Optometric Management Tip # 582   -   Wednesday, May 08, 2013
Having a "Talk" with a Staff Member

Do you ever get that uncomfortable feeling when you know you should have a talk with an employee about some problem, but you kind of dread the whole process? The confrontation can be stressful and in many cases, the situation goes from bad to worse. Many doctors prefer to just put the whole thing off and live with the problem! In this article, I'll share some tips that will make it easier, based on my experience.

How you approach a meeting with a staff member depends greatly on the nature of the problem or the new concept you are proposing. My advice has to be general in nature but you should always consider the individual, the personality and the history surrounding the event that led to this conference. It is also important to consider who should be at the meeting. Some items are best discussed at a full staff meeting; other things may best be handled in a small group and sensitive matters should be handled with one-on-one private meetings. Be considerate and don't embarrass employees in front of co-workers. Be respectful and allow them their dignity.

Don't try to fix everything
My first bit of advice is to realize that the practice owner, doctor or office manager should not try to solve all minor petty complaints or squabbles. Sometimes getting embroiled into a battle over who did what to whom just deteriorates into a bigger mess than it was to begin with. It often works to just let people cool off and they often can resolve their difference themselves. This is why it is best for doctors and managers to not become close personal friends with staff. Be friendly and caring, but not best pals.

I think an important role for an office manager is to allow employees to vent about something and to offer some sympathy and understanding, but to not necessarily take action. This requires judgment because some complaints by staff are justifiable and could lead to a change in office policy or additional staff training in order to preserve fairness to all. But pick your battles carefully and be willing to let some things go by the wayside.

Start softly
Let's assume that the purpose of the meeting surrounds some behavior or performance issue with a specific staff member. It could be frequent tardiness, repeated errors, lack of team work or just a poor attitude.

If a behavior is hurting the practice, you really must address it. Don't make it a big deal, just find the staff member when she is not too busy and say you would like to talk for a minute. Go into a private office and sit down. Depending on the circumstances, try to lighten the mood. Realize that this employee is most likely worried about this private meeting and could be defensive. Smile. Start by saying something positive about this employee's work, if possible. Realize that employees can be extremely sensitive to criticism, so start calmly and slowly. Don't become angry; if you display any emotion, disappointment may be more appropriate. If the staff member becomes angry, be understanding about the feelings but ask her to try to be calm. Reassure her that you want to hear her side.

Ask questions first
Begin by describing what you have observed or what the problem is, and ask the employee to tell you what she knows about the issue. Try to not talk too much in the very beginning but ask for the employee's input. Ask how the employee feels and if there are any problems. You may want to state the obvious, such as "you don't seem to be happy on the job."

Listening to this input will help you decide where to go next in the discussion. If you have relied upon others for a description of a problem, be prepared for a different set of facts that might even change your mind. There are always two sides to a story and the truth probably lies somewhere in between. This is one reason why it is best to start the discussion by asking questions; your initial impression may change.

If you want to change or add to this employee's job duties, ask if she would like to accept the new task and let her know how it would help the practice.

Present the issue clearly
After gathering the facts, just follow your instincts about what is best for the practice. Try to be fair to all parties. Propose a compromise or ask this staff member to make a better effort or to be the first to extend the olive branch to a co-worker.

Be prepared to clearly present the main issue you want to see changed or improved. It is best if you have some facts or data to draw upon, not hearsay and conjecture that is easily challenged. After explaining the problem, I like to see if the employee acknowledges her role in it and projects a desire to fix it. In many cases, staff members just deny the issue completely and act like they don't know what I'm talking about. That does not bode well for fixing it. In those cases I make my point and keep a close watch on the situation. Another meeting is very likely.

Protect confidentiality
Be considerate of your other employees when you share a problem that must have been told to you by a co-worker of the offending staff member. If I'm given a heads up about a problem by another employee, I make it my business to observe the issue myself so I can present it as something I saw or heard myself.

The domino effect
Be aware that changes you implement in your office procedure often have a domino effect. One change aimed at solving a problem can cause many other problems you may not have anticipated. Try to prevent that by thinking about all aspects of the practice and the patients. Also, consider staff input.

I like to think of managing my practice as similar to steering a cruise ship. You just can't turn it on a dime. Most changes are best made in small increments and adjustments.
Best wishes for continued success,

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