Article Submission Guidelines for Practice Management, EHR, Glaucoma, and Managed Care

Exclusive Date: October 9, 2013

Staff Issues 101: Employees Taking Too Much Personal Time Off

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I've received quite a few emails on this topic lately, so I'll share my thoughts in this article. Managing a staff is the most challenging aspect of owning an optometric practice and there are no shortcuts or quick answers that work every time. A great staff is crucial to practice success and I recommend that OD/practice owners work to develop their management skills rather than trying to avoid staff issues.

It is very easy for a practice to become too lax in the management and supervision of employees. After all, much of this falls to the optometrist and he or she is usually very busy with patient care and other matters. The OD typically expects the staff to follow their own good judgment by putting the best interest of the practice first, but that often does not work out very well. This is why I recommend that all practices have an office manager. But even with an office manager, which definitely helps, the OD/owner must be aware and involved even if at a higher level.

Back to the issue at hand, what should you do if an employee frequently requests days off, half days off or a few hours off for personal reasons such as child school activities or special errands. Further, what if an employee has used up all of his/her available time off and still needs more time, possibly for illness?

Your office policies
All employees need some time off sooner or later, for personal reasons, vacation or sickness. To address this in a fair manner, you need an office policy. There are many ways to structure your policy, but the point is to think about it, decide and write it down. The written policy becomes part of your office manual which is a reference for all employees. Time off could be with pay or without pay.

Consider what other companies usually offer their employees, since you compete with other firms to attract candidates in the job market. Fairly typical might be five personal days which are also for illness, two weeks paid vacation (that would be 10 work days). In many cases, some of this time off must be earned before it can be used by a new employee. Some employers prefer to lump it all together and call it personal time off (PTO). Paid holidays are an additional employee benefit, but I consider it differently because the employee does not get to choose when to use it.

  • If you have a policy but have just not enforced it; you can start enforcing it. This is similar to changing the policy though because what has become commonly done in your office is the policy, even if it is different than what is written in the manual. I would give employees some advance notice that the policy needs to be enforced better.
  • If you have learned that your previous policy is not practical, you can change it. More on this below.
  • If you don't have a policy, announce to your staff that you need one and tell them what it is.
How to change the policies
It can be very difficult to change office policies for existing staff. If they perceive that you are taking something away, morale and attitudes may suffer. You may want to consider not changing some policies and just living with them. You may want to grandfather clause some existing staff, while requiring the new policy for new employees. You may want to give the current staff some other benefit to compensate for something you must take away. Or you may have to just do what you think is right and be ready for some fallout and even some resignations.
  • Explain why the change in policy (or new policy) is needed. Possible reasons include: To be fair to all staff members..., For excellent customer service..., To make the practice more efficient...
  • Be honest and up front. It is OK if there is a business and profit motive. That is why you are in business. One aspect of all employees' job duties includes helping the company generate a profit.
  • Review what the policy has always been, even if it has not been enforced very well.
  • Don't surprise staff with a change in policy. Give them some fair warning that the rules have changed. You don't want staff to come to you with an important request to go home early only to be told with no recourse.
  • State what the new policy will be. Not everything in your practice is a democracy. In some cases, the owner must simply make a decision. If you ask for input and then don't go with the prevailing view, you make matters worse.
Hourly vs. salary?
I recommend that most employees be paid on an hourly basis and that the practice has a virtual time clock program installed on an office workstation. This reduces the temptation for employees to call off and if they do anyway, at least you save the payroll cost. Hourly employees are not allowed to work overtime unless approved in advance by the owner, and it rarely will be approved in my office.

It is fine if the office manager and associate doctors are on salary, but I still make a specific work schedule and expect them to start on time and stay until the end of the work day. If salaried employees work slightly more than their schedule, it is just part of the job and no pay adjustment is needed. If they work a lot more than scheduled or if they work a special day (like attending a conference on Sunday), I would give them a future day off to compensate for that additional work time.

Disciplining an employee
Sometimes you need to tell employees that they need to improve in some aspect of the job. It could be that they are asking for too much time off or it could be some other behavior. I always start this process in a calm, gentle and respectful manner. I ask the employee to meet with me in a private area so I don't embarrass him/her in front of co-workers. I know that staff can take any criticism very hard sometimes, so I try to start with acknowledgment of something they are doing well and I'm understanding about the things that are not going well. But I make my point very specifically about what I would like to change. I make some brief notes with the date in the employee's file after the meeting.

If the behavior does not improve, I speak with the employee again and gradually over several meetings, my tone becomes more serious. Goals and deadlines are set and I monitor the situation more closely. I always hope the employee acknowledges and agrees with the problem as I describe it, but if she denies there is a problem, I know we have very little chance of resolving the issue. Eventually, depending on the nature of the problem, the employee may have to be dismissed. When you get near that point, I think you owe it the employee to tell him that his job is at stake. You might say that if the matter does not show some improvement, you will have to part ways. Follow through, of course.

Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week