As the final article in this series on staff benefits and policies, I'll discuss continuing education courses for staff.
I believe the cornerstone for staff training should be the ongoing efforts of your practice. Typically, the doctors or practice owner will provide a majority of the education, but key staff members can also be called upon to make presentations at staff meetings. Another excellent resource for staff training is the sales rep. A third party expert can be a nice change of pace while lending a sense of importance to the topic, and the speaker is free of charge. Your options may include contact lens companies, frame suppliers, optical labs, pharmaceuticals, contact lens care products, nutrition, eyelid hygiene, and specialty areas such as low vision.
I have a couple of caveats, however, when a representative offers to speak to your staff: be selective and preview the content. Not all reps are good speakers and you may find you and your staff in the middle of a long, boring and annoying lecture. In some cases, your staff may be hearing things you don't agree with. It is pretty difficult to intervene once it starts, so agree in advance on the length and what to cover. I generally have to ask the talk to be shorter than what the rep has in mind.
Continuing education courses
There are a variety of sources of excellent continuing education for eye care professionals. The range includes state optometric associations, national conventions, print magazines, Internet-based publications and many other venues. All of these can provide a good experience, or not, and the practice owner should use his or her best judgment to guide and recommend programs for staff members.
I believe there is a strong benefit for all staff members (technicians, opticians and business office personnel) to attend major educational meetings. There is a certain excitement that is generated that provides excellent stimulation about our work. Hearing and seeing a live expert speaker renews our sense of worth for what we do and helps us return to the office with more energy and enthusiasm. It's helpful for staff to interact with peers from other practices in a social setting. On the other hand, it can be very expensive to pay for travel costs, course fees, and paid time off for all employees. And some employees may not want to attend educational courses, so how hard should an employer push?
Perhaps there is a large annual meeting within driving distance of your practice that can become an ongoing venue for most of your external staff education. You may wish to close the office for this special event or just reduce staffing to a skeleton crew and rotate the days attended at the conference.
As with all employee benefits, management tries to find a balance between cost and goodwill. In the case of staff continuing education, we must also consider that the practice benefits from better trained employees. One more factor is lack of employee coverage reduces office productivity.
I like to keep the policy for staff education benefits flexible. Some staff may need more training than others. Some years may provide better opportunities for quality courses than others. I don't want my policy to box me in.
Here is an example of one possible policy for external staff education.
- Employees are encouraged to attend continuing education courses.
- All courses must be approved in advance by the practice owner. Office coverage with staff must be considered before courses are approved.
- The practice shall pay for registration fees for approved courses.
- The practice shall pay the employee the hourly wage for time spent in class.
- The practice shall pay for travel by car at the current IRS approved cents per mile rate.
- Employees must attend the classes they register for, unless they obtain a written doctor's excuse, which can be verified, or else the registration fee will be withheld from the employee's next paycheck.
The last point can be modified based on extenuating circumstances, but I found it was fairly easy for a staff member to cut a class they didn't pay for if it feels inconvenient at the last minute. This rule prevents abuse.