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Thursday Troubleshooter: Dentist allows toxic staff "friend" to ruin team morale

Sept. 28, 2016
This dental hygienist has tried to talk to the dentist boss, but the dentist continues to allow her toxic "friend" to ruin staff morale. Should this RDH stay or get out of a bad situation?

Do you have a tough issue in your dental office that you would like addressed? Each week the experts on Team Troubleshooter will tackle those issues and provide you with answers. Send questions to [email protected].

QUESTION: I'm a hygienist who's been in my office for 21 years. About 10 years ago, a new dentist joined the practice with her own assistant. She bought the practice two years ago. All along her assistant has been very difficult to get along with. She is very combative and has to have all the control. She sighs and complains all day long. She and the dentist have always been good friends and she has a lot of control over the dentist, who is now THE boss!

No one confronts the assistant knowing it's a situation that no one can change. Even the dentist is afraid of her! When I talk to the dentist she says, "Well, that's Suzie." (Not her real name). Staff meetings are a nightmare. Any ideas are immediately shut down by the assistant in a combative way. She gossips about employees to other employees, and sadly, so does the dentist. Is there any way to talk to the dentist about this situation?

It looks like you're in a toxic situation. The dentist who is “controlled” by the assistant and will not hold her accountable for her behavior nor listen to long-term loyal employees is unfortunately trapped in her own co-dependent relationship with the assistant. The dentist has some need of her own that is being met by not confronting Suzie’s behavior.

When an adult is controlled by another person, there is an unhealthy relationship afoot. "Controlled by" means that a person in a relationship, work or personal, so fears or hates to lose the other person that they will contort their own behavior or communication to keep the person in their life.

You're ready to make a tough decision. You've been there long enough in this situation. You've already spoken up to your boss and there has been no change, just a brush off of the behavior. You have two choices. You can be completely honest one more time with your boss and explain the effects that Suzie has on team morale and therefore patient care. Be honest without beating around the bush. I work with dental teams, and I know that complete honesty about how a behavior affects you is not easy. Often staff members avoid complete honesty in favor of sugar coating their comments.

Explain that the situation makes you not want to work there anymore. Ask if there is anything she can do to quell Suzie’s problematic behavior, and see where this goes. If you again get nowhere, then it's time to rethink your employment. You cannot fix Suzie or the dentist.

A 21-year work history in one place, just like staying married a long time, is not a reason to stay if the situation is toxic. It might be time to look for another position. Your own mental health, peace of mind, and workplace enjoyment has value. You're paying a price in personal stress and frustration. You have to put your needs into this picture. Often dentists who buy practices don’t really want to satisfy the long-term staff. They want their own loyal team that they've chosen, so you might be fighting a losing battle. Nevertheless, stand up for your needs. If the dentist is unwilling to address this toxic situation, you either have to suck it up and live with it without complaint, or move on.

ANSWER FROM ROBIN MORRISON, founder of Dental Consultant Connection:
I'm sure this is a very difficult situation for you and the rest of the team. I suggest you have an honest conversation with the new owner, and address your concerns about the effect this dental assistant is having on the team and office morale. Keep in mind, many times team members bring complaints or concerns to the dentist but offer no solutions. By offering a solution, you show your leadership skills and put forth a positive effort to help resolve the issue. You're not just complaining.

If you do all of this and the dentist indicates nothing is going to change, you'll need to make a decision about whether you stay in the practice or move on. After 21 years in a practice, you and your patients certainly have formed a strong bond. In fact, in my years of working with dental teams I've found that patients are often more connected to their hygienist than their dentist. This bond alone keeps hygienists in a practice, even when they're not content. It's time to think long and hard about your professional goals, and whether you're willing to stay in this practice where you're not happy.

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Send your questions for the experts to answer. Responses will come from various consultants, many of whom are associated with Speaking Consulting Network, Academy of Dental Management Consultants, Dental Consultant Connection, and other expert dental support and human resources organizations. Their members take turns fielding your questions on DentistryIQ, because they are very familiar with addressing the tough issues. Hey, it's their job.

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