Managing Social Media Behavior at Your Veterinary Practice

Originally Published by Today’s Veterinary Business, December 2018

Use of the internet, particularly social media, can be a double-edged sword, especially in the workplace. On the plus side, it can be a wonderful vehicle for marketing your practice and otherwise connecting with clients and potential clients. On the darker side, what happens when an employee posts content that can have a negative impact on the practice? Should you respond? If so, how should you respond? If a post is offensive, do you have the option of disciplining, even firing, that employee?

Because people in general are so openly sharing thoughts and opinions on social media, it’s not surprising that many experts believe that terminations based on employees posting inappropriate content will continue to increase. Handling this type of issue at your practice can be challenging for your human resource team, given that this is a fairly new type of problem to tackle – but, finding the right approach is crucial, given that just one post has the potential to blow up into a public relations and human resource disaster.

So, how do you respond to, say, a sexist-sounding post on an employee’s page? Although you don’t want to over-react or react emotionally in the moment, and you don’t want to micro-manage your employees, here’s the crux of the situation, distilled into just one sentence. How much potential damage could a particular post have on your practice’s reputation?

What’s important is that you respond fairly, not allowing one person who, say, has a knack of being humorous in his or her posts more leeway for the same type of material that another employee posts in a more serious manner. And, if you choose not to respond, be aware that you’re still really responding – giving the message that you either are fine with the posts or you aren’t concerned with the messaging. And, although a non-response is sometimes the right choice, in today’s business environment, your practice could also be harmed by this more passive approach.

What You Can – and Cannot – Do

At a minimum, you should create a policy about your employees’ use of social media while at work. Be clear about what an employee can and cannot do, and then consistently adhere to that policy. You have the option of banning social media use entirely while on the job. If, of course, someone’s job includes posting for the practice, you’ll have to clearly delineate what is and isn’t permissible during work hours.

However, you cannot ban employees from talking about work-related issues online when they aren’t at work, and they are legally permitted to discuss topics with one another on social media that fall within protected concerted guidelines. Employees can, for example, discuss their dissatisfaction about management style at the practice, how much they’re getting paid and so forth on Facebook or Twitter, as just two examples.

Employees are not protected and can be fired, though, when they discuss these issues online with someone outside of the practice, as this no longer falls into the category of co-worker dialogue about the workplace. They can also be terminated for sharing information that is deemed confidential, including but not limited to trade secrets.

Employees aren’t protected when talking about a workplace topic that isn’t related to employment terms. If someone calls a manager “lazy,” that communication may ultimately be protected. If the employee posts, though, that the manager is “fat,” then that may open the employee up for termination. Or if an employee posts that “my veterinary office is full of ugly people,” this is leaving the realm of employment-related discussions.

It can be difficult to discern when a post crosses the line, so your practice may need help with an attorney experienced in this type of law to determine legalities of particular posts. Note that laws can differ by state so, if your company has practices in more than one of them, you may not be able to make blanket social media policies. Employee protection is especially strong in California, Colorado, Louisiana, New York and North Dakota. Also, be aware that employee protection about social media postings applies to unionized as well as non-unionized employees.

Hate Speech and Protected Classes

You can fire employees who engage in hate speech. Sometimes a post clearly contains hate speech, while at other times, it is borderline. Hate speech is defined as communication that has no purpose or meaning other than expressing a feeling of hatred for a particular group, perhaps focused on race, ethnicity or gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion and so forth.

When Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Practice

Your policy should contain clear guidelines about what is and isn’t permitted while at work, and also explicitly state that trade secrets and the like must remain confidential. The policy should ask employees to not use social media to post defamatory material that could create a hostile work environment. It is also reasonable to ask them to preface any social media remarks made about the practice online with a disclaimer that you don’t represent your employer’s point of view. It makes good sense to be proactive, too, and run your social media policy past your practice’s attorney.

As a creative solution, some companies are providing social media breaks for their employees throughout the day, perhaps 15 minutes in length, a couple of times per day. This can give everyone a chance to relax and refresh their minds. The goal isn’t to completely restrict your employees from ever using social media (which isn’t do-able, anyhow) but to encourage moderate use in appropriate ways. If you want to use this strategy, outline specifics in your social media policy.

Sharing Your Social Media Policy with Employees

How you share the news about your social media policy can go a long way in determining how well it is received. For example, you could pick a day to get some pizzas for your employees, and use that as an occasion to have a discussion on your social media policy. Explain why having the policy is so important in today’s times, and educate them on the problems that can arise when this form of communication isn’t appropriately used.

As you share the role that social media and its messaging plays in your practice’s culture and values, using a helpful approach is more likely to be successful than leaving the impression that you don’t trust your employees and plan to monitor their every message. And sometimes, by simply educating employees on privacy setting options in social media, you can help to prevent an unpleasant situation.

Share examples of appropriate/acceptable posts and ones that cross the line, and be open to questions, concerns and employee feedback. Getting employees to buy into your policy is a big step forward.

Monitoring Social Media

In general, avoid monitoring a specific employee’s social media accounts to watch for inappropriate comments. If you’re aware of a controversial comment, let that employee know how you plan to investigate and then review the situation with him or her. Then do exactly that.

When you follow up with the employee, get his or her side of the story. In some cases, the comment is so inflammatory that termination may be the only response. Other times, what the employee has to say may provide context that allows for lesser forms of discipline. Remember to be consistent and to follow up appropriately with everyone involved at the practice. As needed, update your social media policy and share it with all of your employees.

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Increasing Employee Motivation

One of the greatest challenges involved in operating a successful veterinary practice is keeping staff motivated. It takes more than a paycheck, and instead requires motivated leaders and a hospital that provides training, rewards, and career development opportunities to its employees.

Selecting and hiring employees compatible with the practice culture and owner philosophy, while beyond the scope of this article, are key to creating a motivated health care team. But having motivated employees in your practice takes more than hiring the right people. In fact, the main reason employees are unmotivated is not because they don’t have the “right” attitude, but because employers have failed to create a motivational work environment.

Understanding Motivational Theory

In order to create this environment, one must first understand the basics of motivational theory. Per Abraham Maslow, a founder of “motivational theory,” there is a hierarchy of needs, starting with the most basic physiological needs and progressing to more sophisticated needs. These include:

  • Physiological—survival needs like shelter, food, and water
  • Safety—environment free of fear
  • Social—interaction with other people and having friends
  • Esteem—being well regarded by other people and appreciated
  • Self-actualization—realizing one’s potential.

 Employers cannot inspire employees effectively if they don’t know their primary needs. For example, rewarding an employee with a plaque “for a job well done” when she has insufficient income to provide for her family will be an ineffective motivator.

Information about employees’ needs can be obtained directly by asking them “what motivates you,” or indirectly by asking them about their short- and long term personal, professional, and financial goals (see Nonfinancial Incentives, below).

Building an Incentive Program

Once employers understand what motivates employees, they can create a work environment that meets their basic employment needs and uses incentives to reward desirable work behavior. Implementation of a reward program requires that:

  1. Employers communicate the organization’s goals and expectations to their employees
  2. Employees understand their respective roles and responsibilities in achieving the organization’s goals
  3. Each employee understands how the reward is earned.

For employers to communicate the organization’s goals and expectations to their employees, they must develop short- and long-term plans for the business and create a mission statement for the hospital.  The short- and long-term plans should:

  1. Establish financial goals
  2. Consider growth of the practice and how the facility and staff will expand accordingly
  3. Develop a marketing strategy
  4. Determine the type of veterinary care and products to be offered
  5. Develop and periodically review a strategic plan.

In establishing a mission statement, owners must consider the unique and specific attributes of their veterinary practice. An example of a mission statement would be: To provide comprehensive, high quality veterinary care, with emphasis on exceptional customer service and patient care, while providing owners and employees with desirable, fulfilling, and financially rewarding employment.

Next, employees should be provided with specific job descriptions and pay scales for each position. Evaluations should be conducted by the employer at least once annually and two to three times during the first year of employment. During the evaluation, employees should be told what they do well and areas that need improvement, as well as the time frame in which the improvements are expected. New challenges and responsibilities also should be identified, and employers should be prepared to provide additional training to assist employees in their professional growth.

All of this must be in place before implementing a reward program, which should be measurable and attainable. Contrary to what most employers think, financial rewards are not always the best motivators. Bob Nelson, author of numerous books on employee motivation, including 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, has consistently found that long-term employees stay with employers because they are recognized for a job well done and appreciated as significant contributors to the success of the business.

In Summary

To have a motivated health care team, employers must know what kind of business they want and who they want to be to their clients. Once the successful practice is envisioned through a mission statement, employers must hire employees with attitudes that are consistent with that vision and communicate expectations to employees through the use of specific job descriptions and providing regular feedback.  By instituting reward programs that are measurable, attainable, and tailored to the employees’ needs, employers can maximize employee enthusiasm and secure long term loyalty.

Special thanks to James Wilson, DVM, of Priority Veterinary Consultants (www.pvmc.net) and Shawn G. McVey, MA, MSW, of Eye Care for Animals (smcvey@eyeclinicforanimals.com) for their gracious contributions to this article.