Employment Contracts To Reel In Associate Specialists

Turnover among veterinary specialist associates is caused principally by the failure of practice owners and employees to properly articulate their respective expectations and negotiate and document the employment relationship. Time and effort invested up front will help avoid mismatched expectations, misunderstandings and separation down the road.

 

Can the practice even afford another full-time veterinarian?  Management consultants estimate that a small animal practice vet needs to produce a minimum of $180,000-$250,000 gross income (excluding OTC product sales) to be worth his salary.   This number is far greater for veterinary specialists…..probably at least 3 times.

 

  1. WHAT IS AN EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT? A contract is a set of bargained for promises between two or more people, where one party promises to do X in exchange for another party’s promise to do Y.  Courts require that an enforceable promise meet certain conditions.  For example, the parties must be of age (no minors), of sound mind, and not under duress; there must be no fraud or mutual mistake over an important aspect of the transaction, and the deal must not be so one-sided as to be “unconscionable.”

 

            Consideration.  To distinguish binding promises from charity or gifts (you can’t sue Santa Claus because he didn’t give you enough presents last year), the law requires that the party to whom the promise is made give “consideration” for the promise in the form of a benefit to the promissor and/or detriment to the promisee.  Thus, Dr. Specialist promises to work 40 hours per week in consideration for an annual salary of $125,000 (i.e., a benefit to Dr. Specialist and detriment to Dr. Owner ).  Dr. Owner promises to pay such salary to Dr. Specialist in consideration for Dr. Specialist’s labor (benefit to Dr. Owner and detriment to Dr. Specialist).  Consideration exists for each promise which is therefore enforceable.

 

Avoid Oral Contracts.  Oral contracts generally are binding only if their performance lasts less than a year, because the law assumes that the parties’ recollections of what was agreed to become unreliable over time, increasing the tendency to remember events in a self-serving way.  Few disagreements are less productive than the “you promised X,” “I don’t remember X but you promised Y” litany.  Prevent such wasteful bickering by always insisting on a written contract, regardless of it’s term.

 

  1. CONTRACT FORMATION. Legal theory provides that a contract is formed once an offer is accepted.   Real life usually is a lot messier.

 

Offer   An offer can be oral or written (e.g., employer advertisement in a professional journal, on a bulletin board or mailed to the applicant).  Typically, the prospective employee will ask for clarification and wish to change the terms of the original offer by making a counter-offer.  The employer counters such counter-offer with his own counter-counter-offer. This confusing and frustrating process continues until either the parties reach an agreement or, realizing they can’t make a deal, go their separate ways.

 

Acceptance  Legally, the contract is formed as soon as the offer is accepted.  This can be a trap for an impulsive party who accepts an offer, but who later asks for “just one more thing.”  After acceptance, it’s too late and the other party can sue for damages if the impulsive party doesn’t perform his or her obligations under the originally accepted offer.

 

Ideally, an accepting party will clearly indicate his acceptance to the offering party, at best by signing an employment agreement or acknowledging acceptance in writing on the offer.  More difficult to prove, but still unambiguous is an oral “I accept” or words to that effect.

 

Avoid unclear contract formation situations. Courts have created the so-called “action in reliance” (promissory estoppel) doctrine to find enforceable contracts even when one of the parties thought no contract existed.  Courts have found valid contracts in cases where an:

 

  • employer knew or should have known that the employee had acted “ in reliance upon the offer” such as incurring expenses to move to the job location, searching for lodging thereat, and informing other employers they no longer are job applicants; and

 

  • employee made the last offer or counter-offer, and such employee knew or should have known that in reliance thereon, the employer ceased advertising for the position, informed candidates that the job was filled, or bought new equipment or hired additional support staff in anticipation of the employees arrival.

 

Accordingly, a party considering an offer should not talk or act in a way it knows or should know will lead the other party to believe that such offer was accepted and should make sure that the other party is not taking action “in reliance” on anything it did or said.

 

III.      CONTRACT TERMS.  Assuming that the offer, counter-offer, counter-counter offer, etc. ballet results in the bliss of acceptance, the employment contract terms contain the nuts and bolts of the “meeting of the minds” of the parties.   Following is a list of the main questions addressed in a proper employment agreement:

 

  1. How Long?  Is there a fixed term (period) of employment (six months, one year, two years, or is it “at-will” (i.e., the contract continues until a party decides to terminate it)?  Is the term automatically renewed on the expiration date?

 

  1. Work Schedule.  How many scheduled hours per week must the employee work, and beyond the schedule, how many additional hours will employees actually spend phoning clients, performing diagnostics, interpreting laboratory work, overseeing patient care, etc.  What is the schedule for any required emergency work?  Is it equitable?

 

  1. Duties.  What are the associate’s responsibilities?  May employees decline (without penalty) to perform procedures they deem ethically wrong?  How much emergency duty is required? Will they be required to visit rDVMs, engage in marketing activities?

 

  1. Compensation:  How Much?   Is It Enough?

 

How Much?

Serious job applicants must know the relevant “comparables” in their labor market, i.e., what compensation is paid to other starting associate veterinarians in the area were they are seeking employment.

 

Is it Enough?

Currently, the salaries that are being paid to different specialists is not well documented.  The AAHA/Care Credit 2005 Specialty & Referral Veterinary Practice Benchmark Study and ACVIM proceedings from the Hill’s Practice Health Symposium, titled “Insights on Veterinary Specialty Practice Productivity” are a sampling of the few publications that have salary figures.    Regardless of the trends, however, debt ridden veterinary specialists cannot assume that current salaries will permit them to survive (let alone live comfortably).  So the first question isn’t really “how much are they paying?” but rather “what do I need to pay my debts, buy cold cereal and go to a few movies?”

 

The only way to answer this question is by doing a budget. Budgets undoubtedly are one of the most boring tasks in the world, but boring beats finding out that you can’t make ends meet six months after you’ve been hired.  Technology has reduced the pain of budgeting, so there is no excuse for not doing it.  Any financial software program worth its salt will permit veterinary graduates to establish a budget.  See attached form to assist in determining one’s budget.  You can also do a budget on the following website: Personal Finance Simulator 2011(www.finsim.umn.edu)

 

Tips for Making More Money

As discussed below, a common way for associate veterinarians to increase their compensation is to join a practice, which pays them a percentage of the collected income they generate.  Other ways include working additional shifts, and working at another practice is the employer will permit it.

 

Compensation Types: Flat Salary, Percentage Income And Performance Bonuses

Generally, there are three types of veterinary associate compensation: (1) flat salary; (2) commissions based on a percentage of the income generated by the associate; and (3) a hybrid of flat salary and commissions.

 

Flat Salary

Flat salary (a fixed amount per year), is a common form of associate compensation.  A fixed salary provides the veterinary associate with the security of a predictable income.  It is also simple to keep track of.  Associate veterinarians earning flat salaries, however, cannot increase their compensation, no matter how much income they generate for the practice or how hard they work.  Flat salaries are not preferred by new graduates looking for the opportunity to increase their compensation in exchange for a greater contribution to the practice.

 

Straight Commission

The straight commission system simply replaces the flat salary with a commission.  The straight commission scheme link the dollars veterinary associates earn with their contribution to practice revenues.  Because practice revenues (and the commissions) will vary month to month, associates will have a more difficult time managing the repayment of their student debt.

 

Hybrid Systems

Under a hybrid compensation system veterinary associates are paid a guaranteed base salary plus an income production bonus equal to the percentage of the collected income they generate in excess of a certain target.  The base salary provides security, as well as a predictable income stream with which to service student debt.  This is a significant advantage over the straight commission system.

 

Production Compensation Pitfalls

While production compensation usually permits new graduates to increase their compensation, the system does have its problems and pitfalls.  By carefully examining practice operations and asking the right questions, prospective associate veterinarians should be able to either avoid these pitfalls or at least reduce their impact.

 

  • Assigning Cases and Receptionist Gate Keepers.
  • Staff Efficiency and Leverage.
  • Data Processing and Definition Issues.
  • Competition and Distrust Among Veterinarians.

 

  1. Employee Benefits.  Practices usually offer at least some of the employee benefits described below to their employees.  The cost of many benefits (such as health, professional, and disability insurance, qualified retirement plans) are tax deductible business expenses to the employer and are not included in the employee’s income, resulting in a savings to the employee of 25 to 40%.  Not taking advantage of this juicy gift from Uncle Sam is wasteful.  On the other hand, employees must realize that the practice probably can’t afford all the benefits they desire.

 

  • Health Insurance. Does the employer offer health insurance?  If not, what does the employer do when he gets sick?  If so, what kind of medical plan is it (e.g., fee for service, HMO, PPO)?  What about pre-existing conditions, vesting, eligibility, deductibles and co-payments?

 

  • Disability Insurance.  Employees at age 25 have a 58% chance of becoming disabled for more than three months (with an average disability duration of three years), so employees need disability insurance to protect their greatest asset: the ability to work.  If the employer does not offer disability insurance, employees are well advised to get it on their own (after asking, of course how the employer, protects himself or herself against disability).

 

  •  Professional Liability Insurance.  Do employers pay the premiums on the employees’ professional liability insurance?

 

  • Retirement Plans.  Has the employer established a retirement plan for the employees? (Profit sharing plans are the most common type of retirement plan offered by veterinary practices.)  When do employees become “vested” or “eligible?”  If the employer does not offer a retirement plan, employees will need to save on their own (and that means more than just the annual IRA contribution).

 

  •   One week?  Two weeks?  More?  How many consecutive days may be taken?   How much advance notice must be given?  May unused vacation days be carried forward to next year?  How are vacation days paid for percentage compensated employees?

 

  • Sick Leave and Disability.  Does the employer offer paid sick leave?  Disability leave?  After how long can disabled employees be terminated?  May unused sick days be carried forward?

 

  • Continuing Education. How many CE leave days are granted and are they paid? To what extent do employers reimburse CE expenses?

 

  • Association Dues.  Are national, state,  local and specialty veterinary association dues reimbursed?

 

  • Veterinary License Fees and DEA Registration.  Are these fees paid by the employer? Should the employee register with the DEA so she is permitted to prescribe and order controlled substances (rather than just administer them under the supervision of a DEA licensed veterinarian)?

 

  • Relocation (moving) expenses.  Most corporate and government employers provide some form of moving expense.  Sometimes a “signing bonus” or short term loan can cover all or part of these costs.

 

  • Vehicle allowance or mileage payments. Employees using their personal vehicles for practice business should be reimbursed for a pro-rata portion of their insurance, general maintenance, registration and inspection fees, fuel, repairs, depreciation, and lost opportunity costs.

 

  1. Performance Evaluation.  Will the employer provide written and/or oral performance evaluations?  How often?  Will these be used to modify compensation?

 

  1. Non-Competition.  Many employers require their employees to sign non-competition clauses (also called restrictive covenants) forbidding terminated employees from competing with the employer.  Such clauses must be limited in time (e.g., 2-3 years after termination) and geographic area (e.g., 25-50 air-miles from the practice) to be enforceable. The precise limits on the scope of such clauses vary from state to state.  Specialists typically have a larger radius as the trade area for specialty practices is much larger than a generalist’s.

 

  1. Termination.   Does the contract have a specific term (e.g., “this agreement will expire after one year”) or is it employment “at-will”, in which case, either party can terminate the relationship at any time, for any reason? Contracts with no term are deemed to be “at-will” in most states.  If there is a term, then an employee leaving or an employer firing before the term would constitute a breach unless the contract provides otherwise.  Most contracts which provide for termination before the expiration of the term require that the terminating party give advance notice (e.g., 90 days) to the other party.  Such contracts usually also contain a list of situations (e.g., suspension of the associate veterinarian’s license) permitting the employer to fire the employee at any time without notice (a.k.a. termination “for cause”).

 

Employees should make every effort to leave their employer on good terms even if they are not requesting a reference.  The veterinary industry is quite small, and an employee’s reputation can easily suffer through casual conversation among colleagues.

 

  1. LAWYER REVIEW. Negotiating and drafting an employment contract can be long, painful and complicated.  It therefore makes as much sense to seek professional help in this endeavor as it does to take a pet to a qualified veterinarian when it is sick.  Lawyers are expensive, of course, just as much as veterinarians…

Four Benefits New Employees Want Today

In today’s times, employers are finding that they need to make their workplaces as appealing as possible to recruit and retain employees. In the past, it may have worked reasonably well for a company to advertise for employees, interview candidates, select the best ones, and then tell them what benefits were available.

Today’s reality is quite different, with new employees now having certain needs and desires that aren’t necessarily the same as those valued by Baby Boomers. Although employers are still interviewing job candidates to find the right person to hire, quality employees are also using the interview process to decide which company is the best fit for them.

This may be even more true in the veterinary industry than in the overall workforce, as the shortage of veterinarians, nurses, and technicians becomes even more acute. Here are insights into four benefits being desired today.

Life-Work Balance

Although quality employees are still willing to work hard, today’s graduates greatly value life-work balance. One recent Gallup survey indicated that 53 percent of employees today place a premium on this kind of balance and, as new graduates continue to come into the workplace, that number is likely to continue to increase. Because this balance was found to be even more valuable to females, this benefit is especially important to note in industries that are often female-dominated–such as the veterinary industry.

Because of this shift in values, practices that want to attract an all-star team will need to consider how they can incorporate flex-time schedules. This can feel challenging, given that patients typically need to be treated in the same room as the veterinary professionals, making it difficult to allow employees to simply telecommute.

Instead, practices may need to provide more flexibility within the jobs themselves. For example, practice managers can focus on matching up job responsibilities with the interests of each employee. Or, it could mean allowing employees to swap positions on certain days to give them variety in what they do, which can help to strengthen teamwork.

One of the most desired ways to offer flexibility, though, will be to help employees accommodate their personal schedules and needs within a workweek. For example, how can you facilitate shift switching in a way that covers the needs of your practice but allows employees to meet demands from their personal lives? How can you adjust start times or lunch breaks to accomplish the same objective?

Is it possible to rearrange schedules to allow employees to have four-day workweeks? That’s another perk that’s increasingly in demand today.

A 2015 Workplace Trends study showed that flexibility was named the most important benefit by 75 percent of employees. Organizations who help to provide that flexibility have benefited in the following ways:

  • improved employee satisfaction (87%)
  • increased productivity (71%)
  • retained current talent (65%)

Plus, 69 percent of the workplaces surveyed use flex-time options in their recruiting, with 54 percent of them believing this had a positive effect on recruitment.

Learning Stipends/Continuing Education

Learning stipends are cash benefits offered to employees that they can use for professional development or continuing education. Many employees today want to continue to learn—with one study showing that 87 percent of Millennials consider the opportunity to continue to grow and develop a key benefit. In turn, this lifelong-learning, more educated workforce can provide significant benefits to the veterinary practice.

Encouraging a learning mindset in your practice culture, and helping to provide educational opportunities not only helps your employees to grow personally, but also in a way that makes them even more valuable to your practice. If providing learning stipends to employees isn’t practical for you, then find out what employees feel they want to learn more about and provide workshops. One example of this option would be organizing lunch and learn events at your practice.

Mentorships Matter

As a related desire, employees today often want to know that they will be mentored by an experienced person in the industry. This can mean someone who will help to navigate the new hire through the workplace culture, and/or to understand policies and procedures. Each person may have slightly different needs when it comes to mentoring, but it’s an in-demand benefit, one that can boost the strength of the practice when handled well.

Mentoring helps transition new employees into a particular workplace and, the more quickly that a new hire feels comfortable and part of a team, the more likely that he or she will want to stay at that job.

Also, consider incorporating reverse mentoring, where the new hires help to mentor more established employees in areas of their expertise. This concept was created in 1999 in General Electric, with many other prominent companies adopting the program.

One of the key benefits experienced by one such company is that they experienced a 96 percent retention rate for the Millennials involved in reverse mentoring. These employees felt valued for their contributions to the company, and this gave them a chance to work more closely with senior employees. This can also help to create a more diverse workforce and pipeline of incoming human resource talent.

Finally, though reverse mentoring, younger employees can help more established ones to stay on the cutting-edge of technological opportunities that may benefit the practice. One large insurance company pairs older IT employees with new ones to discuss best practices and key trends, and to otherwise maximize potential of the company.

What’s important to think about is how reverse mentoring might benefit your practice. Reasons may not be the same ones as those at the large companies being referenced in this article—and they may not be the exact same ones as the veterinary practice down the street. It’s important to think about your business and workplace culture needs, and then create corresponding pairings and reverse mentoring structures.

Appropriate Technology

New employees in the veterinary industry will likely perk up their ears when they hear that a certain employer has invested in or has access to the best technology to treat their patients. Tech-enabled workplaces are simply more appealing to many of today’s job candidates. And, the use of technology to recruit and retain star employees can go way beyond the technology used to care for patients, helping to create an engaged workforce.

You could, for example, provide quality continuing education through the use of online courses or a training and development center that employees can self-access. Gamification in training may well appeal to the younger generation at your practice, creating a fun way to raise the bar on what employees are expected to know.

With gamification, training is provided in an interactive, engaging way that uses elements of games to help users immerse themselves in the experience. If this idea is new to your practice, this ties back into a previous strategy to use; you could ask your new employees to reverse mentor the team on the use of gamification e-learning.

Technology can help employees to collaborate and communicate, with conversations stored for future reference. You can use the power of your website to share your workplace culture with potential employees, letting them see how you understand their needs and focus on finding ways to fulfill them as, collaboratively, you build the best veterinary practice possible.

Conclusion

To maximize your practice, it’s important to stay in tune with what new employees desire. This can happen by reading industry reports, reviewing human resource surveys and studies, talking to your current employees, and using your interviews of new employees as opportunities to also learn more about what benefits and workplace cultures are important to them.

You will likely find that work-life balance, continued learning, mentorships, and technology are discussed. You may also discover new ways to effectively recruit and retain the ideal veterinary team that will allow you to compete in the industry and provide quality patient care.

State-Law Savvy: How to Find and Follow State Employment Laws

Employment laws have been created to protect workers from wrongdoing in the workplace, addressing issues such as the following:

  • minimum wage requirements
  • protection from discrimination
  • workplace safety
  • child labor laws
  • workers’ compensation

These laws have been constructed to protect both the employee and the employer. In the United States, the relationship between employer and employee is known as a “master-servant” situation because the employee is expected to perform specified duties under the auspices of the employer. Labor laws have been created to prevent employers from abusing their power. These laws continue to be created and modified with the changing times.

Two good examples of employment laws created to balance the master-servant relationship include the following:

  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act

They aren’t the only laws providing this balance, but are good examples of the kinds of laws created to help ensure that employers cannot discriminate against their employees or otherwise abuse their position. The goal is not to create laws that simply favor the employee over the employers, but to create a more balanced and equal relationship. For example, employers are protected in that if they don’t believe a person is capable of doing a particular job, they are not required to hire the person. They also do not have  to keep someone indefinitely who isn’t performing to a reasonably-established standard.

There are federal laws addressing each of these topics, and states also make their own laws, as well. States cannot create laws that contradict existing federal laws, and if no relevant state law exists, then the corresponding federal rule applies.

Next, we will address state laws in two different but equally important ways:

  • how to discover what the laws are in your state
  • how to best follow those state-specific laws

Finding State-Specific Employment Law Information

You can find answers to questions about employment law, in general, through the United States Department of Labor. There are also links to state-specific law information. Ways to contact this federal agency include:

U.S. Department of Labor
AGENCY NAME
OFFICE NUMBER

200 Constitution Ave NW
Washington, DC 20210

The U.S. Department of Labor may direct you to an agency in your own state to get the state-specific answers you need, so you will often find answers more quickly by going directly to your State Labor Office; you can find a comprehensive contact list here: https://www.dol.gov/whd/contacts/state_of.htm

Another way to find this information is to talk to an attorney well versed in your state’s employment laws. This is often the best way to understand how a particular law applies to your specific situation.

Following State-Specific Employment Laws

Step one to following any law, of course, is to thoroughly understand that law and its implications. You will also need to investigate how your specific situation fits into applicable laws.

Here’s just one example of an employment law that differs from state to state: final paycheck laws. Because the FLSA does not address this issue at all, you need to look to state laws to find out how and when you must issue a final paycheck to an employee leaving your practice. Does it matter, for example, whether the employee was fired or if he or she quit? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. It depends upon the law in your state.

Regarding finally paychecks, four states currently have varying laws on this topic: Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi. In Missouri, no law exists about when you must give a final paycheck to an employee who quits, but a fired one must receive it immediately. In Ohio, no state law dictates when a fired employee gets his or her last paycheck, but one who quits must receive it by the first day of the month for wages earned in the first half of the prior month, or on the fifteenth of the month if wages were earned in the second half of the previous month.

So, by examining just one state employment law in six different states, it’s easy to see the wide variety inherent in today’s laws. When someone leaves your practice, how vacation time payout is handled is also subject to varying state laws. Some states have no laws whatsoever on the subject. Others say accrued vacation time must be paid out, while others state that it must be paid out if the employee agrees to certain conditions—and, for example, in Maryland, employers can create a written policy that states they don’t pay out for accrued vacation at all. If employees are notified of this policy when first hired, this policy can stand.

Here’s an example of one type of employment law that is covered by federal law, in which a state is allowed to offer more to employees, but not less: minimum wage laws. You can find information about each state’s laws at the U.S. Department of Labor’s site (https://www.dol.gov/whd/minwage/america.htm) via a color-coded map that indicates how that state’s laws compare to the federal standard. Hover your mouse over your state to see the current rate for you and click on your state to find more detailed information about applicable laws.

For example, in 2018, the federal wage law is $7.25. Click on Nevada in the map described above, and you can see that they have established a two-tiered system. If an employer doesn’t offer health insurance benefits, the minimum wage is $8.25, with premium pay required on days that exceed eight hours or weeks that exceed 40. However, if the employer does offer health insurance benefits and the employee accepts them, then the minimum wage is the same as the federal rate of $7.25.

Meanwhile in Missouri, they have established a minimum wage rate of $7.85, with no daily premium pay requirements, and premium pay is only required if an employee works more than 40 hours per week. Employees who work for a retail or service business with gross annual sales of less than half a million dollars per year, though, are not required to receive more than the federal minimum wage rate. And, if an employee works in a “seasonal amusement or recreation” business, premium pay is not required until “after 52 hours.”

In Arizona, the minimum wage is $10.50 per hour. In Oregon, it is $10.75, with premium pay after 40 hours – and, if someone works in “nonfarm canneries, driers, or packing plants and in mills, factories or manufacturing establishments (excluding sawmills, planning mills, shingle mills, and logging camps)”, premium pay is required after ten hours in a day.

Not all examples apply to veterinary practices, of course, and the point of these examples is to show how widely state laws can vary. So, it’s wise to fully use the resources available to you through government offices and websites and, when needed, through advice of employment attorneys. Laws can change, so make sure that your practice is state-savvy for this year’s laws.

Following State Laws: Vital for Practice Success

Because employment laws are created to help maintain a healthy balance between employer and employee, carefully following them helps you to create and/or maintain a healthy work environment for everyone in the practice. Conversely, by not following these laws, you’ll open your practice up to a significant risk for lawsuits.

 

Third-Party Harassment at Your Practice: How to Respond

Originally published in Today’s Veterinary Business, February 2019

Harassment creates a negative environment in the workplace, lowering morale, reducing productivity, and otherwise upsetting employees. It can take the form of unwanted flirtation, forced touching, or inappropriate jokes about an employee’s religion, race or sex. It could involve an unwillingness of someone to work with, for example, a sight-impaired employee. Harassment can also occur when someone inappropriately contacts an employee outside of work hours. Any behavior that threatens another person, humiliates him or her or otherwise victimizes a person can be considered harassment.

When employee harassment occurs, and all parties involved are working at your practice, the situation can be challenging; but hopefully you can have a process in place to deal with the situation.

What do you do when the person accused of harassing one or more of your employees doesn’t work at your practice? Perhaps the person is the janitor for the building where your practice is housed, a pharmaceutical salesperson or a landscaper. The accused could be an investor, a shareholder or even a client. The harassment could happen in person, in writing or on the phone, by email or even through social media postings.

So, what do you do?

First, it’s important to educate yourself and your managers about the laws surrounding third-party harassment, including case law, so your practice team has a solid foundation on which to form third-party anti-harassment policies and procedures. At the core of relevant case law is Freeman v. Dal-Tile Corp., the case in which the United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, yes, employers can be held liable when a third party engages in acts of workplace harassment.

In this landmark case, the plaintiff asked her employer for help when an independent sales representative who came into the company repeatedly subjected her to harassment, both sexual and racial. She did not feel her company protected her and she ultimately resigned. She then filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, stating that the workplace environment was hostile, and the reporting system was not working.

Educating your management team about this case is crucial to set the stage about how seriously these behaviors are now taken in federal courts. Also, be knowledgeable about and share how your state laws read, because specifics do vary by state.

Then, after making sure your managers are clear about these laws, it’s important to discuss what’s needed in your practice to create appropriate policies, procedures and channels of communication so that your employees, unlike the plaintiff in the case described above, can be promptly heard and remedies readily applied.

Include expectations of third-party vendors in your employee handbook, and let employees know how to inform you about any harassment by them. Be crystal clear that you have zero tolerance for this type of harassment, stating that any instances should be immediately reported. Review these guidelines with new employees and regularly revisit them when you review your handbook with all employees annually.

When Choosing Third-Party Vendors

Clearly communicate your expectations to vendors when you select them, letting them know that appropriate behavior in your practice is required. It can help to schedule an orientation-type meeting when you choose a new vendor, whether a salesperson from a drug company, someone who services office equipment or a contractor. Whenever you professionally communicate expectations, it’s more likely that they’ll be met. Although these types of conversations may initially feel awkward, companies with similar philosophies will respect your boundaries. And, if a third-party company is not comfortable with a professional discussion about the prevention of employee harassment, it’s not a company you would want to continue to do business with.

When an Employee Complaint is Made

A prompt response is crucial to maintain a professional workplace where employees are respected. Plus, if the case ultimately goes to court, your speed of response may become an important factor. If you do not act immediately, it could be considered a lack of care and potentially contribute to a decision that your practice is an unsafe work environment.

Your practice should investigate the complaint, just as you would if the accused harasser worked for your practice, although specifics of the investigative process may differ. The investigation should be prompt, unbiased and fair, with no assumptions made ahead of time.

While the investigation is ongoing, you can adjust the affected employee’s (or employees’) duties to protect him/her/them from the accused harasser. Do so in a way that has the least impact on employees’ jobs. This is important because, if any change in duties negatively affects the employee who lodged the complaint, this can be considered unlawful retaliation.

If your investigation indicates that harassment is occurring, have a conversation with the third-party vendor and/or his or her human resources department, as applicable. You may need to break off the relationship with the vendor, or you may be able to continue the relationship with the company with a different representative.

Depending upon specific circumstances, there may be other steps to take, including preventive measures to provide additional protection to employees going forward. This should include, but is not limited to, reviewing your employee handbook to ensure that the procedure to file harassment complaints about third parties is optimal (or if policies and procedures related to this situation need updating). Policies must contain the same zero tolerance language as harassment policies created for intra-practice situations and must provide protections to witnesses to the harassment who come forward with relevant information.

When you do your annual review of your employee handbook, use it as an opportunity to further educate employees on third-party harassment, including how it is defined and how they should respond if they see it happening at your practice. Encourage your employees to speak up and let them know that you will protect them from retaliation.

Whenever this type of situation arises, consider seeking out the advice of experienced attorneys, especially if you haven’t handled something similar before. Better yet, talk to an attorney when creating your policies, which will help to ensure that if third party harassment situations do arise at your practice you have systems in place to swiftly deal with them. This protects your practice, as well as your employees and vendors.

Remember to maintain confidentiality. It’s crucial that your employees feel safe in reporting harassment issues, including with third parties. This will play a significant role in creating an overall safe workplace, and one that is stronger, more productive, and more successful.

Note About Client Harassment

It can be especially challenging if an employee experiences harassment from a client. Because it can affect practice revenue, employees may be especially reluctant to report these situations. For this reason, it’s important that your practice policies explicitly state that harassing behaviors by clients should be reported, and that they will be thoroughly investigated and appropriately handled.

Regardless of the parties involved, the act of harassment in the workplace is a serious matter that should be addressed immediately. Your practice should have a policy in place to deal with it and everyone working at the practice should be educated about it. This will promote a safe working environment where everyone can do their job successfully.

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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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