Legal Risk Management in Responding to Negative Online Reviews

Most people today have social media accounts that they use to keep in touch with friends, to read the news, to scroll through pages of cute animal pictures and more. We also use online resources to make everyday decisions, including choosing doctors, restaurants and movies. Today, virtually every service, from hair dressers to plumbers and beyond, is chosen in part based upon their online ratings and reviews. In fact, 72% of customers say they rely heavily upon online reviews when choosing services.

As a consumer, this can seem like a great way to weed out poor choices and find the best service. In fact, 87% of consumers say that a business needs a rating of at least three stars for them to even consider using them.

From the business owner’s point of view, though, these reviews can cause frustration, especially the negative ones which even have the potential to impact self-esteem. As veterinarians, for example, most of us feel that we have provided reasonable levels of service to our clients. Therefore, we can be shocked to see how our service has been construed by a client in a negative review.

For example:

Mrs. Smith calls Corner Veterinary Hospital, asking for a refill of Fluffy’s metronidazole. The receptionist informs Mrs. Smith that Fluffy hasn’t been seen by a veterinarian for two years and, if Fluffy is not feeling well, she should be examined by a veterinarian. Mrs. Smith becomes angry and refuses the appointment. Later that day, Mrs. Smith posts a Yelp review that Corner Veterinary Hospital refused to give Fluffy her medications and is run by money-grubbing veterinarians who just want an excuse to get more money from her.

Or:

Susie works for Dr. Johnson at Corner Veterinary Hospital. Susie is eventually terminated for excessive absenteeism. A few days later, Suzie posts a Facebook review that Corner Veterinary Hospital is filthy, Dr. Johnson doesn’t actually know what he’s doing, and he orders unnecessary treatments to make more money.

Naturally, Dr. Johnson and Corner Veterinary Hospital become indignant with such representations of their character and services. What options does the practice have for combatting such reviews?

In general, online reviews can either be ignored, responded to, or alternatively, the client can be sued for defamation. When deciding how to respond, it’s important to consider that the practice’s current clients have already formed their own opinions from their own personal experiences, and are less likely to be significantly swayed by a single negative review. Any recourse should therefore be taken with the potential client’s viewpoint in mind.

Choosing Among Options

The first option is to not respond at all. In general, if a practice has numerous positive reviews and only a few negative ones, potential clients who are deciding whether or not to use the practice will be less likely to be swayed by the negative reviews. In that case, most potential clients will accept the fact that some people will never be satisfied. A few politely-worded negative reviews can actually make the reviews of the business seem more authentic overall and, fortunately, potential clients can typically recognize highly unreasonable people.

It can be tempting to want to remove negative online reviews from a website, especially those that are more extreme. In many situations, this attempt may be unsuccessful, but there are some steps that can be taken. If the review appears on the veterinary practice’s Facebook page, for example, then the offending party can be blocked from the page so that any comments will not be viewable. Also, the Facebook review feature can be turned off entirely, although this will also remove all positive reviews, too. If the review appears on websites outside the control of the practice, and it is grossly inaccurate, some websites can be contacted to have the post removed, but this is often not successful.

Some practices ask acquaintances to post positive reviews to skew their ratings. Sites such as Yelp have mechanisms in place to identify and filter out reviews from friends and family and, on general principle, this should be avoided altogether. A better method is to encourage current clients to leave online reviews; although it is not ethical to ask them to write positive ones, it is acceptable to request reviews from clients who had quality experiences at the practice.

Under certain circumstances, veterinarians who feel they have been wronged will want to defend their names and reputations. After all, it’s hard to sit back and watch yourself be misrepresented online. Many people therefore feel the urge to respond to these reviews and clarify facts of the situation. Veterinarians, however, need to be aware that responding to such posts with the specifics of the situation may violate patient privacy laws. So, what can you do? Some practices try to proactively protect themselves by having new clients sign a statement saying that they waive the right to patient privacy in the case that the client posts a negative review.

Unfortunately, such a waiver would not be protective in court. Since the waiver is signed before any incident would occur, that client would not have had all the facts needed to waive his or her rights to privacy.

According to the AVMA, “veterinarians and their associates must protect the personal privacy of clients, and veterinarians must not reveal confidences unless required to by law or unless it becomes necessary to protect the health and welfare of other individuals or animals”. In other words, providing information in response to a negative review that could identify the client or patient could be a breach of privacy. At best, the practice could use the occasion to clarify their standard policies.

In addition to legal concerns, any reply to such a review could be perceived as inflammatory and defensive in tone by potential clients. Again, it’s important to remember that the Google-search audience is comprised of potential clients who are trying to decide which veterinarian would be best for Spot. A negative review may be considered more interesting, and is more likely to be read by a potential client when it has a reply from the practice.

If read, then the tone and impact of the reply is the potential client’s first insight into the personality of the clinic. If the practice seems defensive and unwilling to take responsibility, then the potential client may perceive the clinic as being hard to work with and one that’s not looking out for the client’s best interest. Any attempt to set the story straight can sound like arguing and create an unpleasant impression to the client.

That doesn’t mean that the review must be ignored entirely. Perhaps the practice doesn’t have many reviews and this one long and negative review thereby seems glaringly obvious. If the practice feels the need to respond, a generic but specific reply can be posted, such as the following:

Hi Mrs. Smith. We’re sorry to hear about your experience at Corner Veterinary Hospital. Please call Barb, our office manager, at (xxx)-xxx-xxxx so we can address your concerns.

This style of reply doesn’t break any patient confidentiality, can make the client feel as though he or she has been heard and, perhaps more importantly, provides an empathetic tone for potential clients to see. A good reply includes some expression of empathy, the specific name and phone number of the contact person, and an invitation to a private conversation.

The possible outcomes of this are three-fold. The best-case situation would be that Mrs. Smith does call Barb, hears an explanation and is satisfied with the conversation. In that case, she might remove the review or edit it to a positive. The next best situation is where Mrs. Smith calls and is reasonably satisfied but makes no changes to the review. The worst situation is where Mrs. Smith calls, but is still unhappy with the outcome, and makes further negative posts.

To help prevent this last situation from occurring, make sure the contact person is reasonably available and has the knowledge and authority to address the concerns. If Barb is only available every other Tuesday from 10:00am-12:00pm, Mrs. Smith will likely become even more annoyed. If Barb doesn’t understand the policy enough to defend it or doesn’t have the authority to make any reasonable accommodations, Mrs. Smith will likely be just as frustrated in the end, or even more so.

Ultimately, you can do your best to resolve these types of situations, but keep in mind that there are some clients who will never accept that things cannot be done their way. Since, by law, Fluffy’s metronidazole cannot be refilled without an exam in the past year and Barb cannot change that regardless of how much she wants to help Mrs. Smith, this particular situation may never be satisfactorily resolved for all parties.

Reviews from Disgruntled People  

Let’s say you receive a negative review from a client whom you’ve banned from the practice. Can that client be sued for libel? For a statement to be considered libel, it must be presented as fact, or be reasonably construed as fact by the average person. As long as the general gist of the story is true, even if some of the pieces are false, it may not be enough to constitute libel. Most reviews have some basis of truth to them, even if not every single detail is true, and these circumstances can make it very difficult for any practice to successfully fight a court case against a client. Plus, since almost all reviews are expressions of opinion, the practice will rarely have a solid enough case to make in court.

Moreover, pursuing a libel case can be quite expensive with a likelihood of success typically being slim. Besides, at the first hint of legal recourse, the client could immediately post that information to social media and create a publicity nightmare. Hence, any attempt at suing for libel is, in most cases, not worthwhile.

Another possible scenario involves unhappy employees or ex-employees. What recourse does the practice have against a disgruntled employee who has a bone to pick? Some websites, such as Yelp and Google, will block reviews from disgruntled employees if asked to do so. Plus, new hires could be asked to sign both a non-disclosure agreement as well as a non-disparagement agreement. Non-disclosure agreements prohibit employees from sharing information that is not publicly available, while non-disparagement agreements prohibit employees from making disparaging statements about their employer. Since most employers don’t (and shouldn’t) publicly disparage their employees, it is reasonable for them to request the same of their employees.

These need to be carefully worded documents, though, because the National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to discuss wages, benefits, and other terms and work conditions with other employees.

As far as the non-disparagement agreement in connection with negative postings, this document can create leverage for an employer in court, but the employer will likely incur significant legal fees and probably receive negative publicity while pursuing charges. Unfortunately, the other fallout of such a clause is that, in the case of a harassment suit, an employer who has a non-disparagement agreement in place will likely have to pay higher settlement fees. In general, non-disparagement agreements are best avoided.

What If the Negative Client Review is True?

Sometimes, unfortunately, the hospital’s staff does perform poorly. For example, let’s say that Mr. Jones dropped Buddy off at Corner Veterinary Hospital for a routine castration. During the course of Buddy’s stay, a veterinary assistant walked Buddy outside. Buddy slipped his collar and disappeared into the woods. Mr. Jones is contacted, and the assistants make every effort to find Buddy, but to no avail. Mr. Jones is irate and posts an angry Google Review saying that Corner Veterinary Hospital is clearly not responsible and shouldn’t be trusted with anyone’s pet.

In this situation, Corner Veterinary Hospital stands to lose a lot, as this is clearly an egregious offense and is entirely true. The review can be ignored, and perhaps the practice will make that decision if there are sufficient positive reviews to outweigh it. A polite response asking the client to call the office is also a valid option, but the practice may want to make the response more apologetic. The response can also include an acknowledgment of what went wrong, with a description of what has been done to fix the problem, such as the following:

We’re very sorry that you’ve had this experience at Corner Veterinary Hospital. All our staff is very upset about this situation and continues to search for Buddy. Since we never want an incident like this to happen again, we are having all of our hospitalized patients walked with two leashes, including a slip lead that is more secure. We are also working on fencing in a section of our property for even more security. If you would like to discuss this further with us, please call Barb, our office manager, at (xxx)-xxx-xxxx.

While this is not an ideal situation by any means, showing concern, an acknowledgement of what went wrong, and a plan to prevent future issues may be the best method of preserving the practice’s reputation.

What’s Best

Ideally, practices should focus on performing in a way that will help to prevent negative reviews from being posted. While there are some clients who will never be satisfied, most reasonable clients will be happy when you have a friendly staff that provides them with good service, and the practice enforces transparent, reasonable policies. It is important to have a plan in place, though, so that you know how to respond, in general, when you do get a negative review.

You can use negative reviews to discover where your practice has the opportunity to improve its client service. Was Mrs. Smith unhappy, for example, because the receptionist offered her an appointment three days out when Mrs. Smith was already sick of cleaning up her cat’s diarrhea? Or was the receptionist unempathetic and hard to work with? While neither of these may be the case, every negative review is an opportunity to evaluate and potentially improve the practice’s policies.

Auditing Your Company’s Mission Statement

Although no two mission statements are alike (nor should they be), it’s important to regularly audit yours—perhaps when you do your annual policy review, overall—to determine whether or not the statement is still relevant and actually being put into practice. Here is a helpful checklist.

  • Is your mission statement still relevant? If not, why not? What needs changed?
    • Is your purpose still the same?
    • What about your core values?
    • Do you offer different products and/or services, ones that have caused your mission statement to need to evolve?
    • What makes your business unique? Is that clearly indicated?
  • Can your entire team recite your mission statement?
  • When you ask each member of the team (or, if at a large company, a sample of them) what the mission statement means, how consistent are the answers?
    • How closely do they match what key staff believe the statement to mean?
    • If there are gaps, where do they exist? How significant are they?
    • In your policy manual, have you included concrete examples of how the mission statement could be put into practice? If not, would that be helpful?
  • How do you explicitly communicate your mission statement to your customers or clients?
    • Through signs that state it?
    • In your website and printed materials?
    • In your advertising?
  • In company meetings, how often do you discuss the mission statement?
  • When your company faces challenges and/or difficult choices, do you consult your mission statement when reviewing possible solutions? How is it your benchmark?
  • When you create new policies, do you ensure that they mesh with your mission?
  • How often do you review your policy manual to make sure that what’s included dovetails with your mission? As just one gut-check example, how well does your disciplinary policy match your mission statement?
  • You can also review the following for matches and mismatches:
    • Your organizational chart
    • Job descriptions
    • Forms
    • Any other employee handbooks or manuals
  • Take a look at how you reward employees. Are you rewarding them for phrases contained in your mission statement? If, for example, your statement includes “providing compassionate care,” do you actually reward and promote based on that value, or are your rewards based on how well a person increases revenues or reduces expenses?
  • What processes do you have in place for employees to report when they feel that procedures conflict with the mission statement? How are those reports handled?
  • What procedures do you have in place to update the mission statement, when needed?
  • As you read through this checklist, what items would be important to add or edit to match your business’s unique needs? Who will spearhead that initiative? What is the deadline?

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.

 

Compensation Best Practices in 2018

It would be so simple if practice owners could open a fortune cookie for each one of their employees and find the method by which to fairly compensate them.  While there are commonly accepted methods of compensation, their implementation in veterinary practices varies because different entrepreneurs have different business goals.  Also, “fairness” is a relative term that introduces variability into an equation that might otherwise be consistent from practice to practice.  This article describes the factors that practice owners should consider when determining compensation for veterinarians and paraprofessional staff.

Benchmarks

Below is a table that provides a snapshot of current key indicators available for small animal companion practices.  It is not meant to be all-inclusive, but rather to provide some guidelines that enable managers to take the practice’s compensation pulse. They can then determine if the practice is on track for the next year or needs to perform some diagnostics to prevent a fiscal derailment.

Name of Key Indicator Key Indicator Comments Where Found
Total revenue per doctor Less than $450K       10.1%

450K-500K               4.5%

500K-550K               10.1%

550K-600K               14.6%

600K-650K               15.8%

650K-700K               9.0%

700K-750K               5.6%

750K-800K               5.6%

800K-850K               10.1%

850K-900K               3.4%

More than 900K       11.2%

Medical hours only The Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks Study (2017)
Percentage of gross income for paraprofessional staff compensation 22.5% (wages only)

0.6% (retirement)

1.4% (payroll taxes)

24.5% (total cost)

 

  The Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks Study (2017)
Percentage of gross income for veterinary compensation 21% (blended rate) Wages The Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks Study (2017)
Name of Key Indicator Key Indicator Comments Where Found
Average starting salary for a veterinary associate $66,800

 

With < 1 year of experience (excludes benefits) The Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks Study (2017)
Average student debt $166,714

 

The average of 2017 veterinary school graduates with loan debt DVM360 – Where DVMs fit in the U.S. Student Debt Crisis
Average amount of employee’s healthcare cost paid by a Well-Managed Practice 67%   The Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks Study (2017)
Associate compensation ranges (%) for private practices

 

Blended rate: 16-22%

Split rate: 22-26% for services, 4-8% for products

  The Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks Study (2017)
Starting compensation ranges for (hourly rate):

Hospital Administrator

 

Practice Manager

 

Receptionist

 

Credentialed Technician

 

Veterinary Assistant

 

Median        75th Percentile

 

$29.65              $35.10

 

$21.65              $22.80

 

$12.00              $13.00

 

$15.00              $16.00

 

$11.50              $12.50

Median and 75th Percentile ranges as benchmark The Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks Study (2017)
On average, full-time support staff to doctor ratio

 

4.2 All staff members The Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks Study (2017)
On average, veterinary technician/assistant to doctor ratio 1.9 Includes credentialed technicians, non-credentialed technicians, and veterinary assistants only The Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks Study (2017)
Name of Key Indicator Key Indicator Comments Where Found
Average profit margin 9.9%   NCVEI Update – New Insights in Practice Growth- Karen Felsted presented at NAVC 2011
Debunking The Myths Of Base Salary And Production Percentages Why pro sal can work for your practice Each of the debunked myths gives practical tips to follow to include the links for dvm360.com (ProSal) and PayScale.com Veterinary Economics March 2010 – Squashing Pro Sal Myths
Percentage of practices using compensation method for associates Fixed Salary – 21.4%

Base + Percent of Production – 56.4%

Percent of Production – 18%

Hourly – 3.8%

  The Well-Managed Practice Benchmarks Study (2017)
Total compensation worksheet   How you calculate your pay ranges affect your bottom line DVM360 Dec. 2011 – ProSal Total Compensation Worksheet
Crediting doctor’s production   What should be credited to the doctor and what should be credited to the practice DVM360 Nov. 2013– Crediting Doctor’s Production Worksheet

DVM360 July 2005 – Giving Away a Fortune

2010 Veterinary Economics State of the Industry Study   Quantifies compensation methods, how satisfied the owners are, how happy the associates are DVM360 August 2010 – Veterinary compensation conundrum

  

Veterinary Compensation

Many periodicals and books discuss the factors one should consider in establishing a compensation policy for veterinarians. Of particular importance is the question of whether compensation should consist of a fixed salary, a percentage of the revenue generated by the veterinarian and collected by the practice (i.e., commission-based), or a combination of the two. If a commission-based component is present, it is also important to consider how the revenue figure will be calculated. Will it be limited to revenues generated from professional services, or will it include revenues generated from items like over-the-counter medications and foods?    Percentages can also vary in relation to the magnitude of the revenue number that is generated.  Implementing compensation systems in practice requires attention to the details of production calculation and timing of payment. The key to remember is there is NO one size fits all when determining the appropriate compensation for veterinary and non-veterinary staff.  There are numerous factors that go into assessing the actual method used for compensation, which often requires the assistance of an advisor.

National starting salary information is generally published annually in the Journal of the AVMA. (See: Employment, starting salaries, and educational indebtedness of year-2013 graduates of US veterinary medical colleges, October 1, 2013, Vol. 243, No. 7, Pages 983-987; Employment of male and female graduates of US veterinary medical colleges,  JAVMA October 1, 2011, Vol. 239, No. 7, Pages 953-957.) See also the latest biennial edition of the American Animal Hospital Association’s Compensation and Benefits-An In-Depth Look and the AVMA’s Economic Report on Veterinarians and Veterinary Practices (Wise, J., Center for Information Management, AVMA, Shaumberg, IL (Tel: 847-925-8070). Two periodicals, Veterinary Economics and Veterinary Hospital Management Association Newsletter, also regularly publish helpful articles. In addition, Wutchiett Tumblin and Veterinary Economics published Benchmarks 2013 Well Managed Practices.

Paraprofessional Compensation

 Paraprofessionals are often compensated on an hourly basis and the industry has yet to develop widely adopted performance-based compensation models. Paraprofessionals generally report low job satisfaction and high turnover rates. In the 2016 NAVTA Demographic Survey, 38% of veterinary technicians left the practice due to insufficient pay, 20% due to lack of respect from an employer, 20% from burnout and 14% because of the lack of benefits. Full time technicians reported a salary between $15-20 per hour, while part-time technicians reported $14-16 per hour. After taxes, even the well-paid veterinary technicians are only slightly above what is considered the poverty line for a family of four in the United States ($24,300).

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for veterinary technicians was $16.06 per hour in 2017. By comparison, a JAVMA published study on Jan. 1, 2016 of certified veterinary technician specialists reported that the weighted mean pay rate in 2013 was $23.50 per hour.

In AAHA’s 2016 Compensation & Benefits survey, average veterinary employee turnover was 21%.  In Veterinary Economics 2010 Benchmarks survey of Well Managed Practices, turnover was 26% for receptionists, 21% for assistants, and 44% for ward attendants. To compare with the national workforce, Compdata’s Annual Compensation Survey showed that national average turnover was 18.7% in 2008 and 15.9% in 2010.  The chart above can be helpful to calculate a practice’s turnover expenses. Turnover is a pervasive and expensive problem that can be mitigated by learning how to properly motivate employees.

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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