Thursday Troubleshooter: Coworker's poor performance is strain on entire dental staff

Dental employee's performance good for a while, then it's back to her old ways

Sep 19th, 2013
9 19 Troubleshooter

QUESTION: Our dental office hired a student as a dental assistant/receptionist. This employee has worked here for three years. She has been verbally reprimanded SEVERAL times about her job responsibilities, and each time she changes for a few weeks, and then goes back to the same routine of doing half her job. This is frustrating for the rest of us who are picking up her slack. The doctor finally put her on a probation period of 30 days, and she was again given a written job description. This made her very upset and she complained to another staff member, who took it upon herself to accuse the doctor and office manager of harassing this employee. She called attention to the EEOC in terms of terminating employees and causing them distress to the point they cannot perform their jobs. Where do we draw the line? Shouldn't everyone be expected to perform his or her job, or is doing half a job acceptable these days?!


ANSWER FROM SUSAN KULKOWSKI, PMC of DDS Consulting LLC:
Everyone on the team should be expected to perform their jobs fully, provided they have been well trained. The practice must have clearly defined standards, policies, expectations, job descriptions, and delegated duties for greater responsibility and accountability. Team morale is definitely affected when others are continually picking up the slack for an employee who is unable or unwilling to perform his or her job well. When morale goes down, production goes right down with it. Employees are hired and often expected to learn by "picking it up" on their own rather than the practice providing adequate training. If this person was hired as a student with little or no experience, it is crucial that time was taken to fully train her. Micromanagement does not allow individuals to become self-directed leaders. When unhappy with someone's performance, finding things they do well and complimenting them on this daily can achieve amazing results. Praise and appreciation can empower an people to accomplish more than they think they are capable of, and provide a desire to achieve a higher level of performance.

Has the doctor or office manager asked this team member what can be done to enable her to do her job better? If properly trained in a motivational manner and every opportunity for her to excel has been provided, yet she is still unwilling to perform her job well, this must be addressed and action must be taken as it is a detriment to practice success.

Since this team member has been with the practice for three years and performs well for a short time after being reprimanded, she is capable of adequate performance. It is commendable the doctor has provided a 30-day window of opportunity for improvement. When all else fails, it is best for the doctor to sit down with the employee in a positive manner.

"You know, Susan, I thought of all your great attributes and the positive contributions you make to the practice. I would sorely miss you if you were no longer a member of my team. However, I also thought of three things about your performance that are creating stress in the practice that I can no longer permit. I’m giving you 30 days to improve in these areas and I will do what I can to help you. If you are unwilling to improve significantly, I will be happy to accept your letter of resignation, and I will be happy to write a letter of recommendation for those qualities which will greatly benefit another practice."

Let the team member know it is not personal, but rather it is a performance issue. Proper documentation is imperative in accordance with federal and state employment laws in order to limit practice liabilities. Regular performance reviews dated and signed by the doctor and employee are necessary in the personnel records, along with performance warnings, reprimands, and other documents related to disciplinary actions.

Reacting to a team member's upset state and taking sides can also be detrimental to practice morale. This is like gossiping. As professionals it is important to distinguish between personal and business relationships and separate the two. Relevant facts are not always clear, and taking sides based on erroneous perception can create unjust repercussions. On the other hand, if this other team member truly feels a strong injustice is actually taking place, this issue should only be discussed with the doctor and office administrator confidentially. It is a very serious and delicate issue.

ANSWER FROM LINDA MILES, Founder of Speaking Consulting Network:
The fact that this employee has been reprimanded for nonperformance more than a few times indicates that she does not take her duties seriously. Improving and then falling back into her half performed duties time and again is certainly grounds for discussion that could certainly lead to dismissal.

There are two types of employees — Those who are willing but not able, and those who are able but not willing. Without adequate training the employee would fall into the first categiry … willing but not able. After three years of continuous backsliding into old habits that are not fair to the patients, the practice as a business, the employer, and her coworkers, I feel she is able but not willing. Being reminded of her shortcomings is NOT harassment that is keeping the employee distraught. The stress is being created by her unwillingness to be fully engaged and perform at an expected level. The very fact that she went to a coworker to complain and the two of them mentioning the EEOC indicates to me that this office has not one, but two troubling employees.

Before putting anyone on probation, my question is, did the person doing the reprimanding keep good records of the issues and corrective review outcomes? Did the person make sure the employee had a copy of these records so she was clear on what was NOW expected? Was there adequate training and follow-up on the weak areas? I would personally refer this issue to Bent Ericksen and Associates, dentistry’s leading experts on employee law and dental employment issues. Employers should know their state employment guidelines and make sure their office is abiding by them. I wish your office luck in resolving this situation.


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