Article Date: 9/1/2008

Creating a Career Path for Your Staff

Creating a Career Path for Your Staff

Every doctor must invest time in his staff, because our staff members are — by far — our greatest asset.

By Kimberly Plattner, O.D., and Steven Klein, O.D.

Keeping your staff motivated should be one of your top priorities. We've been in practice since 1989, but it wasn't until 2 years ago that we were inspired to create a new way to motivate our employees. As staff members remained employed longer in our practice, we realized they yearned to take control of their destinies and careers. Once we learned of their desires, we worked hard to create a viable way to help them accomplish their goals. Here's what we discovered.

Take Action

We became aware that other industries had a model in place for staff members to take charge of their own career paths. Dr. Klein listened to a family member, who worked for a bank, describe how coworkers moved up from a teller 1 to a teller 2 position, and so on. We wanted to offer our own staff members a career path, so we worked with a management consultant to help us design a system tailor-made for our team.

Setting up Guidelines

In fairness to our employees, we had to clearly spell out what we expected of them. Up to this point, staff members were pretty much in the dark about what it took to advance within the practice. Most employees just waited for their annual performance review and hoped for a raise. We wanted a system in place that allowed employees to take a proactive approach to advancing their career. Adopting this new system demanded that we establish clear guidelines and specific goals for advancement. It quickly became apparent that longevity alone wasn't a free pass to a promotion.

Level the Playing Field

All staff titles have levels. In our practice, we have separate career paths for opticians, technicians, front office staff and vision therapists. With the assistance of our consultant, we created six levels per job title. The various levels have distinct requirements with increasing compensation from Level 1 to 6. A new employee who's hired with prior experience may start at Level 2 or higher. The level is based on where they fit the criteria spelled out in the career path. An employee needs to grow at their current level for a minimum length of time to be eligible to move up. Moving from Level 1 to Level 2 requires a minimum of 3 months, Level 2 to 3 requires 9 months and all higher levels require a minimum of 1 year to advance. During that time, each employee knows what goals they're working on to reach the next level. Performance reviews are conducted quarterly to review progress and to provide coaching and support.

Making the Grade

In establishing the goals and criteria to move from one level to the next, professional performance is just a part of what we consider. We also place tremendous value on our employees' overall attitude toward their job and their role as a team player. For us, the "team" is the entire office. There are four components to each level.

The Technical Component outlines the specific job proficiencies and technical skills that must be mastered at that level. In addition, it provides specific cross-training requirements and job productivity goals that need to be met. In some cases, it may also require achieving certifications, such as ABO, NCLE or paraoptometric certification.

The Development Component includes continuing education goals and required reading to promote both professional and personal development. The idea is to broaden job-related knowledge and to also develop/improve lifelong skills in the areas of communication, organization, time management, teamwork, leadership and so on.

The Professional Component is used to evaluate "how" the employee performs his job instead of "what" his job is. For example, when a receptionist answers the phone or checks in a patient, is she simply going through the motions or truly striving to provide excellent customer service. Each employee, regardless of job title or level, is evaluated with the same checklist. An anonymous evaluation is performed by coworkers and management. There are 25 items that are graded on a scale of one to four: 1 being unacceptable; 2 is below standard; 3 equals average and 4 indicates good team player.

To move to the next level on the career path, an employee must have a passing score on the evaluation. For example, if you're a Level 1 employee and you want to move up to Level 2, you must score at least an 80%. If you're at Level 2 and you want to progress to Level 3, you need to score 90%. Often, the score is a wake-up call for staff members who are dragging the rest of the team down. An example of some items on the list are:

■ Attitude toward patient needs
■ Performance under pressure
■ Relationship with doctors/other employees
■ Organization and prioritization skills
■ Follow up and follow through/customer service

The Teamwork Component evaluates an employee's attitude and value as a team member. An employee must get a passing score on a 20-item questionnaire that's graded by coworkers and a manager. The required score at each level is the same as that required in the Professional Component. An example of some questions are:

■ Does he lead by example?
■ Does he treat others with respect?
■ Does he avoid partaking in gossip?
■ Is she conscientious of her attitude every day?
■ Is she always eager to improve?
■ Is she a good team player?

The evaluations used for both the Professional and Teamwork Components should strive to reinforce the practice philosophy and mission statement.

Implementing the Plan

Implementation is the most critical aspect of any system. That's the stage in which we've been for the past year — and it's still a work in progress. However, we're already experiencing a tremendous shift in the relationship between leadership and staff. The doctors and managers are there to support and coach the team. Each time an employee makes it to the next level, it's a win-win. So, for our staff, it's no longer just about getting an annual raise. Rather, the new focus in our practice has empowered our employees. They feel like they're an essential part of a professional team, and they believe they have a career and a real future here.

One of the biggest challenges we've faced is that some staff members are paid a higher rate than they should be under the new system. Our goal is to bring the employee's skills and performance in line with their pay. If that doesn't happen, it will result in termination or a pay cut to the lower level until goals are met.

Tailoring Your Path

We've given you a peek at the steps we've taken and the hurdles we've faced, but there's no cookie-cutter technique that will work every time. One essential ingredient for success is adherence to your mission statement in whatever process you develop. Understanding the objectives of your practice sheds light on what you value most in those with whom you work. No matter how you slice it, if you're looking for a way to retain staff and foster a committment to your practice, creating a career path for your employees may be worth considering. nOD

Dr. Klein and Dr. Plattner are a husband-and-wife optometric team, who've practiced in San Diego, Calif., since 1989. They have two locations with 18 staff members and two associate doctors. Their practice offers a full scope of services, including medical eye care, refractive and cataract surgery comanagement, corneal refractive therapy, pediatrics, vision therapy and occupational vision care. You can reach them at

Optometric Management, Issue: September 2008