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Managing human relations in a dental practice can be tricky, but there are a few general rules that can make your life easier.

HR in dentistry: Tips for managing good, the bad, and the oh-so-ugly

Sept. 14, 2023
Managing human resources in a dental practice can be tricky, but Jenny Brown, MAADOM, has some tried-and-true tips—including a step she says you should never skip.

“Can we talk?” Those are three words every office manager dreads. You cut ties with an employee, make an announcement to your team, then keep going.

The hiring process begins again.

Being in the field for 10-plus years, I have conducted at least 200 interviews, and each one has shaped me as a practice manager. I now know what questions must be asked of a candidate to ensure they are long-term employee material. On the flip side, I can also see red flags that indicate a candidate may not be a compatible match for our practice.

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Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that I am an interviewing magician or that I know it all. The interviewing process is time-consuming, hard, and sometimes discouraging. At times, I tend to rush through the process. I have had employees that I didn’t anticipate leaving catch me off guard. I just tell myself to keep moving forward.

When you get in a hurry, you tend to skip important steps, and then bad things happen. Sometimes, even if you do everything correctly, the one you interviewed and had such high hopes for can still let you down. Learning from your mistakes or poor decision-making will help prevent future “bad things.”

What comes after the “you’re hired” process, and how can you turn the ugly into the good?

Never skip the background check

I promise; this step will save you. Yes, we like to cut costs in our practice, but HR should never be the area to make those cuts. Pay the $30—you can thank me later!

Here's an example. One of the background checks I ran on a potential employee came back showing issues with multiple parking and speeding tickets. So, what, the employee can’t drive? Their job doesn’t entail driving, I need them to assist. Let’s stop right there. If they have multiple parking and speeding tickets, they are not a rule-follower. There is also a good chance that this potential employee has an issue with being on time. Remember earlier I mentioned learning from our mistakes? I ended up hiring this person, then six months later—you guessed it—the employee could never get to work on time. I worked with them for a while, trying to adjust schedules and deadlines, and nothing worked. I had to let them go.

Trust me—learn from the past. When you get the background report back and your gut tells you this isn’t a good fit, go with it. And, yes, background checks will save time and money in the long run.

Drug testing is non-negotiable

Drug testing is not optional in our practice. We work with controlled substances, so it is mandatory that each employee pass a drug screening. Our employee handbook states that we are a “drug-free workplace,” and a negative drug screen is a condition of employment. Drug tests may seem mundane, maybe even unnecessary, however, if you were having oral surgery, would you want your surgeon under the influence? Of course not. When it comes to drug screening, I suggest making it mandatory for all team members—front desk to clinical. Tasks like answering the phone, taking payments, and scheduling patients don’t put lives at risk, but your front desk team must be able to make sound decisions and show good judgment.

Fortunately, employees are usually honest when it comes to drug screening. They will tell you if the test will be positive. If there is a medical necessity for a positive screening, ask for a doctor’s medical clearance. Doing so covers both the practice and the employee.

Be upfront with potential new employees and let them know this is not a gray area—they either pass or fail the test—and make sure they understand that taking the test is a condition of employment. The more information you can share, the less time wasted later.

Dealing with the oh-so-ugly

If you’ve ever inherited employees, perhaps from a previous owner, you’ve probably had an issue with at least one team member being consistently unhappy. That unhappiness could stem from many things; unexplained expectations, process changes that make them feel uncomfortable, or just change in general.

When you have an unhappy team member, it’s your job to determine why. If they are going to have a chance to fit in with your team, you need to have some honest conversations. Be transparent and tell them you can see they are unhappy and ask some probing questions to try and determine the reason. Go even deeper than that, gain an understanding of what makes them happy in their job, what motivates them, what’s their passion. You may find that this team member needs additional training, didn’t understand the expectations of their role, or might just be in the wrong position. Make sure to document any conversations you have, set goals and priorities with this team member, and make time to follow up. At the end of the day, if you provide the environment for them to succeed and they ultimately choose to be unhappy, it may be best to part ways.

More time hiring = less time firing

As I mentioned in the beginning, the hiring process can be lengthy and expensive if not done correctly. Take your time when looking for the right person—don’t settle. When you find them, complete a background check and drug screening. Take the time to train your new employees correctly. Remember not to cut corners; doing so will only hurt you and the practice in the long run. Finally, stick to a “90-day get-to-know-you period.” If you are not comfortable with a new team member’s performance after 90 days, go with your gut and let them go. Hear me when I say this, if the employee isn’t performing satisfactorily within 90 days, you are wasting your time. It’s not going to get better; the not-so-good will eventually turn into the oh-so-ugly.