I recently accompanied a friend on a visit to a dentist's office. This is a well-respected practice with a dentist who really connects with his patients and has a great reputation. The reception room was very nice, the staff was pleasant and my friend was seen after only a short wait. We were in the treatment room with the dentist when he said, “One of the girls will be in shortly to take an impression and some x-rays.” The words hung in the air as he left the room. Really? Girls? This successful professional office has girls working here? They can't manage to employ dental assistants? Does my friend want some random girl providing dental services? My perception of the practice changed in an instant.
No harm intended
As I speak to optometrists and their staff members, I find the practice of referring to female employees as “girls” or “gals” to be extremely common. It is not just older, male doctors who use these terms, but female doctors and staff members as well. I fully understand that the use of the word “girl” in this context is just a figure of speech and no disrespect is intended, but I still recommend you abolish its use by doctors and staff in your practice. It's just a habit, but it's easy to break and your practice will be better off if you do.
A signal about the office culture
Organizational culture is extremely important to the success of your practice. It controls things like staff attitudes, customer service, teamwork, and job satisfaction. Pride in one's job, respect by co-workers (including bosses) and self-worth are key factors in how well an employee performs on the job. The culture in the workplace is affected by many factors, but it is strongly influenced by the leaders, usually the doctor and office manager.
Using the word “girl” to describe a staff member is a signal that employees are at a low status level in this practice. The “girl” term may be perceived as neutral by some people and negative by others, but it is never positive. Using a professional title, such as optometric technician, optician or receptionist, is much more impressive. Using a person's name is another good way to go that personalizes the experience. “Please see Amy at the front desk” sounds much better than “See the gal up front”.
Patient acceptance of delegation
Expanding the delegation of clinical and optical duties is a very valuable strategy in the growth of a practice, but the effort is undermined when staff members are referred to as girls. I often hear from ODs that patients seem to resist delegation of some tasks because they want the doctor do it. I find this response is almost always due to a perception that the staff is not as proficient, but the doctor can easily overcome that by simply acting like the staff member is the expert.
What if staff members don't mind?
In many cases, everyone in the office accepts the use of the “girl” term and actually likes it. It feels kind of friendly and non-threatening. I'd still drop the term completely because patients don't always see it that way and the use of a professional title still increases the status of staff members. Talk about this topic at a staff meeting.
Monday, November 21 is “No Girls Day”
In some cases the “girl” term is perpetuated because it is not polite to correct co-workers. To overcome that problem, I'm declaring Monday, November 21 as “No Girls Day”. Provided the doctors and managers in your practice all agree to the concept, this Monday can be a day where it fully permissible to politely correct co-workers who use the “girl” or “gal” term. I think the use of “staff member” is an excellent generic substitute. You can do it with a wink and a smile, but when someone says “girl”, you might respond with “oh, you meant to say staff member, right?”
Please send me your comments about how this topic applies to your office and let me know your experiences on No Girls Day. I will summarize them anonymously in a future tip article.
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.