If the practice owner does not pay close attention, some staff members will exert gradual influence over their work hours and have a big impact on their total compensation. With the recent expansion of federal overtime rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), optometrists should be more vigilant about work hours than ever, but even without that, it makes good business sense to control your staff schedules. In this article, I’ll describe a common way that staff work hours can become out of balance and what you can do about it.
Staff work habits can begin innocently enough, but they often have a way of becoming embedded into the norm and then are harder to change. Practice owners and office managers should be aware that what seems to be a great work ethic by a well-meaning employee can actually hurt the practice. Sometimes you have to just say no when staff members want to change their hours.
The work situation
Here is how the problem starts: an employee alerts you to a problem with getting the work done. It could be lab orders not getting out, insurance claims not filed or any other task. He or she also proceeds to offer a possible solution, such as coming in early, staying late or working through lunch. A busy doctor or manager could easily jump at the welcome answer to the problem, but there may be better solutions. At best, allowing extra work hours should be temporary, but it may be best to say no upfront.
What is really happening during the day?
The initial proposal from the employee could be innocent or even noble, but if the staff member likes the extra hours because it results in a bigger paycheck, he could easily start to slow down on work during the normal work hours in order to justify the additional hours as necessary.
What is the employee’s real motivation?
The big benefit to staff is the increased pay they receive for the extra work hours. A secondary factor might be that the additional time works out well with their personal life. I have had employees want to start work early because they need to get a ride with their spouse and that person’s commute is quite early. Some employees don’t like to eat lunch and they would love to work through it and snack at their desk. Some staff members do not want to go home at 5pm because the house is empty.
I’m not saying you can’t accommodate these special needs, but understand the true reasons and only agree if it is also good for the practice.
Not necessarily overtime
The additional hours may not cause an overtime problem, but if it does push an employee into more than 40 hours per week, the situation is more serious. Employers must pay time and a half in that situation (with some exceptions) and you should not agree to pay straight time, even if the employee offers it. New overtime rules will take effect on December 1, 2016 which will increase employee eligibility for overtime based on salary and exemption requirements.
I would rather hire an additional employee than authorize overtime on an ongoing basis.
What to do if you already allow it?
If you already allow an employee to work certain hours that you do not feel are beneficial for the practice, here are some ways to return the schedule to normal and re-establish control of it.
If the hours are not creating overtime, you might agree to special hours as a grandfather clause, but don’t allow it in the future.
Explain to the employee why you can’t continue with the special hours. Perhaps you need an additional employee anyway or the overtime pay is not in the budget. Maybe the situation is not fair to other employees.
Consider letting the employee move back to the correct schedule gradually, so it is not too big a shock to their personal budget.
Require that employees take a lunch break and define how long it is. It is a good policy for employees to take a break and they can also take care of personal things like phone calls and texts. Many practices have staff work through lunch when they are small, but as the staff grows, it is best to take lunch in two shifts with no patients scheduled.
Hire another employee so the staff member who was working extra can’t complain that he is stressed out and overworked.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
Dr. Gailmard's new book, Practice Management in Optometry: A Blueprint for Success Based on the Optometric Management Tip of the Week, is now available on Amazon.