Optometric Management Tip # 194   -   Wednesday, October 05, 2005
Staff Issues: Personal Email and Phone Use

Based on the email I receive from readers and my work with doctors nationwide, staff issues are the biggest challenge we face in practice management. An excellent staff is vital to success in optometric practice, but staff management can be complex and very time consuming. Recognizing this need, Iíll write a recurring series of tips on real-world employee problems. To alert you to that subject area, Iíll start the title with the words ďstaff issuesĒ. Of course, Iíll still write many tips on non-staff topics and those will be interspersed as good ideas arise.

While these staff articles will often be directed at doctors, practice executives and office managers, they will also be beneficial for other staff members to read. Iím well aware that my readership is very diverse. Iíll try to make each tip specific enough to be of real value, but Iíll also respectfully acknowledge that every practice is different and my way is not the only way. I welcome your comments and topic ideas for this series.

Last weekís tip was about the business uses of the Internet, which opens up the potential for abuse when employees use websites and email for personal reasons. While itís much older technology, the telephone is another business tool that is often overused by employees for personal reasons. There are a couple of different scenarios: the busy doctor who is not even aware that staff members routinely use office phones and computers for personal reasons, and the doctor who is aware that it happens but canít control it.

Employment Policies

The simple and obvious solution for excessive personal business being conducted during work hours is to have a policy. In my opinion, all practices should have an employment manual, even with a very small staff, and phone and Internet policy should be part of that. The manual is simply a written record of the rules of employment, which change over time and cover a variety of issues.

There are two underlying factors that I look to when I make up an employment policy. I use these points to guide my decisions and I refer to them openly with staff when a policy is explained. 1) Policies should first address what is best for the patients and practice. Employers must be aware, however, that the wants and needs of employees are also very important and should be considered, even if secondary. 2) The issue of fairness to all employees should constantly be scrutinized and fairness underlies the implementation of all employment policies.

I happen to agree with the concept that office computers and phones are for business use only, but as a good manager, I care about the wants and needs of my staff and I know there are legitimate extenuating circumstances. So a strict policy against all personal calls will likely cause unhappiness among staff and wonít work anyway because exceptions will arise.

I prefer to have a policy that prohibits the personal use of phones and computers, but allows for the exceptions, such as a short check-in call from a child or other urgent family needs. My policy is that only personal phone calls for family business or emergency are acceptable, and they should be very seldom and very brief. All other calls should be placed during lunch or before and after work. During these times, an office phone is available in the staff lounge, which may be used for local calls only. Staff cell phones should be turned off during working hours. Since telephone use is easily monitored and also works better for urgent family needs, it is the only acceptable method of personal communication, eliminating personal email altogether. My key staff departments each have a business email address which is used for office business only.

Viruses, Worms, Spam and Spyware

The threat of harmful rogue programs is very real and they can literally destroy valuable data and programs. They enter both network servers and local hard drives when certain email is opened or when certain websites are visited. The risk is minimal (but not eliminated) if you only open email from trusted sources and if you only visit websites of reputable companies in our industry. All practices should have up-to-date security software running at all times, but the threat is another valid reason to limit employee usage of office computers to business purposes. Itís helpful to be sure staff members are aware of this.

Supervision is needed

To prevent any policy from abuse, staff supervision is needed. In optometric practices, thatís usually the doctorsí and office managerís role. Without supervision, a policy meant to be considerate of staff needs can become abused to the point of embezzlement of paid time and create serious morale problems if some staff members push the policy well beyond its intent. Itís not only counterproductive to the practice (violates policy rule #1), but itís also unfair to those who abide by the policy (violates policy rule #2).

It goes without saying that the supervisor must have the best interest of the practice at heart and fully support the employment policies. If the office manager abuses the email and phone policy, and allows other staff members to do the same, itís worse than no policy at all.

If you think there is a problem, you could monitor long distance charges on the phone bill and follow up on any numbers that are frequently called. You can also monitor the Internet search engine log history and email programs for personal use. I donít think this is overly intrusive as long as employees are informed in advance that the practice exists. Too much ďbig brotherĒ snooping can become demoralizing; there should be a basic trust that employees are doing the right thing.

There is a natural tendency to take a hard line on staff policies, but a smart manager will balance the needs of the business with reasonable staff needs. More on this balance to come.


Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management