Early Years of Your Practice: What to Consider   

The best way to create the future you want is to set goals and then plan appropriately for them. Roadmaps are essential to your career plan! Here are key issues to consider and address during the early years of your practice.

Strategic Planning

Your days are likely to be busy as you care for clients and manage your team. It’s important, though, to sometimes step away from daily fire drills to focus on long-term strategic planning. A strategic plan provides an overall sense of direction directed towards future prosperity. To be effective, it should deliberately be put into practice, modified when needed, and reviewed regularly (often annually). Components of a strategic plan typically include:

  • Mission statement/purpose
  • Core values
  • Long-term vision (perhaps 3 years, or 5, or 10)
  • Strategic agenda (projects undertaken to move towards your vision)
  • Project plans (for each item on the strategic agenda)
  • Project milestones, and the metrics and measurements used
  • Accountability plan (who will be responsible for what)
  • Budget

Fortunately, plenty of free resources exist to help you to create a viable strategic plan, including a 30-minute online training by the Small Business Administration (SBA) found here: https://www.sba.gov/tools/sba-learning-center/training/strategic-planning. This section of the SBA site also offers significant amounts of supplementary resources for strategic planning.

Appropriate Financial Planning 

Although “budget” appears as the last bullet point of the strategic planning process, it’s very important, as the funds generated by your practice will serve as the fuel of your success. There are numerous financial planning issues to consider, far too many for an article, but here are several high-level recommendations:

  • Get a handle, early on, on your cash flow. Are there times of the year when cash flow increases? Decreases? How predictable are they? Are you paying your bills on a schedule that avoids late fees and takes advantage of any early pay discounts?
  • Monitor your own time. If you’re having to work extra-long hours every week to be profitable, this isn’t a sustainable strategy. What changes need to be made to create a more realistic workload, long term?
  • Ensure that you truly understand your profit and loss statements, and other financial documents. If you don’t, ask for help! Although there is nothing wrong (and plenty right) with having financial professionals assist with managing your financials, you need to thoroughly understand where your business stands.
  • Look to the future:
    • Determine the best retirement plan options for you and for your practice team. If you have no more than 100 employees and no other qualified plan, consider a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE).
    • Know that it’s never too early to create a succession plan (ownership-wise and management-wise) in case you become incapable of working or die; this helps to ensure a smooth transition at the lowest cost.
    • Finally, save for a rainy day! If you never need to use these funds, then you’ve got a nice financial cushion that can come in handy if you decide to expand your practice or otherwise make large expenditures – and you don’t have to panic or go deeply into debt if an emergency does arise.

Creating Your Employment Environment

The people in a practice can make or break its success, so creating a success-friendly environment and company culture is crucial. Core elements of this environment include:

  • Mentorship
  • Engagement
  • Accountability

A mentor is simply a more experienced person offering guidance to a lesser experienced person. A workplace mentor serves as a role model, sharing knowledge that will help someone else chart his or her own successful career path. Mentorships can be formal or informal, and the roles can be quite fluid. For example, a more experienced veterinary tech can mentor a newly graduated one in job-specific duties, but the roles could shift if, say, conflict resolution skills are needed and the new tech has significant experience in that from another job or different context.

A healthy workplace has an engaged workforce – and engaged employees are those who are eager to participate in workplace activities and meet the challenges of the day. Engaged employees are motivated employees, and there are two types of motivation: external and internal.

External motivators include wages and benefits, and are needed to get people to work. Internal motivators go beyond that, and exhibit a much stronger pull. They include:

  • Autonomy (control and decision making)
  • Mastery (learning)
  • Purpose (achieving personal goals)

To motivate teams externally, analyze what similar clinics are paying in wages and benefits, and pay the fairest amount you can. You don’t want to invest time and energy into an employee only to have him or her enticed away by a competitor who offered better compensation.

To internally motivate, provide autonomy, perhaps through flexible scheduling, incentivized earning programs and results-oriented managing (in other words, don’t micromanage!). Create a culture wherein practice members can master their favorite specialties through continuing education and teaching clients. Highlight purpose by noting what a difference a staff member is making in people’s lives, participating in charity events and building a culture in which praise and encouragement is given.

Finally, create a culture of transparent workplace accountability by clearly defining roles, and by focusing on teamwork. Clarify the importance of each person’s role in accomplishing team goals, and share and celebrate successes, while brainstorming how to overcome challenges together. Honestly evaluate processes and encourage practice staff to make suggestions. Reward integrity.

From a practical standpoint, organizational charts can help. Having a formal written organizational chart can help the growth of your practice in many ways, including serving as a:

  • Roadmap for developing a management team
  • Blueprint for hiring employees and developing their skills
  • Method to improve flow of information throughout the practice
  • Framework to boost efficiency

Mastering Negotiations

As you need to hire staff, give raises and otherwise manage a practice, having quality negotiation skills are important. Whenever two people have differing needs and interests – and each has what the other wants and needs – then a series of negotiations are likely to take place. For example, you want to improve the bottom line and so are watching expenses, but need the services and engagement of your veterinary technician, while the veterinary tech needs to earn more money for her family. So you need to discuss (negotiate!) a solution that will work for both of you.

To successfully negotiate:

  • Understand the other person’s interests
  • Be well prepared with factual information
  • Determine where and how you can compromise
  • Treat the other person the way you’d want to be treated; the goal is a successful long-term relationship, not a quick short-term win

Retaining Residents

 A unique type of negotiation occurs with practice residents. Finding the right resident for your practice takes time, and you need to protect the investment you’ll make in your resident by including proper retention provisions in your residency agreements. At the core of a residency agreement: you are agreeing to pay for your resident’s training and living expenses in exchange for a certain amount of work after he or she is board certified.

Consider a carrot and stick approach to your agreement. At a minimum, require your resident to pay back the expenses you fronted if the residency is not passed in a timely manner or if your resident leaves your practice before the retention period expires. The carrot is optional, but serves as external motivation: if your resident successfully works through the retention period, he or she receives a bonus that is well-defined. And, it also makes sense to cultivate internal motivators with your resident. What autonomy can you provide? What mastery can you help to create, and what sense of purpose can you encourage?


Balanced Living
 

Remember to take care of yourself! It’s crucial to create a healthy balance between work and the rest of your life – crucial for your health and well-being, as well as for the rest of the practice and your clients. Tips to help make this happen include:

  • Mark important milestones on your calendar, perhaps your anniversary or child’s birthday, and arrange ahead of time to have time off to celebrate.
  • Learn to prioritize and say no when you simply don’t have time to take on an additional task – or even something extra that would be enjoyable.
  • When you get home, leave the workplace behind as much as possible. Try not to dwell on problems that happened or answer your email. Make your personal time truly yours.
  • Track your time at work for a week. What tasks could you delegate to free up time? Or what isn’t necessarily a priority and can be put on a back burner?
  • Consider starting a workplace wellness program. Participate!
  • Lower your expectations at home. Incorporate more rest and enjoyable activities in your day whenever possible.

As a final piece of advice, during the early years of your practice (and, later on, for that matter), when you face challenges, reach out for help. Other professionals have been through similar scenarios and can provide guidance. You don’t have to go it alone.

 

Early Years of Your Practice: What to Consider

The best way to create the future you want is to set goals and then plan appropriately for them. Roadmaps are essential to your career plan! Here are key issues to consider and address during the early years of your practice.

Strategic Planning

Your days are likely to be busy as you care for clients and manage your team. It’s important, though, to sometimes step away from daily fire drills to focus on long-term strategic planning. A strategic plan provides an overall sense of direction directed towards future prosperity. To be effective, it should deliberately be put into practice, modified when needed, and reviewed regularly (often annually). Components of a strategic plan typically include:

  • Mission statement/purpose
  • Core values
  • Long-term vision (perhaps 3 years, or 5, or 10)
  • Strategic agenda (projects undertaken to move towards your vision)
  • Project plans (for each item on the strategic agenda)
  • Project milestones, and the metrics and measurements used
  • Accountability plan (who will be responsible for what)
  • Budget

Fortunately, plenty of free resources exist to help you to create a viable strategic plan, including a 30-minute online training by the Small Business Administration (SBA) found here: https://www.sba.gov/tools/sba-learning-center/training/strategic-planning. This section of the SBA site also offers significant amounts of supplementary resources for strategic planning.

Appropriate Financial Planning

Although “budget” appears as the last bullet point of the strategic planning process, it’s very important, as the funds generated by your practice will serve as the fuel of your success. There are numerous financial planning issues to consider, far too many for an article, but here are several high-level recommendations:

  • Get a handle, early on, on your cash flow. Are there times of the year when cash flow increases? Decreases? How predictable are they? Are you paying your bills on a schedule that avoids late fees and takes advantage of any early pay discounts?
  • Monitor your own time. If you’re having to work extra-long hours every week to be profitable, this isn’t a sustainable strategy. What changes need to be made to create a more realistic workload, long term?
  • Ensure that you truly understand your profit and loss statements, and other financial documents. If you don’t, ask for help! Although there is nothing wrong (and plenty right) with having financial professionals assist with managing your financials, you need to thoroughly understand where your business stands.
  • Look to the future:
    • Determine the best retirement plan options for you and for your practice team. If you have no more than 100 employees and no other qualified plan, consider a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE).
    • Know that it’s never too early to create a succession plan (ownership-wise and management-wise) in case you become incapable of working or die; this helps to ensure a smooth transition at the lowest cost.
    • Finally, save for a rainy day! If you never need to use these funds, then you’ve got a nice financial cushion that can come in handy if you decide to expand your practice or otherwise make large expenditures – and you don’t have to panic or go deeply into debt if an emergency does arise.

Creating Your Employment Environment

The people in a practice can make or break its success, so creating a success-friendly environment and company culture is crucial. Core elements of this environment include:

  • Mentorship
  • Engagement
  • Accountability

A mentor is simply a more experienced person offering guidance to a lesser experienced person. A workplace mentor serves as a role model, sharing knowledge that will help someone else chart his or her own successful career path. Mentorships can be formal or informal, and the roles can be quite fluid. For example, a more experienced veterinary tech can mentor a newly graduated one in job-specific duties, but the roles could shift if, say, conflict resolution skills are needed and the new tech has significant experience in that from another job or different context.

A healthy workplace has an engaged workforce – and engaged employees are those who are eager to participate in workplace activities and meet the challenges of the day. Engaged employees are motivated employees, and there are two types of motivation: external and internal.

External motivators include wages and benefits, and are needed to get people to work. Internal motivators go beyond that, and exhibit a much stronger pull. They include:

  • Autonomy (control and decision making)
  • Mastery (learning)
  • Purpose (achieving personal goals)

To motivate teams externally, analyze what similar clinics are paying in wages and benefits, and pay the fairest amount you can. You don’t want to invest time and energy into an employee only to have him or her enticed away by a competitor who offered better compensation.

To internally motivate, provide autonomy, perhaps through flexible scheduling, incentivized earning programs and results-oriented managing (in other words, don’t micromanage!). Create a culture wherein practice members can master their favorite specialties through continuing education and teaching clients. Highlight purpose by noting what a difference a staff member is making in people’s lives, participating in charity events and building a culture in which praise and encouragement is given.

Finally, create a culture of transparent workplace accountability by clearly defining roles, and by focusing on teamwork. Clarify the importance of each person’s role in accomplishing team goals, and share and celebrate successes, while brainstorming how to overcome challenges together. Honestly evaluate processes and encourage practice staff to make suggestions. Reward integrity.

From a practical standpoint, organizational charts can help. Having a formal written organizational chart can help the growth of your practice in many ways, including serving as a:

  • Roadmap for developing a management team
  • Blueprint for hiring employees and developing their skills
  • Method to improve flow of information throughout the practice
  • Framework to boost efficiency

Mastering Negotiations

As you need to hire staff, give raises and otherwise manage a practice, having quality negotiation skills are important. Whenever two people have differing needs and interests – and each has what the other wants and needs – then a series of negotiations are likely to take place. For example, you want to improve the bottom line and so are watching expenses, but need the services and engagement of your veterinary technician, while the veterinary tech needs to earn more money for her family. So you need to discuss (negotiate!) a solution that will work for both of you.

To successfully negotiate:

  • Understand the other person’s interests
  • Be well prepared with factual information
  • Determine where and how you can compromise
  • Treat the other person the way you’d want to be treated; the goal is a successful long-term relationship, not a quick short-term win

Retaining Residents

A unique type of negotiation occurs with practice residents. Finding the right resident for your practice takes time, and you need to protect the investment you’ll make in your resident by including proper retention provisions in your residency agreements. At the core of a residency agreement: you are agreeing to pay for your resident’s training and living expenses in exchange for a certain amount of work after he or she is board certified.

Consider a carrot and stick approach to your agreement. At a minimum, require your resident to pay back the expenses you fronted if the residency is not passed in a timely manner or if your resident leaves your practice before the retention period expires. The carrot is optional, but serves as external motivation: if your resident successfully works through the retention period, he or she receives a bonus that is well-defined. And, it also makes sense to cultivate internal motivators with your resident. What autonomy can you provide? What mastery can you help to create, and what sense of purpose can you encourage?

Balanced Living

Remember to take care of yourself! It’s crucial to create a healthy balance between work and the rest of your life – crucial for your health and well-being, as well as for the rest of the practice and your clients. Tips to help make this happen include:

  • Mark important milestones on your calendar, perhaps your anniversary or child’s birthday, and arrange ahead of time to have time off to celebrate.
  • Learn to prioritize and say no when you simply don’t have time to take on an additional task – or even something extra that would be enjoyable.
  • When you get home, leave the workplace behind as much as possible. Try not to dwell on problems that happened or answer your email. Make your personal time truly yours.
  • Track your time at work for a week. What tasks could you delegate to free up time? Or what isn’t necessarily a priority and can be put on a back burner?
  • Consider starting a workplace wellness program. Participate!
  • Lower your expectations at home. Incorporate more rest and enjoyable activities in your day whenever possible.

As a final piece of advice, during the early years of your practice (and, later on, for that matter), when you face challenges, reach out for help. Other professionals have been through similar scenarios and can provide guidance. You don’t have to go it alone.

Veterinary Nurse Versus Technician: the Pros and the Cons

The Veterinary technician profession has been subjected to variability since birth. Today, it faces a new, and hopefully positive, change with discussions about modifying the profession’s title to “veterinary nurse”. A movement lead by the National Association for Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) has illuminated differing opinions between those in and outside of the profession.

Veterinary Technician History

The profession began in 1908 when the Canine Nurses Institute made its first organized effort to train English “Veterinary Assistants”. Over the next eighty years, the profession grew. First, the American Association of Laboratory Animal Science created three different levels of “animal technician” certifications at research institutions. Next, the US Army, Purina, and State University of New York (SUNY) established “animal technician” training programs in the 1960’s, which the AVMA then began regulating in 1967. The AVMA waited until 1989 to adopt the term “veterinary technician”, feeling until then that people would be confused with the “veterinary” modifier.

Michigan State University and Nebraska Technical Colleges were the first animal technical educational programs accredited by the AVMA. There are now 230 AVMA accredited veterinary technician education programs. Of these, 21 offer four-year degrees and nine offer distance-learning (online) options. Even before the AVMA adopted the term, the North American Veterinary Technician Association (now called the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America) was formed in 1981. It works alongside the AVMA to protect the profession and encourages veterinary technician specialty developments. However, the profession has not grown uniformly across the United States.

In the United States, 37 states have established “veterinary technician” licensure, 10 states have non-profit organizations that implement voluntary credentialing, and 5 states/territories do not have any credentialing systems. This means that being a veterinary technician today could mean that either the state government regulates your credentialing, you are privately credentialed, or someone gave you the title “veterinary technician” when you started working at a veterinary practice and there is no credentialing system in your state.

Pros of “Veterinary Nurse”

The profession is fragmented by more than their state’s accreditations. Depending on their location, Veterinary technicians currently have varying titles. There are 19 states that use “certified veterinary technician”, 15 states that use “registered veterinary technician”, 14 states that use “licensed veterinary technician”, and Tennessee uses “licensed veterinary medical technician”. With this amount of fragmentation within the profession, how do we as veterinary professionals expect the general public to understand or trust a veterinary technician’s job description? As such a close-knit profession, we forget the foreignness of our commonly-used terms. Most clients underestimate the value of their veterinary technician simply by not knowing the education process. In fact, in a NAVTA survey to human nurses, 71% did not know the difference between veterinary assistants and technicians. Yet, we are baffled when we find that credentialed veterinary technicians are repeatedly unhappy and facing low income, compassion fatigue, lack of recognition and career advancement, underutilization of skills, and competition with individuals trained on-the-job. Due to this culture, the profession has incredibly high turnover rates despite its increased demand by the growing veterinary industry; veterinary technicians are projected to grow 30% by 2022.

How can we, without spending incredible amounts on advertising, uplift our veterinary technicians in the public (and practice’s) eye? Many have suggested using the familiar and applicable “nurse” title. The word “technician” implies an individual who has mastered veterinary science and technology, while “nurse” incorporates caring for animal patients into the description. Heather Predergast, RVT, CVPM, SPHR, a specialist with Patterson Veterinary Supply, Inc., discussed the need to abolish the profession’s fragmentation. She noted that “there has long been a need for common credentialing in this area. The responsibilities and job tasks of a veterinary technician have evolved over time and are inaccurately described by the term ‘technician’, implying a definition of their identify based on technical tasks. The term ‘veterinary nurse’ will incorporate the art of caring for patients from a patient-centered perspective, in addition to the science and technology.”

For these reasons, NAVTA has launched the Veterinary Nurse Initiative in an action to unite a single title, set of credential requirements, and scope of practice. This movement would hopefully provide recognition to the profession and elevate its credibility by requiring further education. Like human nurses, differing titles would recognize individual’s efforts for further education. To distinguish associate and bachelor’s degrees, NAVTA has proposed designating Registered Veterinary Nurse for associate degrees and Bachelor of Sciences in Veterinary Nursing for bachelor’s degrees.

Australia and the United Kingdom have already changed the name to “veterinary nurse” with large success. As the movement poses potential in the States, many academic institutions and corporations, such as Purdue, Midmark Corporation, and Patterson Veterinary Supply Inc. have published endorsements for its change; however, the initiative does face fair opposition.

Cons of “Veterinary Nurse”

Many veterinary technicians still opt to keep their current title. When questioned in a 2016 NAVTA survey, the majority of veterinary technicians (54%) favored the term “veterinary nurse”, over a third (37%) wanted to keep the title “veterinary technician”, and the remaining surveyed were undecided. Most of the pro-technician responders attributed their answer to disbelief that it will be possible to change the title. Some current veterinary technicians have voiced unease at their unsure futures after working their entire careers in a state that does not require licensure. Another similar situation arises for those that have passed the veterinary technician national examination but have not graduated from a school accredited by the AVMA committee.

While, ideally, this veterinary nurse initiative works to unify the profession and ensure quality standards, we must realize that we may be alienating a population of technicians at the end of their careers that would be offended if required to pay for an accredited teaching program and learn alongside new, inexperienced future technicians. Another important consequence to consider is liability. Currently, liability for veterinary technicians falls to the veterinarian on all cases; however, human nurses have their own liability to practice under their license governed by a separate board. This is a consideration essential to address as we raise the accountability of veterinary nurses.

The Veterinary Nurse Initiative has faced opposition outside of the profession as well. In fact, the veterinary technicians initially opposed to changing the name also noted conflict with human nurses in any past attempted title changes. The Veterinary Nurse Initiative investigated this further by sending a survey to three nursing groups. Two of the three declined to even acknowledge the survey, potentially indicating apathy for veterinary-related topics. Of the one group that did complete the survey, 66% did not object to “veterinary nurse”; however, regardless of whether or not they were opposed to the title change, almost all of the responders incorrectly assumed a veterinary technician’s educational requirements. An analysis of the opposed responses to the nurse title found that the objectors believed technician education was subpar to human nursing and the title was not deserved by veterinary technicians. It suggests that the human nursing profession worries about maintaining the quality of its own title and hopes to avoid misrepresentations.

In the past, other professions, not similar in scope to human nurses, have attempted to claim a “nursing” title. For example, a Christian medical community attempted to title their “spiritual healers” as “nurses”; however, they did not share nearly the same amount of education rigor. When confronted with a potential title change in the veterinary profession, human nurses mistakenly worry that the term “veterinary nurse” will also encompass veterinary assistants. This confusion highlights the need for public awareness of technicians – if the closest human counter-part profession does not understand a technician’s role or certification, how can we expect the general public to know any differently? The veterinary profession must raise awareness to the public about the differences between its assistants and technicians.

Currently, as the veterinary nurse initiative gains a foothold in Ohio, the Ohio Nurses Association and its 170,000 members have fought its new legislation, arguing that the state legally defines the term “nurse” as caring for humans and that no other person or profession may insinuate that they practice as a nurse. With similar nurse title protection in about 24 other states, the veterinary nurse initiative is likely in for its fair share of conflict as it continues to grow.

The debate over the title of veterinary technicians remains controversial both in and outside of the veterinary community. As with any impending change, it is important to recognize its potential benefits and shortcomings in order to formulate the best strategy to improve the profession. If the Veterinary Nurse Initiative ends up being successful, the change will likely empower today’s veterinary technicians and reduce the profession’s current high turnover rates.

 

Effective Change Management Strategies

Originally Published in Today’s Veterinary Business, August 2018

Although plenty of businesses talk about change, and although many of them devote significant  time to change management, too many efforts are still failing. An article in HR Magazine titled “Why Change Efforts Fail” analyzes why this is happening and offers suggestions to help make your next change management strategies take root.

The article cites a new study by Prosci that shares how 86 percent of 1,778 change leaders expect change initiatives to continue to increase over the next two years, with 55 percent expecting them to significantly increase. But, a spokesperson cautions, 73 percent of them also shared how their organizations are either approaching, at, or past change saturation, reaching the point where it’s difficult to absorb any more changes.

Tips to help prevent change initiatives from failing in this age of saturation include remaining visible and active throughout the entire process. Sponsors of the changes can’t abdicate responsibility if they want them to succeed. And, while it’s important to communicate the nuts and bolts of proposed changes, it’s also crucial to discuss adjustments that will need made and otherwise work through the emotional components of change. This will help to reduce resistance.

Share the rationale behind the changes because, when people hear why something is happening, it’s easier for them to adjust. And, be sure to model the behavior you expect from your team. If, for example, you want more collaboration to take place among team members, demonstrate that yourself first.

In 2018, one-way, top-down communication isn’t typically effective. So, communicate changes to your team as early in the process as possible, provide time for discussion, and don’t try to do too much at once. Prioritize initatives to help prevent saturation.

A July 2017 article in Forbes, titled “1 Reason Why Most Change Management Efforts Fail,” echoes the dangers of saturation, calling it “change battle fatigue.” Citing a McKinsey and Company study that shares how 70 percent of all transformations fail (with that percentage believed to be increasing), the article details how and why battle fatigue can set in. They include past failures that plague employees’ memories (“Oh, no! Not THIS again!) and the impact of sacrifices made through an “arduous” process. Discouragement further weighs down the process and, when transformation is poorly led, efforts are even more likely to derail.

When workplaces go through significant changes, employees can become fearful, especially when past attempts at transformation failed and perhaps led to layoffs or other negative consequences. When people are worried about their careers, they aren’t as open to learning or able to think as well. So, the article points out, right when management needs the team to be at their best, they are distracted, less productive and unable to focus as effectively.

Suggestions to break this cycle include the identification of early successes, and taking time to celebrate them, as well as ensuring that the vision continues to be supported. And, to effectively identify and then celebrate early wins, milestones and timelines need to be clearly defined. When a milestone is met, people responsible for this success must be acknowledged from the top. This will help to validate the transformation vision, keep the team energized, and spur the momentum on even further. Plus, careful monitoring of early milestones will highlight if and when the plan needs to be adjusted, and how.

To continue to support the vision, it’s important to determine what aspects of your workplace culture support it, as well as which ones don’t – and which ones don’t have a significant impact, either way. What do you keep? Only those elements that support the vision. As one example, the article shares how a company had a vision for collaboration. Yet, when you went into their offices, it was an “ocean of cubicles”  with people listening to headphones. Although this setup may be effective in some workplaces, it does not support the vision of collaboration. After the office space was revamped, people stopped communicating via Google Chat to someone who was only two cubicle spaces away, and they began to communicate in person.

This challenge is not new. In fact, the Harvard Business Review identified reasons why change management fails in a well-thought-out article back in 1995. Titled “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” the article lists eight different reasons, the first of which focuses on not establishing a significant enough amount of urgency. More than 50 percent of transformation failures observed by this expert were caused by this factor.

Other errors include not creating strong enough transformation leadership, a lack of vision and under-communication of the vision by a “factor of ten.” Some companies, the article notes, fail to remove obstacles standing in the way of the transformed vision. Obstacles can include the way the workplace is organized, poor compensation that causes people to focus on their own self-interest over the new vision – and, worst of all, the expert says, “bosses who refuse to change and who make demands that are inconsistent with the overall effort.”

Other errors noted include not creating short-term wins or declaring victory too soon. The article states that, while celebrating a win can be a plus, declaring all to be won can be “catastrophic.” Over the first five to ten years, it’s easy to regress to old ways, while the new vision is still fragile.

Finally, this Harvard publication notes, it’s important for leaders to consciously demonstrate how the new approach is improving performance. Don’t make the team members make those connections on their own (or not make them or misinterpret them). And, it’s crucial to ensure that top management continues to implement and use the new vision and approach. The article ends with this thought: “In reality, even successful change efforts are messy and full of surprises. But just as a relatively simple vision is needed to guide people through a major change, so a vision of the change process can reduce the error rate. And fewer errors can spell the difference between success and failure.”

https://todaysveterinarybusiness.com/do-it-differently-for-a-change/

Unions in the Veterinary Industry: Pros, Cons and What to Consider

In the summer of 2017, a small group of veterinary personnel formed the National Veterinary Professional Union (NVPU). The members of this grassroots movement are largely from Seattle, and they have prompted plenty of conversation about the benefits of unionizing the profession, as well as the challenges that will likely arise. It should be noted that, in rare instances, unions have already existed in the veterinary industry, but these have been isolated ones under unique circumstances.

Here are more specifics about the current situation.

More About the NVPU

The organization has been called the brainchild of Morgan VanFleet, a veterinary technician who is leaving the industry to work in nursing. Another technician, Liz Hughston, is serving as the organization’s communications director and is listed on the group’s website as president. She has pointed out how quickly credentialed staff are leaving the profession, calling the current environment unsustainable and a motivation for unionization.

More specifically, citing a 2016 demographic survey by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA): the average veterinary technician works in the field for seven years, with Hughston saying that reasons for the exit are numerous, with one of them clearly being compensation levels. And, because not enough people are graduating in the field to fill in empty positions, people involved in the NVPU are seeking solutions for a labor shortage that has the potential to become a real crisis.

One initiative of the NVPU is their Wage Transparency Project. A representative of the NVPU has said that wage uniformity is not a goal, but transparency is important because it’s difficult to bargain for pay increases if it isn’t clear where the wage basement and ceiling currently exist. As the organization has gathered wage information from people willing to disclose specifics, they have discovered that significant discrepancies exist, with new employees sometimes making more than employees with long tenures. To keep employees engaged in the workplace, achieving more parity is important, as is letting them know what monetary compensation is possible if they work hard and commit to staying in the industry.

The NVPU is currently local and, to nationalize their efforts, they are using Facebook to spread the word (https://www.facebook.com/NationalVeterinaryProfessionalsUnion/) and receiving some print coverage. They also have a basic website at http://www.natvpu.org and, as they get more dues-paying members, they plan to expand their outreach. Hughston expects this movement to grow slowly, first in Washington, then in the West Coast and then elsewhere around the country.

Obtaining better wages and benefits is a key focus, with other foci including requiring practices to invest more in training and providing enough quality protective equipment along with an overall safe working environment. Goals also include more workplace support for employee veterinarians, as well as technicians, unlicensed assistants, reception staff, client-care coordinators and other unlicensed support staff.

Hughston compares this movement to the 1960s and 1970s when nurses began to unionize, pointing out how it is a well-respected profession today. And, in fact, a longer-term goal of NVPU may include joining a larger union, such as the Service Employees International Union, for greater impact and bargaining power. This union represents about two million members who are nurses, nurses’ aides and home health care workers.

American Veterinary Medical Association Position

They are remaining neutral, saying the following. “We respect the right of our members who are employees to self-organize; to form, join, or assist labor organizations, and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. Similarly, we also respect their right to refrain from any such activity.”

Corporate Buyouts

 Is it reasonable to argue that corporate buyouts of individual practices are the impetus for the unionization movement. The reality is that increasing numbers of practices are consolidating, largely through corporate buyouts. In fact, Mars Petcare alone now owns about ten percent of the animal hospital market in the United States. As corporations own more hospitals, there will be less market competition, which means these corporate practices will be able to have more control over wages in the industry – which are currently staying flat.

Is unionizing the solution? Well, it depends upon whom you ask. If you’re an employee who struggles to meet expenses, the solidarity of a union will might seem attractive. Or, even if you make a reasonable salary, the benefits of unionizing may seem like a positive if you have crushing student loan debt. Yet another group of people who may find unions appealing: those who work at a corporate practice where there is disconnect between headquarters and the needs of the practice site. Hughston from the NVPU notes that, overall, non-corporate-owned practices typically take good enough care of their employees that they aren’t calling for a union. Instead, mostly it’s corporate staff that are clamoring for help and support.

We’ll now look at the pros and the cons of unionizing, as well as two additional related issues.

Union Pros

 Well-paid veterinary technicians, according to the 2016 NAVTA demographic survey, are paid only slightly above the poverty line, when income taxes are factored in. So, it’s clear that a problem exists, one that will continue to affect the industry’s ability to retain quality workers. Collective bargaining is one avenue towards helping workers obtain fair compensation and, therefore, boost retention rates at practices, although not everyone agrees it’s the right one.

From an underpaid worker’s point of view, there is a power in numbers. When, as just one example, an independent practice is sold to a corporate buyer, employees will likely feel powerless, and may desire a union to help them to navigate their new environment. And, there is reason for concern. Approximately 27,000 to 30,000 veterinary practices are operating in the United States today. The majority are still one-to-two doctor practices or at least individually owned. But, over the past decade, corporate ownership is increasingly taking hold, with Mars, Inc. owning more than 975 practices. And that was before they announced a successful acquisition of another corporate holding, VCA, Inc. This corporation owned 800 veterinary hospitals in the United States and Canada. This means that Mars now owns just under 2,000 practices in the United States and Canada, with about another 1,000 veterinary hospitals owned by other corporations. And, as the ownership landscape changes, the environment becomes increasingly riper for unionization.

As more practices become corporate, as already alluded to, there is naturally less competition, which gives the practices more ability to control wages. This seldom benefits the worker. According to a paper written by Richard Freeman, Harvard University economist, union members in the United States earn five to fifteen percent more in wages than their non-union counterparts. These figures do not factor in differences in pensions or health insurance, vacation or any other benefits. Unions can help.

 And, there are additional benefits of unionization, at least from the worker’s point of view. Hughston points out that unions can help with work/life balance and can help to create professional boundaries that are respected. These can include putting safe procedures and protocols into place; ensuring there is enough staffing for safety reasons; and more.

Let’s reiterate another point. Hughston acknowledges that unionization won’t be an attractive option to employees in private practices, especially those who feel comfortable and effective in negotiating directly with employers. She sees unionization as a valuable strategy to address the growing number of employees who are employed by corporate practices.

Union Cons

Independent practice owners may already be paying their team as much as they can to still manage their budgets, and they may already be doing all they reasonably can to create a quality environment for workers. Because the veterinary industry is cash-based (meaning most clients they see do not have health care insurance for their companion animals), there is a monetary cap of what an independent practice can afford to pay. Wage increases beyond that, then, will translate into increased prices, which may cause clients to go elsewhere to a non-union practice or not make appointments as often. It can also mean that, going forward, these practices will need to hire people with lower skill sets, which could harm the skilled workers, the practices themselves and the clients and their companion animals. Wages increased beyond what a private practice can bear could also lead to staff layoffs.

Hughston’s viewpoint is that there are other ways to boost wages, perhaps by having corporations accept a lower profit margin and for the entire industry to work together to create a sustainable profession. In the long run, she says, this will save all practices (independent and corporate) money. But, that may an idealistic comment, not a practical one, with private practices potentially hurt by unions as difficult industry problems are addressed.

Some people believe that unionization won’t necessarily improve pay and benefits or provide improved patient care. According to the executive director of NAVTA, unionizing will not necessarily be cheap for members, with the NVPU looking at a union model where members would pay two to three percent of their wages to belong. So, the net result in their paychecks may be disappointing.

Here’s another potential negative to consider. How would the patients suffer if practice employees went on strike?

Proactive Actions for Practices to Take

When employees at a practice unionize, life becomes more complicated for management. The practice would need to bargain with union over wages, terms of employment, hours of work permitted and other issues. Independently negotiating with unionized employees would violate federal labor law; going through collective bargaining, meanwhile, can be a drawn-out and often frustrating process.

To try to prevent employees from seeking to unionize, here are tips. First, don’t create fertile ground for unions. If your employees feel ignored or treated unfairly, or if they feel as though dealing directly with employers would be futile, that’s fertile ground for unionization.

The unionizing process would go like this. An employee (or more than one) would work with a union organizer to distribute literature to coworkers, and they would be asked to sign authorization cards. If 30 percent of the staff signed them, showing interest in the union, an election is held. Then, if the majority of people who show up to the election vote yes, the practice has been unionized.

As an example, let’s say your practice employs 30 people. If at least ten sign authorization cards, the issue of unionization is put to a vote. If only three people show up to the election? Then two yesses unionizes the practice.

So, self-audit. Are you paying the fairest rates you reasonably can? Offering the best benefits that fit within your budget? What creative yet low cost benefits can you offer? What can you do to improve morale? Fix any fertile ground.

Also consider creating a written policy, if you haven’t already, that restricts any solicitation, distribution of literature and the like at the practice. If you enforce the policy strictly, then employees can only distribute union literature in non-working areas during non-working times. But, if you don’t have a written policy, or if you have one that you sporadically enforce – perhaps by allowing sales of Girl Scout cookies, local charity donations, sign-ups for races and the like – then you can’t effectively prevent the distribution of union literature because that’s a violation of anti-discrimination provisions in federal labor laws.

If employees express interest in a union, you cannot threaten them, interrogate them or retaliate against them. You cannot promise them benefits if they switch positions to begin opposing the union. Be sure to train your managers so they know the law and how they can and cannot respond, and get advice from experienced labor counsel, as needed.

What If Employees Change Their Minds? Getting Out of a Union

According to a Forbes article, A Deep Secret That Labor Unions Don’t Want Workers to Know, “It is, quite simply, nearly impossible for workers to get rid of a union once it has been certified as their monopoly bargaining representative.” That’s because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not require an election when a designated term ends, such as the expiration of a contract. This means that workers will likely not get a chance to vote on whether they want to continue union representation.

And, in non-right to work states, if you are a private sector worker who works in a union shop, union membership will be a job requirement. You want the job? You join the union.

The only option for a practice where workers have changed their minds is what’s called a decertification election, “held after the expiration of a contract or a narrow 30-day window near the end of the third year of a contract. The union can circumvent a time window by agreeing to a new contract before the window opens—thus moving the window to the end of the new contract, when they can move it again.”

The bottom line is that it’s important to think very carefully about voting in a union, understanding that, while it’s not literally impossible to vote it out, it can be extremely challenging. This is especially true in non-right to work states, but not exclusively so.

What’s Next?

Practices concerned with unionization should proactively listen to employees and see how concerns can be addressed in a way that doesn’t require a union. Although increased wages are typically seen as the primary goal of collective bargaining, a more abstract but perhaps equally important goal is respect. Practice owners who find ways to contribute meaningfully to their employees’ work experiences and environment and who become increasingly aware of and respectful of their employees’ contributions have the potential to create win/win non-unionized solutions.