Retaining Talented Staff

A dedicated team offers benefits for staff, management, and patients.

By Tim Earley, OD

As an owner of an optometric practice for nearly 17 years, I have come to appreciate the value of attracting and retaining a talented, dedicated eye care team. Based on conversations with my colleagues over the years, this is one issue that continues to cause many of us many hours of lost sleep. I would argue that it also costs our practices thousands of dollars each year.

TO THE POINT

The benefits of maintaining a dedicated staff make it worthwhile to offer good training and generous benefits.

As the human resource manager for my practice, it has been my responsibility to interview, hire, motivate, and retain the staff members on our team. This has been a humbling experience, with missteps along the way. However, having learned from my mistakes, in this article I offer a short primer on staff hiring and retention for the human resource manager in today’s competitive eye care industry.

This article highlights some techniques that I have found to be effective in attracting and retaining a team that our patients have come to love and appreciate for their loyalty to and knowledge of our practice.

HIRE SLOWLY

Over the years, our practice has occasionally been in the position of having to fill a key role in the office on very short notice. In most cases we are given the requisite 2 weeks’ notice when an employee has chosen to move on. In reality, it is unlikely that we can advertise the position, conduct phone and in-person interviews with multiple candidates, and hire a viable candidate in such a short period of time.

This has led to some hasty hires, purely out of a sense of desperation. Leaving a hole in one of our departments takes a toll on morale, and I have made the mistake of trying to fill the opening as quickly as possible.

Practically speaking, hiring someone who is a poor fit for the practice or for the given position will always lead to more frustration and work for everyone involved. Over the past several years, we have adopted a “hire slowly” approach that has allowed us to find candidates who prove to be long-term hires. In this approach, the candidate not only interviews with ownership but also spends a couple of days to a week (with compensation, of course) in the office. During this time, the candidate can observe the position for which he or she is being considered, and our staff has time to see how the candidate responds to “real world” situations that come up during the workday.

Follow-up interviews with the candidate and our senior staff allow us to get a great feel for the candidate’s comfort level. It also allows our senior staff members to have a voice in the hiring process. Because they will be the people spending the most time with the candidate should he or she be hired, their feedback to the owners is invaluable and is surely taken into consideration.

FIRE QUICKLY

One of the most difficult duties of the human resource manager is the termination of an employee. In some cases, the person we have chosen to fill a key role simply does not work out. I have found that, once an employee has been given a chance to remedy poor performance and has failed to meet minimum expectations, a speedy termination is imperative. I have made the mistake of giving employees the benefit of the doubt for too long. In some cases this has led to poor office morale, disappointed or angry patients, or both.

Proper documentation of infractions and discussions with the employee are important. If there seems to be no change in behavior, I have found that terminating and replacing the employee immediately restores morale and your good standing with the eye care team. Failure to address an obvious issue and to provide swift leadership leads to a far worse situation.

TRAIN WELL

Once a new staff member has been hired, we make sure to give this new member of our team time to train with the most experienced member of his or her department. This is one-on-one time with either our senior technician, billing person, optician, or front office professional. The time spent in training is paid and counts toward the new hire’s mandatory introductory period. We have found that a lackluster training program leaves a new hire feeling underprepared and stressed. Giving new hires the assurance that experienced staff will see them through the many questions and procedural challenges they face in the first few weeks provides them with much-needed comfort.

OFFER INCENTIVES

One area in which we pride ourselves is in the use of competence-based incentives. All members of our eye care team are given opportunities to advance their knowledge in their respective fields through employer-sponsored training. For example, our technical staff members are all expected to attain the first level of certified paraoptometric (CPO) training within the first 12 months of employment. We then offer incentives for our techs to seek further training, and we make it clear that future pay raises and advancement in their skills will depend upon their becoming more knowledgeable.

One lesson I have learned is that not all members of our team are motivated purely by money. Getting to know each team member and what it is that motivates him or her is crucial. Having programs in place that address these motivators is just as important.

PROVIDE GOOD BENEFITS

We have found that our employees value their fringe benefits. During the great recession of the previous decade, we were the only practice in our area that continued to offer employees a health insurance plan, a retirement plan with matching funds, and paid holiday and vacation days. During one of the most challenging times in our practice history (we bought a new building and expanded our business in 2009), we opted to continue to offer these benefits, in order to show our dedication to our senior staff members who had come to depend upon them.

I am convinced that, due to our commitment to maintaining these benefits, we were able not only to retain our entire office staff but also to grow in the subsequent years. Our benefits programs may be somewhat costly to the business, but I would argue that they are great tools for attracting excellent talent. When staff members decide to look elsewhere for work, most admit to finding that the benefits we offer are very difficult, if not impossible, to find elsewhere in the market.

YOUR JOB IS NOT DONE

Many of the lessons I have learned in retaining high quality staff were learned through the School of Hard Knocks. The time and dollars we use to train and acclimate a great employee to a practice culture are resources well spent.

When an employee is motivated to stay with your company and buys into the culture of the practice, your work is not done. Establishing a benefit package, continuing education, and an environment that fosters growth and continued learning will keep your valuable staff engaged for years.

Tim Earley, OD
• vice president and HR manager, Medina Vision and Laser Centre, Medina, Ohio
• financial disclosure: none relevant
• 330-722-2150; @tim_eyedoc; drearley@medinavisionandlaser.com