Thursday Troubleshooter: Are employees a little too cozy with dentist?

Wife of dentist is bothered by so many informalities

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QUESTION: I work in a small dental practice in which my husband is the dentist. His employees frequently send him text messages about their family activities, send him pictures, and have casual conversations with him. The way people communicate in today’s society is very different, especially with the variety of social media. This makes me uncomfortable. Where do you draw the line, and how do you maintain the professional relationship? Can you also be friends with your team members?
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ANSWER FROM MARY BETH HALTER, RDH, BSDH, Team Lead Hygienist at Richard Cottrell and Associates Dentistry:
Many small dental offices are like family. We probably spend more time with this group than our own families. However, boundaries need to be set and respected between the doctor and staff. The frequent communication bothers you, the wife, but does it also bother the dentist? You must be in agreement with this issue, and he needs to address the staff, not you. It can be done in a manner that is both appreciative of the family atmosphere but necessary to set limits. He can suggest setting up a “Private Group” Facebook page that is for staff members only. This can be a place for everyone to share with each other, not just with him, to keep the feeling of a family relationship.

The doctor can also have two separate phones, one for personal and one for work-related matters. The work number should be the only one given to staff members for work-related issues. The personal number should not be given to any staff members. This may be an issue for the doctor to always have two phones, however, it will keep his personal number away from staff members that may come and go.

Being "friends" with the staff outside of work can be tricky. You can be friendly with the staff and socialize together as a whole office. But becoming personal friends with one or two staff members could affect the doctor’s judgment to be objective when it is necessary.

ANSWER FROM BRIDGET FAY, Office Manager for Richard L. Byrd, DDS, P.C. & Associates:
Social Media has changed the landscape of small businesses. It certainly puts you in an interesting position, and I can see why it would make you feel uncomfortable. The first thing you want to do is talk to your husband and express your concerns from a liability point of view. Approach this in a way that doesn't seem like you’re taking it personally, but that you’re concerned with the position it puts him in. If he is actively engaging in conversations with the employees, then the doors are opened for something to be misinterpreted. The last thing you want to do is allow the practice to be susceptible to a frivolous lawsuit.

Once you've established the issue at hand with him, slowly have your husband inch out of conversations that involve personal information. He could gently change the subject, and even mention that though he likes to hear about their personal lives, he wants to keep things professional with his employees. This may be hard because the assistants spend a lot of time with the doctor chairside, but then again, this is a good excuse for keeping conversations simple.

The other way to deal with the situation is to limit responses to personal calls and text messages when you’re not at work. If the employees ask why he didn't respond, simply tell them you were out with friends or out of town for the weekend. Impress upon them that the two of you have lives outside of work that are very separate from work.

If you want to go the extreme route, you could change his phone number and tell them he bought a new phone and couldn't carry over the phone number. Preventative measures should then be put into place. This is a good time to incorporate policies about social media and personal issues at work into your handbook. Don't shy away form spending the money to have an HR consulting group help with this. They are experts on the subject and can assist with the transition.

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