners, but for those who don’t understand it, the US Department of Labor estimates that it costs an employer 1.5 to 2 times an employee’s salary to replace that person. To put numbers to that, if you assume a salary of $70,000, an employer is incurring a cost of $105,000 to $140,000 to replace that veterinarian. That includes costs such as lost productivity, lost clients, training, salary, benefits, etc. The number one cause of turnover, according to a presentation by My Exceptional Veterinary Team at NAVC 2010 (as reported by associates who have changed employers) is personality conflicts. Selecting the right veterinarian, manager or support staff team member for your practice starts with performing an honest evaluation of your practice. The “culture” of a practice is the most important factor that hiring managers need to consider before even beginning speaking with candidates.

As practice owners, we all want to think that our practice is above average (75% of people rate themselves “above average”). We like to think we don’t suffer from the management issues, personality conflicts and “drama” with which our peers have to deal. The reality, though, is that we all have our faults and we must admit and address them before hiring. For example, some owners are micromanagers. If you fit that category, you have two options: 1. Quit being a micromanager (which is much easier said than done!) 2. Screen for candidates who fit your management style. You are much more likely to be successful in finding the right fit if you are honest with yourself about your weaknesses, and then hire based on finding someone who can live with those weaknesses. How do you do that?

Make a List
Prior to beginning the recruiting process, consider the following:

  • What is my management style?
  • How do I motivate people?
  • How do I handle conflict?
  • What is my learning/teaching style?
  • What type of personality does best in my practice?
  • What type of communication style works best with my current staff?
  • Are there any particular character traits I need in a new hire?
  • What are my expectations - technical, medical, customer service, management, etc. for a new hire?
  • What are my goals for my new hire?

Upon understanding what type of person fits best with your staff, it’s time to communicate this with the person or firm (some practices choose to outsource their hiring to a recruiting specialist) doing your hiring. Many practice owners feel like they must do the hiring themselves, but that is typically a poor business decision due to time taken away from practicing medicine, managing current staff and dealing with clients, and based on historical trends, is not very effective anyway. Whether you choose to do the hiring yourself or not, it is wise to take the results of the self and practice evaluations and integrate what you’ve learned and decided into the hiring process. Determining the right fit via the interview process is crucial. I suggest the following steps:

1. Evaluate your practice, team and self to identify any areas that may affect your ability to attract and retain top talent
2. Address any issues that arose from #1 above
3. Build a Job Description and Job Ad
4. Thoroughly Screen Applicants

  • Cull resumes
  • Conduct phone interviews
  • Conduct working, or face-to-face, interviews
  • Check references
  • Run a background check

5. Utilize a Personality Assessment

Build a Job Description and Job Ad
Many practices in today’s hiring environment make the mistake of telling prospective candidates exactly what they want in the job ad. This probably sounds like exactly what you’d want to do, but the unfortunate truth is that given today’s job market, many candidates will apply and interview for jobs they know are not good long-term fits, simply because they’re desperate for work. If you give too much of what you’re looking for away in the ad, you’ll attract candidates who will say and act the way you’ve told them you want them to…that is, until you hire them and then their true colors come out. To avoid this pitfall, it is best to create a thorough job description to use internally, but then publicize a basic, condensed version for your job ad. Doing so will allow you to attract a variety of candidates and then screen them.

Screen Thoroughly
I continue to be amazed (and not in a good way!) how nonchalantly many practice owners and managers take the hiring process. I’ve spoken with a more than a handful of 2011 veterinary graduates that have been offered a job after only a phone interview. Many of the practices that do conduct phone interviews actually do so in such a casual manner that neither the interviewer nor interviewee gets enough information to make an educated decision about the potential fit. Failing to conduct a thorough phone interview wastes both the hiring manager’s and candidate’s time. If a hire is made based on these results, it is likely to end in failure. The days of asking a candidate to describe their strengths/weaknesses is long behind us because decades of high turnover have proven that more is needed from an interview to help determine the suitability of a candidate. Interviewees are now encouraged to ask experiential and situational questions that force applicants to describe, specifically, how they have behaved in past situations. Thorough reference checks add another measure of accountability, countering the risk of candidates telling us what they think we want to hear. Phone interviews are used to narrow down the applicant pool so that that each party can focus their time on opportunities that seem like a good fit. A working interview should last several days and gives both the practice and candidate a chance to interact in person. Even the best interviewer or interviewee can misjudge a potential fit based solely on a phone interview, hence the importance of spending time together at the clinic.

Personality Assessments
Personality assessments, and there are many great ones out there ranging from Myers-Briggs to Disc to Wonderlic, are another great tool to include in your hiring tool box. Personality assessments should not be used as the sole reason to hire/accept an offer, but with 70% of turnover linked to personality conflicts, they are an important tool that few practices or candidates take advantage of. A good personality assessment will help each party, the employer and job seeker, learn more about their communication skills, strengths/weaknesses, management preferences, etc. It will also offer suggestions for overcoming any “weaknesses.” We all have personality flaws, and in addition to making both parties aware of these characteristics, a personality assessment should help you learn how to work with people possessing different personalities. Just like some people learn visually, others verbally and others physically, there is not necessarily a right or wrong personality type. But if you don’t understand the “style” of the people with whom you’re working, then team moral, patient and client care, and productivity will be compromised.

Find the Right Fit
An abundance of veterinarians, at least in some parts of the country, can make it tempting to loosen your hiring standards knowing that you can always find a replacement if your hire doesn’t work out. As a business owner, however, you cannot afford to make this mistake and finding the right fit is more important than ever in having a successful, productive practice. Find the right fit by first evaluating your needs, making internal changes where needed and then doing a thorough job of screening your potential employee to see if values, goals, and personalities mesh.