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How to let go of the problem employee in your dental practice

Firing a problem employee is one of the hardest things we do as an owner or a manager of any business. I am not alone in this opinion, and the evidence shows there are so many people working in dental offices every day that really should not be there. These employees are a detriment to their office for one of several reasons: they don’t perform to the expected level; they cause drama in the office; they don’t follow policy; they push back on change; they don’t offer patients great customer service; or they just plain make the doctor or team miserable.

Yet, each day, these problem employees clock in, continue with their attitude or their lack of motivation, clock out and collect a paycheck. I have doctors ask me all the time about what to do with an employee who is like this—someone they have counseled, tried to train, communicated with about their unhappiness, and maybe even written up, yet there is no change. I usually ask why the employee still works for them, even though I know I already know the answer.

5 classic excuses to keep an employee:

  • This employee has worked for me for years and they are “like family.”
  • I can’t fire them, because what would the patients think with a new person in their position?
  • I hate the idea of paying unemployment.
  • It seems cruel to fire anyone right now because of (the holidays coming up, being in a recession, etc.) so I’ve been putting it off.
  • I can’t let them go because they are having a hard time at home with (personal issue).

These are all considerations and I understand, as I have had to consider these factors too when I have had to let an employee go. However, your primary consideration needs to be the cost of keeping the employee versus the benefit of letting them go.

When I speak to an owner or office manager who has recently let someone go, they tell me they should have done it sooner. I never hear anyone tell me they regret the decision, only that they regret waiting so long to do it. The truth is, most of the time, employers hold onto bad employees too long. The bad employee lingers, damaging the office morale or bottom line, while the doctor or manager hesitates to act because of one of the reasons listed above—and always with the slight hope the employee will change so firing can be avoided entirely.

This failure to act will cost the business far more than any concern about letting them go. Unfortunately, morale will take the biggest hit, and that eventually affects the bottom line as well. When morale suffers because the bad employee is perpetuating a culture no one wants to work in, the office will experience increased turnover. You may also start to lose existing patients and fail to retain new patients if no one wants to be in contact with the bad employee. Instead of the bad employee working for the office, this employee is controlling the office with their undesirable behaviors or lack of motivation. In short, the ongoing employment of this individual brings emotional and financial costs for every day they continue to clock in.

Here is what I have found often happens when one of these employees has finally been let go: The doctor or office manager discovers they are not only better off as a business but also experience more positives that they never expected. When a detrimental employee like this is finally gone, the team and patients start to voice the unhappiness they felt about that person. The culture of the office starts to improve after the person is gone. Many times, the team will even step up and work harder to help fill the hole while a new person is found to replace them—you may find that the team works harder now than before. On top of that, the office feels more positive, and the team is more respectful of office expectations in their individual roles.

I will leave you with three final thoughts about letting go of a problem employee:

First, make sure you follow your state laws to reduce the chance of any legal issues related to letting this employee go. I would suggest that you work with an HR company to help you with the process and necessary documentation.

Second, even though this is an unpleasant process, it may make you feel better to realize that it’s often not just the business that benefits when a problem employee is let go—sometimes it’s better for the employee, too. If their problem behavior or lack of motivation was happening because they were not actually in the right position or the right environment, being let go may lead them to find a better position or fit elsewhere.

Finally, remember that firing people is not an easy task for anyone, and once you get through the act of letting them go, it will be better. You will feel like the weight is lifted off you, and you will regain control over your business and the environment that you want for your team and your patients.

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Laura Nelson

Laura Nelson, BS, MS, FAADOM is the founder and driving force behind Front Office Rocks, and the leading provider of on-demand virtual training and resources for dental practices.