A staff member sees you in the hallway and says... "I'm so backed up on my lab work that I'm going to work through my lunch hour." Or, "I'm staying late tonight because I need to file insurance claims and we've been so busy I can't get to them." Sounds like a model employee with a great work ethic, doesn't it? This person clearly has the best interest of the practice at heart. Or does she?
The other possibility is that this staff member would like to increase her paycheck and since she is the only person who can perform certain tasks, she simply wastes time during the regular work week so she can work extra hours. Those extra hours may actually be very convenient for her if she does not want to take lunch or if her morning routine at home has her ready to arrive at work an hour early. Maybe her spouse has to work later anyway so she might as well stay late.
Who controls the hours?
The problem arises when the practice owner or office manager simply accepts an employee's word that she needs to work extra hours. It can be rather awkward in the beginning because the proposal to work overtime seems like it is good for the practice. The employee may say it as a statement (I'm going to stay late.) rather than a question (Is it OK if I stay late?). At first glance it feels like the owner should thank the tireless worker.
I think the practice owner should decide on staff hours and work schedules in conjunction with the office manager and the manager should supervise and enforce the schedule. I like to have a system that everyone follows. I like a policy that staff members may not decide on their own to start work early, work through lunch or work after closing without approval in advance from the manager or owner.
Staff payroll is a huge expense for a practice and it is important to supervise the details. Over a period of time, even an extra 15 minutes per day adds up to a significant cost. I recommend that all practices use a virtual time clock program on one of the office computers and every employee must click in and out for starting, quitting and lunch breaks. An employee may not begin work more than ten minutes before the scheduled start time or it won't be paid. When a staff member punches in, they must be ready to work, not go to the bathroom, work on hair, get coffee, etc. Employees should be told to go home as they are no longer needed at the end of the day, possibly in tiers if the staff is large.
Special circumstance or the new normal?
Once an employee is allowed to call the shots on the hours worked, it can easily become the normal office routine. After a long period of time, it becomes harder to change the policy because the employee feels like the flexible hours are part of her verbal employment agreement. When employees offer to work additional hours, owners and managers should carefully consider the situation. Don't be rushed into approval. You might say: "Let me think about that, but for now let's just stick to your usual schedule.
Is the task really crucial or can it wait? Does practice revenue depend on it? Is there a deadline?
Is there a good reason why the work could not be completed during the normal work schedule?
Is this likely to be just temporary overtime or will it keep occurring?
How will other employees feel about it? Is it fair to all? Will they want to skip lunch or start work early also?
I would rather hire an additional employee than continuously approve additional hours for existing staff. I view a larger staff as an asset that improves customer service, fosters more delegation and improves productivity, so more people are better.
Scheming for more hours often goes along with employees who are the only ones who can do something. Having office tasks that only one person can do often spells trouble because it gives too much power to one person. Granted, in smaller offices it may not be possible to avoid, but that is an advantage of growing into a larger staff. Having more than one staff member work on a task provides important back up if someone quits. It also provides a check and balance system so one person cannot waste time and just not work very hard.
Think about tasks in your practice where the owner and manager have little knowledge and go about changing that. Typical areas are insurance billing, lab work, and computer technology. You may find that the one employee who is knowledgeable in a task is not very willing to share the knowledge with co-workers, even after repeated requests. That is a red flag that says the person is controlling her turf.
One final reason for concern is the issue of overtime pay. If you do authorize an employee to work more than 40 hours per week, even on a temporary basis, you should always pay time and a half wages and follow the regulations of your state government. Generally, salaried individuals are not held to any standard for maximum hours, but there may be rules about who can be salaried. Be very wary and don't agree to a proposal by an employee who says he is willing to work extra hours for regular pay. That person can file a claim with the state labor agency much later and fines and penalties could be imposed on the practice, in addition to the back pay.