Is It Compassion or Bad Business Judgment?

November 10, 2013

Staff members with compelling life difficulties can derail your practice goals. Just make sure that you don't let your compassion cloud your better business judgment.

Physicians are healers and that requires more than a bit of compassion for others. Pediatricians are by nature especially sympathetic to those around them, both patients and staff members. While this creates a very warm work atmosphere, it can get out of hand.

There have been many times when my practice has become too focused on an employee's personal situation to be able to accurately evaluate his performance. These situations have never turned out well. I offer these suggestions to help you keep your practice running as a successful business.

1. Discourage using the workplace as a therapy session.

All of us have had challenging things going on in our private lives. While it is best that staff leave personal problems at home, many just cannot seem to do this. They will bring their concerns to the office, using fellow staff as private counselors - talking about personal difficulties as a way to work through their problems, or simply to get sympathy.

When an employee incessantly talks about her life difficulties, especially to the point of making other employees uncomfortable, it is definitely time to have a little chat with her. This discussion should focus on pointing out the difficulty this creates in the workplace, even though other staff members may feel empathy for her. Gently but firmly inform the employee that her private issues really should remain private. Suggest that she reserve her concerns until after office hours.

This corrective talk can be performed by the section supervisor or the office manager. If there are continued problems, bring in a physician owner for a discussion with the manager and employee. You may also want to place a formal written warning in her file.

2. Your office is not a charity.

Over the years we have had multiple employees who have encountered financial difficulties. Because we are caring individuals, we naturally wanted to help. We have allowed employees to take loans from the practice - to be paid back over time, through deductions from their payroll income. However, once word got around the staff, we gradually got more and more requests for personal loans.

We realized that we are not a bank and stopped the process. Making employee loans was a mistake we made as inexperienced practice owners. We will still allow a payroll advance (essentially, the staff member gets his pay early), but only in the most dire circumstances.

My best advice is don't even start giving any sort of loan or advance to your staff members. It is a slippery slope and very difficult to control once you start. Also, when an employee is financially strapped, carefully consider acting on your desire to help her with gas money, covering the rent, or paying medical bills. Another thing to keep in mind: Financially at-risk staff members should be closely monitored for theft or embezzlement.

3. Your office is not a daycare facility.

There are very few child-care facilities that will take care of sick children. Unfortunately, many employees have no backup plans. It is more difficult for essential employees (especially medical providers) to be out of the office when their children are sick, because of the disruption caused by rescheduling patients. Fortunately for us these events are usually few and far between.

The employees that bring their mildly ill school-aged children to the office while they work usually will provide entertainment for them with videos, coloring books, and snacks. Just remember, infrequently supervised children are a liability on the part of the practice if something untoward happens when these children are not being monitored.

If you allow staff members to bring children, make sure that you think through your policy carefully and communicate your office's rules to all staff members on this issue.

4. The employee is having a tough time, so you cut her some slack in her duties.

This is an extremely challenging problem. Let's say you have an employee who is going through a crisis in her own life, and is making small careless mistakes at work. These mistakes don't endanger patients or the health of the practice, however they continue. The manager and supervisors have many discussions about her work performance, but you know that if you terminate her, she is at risk of greater losses (her car, her house, and even her children if she is going through an acrimonious divorce).

So you, as the employer, give her some leeway and tell her to improve. Be especially careful in this situation! There are certainly times when this action saves a really good staff member and allows her to get back on her feet. However, in my experience, some employees get the message that they can continue with their lackluster performance, because you feel sorry for them and will not terminate them as long as the mistakes "aren't too bad." Before you know it, the mistakes continue to pile up and other staff members become frustrated or begin to feel insulted that the practice apparently has two separate sets of performance standards.

Keep careful records of all conversations with the struggling employee and give very definite improvement plans and consequences for continued poor performance. This is where the practice owners and administrators need to change from caregivers to successful business owners, and not tolerate ongoing mediocre staff performance.

We should all cultivate a caring and friendly work atmosphere. Just make sure that you don't let your compassion cloud your better business judgment.