Prison Troubleshooter

Thursday Troubleshooter: New boss is bad news for prison dental professional

April 3, 2014
The new boss won't let dental professional communicate with her inmate/patients

QUESTION: I work in a dental office within a state penitentiary, so not your regular, run-of-the-mill office. My issue is with my new supervisor. She is new to the facility and has been on staff for approximately eight months, and I have been with this facility for just shy of seven years. When she first arrived things were good, we worked together as a team, but the staff dentist was difficult, to say the least. He recently resigned, and after his departure they placed her as “lead assistant,” and that is where the issues began.

These are a few of her requests – all work goes to her and she delegates what I can do from there. I’m not allowed to communicate with the inmates through the “kite system” which is the system that allows inmates to send requests and ask the staff questions. She does not communicate with me about anything, including my patients who have sent me questions about their procedures or outcomes.

She is very rude and disrespectful toward me. I requested that we have a staff witness when she confronts me about issues because I feel belittled and disrespected, and she said, “I’ll ask my boys if it’s necessary.” When I asked who “her boys” were, she said it was the head of HR and the director of administration. Therefore I feel I can’t talk to anyone about my concerns now because they’re “her boys.” I’m wondering if you have any advice as to how I can handle this hostile work environment?

ANSWER FROM JILL TOWNSEND,Professional business writer and dental consultant:
I was once in a similar situation, so I know how difficult a work environment like this can be. My advice is to write your concerns down, and make sure you are unemotional and fair when you do this. Then, ask for a meeting with the head of HR or Director of Administration – if this is how the institution addresses employee grievance issues – and take your notes with you. You have only your supervisor’s statement that they are “her boys,” and I am doubtful about this.

Refrain from retaliating in any way. While this can be tempting at times, retaliation is never a wise choice. Maintain your professionalism and trust the system to work as it should. Best of luck to you.

ANSWER FROM VIRGINIA MOORE, dental consultant and speaker, Virginia Moore:
It sounds like you work in a unique environment that has just experienced significant change – new supervisor, new dentist. While change can bring about unexpected situations, in order to do the best job possible you will want to have a clear understanding of your job responsibilities.

To sum it up, this is what I hear as your concerns:
• Lack of communication with your supervisor
• All work to be channeled through and delegated by supervisor
• No longer able to communicate with patients/inmates via “kite” system
• Feel disrespected by your supervisor

Those are concerns that can have a tremendous impact on your work life. In order to determine if this is a work environment that you will be able to stay in, I recommend the following:
1. Prepare to have a solution-oriented meeting with your supervisor.
2. Take time to write down (yes, write down!) your concerns. The list above may be complete, or it may be a starting point.
3. Think about how this is impacting you. You mention feeling disrespected and belittled.
4. What impact is this having on your ability to do your job? Does this hinder your ability to give the best care to patients? Is the lack of communication causing a breakdown in the supply ordering and leaving the clinic short of supplies? Or, is this frustrating because you now have to report to a supervisor who has made changes without informing you?
5. Think about what solutions would help the situation. If you believe that your ability to provide the best care to patients is being impacted, what solution(s) do you have in mind? Is the “kite” system truly helpful and effective? If you think so, be prepared to share that. It could be that due to staff safety issues the “kite” system is being eliminated.
6. Prepare to approach your supervisor in a non-confrontational way. Avoid “you” language (“You don’t talk to me.”). Eliminate using absolutes (“You always/never…”). Have your thoughts in writing. It’s okay to read from your notes if this helps you to present your thoughts in a productive and non-emotional manner.
7. Ask for a meeting with your supervisor. “Ms. Supervisor, I want to do the best job possible. What would be a good time for us to meet so that I can learn more about what is important to you in the job I’m doing?”
8. At the meeting, if necessary, read from your notes and share your desire to do the best job possible, clearly identify your concerns, convey how this impacts you or your patients, and share your suggestions for solutions.

Use “I” language, which is very different from the finger-pointing, blameful language of “you.” Also, the concerns you state should be about how you may be impacting patients without being privy to certain information.

How your supervisor responds will tell you a lot about whether or not this is an employment opportunity you will want to maintain. Give yourself the gift of having the meeting, presenting yourself in a non-confrontational manner, and really listening to the feedback. It may be that many of the changes are for the better and for your safety, but they just weren’t presented in the best fashion.

I wish you the best!

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