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Thursday Troubleshooter: Handling two-faced coworkers in the dental practice

June 25, 2015
This dental office employee is finding it very challenging to work with several two-faced coworkers.

QUESTION: There are three people in my dental office who are all smiles and friendly some days, and absolutely unbearable to work with on other days. They sigh loudly, roll their eyes, and argue over simple things they should not argue about. Two of them are front desk and office manager, and I've had multiple patients tell me they think the front desk people are “bitchy” and should be much friendlier. The other is the hygienist, who is a smoker with a short fuse and lack of flexibility when things don't go her way, or when she gets behind by talking too much about her personal life with patients. Our doctor tolerates this behavior and has no disciplinary actions for any of it, and this is frustrating because I know it reflects very poorly on our office. I just don't know how to address it because when it's brought up to the doctor he just says, "Yeah, I know they have bad attitudes," yet he does nothing. This is probably because the office manager has been here for 30+ years and basically runs the office. Any advice on how to handle two grumpy front office staff, as well as one hygienist who can’t take criticism without taking it personally?

ANSWER FROM LISA NEWBURGER, LISW-S, aka, Diana Directive at DiscussDirectives:
It sounds like you have Dr. Jekyl and Mrs. Hyde working with you. I’ve never understood two-faced people. (It’s hard enough for me to keep one poker face.) You have a challenge. One idea is to warn them about the eye rolling. I was once told that the eyeballs might get stuck in the wrong position. As for the hygienist – try sending her a gift of Nicorette gum. (Honestly, I can't imagine having a hygienist work who smells of cigarette smoke, or who has yellow finger tips, working close to me.)

You know how some offices have morale boosting activities such as like staff picnics? Perhaps your office could get suma wrestling outfits and wrestle out some of your frustrations. Ehhhh, maybe that isn't such a good idea. Getting physical with someone, even with all that padding, could turn into an old fashioned brawl. But, it could be very entertaining for the rest of us to watch.

OK, enough fun. Now I suppose you need some serious advice on what to do. First, documentation is key to everything. If patients complain to you, keep a journal about it. Date, time, what happened, who was present, and more. If you can get the patient to put something in writing to the doctor, that is gold. But, in the absence of that, a journal of incidents would be quite worthwhile.

Second, is there anyone else in the office who also notices these problems? Sit down with the doctor and spill it. There is more potential when a group reports a problem vs. just one person. Again, documentation and being able to give specific incidents and patients' names are key to helping the dentist understand the problem. The point to address with the doctor is whether or not he wants to lose business.

Is this the image that he wants for the practice? You must be able to function as a team. If the dentist is going to turn a blind eye to it, then he’s foolish. This is his practice. This is his livelihood. Why put up with staff members who are rude to patients? It must be nice to have the ability to let business be driven away for this simple problem. These are my thoughts, and I hope they’re helpful. Good luck!

ANSWER FROM FROM JUDY KAY MAUSOLF, Founder of Practice Solutions, Inc:
The reality is that without standards for the soft skills that are very essential skills, like behavior and attitude, there is no right or wrong, only assumptions and opinions. We all have different expectations based on our past experiences and how we were raised. If we have not defined clear expectations for appropriate and professional behavior and attitudes, we set the team up to fail. You will soon reap the results your office culture is experiencing. In fairness to the doctor, it is unrealistic to hold someone accountable to an assumption or opinion of how someone should behave or what their attitude should be. “Shoulding” on someone is never good!

Even the best of us can lose our way in all the noise and hubbub of the day-to-day stresses! Establishing standards, or what I refer to as a Code of Conduct, for the practice will help keep the entire team on track, even in stressful situations.

I suggest a team meeting (three hours minimum) where the entire team can work together to establish a Code of Conduct for the practice. I’ve helped facilitate many of these team meetings. Start the meeting by reviewing the practice's core values and vision. Ask the entire team to share how, when, and where they feel the core values are not being supported.

Use a large easel pad and markers to write down all the concerns that are shared. Discuss the obstacles and breakdowns that are happening. What current attitudes and behaviors support the core values? What current attitudes and behaviors undermine the core values and need to be changed? In essence, what does the team need to keep doing, what does the team need to stop doing, and what does the team need to start doing! This will define the attitudes and behavior that will support the core values and become your new Code of Conduct! It is very important for the leadership team to be willing to lead by example on whatever is established as the Code of Conduct.

Here are an examples of commitments in a Code of Conduct.
• Model the waddle you want to see
• Treat each other with kindness and respect
• Support a no gossip culture
• Communicate openly, honestly, and respectfully
• Treat patients and each other how they want to be treated
• Resolve conflict by going to the source the same day if possible
• Take ownership, follow through, and be accountable for your mistakes
• Support each other and hold each other accountable to standards for behavior, communication, attitude and service!

Having a Code of Conduct will empower the entire team to interact with patients and each other with integrity. It will also create clarity for the doctor(s) and enable and empower them to hold the team accountable.

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