“You know when a veterinary practice is toxic. You can almost smell it, that tang of adrenaline from spiking anger. You feel it. Your stomach sinks when you walk in the door and you sense the tension hanging in the air. Worse yet? You’re fully aware that the toxicity can lead to bad medical decisions resulting from spite or exhaustion or vindictiveness. The fantasies run through your head when you think about quitting – or finally getting up the courage to fire the bad apple that’s ruining the bunch. It all feels like a sickly gas floating through every client interaction, every treatment area procedure and every breakroom conversation.”

The article “Toxic Teams,” published in dvm360.com in February 2017, bluntly lays out what a toxic veterinary practice can feel like. Written by Rachael Zimlich, a registered nurse and journalist, the article also shares the dire potential consequences that can occur if a toxic environment is not addressed: bad medical decisions arising from spite, exhaustion or vindictiveness.

The article is also chock-full of responses to questions about the effects of toxicity in the veterinary workplace. They include the following results:

  • 93% of people surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that communication issues can affect patient care
  • 95% of people surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that communication issues can affect client care
  • 79% of people surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that team conflict can affect patient care
  • 90% of people surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that team conflict can affect client care
  • 78% of people surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that communication issues can change decisions about which doctors and team members see particular cases
  • 78% of people agreed or strongly agreed that communication issues make it difficult to agree to medical protocols
  • 76% of people agreed or strongly agreed that team conflict can change decisions about which doctors and team members see particular cases
  • 68% of people agreed or strongly agreed that team conflicts make it difficult to agree to medical protocols

So, how can your practice fight back against a toxic team environment? Here are six steps to take.

#1 Sliding Scale of Toxicity: Where Are You?

Practices fall along an entire spectrum of toxicity. If you’re one of the lucky ones, your team isn’t toxic, but you realize how you need to proactively keep it that way. If that’s the case, create policies that clearly define how communication should take place, which behaviors are acceptable and which ones aren’t, and the like. Get input from the various teams in your practice and, when the policy is formalized, add it to your employee handbook, hold meetings to discuss the new policy and review it annually, especially noting any changes.

If you recognize that your team already has a level of toxicity, go on to step two.

#2 Define What Behaviors Are Toxic

No two practices are alike, but common signs of toxicity include gossiping and bullying; staff feeling as though expectations are unclear and/or workloads are unreasonable; a management team that dictates what everyone should do without considering team feedback; and many more. Any one of these is a reason for concern and, if you recognize multiple toxic behaviors, the need for a solution becomes even more urgent.

#3 Model Appropriate Behaviors

Do as I say, not as I do. Managers and owners seldom say that statement out loud, but that message can easily be conveyed without ever being specifically articulated – and it is a recipe for disaster. If you want your team to communicate clearly and professionally, then that’s exactly what the managers and owners must do. If it’s important that team members follow specific policies and procedures, these need to be clearly provided – verbally and in writing – and the actions of managers and owners should not run contrary to them.

If you laugh about difficult clients after they leave, what message is that sending to your team? If you aren’t accountable to your team, how likely is it that they will ultimately be accountable to you? The actions of owners and managers must set the bar with high standards.

#4 Listen Carefully and Ask for Solutions

To get to the bottom of what’s making your practice toxic, you’ll need to talk to team members about their experiences, both good and bad – and you’ll need to carefully listen to what they tell you. You can use multiple formats to listen, including team meetings, one-on-one conversations, surveys where people respond anonymously and the like.

Don’t be afraid to ask your team to come up with solutions to identified problems. You are not obligated to use them, but you will probably find that many of them are quite good – and, since they have come from team members, at least some members of your practice will automatically be invested in making them work. There is also nothing wrong with setting the expectation that employees are responsible for attempting to solve their own problems, but practice owners and managers must ensure that the workplace is free from discrimination, harassment and the like.

#5 Address Toxic People Directly

Although team meetings can be excellent vehicles to gather information, they aren’t the best forums to handle toxic behaviors of a select number of employees. Instead, you need to set up individual meetings with people you’ve identified as participating in undesirable behaviors and come up with customized behavioral modification plans. Begin by privately sharing what you  have observed about inappropriate behaviors and get a response from the toxic employee. Ideally, that person wasn’t aware of the impact of his or her behaviors and will agree to modify them. Other times, the employee will need to go through the disciplinary procedures set up in your employee manual, up to and including termination.

It isn’t unusual for a practice owner or manager to be reluctant to fire someone, perhaps because this person is the best one in the practice for handling fearful animals, as just one example, or the one who understands your computer system inside and out. But, toxic is toxic and, if that person does not appropriately modify behaviors, your practice, your clients and your patients will continue to be harmed.

#6 Right Size Your Expectations

Sure, you’d like it if you could tell your team to stop being toxic – and then they did. In reality, though, progress is likely to be incremental. After you’ve identified toxic behaviors, and then created and shared policies about expected behaviors, be sure to reward improved behaviors. Focus on making the workplace a more positive and healthy one, and celebrate each step towards that important goal.