Whether an owner is transitioning a practice to an associate, colleague or corporate entity, the process of onboarding can be complex. This article intends to outline the medical, financial and staff transition steps to follow, post-sale, along with the challenges each presents.
Although mergers and acquisitions (M&As) typically begin with high hopes of success, not all do succeed. Below are some statistics about practice sale shortcomings:
- 65% of all M&As do not achieve objectives set forth by deal architects
- 83% of mergers do not increase shareholder value
- 50% loss of key managers and technical employees is experienced within 12 months
- 50% of failures are due to cultural clashes
Most failures are attributed to operational, financial and/or customer relations problems. Within these broad categories, common reasons for M&As failing to achieve their objectives include the parties not doing one or more of the following:
- thoroughly consider all types of value critical to the practice
- establish priorities for integration
- identify and address risks that inhibit integration
The buyer may, for example, expect the seller’s personnel to integrate themselves, which may not happen. In other scenarios, the buyer has an integration program, but it does not run efficiently or see things to fruition. No matter the specifics, the ultimate result of poor integration is that morale drops, revenue diminishes, and objectives are not met.
In a full half of M&As, key managers and technical employees leave. This is typically an indication that a new owner has failed to implement an organizational and leadership structure that is emotionally satisfactory to employees, at least not in a timely manner. As a result, talented staff leave for better-run practices.
For a successful transition to occur, timing is key. A prolonged transition period distracts leadership from the mothership of the business. Gaps in communication contribute to a drop in customer service, which is reflected in reduced client retention—effectively leaving the practice vulnerable to veterinary competitors in the area.
There are three main areas to consider in regards to the medical side of the transition.
As part of a transition, medical records must be carefully reviewed to ensure they contain all information and documentation as required by state and federal law. Generally, the physical medical record is owned by the veterinarian or entity responsible for compiling and maintaining the medical record. To ensure no lapses occur in accessing or adding to existing medical records, the owner and buyer should clearly define how such files are to be transferred and managed.
It’s important for the buyer to have access to job descriptions of all the seller’s staff, along with the practice’s standard operating procedures. Often, sellers may propose changes to increase synergy and efficiency. For example, sellers may overhaul product or service offerings to enhance compatibility with the existing clientele or attract new ones. The operational documents created, however, should outline job descriptions and standard operating procedures—and the infrastructure required to execute them—as they currently stand.
Maintaining Medical Standards
Upholding the medical standards of a practice is intricately entwined with retaining key staff members who execute those medical processes. If the practice associates and staff intend to continue working post-sale, employment agreements should be created that include staff roles, responsibilities, and terms of agreement. The owner can suggest that the buyer wait six months to implement any significant changes, and then to do so gradually.
The first steps in planning a financial transition include to generate an expense budget, profit and loss statement, and statement of assets and liabilities. The author recommends creating an expense budget based on the latest edition of Veterinary Economics’ Benchmarks: A Study of Well-Managed Practices. A typical expense budget includes (at minimum) projected and actual values of revenue, cost of goods sold, staff, rent, equipment leases, utilities, office supplies, bank fees, and owner salary.
A profit and loss statement features year-to-date comparisons of items such as fees for professional services, laboratory services, vaccinations, pharmaceutical imaging, grooming, and dental services, as well as food and retail sales. Additionally, it lists year-to-date data on costs of goods sold, along with staff, equipment, and administrative expenses. Finally, it calculates a net income. On average, this statement should take about five to ten hours per month to generate.
A statement of assets and liabilities functions as a balance sheet for the practice. It lists both current and non-current assets; the latter is not easily converted into cash and can include buildings, equipment and motor vehicles. Current assets include money in checking or savings accounts, accounts receivable, and inventory, among other possibilities. An example of a non-current (long-term) liability is a loan taken out to buy the practice; current liabilities include accounts payable and other amounts expected to be paid in the current financial year.
In generating financial analyses of the practice, it may be important to hire an accountant. In general, accountants cost about 0.5% of gross annual revenue. Moreover, owners should consider hiring a dedicated practice manager, which will cost about 0.4% of gross annual revenue.
As a tool to help owners further interrogate data, practice management software allows owners to track gross revenue in multiple ways, perhaps weekly, monthly, and quarterly. Average transaction charges should be tracked hourly; if not, then daily, and then periodically.
Cultural clashes are defined here as differences in human elements between merging companies. For a practice to be successful, these clashes must be identified through an audit and then successfully addressed. A cultural audit would examine factors such as core values, policies and practices, work processes, leadership styles, and human emotions. More specifically, examinations in human emotions should include people’s uncertainties surrounding job security and their fear of change. The importance of an audit of staff emotions cannot be understated, as one survey suggests a 26% increase in successful mergers if human elements are resolved in pre-deal stages.
The buyer must determine the health of the seller’s practice’s human capital. Metrics helpful in determining this include rates of employee retention and/or turnover, the effectiveness of internal channels of communications, and past lawsuits, among others. Specific issues that need to be addressed with staff include any changes in benefits, pensions, compensation packages and reward and recognition programs.
To successfully transition the staff to new ownership, it’s important to plan the integration 60 to 90 days ahead of the target closing date. The buyer must define, in writing, the mission, values, leadership style, and philosophy of the new company. Additional tasks include to:
- identify potential barriers to integration
- craft strategies and solutions to overcome barriers
- prioritize work-streams, especially those that are synergistic
- assign leaders to monitor specific progress parameters
- outline predictable reward and recognition programs for employees that are driven by performance
- solicit employee input so that job descriptions are clear (this is crucial for them and the practice overall to meet expectations)
- create process maps and tools to facilitate career development
- groom potential replacements
- invest in high-potential employees year-round
- retain key employees using personal, one-on-one communication
- clearly point out channels of communication and feedback mechanisms to address employee concerns in real time
- host integration activities between the merging staffs.
If this seems overwhelming, given all the work that needs done, consider hiring a third-party professional cultural auditor. Senior executives are often too involved in the practice vision to fully assess workplace culture. Furthermore, employees may be more forthcoming with sharing their problems to an impartial outsider. Such auditors can offer different perspectives without regard for their own job security, resulting in a more objective cultural examination.
Five Things Not to Say
- “We don’t anticipate making any changes.” On the contrary, changes are to be expected, post-sale; it should be viewed as an opportunity to make improvements. Besides, when changes do occur, they will be attributed to the transition whether they are related or not.
- “This is a merger of equals.” Pre- and post-sale teams are never truly equal in authority.
- “We plan to take the best of both worlds.” This phrase is, at best, subject to the opinions of the pre- and post-sale teams.
- “It will continue to be business as usual.” Practice sales often fundamentally change the psychological tone of a clinic as it transitions to new ownership.
- “The culture of our two companies is very similar.” Although this may be true, people will focus on differences, which will bring unwanted attention to areas where expectations were not met.
Although positive outcomes cannot be guaranteed, owners can take definitive actions to help their team transition operationally, financially, and culturally. Through careful preparation and clear communication, many problems in transitioning a practice to new ownership can be prevented or at least significantly minimized.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
||Starting Hourly Compensation: Median
||Starting Hourly Compensation: 75th Percentile
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:
- You need to follow your practice’s standard policies and procedures each and every time you hire or promote.
- 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/
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.