Article Date: 11/1/2003

Hiring a Temporary Employee

One of the most overlooked resources in optometry is temporary help. Find out if this staffing option makes sense for your practice.
BY ALAN N. GLAZIER, O.D., F.A.A.O., Rockville, Md.


Chances are, staffing shortages will affect your practice at one time or another. Are you prepared?

Our practice developed a system that addresses shortages. Our written policy dictates that should our staff fall below a certain number, then we'll hire a number of temporary employees equal to the number of employees we are short. These temps stay on until the practice becomes fully staffed again.

We've all found ourselves short staffed, yet temp agencies are still an underused resource in optometry. So when considering a temporary employee, ask not only whether you can afford to hire a temp, but whether you can afford not to hire one.

This article will discuss the pros and cons of employing temporary help.

Consider the advantages

The most common reason for hiring a temp is to relieve the burden of being understaffed for short periods of time. But just think, if you hire a temporary employee, you'll already have extra hands available when needed. You won't have to go through the hiring process each time you need more help.

The following sections describe ways in which a temp can benefit your office.

Troubleshoot with a temp. Hiring a temporary employee can relieve you of human resource issues related to bringing in a permanent employee. While sometimes more expensive than a regular staffer, hiring a temporary employee can assist you with positions that you need to create or fill. Evaluate a temp's performance in a position before you fill it so you can select the perfect permanent candidate. (It can cost up to $3,000 to train a new employee, and frequently you'll lose that person during the three-month trial period. Now, is hiring a temporary employee really as expensive as it seems?)


Knowing When to Hire a Temp


While guidelines for hiring a temp vary from practice to practice, some common instances do exist in which, in any arrangement, hiring a temp is appropriate.

  • You find yourself short staffed.

  • The office workload is overbearing to your existing staff.

  • Specialized projects require basic or extra labor.

  • An employee is on maternity leave or on sabbatical.

  • An employee has a death in the family or has to take an unscheduled leave.

  • You need extra help just to maintain proper functioning in the front office.

For example, we considered hiring a new technician but were wary of increased salaries as well as how the new position would affect our daily work flow. So our receptionist completed training and filled the tech position (our policy is to promote from within). We hired a temporary receptionist for a few dry runs with the former receptionist as a technician. We not only ironed out crucial details related to work flow, but we also analyzed aspects of both positions as they relate to each other (i.e., the interaction of receptionist with the new position and the interactions of the rest of the staff with the new tech position).

From this experience, we knew that as soon as we hired and trained the new receptionist, our new tech position could go into effect immediately with minimal adjustments.

Your own on call employee. Another advantage to having a temp is that you can have her fill in last minute for someone who calls in sick or when you're simply short staffed.

Assign special projects. Delegate any project that doesn't fall within any full-time employee's job description to a temp.

I currently have a tower of boxes containing inactive records that looms behind me. This is the ideal situation for a temp because, out of the roughly 1,000 records, recalling just two of these patients successfully will cover the expense of employing the temp, not to mention the revenues generated from that same patient as he returns for future care.

Hire a temp to finish up lingering projects. Chances are your staff won't get to them any time soon and if they do, they may be too busy with job-descriptive tasks that they aren't able to complete the project to any reasonable level of satisfaction.

Pick up the slack. A temp can take a load off of a vital employee who, instead of performing menial tasks such as filing, can use her specific expertise elsewhere.

How to Hire a Temp

Consider these tips after you decide to bring in a temp:

  • Have someone recommend an agency.
  • Find out how long the agency has been in business.
  • Find out the hourly rate (it often varies based on skill level).
  • Ask directly how the agency's rates compare to the rates of other agencies and ask if it can guarantee a competitive rate. (Most agencies can and will but only if you ask them.)
  • Ask the agency if they have a work guarantee (a conditional arrangement that protects you if the temp fails to produce the work desired or produces work that's unacceptable.)
  • Interview the temp on the phone or in person before letting them start. Make sure the temp has basic abilities that, should they be lacking, may reflect poorly on your practice.
  • Make sure the agency is licensed and bonded.

Full timers appreciate the help. Hiring temps can help maintain staff satisfaction because your full-time employees know that you're willing to go out on a limb and help them by making temporary help available when they need it.

August is our busiest month. This year in particular, we had a few days in which we were understaffed and I was so busy that I didn't notice the burdens on my staff. One day, Jane came to me and sheepishly asked if we could hire a temp. I thought I had made it clear that hiring temps was a necessary part of the business should we find ourselves short staffed. But my office staff thought they were being helpful and saving money by carrying more of the burden.

Pay the wage or pay the price. If you feel that you could benefit from a temp but don't hire one, then anticipate poor productivity. Again, think more about the cost of not hiring a temp than about hiring one.

Realistically look at the cons

Hiring a temp doesn't always result in a flawless experience. I once hired a temp for a filing job and I was assured that he was getting the job done. However, one week later we realized that all was not well. The level of care with which the temp alphabetized was sub-optimal and it took us months of extra searching to find records he had misfiled.

Think about the other ways that a temporary employee can make a mistake that could cost you business, such as mishandling a phone call or not taking a vital message. Delegate an experienced staff member to oversee the temp's work. Some of these mistakes can have repercussions long after the temp leaves, so explain to the employee overseeing the work the importance of ensuring that the temp does her job to the best of her ability.

Think it over

While often a difficult decision, hiring a temp may turn out to be no decision at all if you look at the effect that being short staffed has on your bottom line. Plus, you don't have to offer benefits to a temp. Be sure to check on agencies and their staff that you bring in to your office -- even if temporary. But don't neglect the vital help line that temporary employees can provide to your practice.

Dr. Glazier runs a private practice outside of Washington, D.C. and owns an ophthalmic research and development corporation focusing on presbyopic solutions.



Optometric Management, Issue: November 2003