According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are 210,030 active dentists in the United States, with 15,050 of these practicing in Texas. While there are some larger dental practices with several dentists, by and large, most of these practices are owned by one or two dentists, making them archetypical small businesses.
While dentists are highly trained in oral health, most are not trained in the day-to-day running of a business and they often learn the grim realities of this challenge when something like human resource issues arise in their practice. In situations where one dentist purchases the practice of another dentist, these HR issues can become contentious and even result in lawsuits. Hopefully, before the situation deteriorates to this level, the owner of the practice has engaged an attorney such as Nathanial L. Martinez of the Dallas-based law firm, Palter Stokley Sims, PLLC who specializes in legal issues associated with dental and orthodontic practices.
Inheriting a Staff
“Within the dental practice, the typical scenario of workplace friction caused by inherited employees occurs when a young dentist decides to buy a retiring dentist’s practice,” Martinez notes. “In most cases, the new dentist will inherit the staff of the retiring dentist and must adapt to that existing staff.
“In most cases, the legacy employees will be ‘team players.’ They will do their best to get along with the new dentist, who is now their new boss. However, in a few cases, especially if one of the staff members has been with the practice for a number of years and has some managerial responsibility within the office, they might be combative with the new dentist which may create some friction within the office. This is especially true if the new dentist has a different plan from the previous dentists for conducting the business.”
Prevention is the Best Cure
The best approach to handling this or any other HR problem is to prepare for it in advance.
“I think it was Ben Franklin who said, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’” Martinez said. “Long before a dentist decides to buy a practice he or she should learn about the staff they are inheriting. They should try to meet with the staff and get to know them.
“They should also set expectations for an open relationship and have a good dialog about the practice with the staff. This will go a long way in avoiding the potential friction with the inherited staff,” he noted.
“If, however, the dentist buys the practice and experiences this friction, there are a number of non-legal approaches that can be taken to resolve this issue if an employee doesn’t want to be a team player.
“First, a dialog should be created with this employee and expectations should be set early in the relationship. I recommend that the new owner of the practice either creates a different HR policy manual or makes some amendments to the existing manual. They should review these policies and procedures with their attorney and attempt to ascertain new policies and procedures which can be put into place to help alleviate the tension and friction that is occurring.
“Having a team meeting is advisable,” Martinez notes. “And having an attorney at this meeting is a good idea. At the meeting, the new owner should introduce his/her new vision for the practice and have each employee sign-on to the new policies and procedures.
“Another approach is to manage expectations among the staff and involve the retiring dentist, if possible. If there is a problem with an employee, especially one who has been employed by the practice for a long time, having the retiring dentist get involved by talking to the employee will resolve the problem before the situation escalates.
“Like most lawyers, I want my clients to resolve these types of issues before I have to get involved,” he said. “This is because it sets the tone for the office in the future.
“Finally, it is important for the owner of the practice to keep a written record of each employee interaction. If there is any violation of the policies and procedures, it is important to have this documented.”
When All Else Fails
“If, after numerous attempts to correct this issue, the employee friction continues, termination of the employee must be considered,” Martinez said. “How this termination is carried out is really critical for the small dental practice. If the employee has been associated with the practice for an extended period of time, they’ve made friends with their colleagues, and this termination can cause divisions within the remaining staff.
“For all my clients, I recommend they consider a reasonable severance package for the terminated employee,” he noted. “I realize that this is not a popular suggestion, especially when the practice owner feels the employee is causing the problem. However, the most important consideration is that the rest of the staff sees the new owner doing the right thing by the terminated employee. The remaining staff needs to see that the owner is being reasonable. Plus, the owner should document this action, showing that he or she is reasonable with this employee in case they are forced to appear before a state employment commission or court in the future.
“A good lawyer can draft termination documents that meet the standards of law and withstand the scrutiny of state employment agencies. Termination, while not ideal, is sometimes the only approach for handling an employee who is keeping the practice from moving forward,” Martinez concluded.
“At the end of the day, the goal of any good lawyer is to help small-business owner clients, including dentists, get back to focusing on their business, and away from focusing on their disgruntled, legacy employee.”