Guilty Until Proven Innocent-What If You Are Falsely Accused of Sexual Harassment?

It is a lively Friday afternoon. As usual, just an hour from close, two separate frantic clients call into your practice: one, of a dog that has been vomiting hourly since yesterday morning, and two, of a suspected blocked cat. The cat arrives first, and you and your team swoop it to the back for further examination. The cat is aggressive, and it takes two nurses and one assistant to swaddle it into position for a cystocentesis. As you dive into the crowded huddle, needle in hand to collect the urine, you lean your left hand on the assistant’s back for support. You successfully collect the urine and finish the rest of your evening’s work. It has been a long week, but you feel good about the day’s outcome and head home. The next morning, before your shift, your practice manager calls to inform you that someone has filed a complaint against you, that you are currently under investigation, and that you are suspended until the investigation has finished. With not much time to process this sudden information, you do not ask any questions, and hang up the phone. Now what?

Sexual harassment is not an unfamiliar concept to most people today. Increasingly in the news because of the #MeToo movement, more victims are becoming courageous enough to speak up against predators that have, for many years, held a position of power and a sense of untouchability. Unfortunately for these victims, a second population exists with ulterior motives, people who are using this movement inappropriately to harm innocent colleague reputations, careers, and livelihoods. America has yet to develop a method that distinguishes a true victim from a disgruntled coworker, ultimately diluting the real victims’ stories and harming innocent people. In addition, the current misconceptions of large false reporting rates lead plenty of real victims to return to their fears of reporting sexual harassment or assault.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Sexual harassment can be performed by people of both sexes and the act does not specify that the victim is to be of the opposite sex. A harasser may be any work-related individual (colleague, supervisor, or non-employee) and the victim may be anyone affected by the offensive conduct. Sexual harassment has two main types: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo, a demand for sexual favors in exchange for employment opportunities, only requires one incident to file a charge. A hostile work environment, a workplace that is sexually demeaning, hostile, or intimidating, relies upon behavioral patterns to have validity.

There are a few deadlines to consider if proceeding in a sexual harassment case. In federal sexual harassment cases, the victim has to file a charge with the EEOC within 180 days. When the EEOC responds by issuing a “right to sue,” the complainant has 90 days to file a federal lawsuit. When investigating, the EEOC will consider the context and nature of the sexual behaviors.

Why Now?

What explains the rise in sexual harassment across America – or at least in its reporting? Historically, individuals risked professional and social suicide by accusing a colleague of inappropriate sexual behavior, consequences strong enough to suppress most victims’ voices. This culture existed, fairly unchanged until recently; and, in fact, in 2016, the EEOC’s total number of sexual harassment complaints was 15 percent lower than in 2010.

Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment case, though, created in October 2017 what has been termed the “Weinstein Effect.” While the EEOC has not released its annual numbers following the Weinstein scandal, state-level numbers suggest it has already had a significant impact in empowering victims to come forward and break the societal stigma. Looking at a state level, from January to March 2018, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing received 939 sexual harassment complaints, an 86 percent increase from the previous year’s 504. From October 2017 to April 2018, New York’s State Division of Human Rights received 353 sexual harassment complaints, a 60 percent increase from the previous year’s 220. While the reason cannot yet be nailed to the Weinstein Effect, these numbers are noteworthy.

Dan Cassino, an associate political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, wrote a Harvard Business Review article suggesting an additional factor: that the apparent increased sexual harassment claims not only reflect empowered individuals reporting abuse, but also an increase of masculine insecurity as women rise in the workforce. This insecurity could be leading to additional inappropriate actions taken by a percentage of men to maintain a sense of power.

Impact in the Veterinary Industry

Since 1986, women have outnumbered men in the veterinary industry, first in school and now in the field, and this trend is continuing. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports that the current veterinary market consists of 55 percent female and 45 percent male veterinarians. Feminization of the veterinary industry is even more apparent when looking at technicians, a field long consisting of females. In 2017, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges reported that women hold 90 percent of veterinary technician positions. If Dan Cassino’s hypothesis is true, the veterinary profession risks significant gender conflict and potential concurrent rises in sexual harassment claims with its continuing feminization.

Here’s one example of how a large veterinary corporation is addressing sexual harassment claims. Mars (Banfield, Blue Pearl, Pet Partners, and VCA) has a zero-tolerance policy that permits immediate discipline or termination of an alleged harasser for just one indiscretion.

Accused of Sexual Harassment? What to Do

Sexual harassment remains a relatively young concept with all-too-often vague workplace guidelines for protecting employees both from sexual harassment and false sexual harassment claims. Returning to our hypothetical veterinarian faced with a sudden sexual harassment claim in this article’s introduction, the following steps must be taken if you are accused:

  • Hire a qualified criminal defense attorney immediately.
  • Realize the importance of these accusations and their effect upon your job stability and reputation.
  • Prepare for the cost of high legal fees.
  • Know that you are not required by law to say anything to the police.
  • Remain calm and do not allow emotions to dictate your actions.
  • Understand that, when an employer receives a sexual harassment complaint, the law requires them to take immediate remedial action. The process is going to move fast, and you will have to organize and present your thoughts.
  • Participate fully in the investigation. This means to document everything, compile a list of possible witnesses, and ask to see the written complaint. In the theoretical instance we’re using, you would write down the names of the two technicians as well as any other employees in the room during the alleged event. You want to quickly be able to address any misinterpretations and to calmly share your recollection of the event.
  • Disclose any mitigating factors. If, for example, this assistant was someone you used to have a sexual relationship with, that’s an important detail to share with your investigator. While the hospital may terminate both of you for holding a clandestine sexual relationship, the extra details you provide will help the investigator understand the situation.
  • Share context. You may want to share, for example, that in the incident being investigated, you had not thought of the assistant’s reaction. People do not uniformly or predictably react to a brush of the hand, and addressing any misunderstandings, such as resting your hand on a coworker’s back during a busy time, will allow all parties to share viewpoints and clarify interpretations. It is important to tell your investigator you had not meant to offend anyone, and your intentions were misunderstood.
  • Reaffirm your commitment to the practice’s anti-harassment policy.

There are also a few steps to avoid, and here we leave our hypothetical example and are speaking more broadly. First, when explaining the situation, you should not state that, because you and the victim were the same gender (if this is the case), the intention could have not been sexual. Second, you should not state that your actions or phrases were based on an inaccurate assumption of the victim’s gender or sexual orientation. Finally, you should not use the victim’s promiscuous history, if that’s potentially true, to explain your reasoning for an incident.

The reality is that employers today often take strict remedial actions against the alleged harasser out of concern for business liability. This is done, perhaps with the best of intentions, to avoid further antagonizing the complainant, and helps to minimize the employer’s risk if facing a discrimination charge with the EEOC. In fact, since most workplace contracts are “at will,” termination is the quickest action that the employer can take to defend the practice.

What Next?

If your practice declares you guilty of sexual harassment, your attorney can negotiate your exit to receive a severance package and a neutral reference. By law, the employer must keep the allegations confidential, not discuss the situation or criticize you with others present. Ideally, this minimizes the risk to your reputation. If you are lucky enough to reach an understanding that the complainant was mistaken, you should ask the employer/investigator to refrain from putting any of this information into your personal file.

The situation is quite different, though, if a coworker filed a sexual harassment claim with malicious intentions. If these intentions become evident during the investigation and the investigator proves the claim to be false, that complainant faces a number of potential consequences: legal penalties (court fines, contempt order, and possibly even criminal charges), a slander lawsuit, perjury charges if the individual lied during a trial proceeding, and employment termination. And, because even settled false claims brand you with a virtual scarlet H by peers, you may sue the complainant for the losses associated with the false claim to cover reputation damages, lost wages, and employment termination. If terminated by the practice, you can also claim defamation.

Proactively Protect Yourself

Sexual harassment claims can cause massive detriments to practices, so many human resource departments – corporate and private alike – attempt to mitigate damage to them. This means that the human resource team often makes decisions in the best interest for the practice, so it’s best if you can simply protect yourself before an incident ever arises.

Scott Stender, a Workplace Consultant and retired police officer, states that “you don’t need to work in fear. You do, however, have to understand professional boundaries and use emotional intelligence. This can be harder than it looks, as in the workplace many of us confuse professional and personal boundaries. You need to remember that when you’re talking with a co-worker or employee, it’s not the same as talking with your friend.”

To avoid being accused of sexual harassment in today’s work environment, it is best to follow these recommendations:

  • Regularly reflect on your actions and think about how they could be interpreted.
  • Be cautious about mixing personal and professional lives.
  • Physical contact at work should ideally be limited to a handshake.
  • When giving a compliment, focus on work performed, not that person’s physical appearance.
  • Remain self-aware at practice events by:
    • limiting alcohol intake
    • not staying late
    • attending only company-sponsored activities

These are not always easy guidelines to follow in the sometimes emotion-filled veterinary profession. Ultimately, if you do something that you believe to be questionable, seek an employer’s assistance before the employer comes looking for you.

Sexual Harassment Investigations

Employers must deal with the stress of a potential lawsuit, the emotional impact of the investigation on the person making the claim, and the negative impact on the person being accused, especially challenging if the claim is difficult to investigate. It is challenging to remain objective to ensure fairness to both parties when faced with a sexual harassment complaint.

And, you, as the employer, may be held liable if you knew about or should have known of the harassment and failed to take “prompt” effective remedial actions. In some cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that employers in hostile work environments exercised reasonable care and the complainant unreasonably failed to take advantage of corrective opportunities to avoid harm. It is important to know that, while tempting, the employer cannot conduct a criminal background check using an outside agency without an employee’s prior consent.

A complaint, by itself, is not proof of sexual harassment, nor does an unproven allegation falsify a claim. You must stay open-minded and thoroughly investigate for the benefit of both parties. As this is a subjective and emotional matter, statements made should not be analyzed in a vacuum. For example, a lie does not immediately indicate that the entire story is false. The narrator may be feeling ashamed, embarrassed, or fearful about how previous actions might be interpreted. Sometimes, the accuser may not understand the definition of sexual harassment or its context. The reported conduct may have been mutual, or the accused may not have reasonably been able to know that comments made were unwelcome. When investigating, you should think of two questions to help guide the investigation:

  • Did what is alleged occur?
  • If it did, what is the significance of it (i.e., does it meet the standards of sexual harassment)?

These are good questions to ask not only of your two involved parties, but of every possible witness of the event. Although you want to address this issue efficiently, you must avoid acting without a thorough investigation. This risks a possible lawsuit, regardless of whether the harassment occurred. And, what should you do if it is ultimately difficult to discern the truth? If in doubt, you can justifiably refrain from taking the harshest possible response and discuss with the accused that future allegations will be seriously investigated with a strong potential for termination.

Once a conclusion is reached, the focus turns to appropriate remediation, if needed. The employer faces a few legal challenges in this area and must morally recognize the consequences of his/her decision to both parties. Here is one example, this one associated with protected class: you cannot punish a person more harshly than someone outside of his/her protected class. For example, an accused 30-year-old veterinarian should not be terminated when, a year ago, a 60-year-old veterinarian in a similar similar was given a warning.

Throughout even this part of the process, you must remain cautious about how you speak about an employee. As previously mentioned, employees may claim defamation against a practice in an attempt to remedy their livelihood or reputation. For an employee to claim defamation, the statement must be published, false, injurious, and unprivileged.

Looking to the Future

The veterinary practice provides for specific challenges with sexual harassment. Its traditionally small, owner-operated, family-type hospitals often create a culture of sharing personal issues, prevalent jokes, and methods to release stress. In addition, handling animals necessitate veterinarians and staff to work in close physical proximity. Practices expand these gray risk areas if they employ family members and/or allow intra-hospital relationships, because – even if not objectively true – this can create appearances of favoritism. In more extreme cases, this can lead to the belief that people who aren’t sleeping with the boss aren’t getting the perks.

As a practice owner or manager, you must identify and address these risk areas. While it isn’t realistic to completely change the veterinary culture, you as the employer can work to mitigate human resource nuances before they become problematic. This would include mandating employees to disclose relationships to you, minimizing family-member hires, and establishing a protocol that encourages a professional demeanor in the workplace.

So where do we go from here in the veterinary community? We go forward. We should not regard sexual harassment lightly, especially as women and men finally muster the courage to address their harassers. We should implement and share clear and firm workplace policies, discuss sexual harassment with all of our staff, and favor open conversations over quick online tutorials. When faced with a complaint, we should investigate it seriously out of respect for its consequences to both parties. If wrongly accused, we should stay present and be prepared to fight for our reputations. We must devise universal sexual harassment protocols and sexual harassment definitions to ensure appropriate remediation. Hopefully, we can take the initiative to be one of the first industries to successfully fight this world-wide phenomenon.

Working for a Younger Boss: Six Tips on How to Transform This Experience

When you’re new to the workforce, supervisors are typically older than you are, and that just feels like the way the world works. As time passes, though, you may find yourself in a situation where you are older than your boss. In fact, a Harris Interactive survey conducted on behalf of CareerBuilder found that almost four in every ten employees in the United States are now working for a younger boss. And, as increasing numbers of people from the Baby Boomer generation decide it’s time to retire, that dynamic is going to become even more typical.

If you find yourself in that situation, and it’s uncomfortable, what do you do? Here are six tips.

Tip #1 Is It Really Uncomfortable?

People you know may ask you if it’s uncomfortable having a younger boss, and you may be reading articles about how challenging it is to work with Millennials, much less work for a Millennial boss. And, you may subconsciously be connecting the concept of “younger” to “less qualified.” (If so, it may simply help to focus on not stereotyping based on age or any other demographic.  It’s easy for anyone of any age to make assumptions based on demographics, but that’s seldom productive.)

The bottom line is that you may be framing your situation as more difficult than it really is. If that seems possible, pause, and really consider your boss and your situation. No perfect boss exists. Is your situation genuinely uncomfortable? If it isn’t, your problem is solved! If it is, tip number two may help.

Tip #2 Why Are You Uncomfortable?

If your discomfort is real, try to decipher why. Do you want to be in a supervisory position yourself? If so, what do you need to do to help make that happen? Or, do you not want a supervisory position, but your ego is bruised because someone younger is higher on your company’s hierarchy? If that’s the case, remind yourself that you don’t want this type of promotion and focus on finding satisfaction in your own job.

Compare your levels of discomfort. If you had the same degree of unease with a boss of an age similar to yours or with one older than you, would you feel this uncomfortable? If having a younger boss makes you more uncomfortable, it may be that this generation performs tasks somewhat differently from you. If that rings true, tip three can help.

Tip #3 Embrace Positive Change

Here’s a litmus test. If you find yourself saying, “But we’ve always [fill in the blank},” stop. Reassess.

It’s only natural to get comfortable performing tasks in a way you’re used to, no matter what age you are. But, it’s highly beneficial (again, no matter your age) to continue to embrace positive change. When you’re able to maintain this attitude, you’ll continue to learn and grow, and this will provide you with opportunities to appreciate the good changes your boss is implementing. If a new technology, process or philosophy feels too strange, try listing positive aspects of it and see if you can focus on them instead of how new and different these changes feel. And, number four can help when interacting with anyone new.

Tip #4 Find Common Ground with Your Younger Boss

Do you and your boss share a true passion for companion animals? If so, then find ways to bond together on that common interest. Also look for other ones, whether work-related or outside the scope of work. You may discover that you both volunteer for the same or similar causes, perhaps a local animal shelter, a service club or a hospice center; have traveled to some of the same fascinating places; or root for the same sports teams. It’s unlikely you’ll spend significant time discussing outside interests during a busy day at the practice, but they can serve as a wonderful wellspring of bonding and allow you to view your boss in a whole new light.

Tip #5 Communicate with Your Boss About Concerns

Despite commonalities you discover, you may also decide that, yes. There are genuine issues that need addressed with your boss. A face-to-face conversation may clear the air, but be prepared to communicate your concerns clearly, without being defensive. Perhaps, for example, you’ve always prepared written reports for company meetings, but now your Millennial boss wants succinct bullet-pointed PowerPoint presentations to share. If you feel, for example, that some information that had existed in your more in-depth reports is now missing or not given enough context, explain that concern and offer solutions. Maybe the PowerPoint slides, in your opinion, would work well but need more detail to share important information.

It’s also possible that your younger boss is using technology that’s new to you, or you aren’t as familiar as you’d like to be with its capabilities and use. If so, then the solution could be to get more training with this technology, either by doing so on your own or through resources offered at work.

Tip #6 Focus on Being a Partner or Collaborator, Not a Mentor

If you’ve worked at a practice for a significant amount of time, or if you’ve been in the veterinary industry for any length of time, you’ve gained valuable experience and knowledge. And, it makes sense for everyone at a practice to pool knowledge to provide the best experience for clients and their companion animals, and to run the practice as effectively as possible.

But, be careful that you don’t lecture or say anything that could reasonably be construed as condescending. Instead, understand what challenges your boss faces and empathetically reason through potential solutions. Share ideas in a way that makes your boss’s work life easier and maintain an attitude of teamwork to create the most productive working environment possible.

 

When Dream Team Employees Reach Pay Caps: Three Strategies to Use

Originally Published in Today’s Veterinary Business, March 2018

At your practice, let’s say you have the veterinary nurse of your dreams. Not only is she wonderful with the animals brought to the practice, she is compassionate with their owners. She communicates clearly with your clients; is highly experienced in necessary skills; is always on time; is willing to do her share and more; and avoids gossip, among numerous other positive traits. She is, without a doubt, a star-level veterinary nurse, one you’re extremely lucky to have on your team.

The problem? She is already receiving the maximum pay allowable in her range, according to your practice standards – and a nearby corporate practice is known for wooing away top talent. A cost of living increase is due soon, but that’s not going to make a significant difference in her pay. You may not have this exact same situation at your practice, but practices often face challenges that are very similar. If your practice is, what can you do?

Here are three possibilities, ones you can mix and match for your unique practice needs.

Strategy One: Double-check the Current Market

When is the last time you checked to see the going pay rate for, in this example, veterinary nurses? If it’s a been a while, it’s likely you’ll need to review the pay ranges you’re offering. As a starting point, review this chart of hourly pay amounts being offered in small animal companion practices, according to current key indicators. This is not an all-inclusive list. Rather, it’s step one to help you determine if your practice is on target with pay ranges or if you’ll need to consider some revisions.

Job Title Starting Hourly Compensation: Median Starting Hourly Compensation: 75th Percentile
Hospital Administrator $29.65 $35.10
Practice Manager $21.65 $22.80
Receptionist $12.00 $13.00
Credentialed Technician $15.00 $16.00
Veterinary Assistant $11.50 $12.50

 

How closely does your pay structure align with these figures? Where you live in the United States will likely affect the local rates paid, but this chart is a start. Is it possible to extend the upper range of your compensation rates to keep dream employees at your practice? Because the economy has remained strong for a while, the reality is that you may continue to lose your top talent if you can’t find ways to compensate them appropriately, and this unfortunate fact will continue to be true until the job market tightens. And, let’s face it. Your best employees will likely continue to find higher-paying opportunities, no matter the economic situation.

If you can’t offer a higher pay rate to a star employee, how you explain salary caps is crucial in your attempts to keep that employee at your practice, so be prepared to sit down and have an honest talk about your practice policies and budgets.

Also, be creative. Can you offer a one-time bonus to fill the gaps as you consider strategies two and three provided in this article? Can you formulate incentive pay structures for your team? This will help your star employees to add to their paychecks, and other employees may also become motivated by these incentives. Win/win!

Strategy Two: Career Opportunities

If you can’t offer more money for the person’s current job, consider what promotion opportunities exist for this employee within your practice and then talk to him or her about the possibilities. How does your star feel about the responsibilities involved in a new position? If the promotion will require more education and/or training, can you help to provide that – or at least do all you can provide a conducive work environment for this transition to happen?

Here, though, is an important caution. Let’s say a supervisory position is open at your practice and it would allow you to pay a star employee more than he or she is currently making. It’s easy to become enthusiastic about the idea of promoting this employee, but it’s also crucial to take your time throughout the promotion process for multiple reasons, including these two:

  1. You need to follow your practice’s standard policies and procedures each and every time you hire or promote.
  2. This new promotion may or may not fit your employee’s strengths. If it doesn’t, then not only have you promoted the wrong person, you’ve also taken a star team member out of the position where he or she was shining.

Whether you can or can’t employ strategies one and/or two in your practice, all practices should consider strategy number three.

Strategy Three: Creative Perks

What perks can you offer your employees? One of the most in-demand perks today is more flexible scheduling. And, while you may not be able to offer telecommuting to most of your employees, it may make all the difference in the world to your star employee if you re-arrange schedules so that he or she will have the flexibility to come in to work 30 minutes later in the morning – which allows him or her to see his or her children safely off to school. And/or, you can help to ensure that this employee can always take a lunch break when it’s time to pick up his or her children. In the relatively rare instances when telecommuting can work with a veterinary practice employee, this will likely be a treasured perk.

Caution: make sure you offer perks to all employees in a fair way. Although you do not need to offer the exact same perks to every employee, it’s crucial that you ensure you aren’t discriminating based on race or gender, as just one example. And, even if you aren’t providing perks in a discriminatory way, to keep office morale at a quality level, you also need to make sure you aren’t acting in a way that can reasonably be perceived as unfair. If you are unsure about what is legal, consult your attorney. If you’re unsure about what may cause other employees to lose heart, prioritize coming up with creative perks in the best way for your entire practice, including but not limited to your best employees.

What professional development perks can you offer? How can you help employees who take you up on bettering themselves and improving their skills to juggle all their demands? How can you relax dress codes to a degree that allows your employees flexibility while still keeping a professional look to your practice? In which instances can you allow employees to help choose the technology they will use at work?

When you ask your employees what perks are most important to them, how do they respond?

More about the Pay Plateau

Rather than waiting until a situation arises in which a top performer reaches his or her pay plateau, create a policy on how the situation will be handled and know what conversations you’ll need to have with that employee. How much information will you share about practice financials to help him or her understand why pay plateaus exist where they do?

Know ahead of time what options you can offer that employee (more flexible scheduling, incentive pay and the like), and be aware of those you should avoid. As in virtually every challenge, well thought-out policies and preparation are key.

Click Here for Link to the article Today’s Veterinary Business: https://todaysveterinarybusiness.com/put-on-your-thinking-cap/

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.

7 Steps To Take When Employees Refuse to Sign Disciplinary Notices

Originally Published in Today’s Veterinary Business, April 2018

You’ve created disciplinary policies and procedures that are clear, fair and approved by your attorney, and so it appears you’ve got all your bases covered. You carefully document misconduct and poor performance, discuss these acts with all relevant parties – and then an employee throws you a curve ball by refusing to sign a disciplinary notice. You really want this signature as proof of the discipline meeting, so what do you do now?

Here are seven steps you can take to get that signature and help prevent this refusal from happening again in the future. These steps also help you to protect your practice when an employee ultimately does not sign the disciplinary notice.

Step One: Stay Calm

It isn’t unusual for employees to refuse to sign notices related to disciplinary matters and there are reasonable actions you can take to manage the disciplinary process and protect your practice if this meeting later becomes part of a legal matter. The calmer you can remain, the better.

Step Two: Carefully Describe the Signature’s Purpose

At the beginning of disciplinary meetings, it’s best to first provide an overview of what’s about to transpire, which includes discussing the undesirable behaviors that led to the meeting along with any discipline that will occur. You should let the employee know that he or she will have time to review the written document detailing the situation – and that his or her signature at the bottom will only show that he or she has received the document and read it, not serve as an indication of agreement of the document’s contents.

Employees who refuse to sign typically do so for one of two reasons (or both). First, he or she may refuse because of a disagreement over the contents. Or, the refusal may come from a belief that the form is invalid without the signature. To move forward, it may be helpful to first decipher why the signature is being refused. If it’s a disagreement over the contents, see steps three and four. If it’s the second reason, see step five. In either case, armed with the knowledge found in those steps, cordially educate your employee about options available when he or she disagrees with the content and/or about the validity of the document without his or her signature.

Step Three: Add Comments and Clarifications

Many practices allow employees to add comments to the form, which can make them feel better about signing it, as they may feel as though they can provide their own points of view in writing. It is also acceptable and often helpful to have wording above the employee’s signature line that clearly states how a signature does not mean the employee agrees with the content of the document, only that he or she has read it.

If the ability to add comments and/or the clarifying statement above the signature line allows your employee to feel comfortable enough with the process to sign the document, then you’ve solved the refusal-to-sign problem. If not, read on.

Step Four: Suggest A Rebuttal

Perhaps an employee feels strongly enough about the information contained in the disciplinary notice that he or she would agree to write a written rebuttal that could be attached to the disciplinary notice. If so, this helps your practice because it demonstrates that the employee was aware of the discipline and that the practice was following its policy of progressive discipline.

Plus, the rebuttal may bring up points that practice management was unaware of, and it’s important for managers to be open to explanations given. Some rebuttals consist largely of emotional statements (“my co-worker is a jerk” or “my manager has always hated me, so why should this be any different?”) without any information of significance being given.

In other instances, though, the employee being disciplined may bring to light new information that may be relevant to the disciplinary actions being taken. Perhaps your employee will provide written documentation that alters the situation being addressed. What if he or she gives you names of witnesses who tell a different story?

If so, at a minimum, you can correct information on the form, adding and deleting details to make the form accurate. At that point, with correct information and an attached rebuttal, your employee may be willing to sign the notice. In relatively rare instances, this new information may cause you to rethink the disciplinary procedure you’ve started. If doubts are raised about the employee’s misconduct or poor performance, don’t rush through the disciplinary process. Make sure you have all the facts before proceeding.

Step Five: Employee Still Elects Not to Sign: What’s Next? 

Some employees may still refuse to sign, even after being offered the chance to rebut the statements made in writing. You could recommend that the employee write the words “I disagree” before signing. On occasion, that works.

Step Six: Employee STILL Elects Not to Sign: Now What? 

If there are two people from management and/or human resources in the meeting, add a statement to the document that details what happened in the meeting and note that the employee elected not to sign. Then have both managers/human resources representatives sign below that statement. If there aren’t two people in the meeting that represent management, invite one into the meeting at this point so you can get dual signatures.

By this point, you may feel very frustrated, but don’t attempt to force the employee to sign the notice – and definitely don’t threaten to fire him or her to increase pressure.

Step Seven: Adjust Policies and Procedures Accordingly

You may be reading this article right when you’re in the middle of a disciplinary procedure, one where your employee refuses to sign the notice. If so, then you may not be able to follow these steps exactly as written, needing to adapt them to the stage of the process where you currently are. After that particular disciplinary process is over, though, you should review your relevant policies and procedures to see what needs modified, based upon what you’ve learned and experienced to make future disciplinary processes run more smoothly.

Link to article https://todaysveterinarybusiness.com/break-the-impasse/

 

Workplace Gossip – and How to Control the Rumors

Originally Published in Today’s Veterinary Business, April 2018 

“Maria’s skirt is awfully short, isn’t it? And she sure doesn’t have the figure to pull that off!”

“You’re not going to believe what I heard about our new client . . .” 

“Did you hear who is getting divorced? You’re not going to believe what happened!” 

“We’re not getting bonuses this year because of what happened between Fred and Susan.”  

“Did you hear why Martin got that raise? And did you hear how much it was?”

Statements like this are heard in workplaces around the country, including veterinarian offices, with victims of gossip being managers, coworkers, clients – and anyone else the gossiper runs across during his or her day. While gossip can contain kernels of truth, stories shared are often blown out of proportion, and are sometimes completely false.

When people who work at a veterinarian’s office gossip, and the manager doesn’t effectively address the situation, the workplace quickly becomes toxic. Some managers don’t address the gossip because they are turning a blind eye (or, more accurately, ear!) to what employees are doing. And, unfortunately, sometimes the managers are active participants in the gossiping, which makes the situation even worse.

Gossip, unchecked, can lead to significant productivity and morale issues. Star employees will likely begin to look for work at another practice, which leads to costly turnover, and significant cases of malicious gossip can lead to legal liability issues for the practice.

So, how should workplace gossip be handled?

Understanding Reasons Why People Gossip

It can be helpful to try to pinpoint why people are gossiping in your workplace. For example, do employees feel as though they aren’t being provided enough information about the workplace and so they are seeking out details among themselves? If the gossip being shared is largely about decisions being made in the veterinary office, then being more transparent about what’s going on can go a long way in quashing the gossip.

Are there trust issues in the practice, especially between employees and managers? If employees don’t trust what their managers say, they tend to rely upon one another to get the real story, and this easily lends itself to creating a gossip culture. Honest and open communicate is key, and that starts with the top.

Other times, certain employees gain a reputation, rightly or wrongly, as someone in the know. If these employees enjoy being perceived as a central source of information, they will continue to play this role to soak up attention. This creates a malignant cycle because, as the information-central employee is rewarded with attention, he or she will likely continue to provide even more gossip. So, what can you do? Once someone regularly engages in gossip, it can be challenging to correct this behavior but it can sometimes be addressed by helping the employee receive attention in positive and productive ways.

Put Policies in Place

Like any other human resource-related issue, employee manuals should contain policies to address the situation, including what is prohibited and the consequences that will occur if someone acts in an inappropriate way. This information should be highlighted during the annual meetings in which the manual is discussed.

It’s important to know the law when writing these policies. For example, it’s tempting to include that employees are not allowed to discuss their salaries – but it isn’t legal to prohibit that. It’s also important to differentiate between harmful gossip and normal workplace discussions. For example, someone might say, “Did you hear that Sara’s cat had six kittens last night? The cat is such a beautiful calico, so I’ll bet the kittens are really cute.”

Technically speaking, you could call this gossip, which can be defined as “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”

The employee is talking about Sara in a casual way, providing details that may not be true. There might have been five kittens – or seven – and maybe none are calico. Or, maybe the cat didn’t even have her kittens yet. But, should that conversation be prohibited by policy?

Define what you mean by gossip. You might, for example, determine that, when conversations about others are disruptive, or have the potential to hurt feelings or damage relationships, that’s gossip. If it drains employees’ morale, that’s gossip.

Model Appropriate Behavior

After a long day, it might be tempting for you – as a veterinarian or practice manager – to make an off-the-cuff remark about a difficult client. But, beware. To help ensure that employees don’t gossip, it’s crucial that you watch what you say. When employees make a comment that can be construed as gossip, you can model how that same concept could be shared in a non-gossipy way or explain why it wasn’t appropriate to say. When an employee occasionally makes comments that cross over into gossip, behavior modeling and employee coaching generally work. Call yourself out, as well, when you slip into behaviors along the gossip spectrum.

Deal Directly with Problem Employees First

If an employee is a hard-core gossiper, then you will need to follow your progressive disciplinary procedure, a process that most likely starts with a verbal warning and ends with termination. Meet individually with a perpetrator in a confidential location and discuss the impact that his or her gossiping is having on other individuals and the practice. Review with each perpetrator the disciplinary procedures that will be followed, and then stick to them, even if it results in firing an employee who resists improving his or her behavior.

It’s important to meet individually with gossipers first, rather than going immediately into a team meeting or sending out an email blast, and here’s why. You might remember being a child in a classroom where a teacher vented about the high absenteeism rate – ranting, of course, to the students who did show up to class. Sending a group email or holding a team meeting without individual counseling and discipline is the grown-up version of the teacher chastising people with good attendance for absenteeism.

When you do meet with your entire team, discuss the topic of gossip on a broad level. Invite your team to brainstorm solutions to help ensure that your workplace culture is as positive and gossip-free as possible. This can include rewarding employees when they share positive news with one another, perhaps giving kudos to a fellow employee who received an important certification or handled a difficult customer especially well (making sure that these “kudos” aren’t really a disguise for gossiping about the challenging customer!).

Finally, you need to protect employees who share instances of gossiping with managers. Ironically, you also need to watch to ensure that this reporting doesn’t become an insidious form of gossip. Remain firm and consistent in your efforts to root out gossip. This process can be challenging, especially if gossiping behaviors have been entrenched into your workplace culture, but the ultimate rewards are significant and worthwhile.

Click link to see article in Today’s Veterinary Business  http://todaysveterinarybusiness.com/?s=workplace+gossip