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Three Essential Steps to an Effective Human Resources System in Dentistry

Labour Day has been celebrated on the first Monday in September in Canada since the 1880s. The origins of Labour Day in Canada can be traced back to December 1872 when a parade was staged in support of the Toronto Typographical Union’s strike for a 58-hour work-week.

We have certainly come a long way from 1880 and labour laws in Canada protect employees, but there is very little protection for employers. Dentists don’t learn employment labour laws in dental school, yet need to hire and manage employees to have a successful practice. Dentists don’t learn employment labour laws in dental school, yet need to hire and manage employees to have a successful practice. Unless you have a degree in law in addition to your DDS, it can be difficult to guide your business through a potential minefield of HR problems and often it is the unsuspecting dentist who loses the battle. Even dentists who have felt that they treated their staff well, provided bonuses, sent them to convention and on courses, have still ended up in difficult and emotionally draining human resource problems.
As a dentist, the most valuable resource that you have is your human resources. Dentists know this and so do their employees. Unfortunately, many dentists don’t’ know what they don’t know when it comes to employment labour law in Canada. They may think everything is fine when it’s not, and/or they may think that they are doing the right thing for employees by giving them raises. If you provide an undeserving employee with a raise in her salary, you are essentially saying “good job” “keep up the great work”. If you have to terminate the same employee at some point, you could be setting yourself up for a ‘wrongful dismissal’ claim because she was doing such a ‘good job’ that you gave her a raise. Salary increases should only be awarded on merit of performance. If the employee doesn’t perform well, don’t give her a reward!

Most dental practices that I consult with do not have job descriptions in place or performance reviews. Here are some ways that you can implement an infrastructure for your Human Resources System to protect the employees and the employer:

1. Clarify Performance Expectations

Job descriptions are essential. When hiring a new employee, he/she should be provided with an employment offer letter and a job description. They need to know what is expected of them. A well written job description will also serve as the basis of the performance reviews, which should be conducted annually at minimum. You cannot fairly assess your employee’s performance without a job description and it is only fair to let your employees know what you expect. They cannot read your mind. Not all dental offices are alike. The work habits that they may have developed at another office may not be suitable for your office.

Create and implement an Employee Policies Manual that all team members must sign for receipt of the manual or handbook Having an Employee Policies Manual provides the employee with information that showcases the benefits and/or privileges that are provided for employees over and above those required by law. This is a useful tool for the purpose of orienting employees to the organization’s culture and employer expectations.

The manual should cover everything related to your internal workplace policies and what standards your staff are expected to comply with. Some items that should be included are what are considered grounds for dismissal, the office dress codes, vacation policy, anti-violence and harassment policy, performance criteria, bereavement leave, etc. This manual will save you a lot of headaches down the road as it outlines your terms and conditions of continued employment at your office.

2. Conduct performance reviews annually. Performance reviews are essential to good business management. It is important to conduct fair and objective performance reviews based on the line items in the employee’s job descriptions (which should also be reviewed annually since they often change and evolve). Performance reviews should be a separate process from salary reviews and be separated by time. For example, your performance reviews should be done approximately 3 months before your fiscal year end. That way if you are making salary adjustments, you will know whether or not your budget can support the increases or bonuses. You have to have the money in your budget to award salary increases and they should be based on performance merit, not just an expectation.
Conducting performance reviews help you to spot problem areas and implement corrections if needed. These are opportunities for growth and performance improvement. Employees always assume that they are doing a great job. They require your feedback to tell them how they are doing and sometimes to make corrections in their behaviour. Your intent is to have a long term relationship with your employees and performance reviews will help to guide this process.

3. Employment Contracts – It is especially important to have all employees sign an employment contract. This protects the doctor as well as the employee in the long run. Items that should be included in the contract should reference the policies in your Employee Policy Manual and should also include non-solicitation agreement, a non-disparagement clause and restrict the former employee of poaching your current employees with the intent of enticing them to be employed at your competitors. Employment contracts provide clear cut guidelines and expectations of the employee. Having contracts in place may also help to increase the value of your practice. The cost of having the contracts prepared by an employment lawyer is well worth the investment.

Be ready and willing to fire employees when necessary. If there is a problem employee in your practice, don’t wait – it’s not going to get better, it will only get worse. Identify problems early and deal with them expeditiously. Terminate the problem quickly but do it correctly. Don’t take the advice of a colleague who might tell you that you can just pay the employee severance and it’s all over. Unless the colleague is an expert in employment law, it is best to consult with a lawyer who specializes in employment law in Canada. The initial investment can save you a bundle of money, time and emotional heartache that may follow later.

implement a Human Resources System that is sustainable and practical. Keep your performance reviews up to date. Don’t wait until something happens, correct employee behaviour in a positive way and help guide them through your journey and be ready for any bumps in the road. Make Labour Day a celebration of your employees and a grateful reminder of why you are a success.

About author
Sandie Baillargeon is a leading authority on how to increase the effectiveness of medical and dental business systems. Ms. Baillargeon is author of two text books, Dental Office Administration and The Canadian Dental Office Administrator, published by ITP Nelson Canada. Sandie is the owner and operator of Dental Office Consulting Services, which specializes in dental business planning, staff development, consulting and continuing education seminars. Visit her website at or contact her directly at (905) 336-7624.
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