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Tools for onboarding new employees in the dental practice

Dec. 7, 2023
Amber Auger, consultant and dental hygienist, shares what she's learned about successful onboarding in the dental practice from her work with numerous doctors and teams.

Hiring a new employee can be your best investment or your worst. How you select a new team member and integrate that person into the practice is extremely important for the entire team, as well as the patient experience. Creating an onboarding process with clear expectations can help you cultivate a welcoming atmosphere that will empower clinicians to thrive.

Understand your office culture

As a consultant and practicing dental hygienist, I have met practice owners who believe their culture is positive, only to find it in conflict when practicing chairside. Every practice owner I have ever worked with, both clinically and from the business side, believes their practice culture is collaborative, inspiring of independent thinking, and in need of self-starters. In contrast, when I speak to the employees, they often feel that the employer is not approachable. It is not out of the ordinary for self-starters and independent thinkers to be considered noncompliant by their employers. While there needs to be compliance with the office protocols, allowing clinicians' opinions to be heard and valued is what keeps employees engaged.

The way you lead in the office will set the culture of the practice. Notice I used the word lead here instead of manage. Management is task-driven and often works to control people and their work.1 In comparison, leadership focuses on the overall purpose of the work and keeps the team focused while inspiring them to achieve a high quality of work.1 For instance, if you are in a good mood, stay calm during the office chaos, and put the patient experience first, so will your team members. Employees disengage when there is no empowerment to do better or accountability.

Use personality assessments

Tools such as the Drake P3 personality assessment are important in understanding the person you are hiring. The Drake personality assessment profile offers an in-depth look at a person's strengths and weaknesses specific to the workplace. This enables a practice's leaders to understand how the employee is motivated and demotivated. This assessment and other personality tools and resources, such as The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace by Gary Chapman and Paul White, can help you understand what each person needs in the practice. For example, some employees are highly motivated by verbal praise. A simple compliment on the great radiograph placement could go a long way to make them feel valued. Others are more motivated by simple gifts, such as coffee and bagels.

Foster a collaborative environment

To be collaborative, dentists must empower their employees to think critically and also trust their clinical recommendations. The entire team should be meeting monthly to review the practice vision and goals, determine what can be improved, and review evidence-based articles. Evidence-based articles focusing on products will empower the team to choose products to recommend to patients. When team members have autonomy, they become stakeholders in the practice, instead of clock-in-and-clock-out employees.

In this case, a stakeholder is not someone who has a sole financial benefit from the practice but is invested in the success of the practice. Stakeholders feel like they are part of something bigger than the treatment room and like they are making a difference in the lives of the patients they serve. Clinicians who are empowered to educate patients produce more for the practice and are happier because they are engaged. This not only makes the work environment a better place, but it also encourages employees to stay on the team longer because they are growing.

Teach the dental hygienists your philosophy

The best employers I've worked for are the ones who have taught me why they would recommend a certain procedure over another and what information they need to properly diagnose, and who have provided verbal reinforcement about what I do well. For instance, if the RDH is recommending a three-surface composite but you prefer a onlay, then say why. If it is an easy explanation, then share the rationale in front of the patient in a positive tone: “I agree with you that it needs to be restored, [insert RDH's name], but in this case, I would prefer to restore it with an onlay because of the history of clenching and recurrent decay.” This will help improve the dental hygienist's ability to codiagnose decay in front of the patient, build confidence, and teach the hygienist to be more aligned with your treatment philosophy. Every dentist is unique; your employees should not have to guess what you are thinking or your expectations.

This remains true with how data is collected, documented, and presented. I was taught to present information in SOAP (subjective, objective, assessment, and plan) format when the doctor arrives in the room. I use this same format with each provider I work with, but the focus often changes based on the provider's expectations. For instance, some doctors want a more in-depth social and medical history, whereas others want a broad overview. When it comes to documentation, some providers want a recap of social events to help them build rapport when the patient returns. Each clinician should use a similar format to allow for easy review, including an outline of upcoming visits and treatment. This provides a clear plan for all team members to follow up on when the patient corresponds with the office.

If you like to have the mirror and explorer separate from the kit when you come in the room, ask for it. Every time I work chairside, I have a fresh piece of wet gauze, a mirror, and an explorer on the side of the cassette, as well as gloves and a mask laid out for the dentist. This both saves time and enhances the patient experience, as it demonstrates organization.

Be practical

Having an office manual is important for the clinicians to refer to; however, they are not going to read it front to back overnight. For a new member of the team, it can be very stressful to navigate the differences in other team members' personalities and patient needs. Your new employee will need to hear and do things more than once before mastery can occur. Remember—you can teach skills, but you cannot teach attitude. If an employee is putting in the work to be in alignment with the practice's values and goals, you should too.

Every practice owner and associate should invest in leadership training. A successful practice depends on how well the team works together and delivers high-quality care. Fulfilled employees will be more engaged, think more critically, and increase the success of the practice. 


1. Nayar V. Three differences between managers and leaders. Harvard Business Review website. https://hbr.org/2013/08/tests-of-a-leadership-transiti. Published August 2, 2013. Accessed September 25, 2019.

Editor's note: Originally posted in 2019 and updated regularly

Amber Auger, MPH, RDH, is a practicing dental hygienist and clinical innovations implementation specialist. With 17 years of experience in the dental industry, Auger works with practices to provide customized protocols, refocus the patient experience, and utilize systemic approaches to periodontal therapy. She is a regular contributor to RDH magazine, a featured author for DentistryIQ, and host of #AskAmberRDH on Facebook Live. Auger also provides preventive services abroad yearly and is always willing to have dental professionals join her team. She can be reached at [email protected].