Play it safe

March 21, 2012

January 2010 | Dental Products Report Think like a CEOPlay it safe Avoiding unrealized expectations with staff.by Dr. Duane A. Schmidt, President of Pre/Op/Ed

January 2010 | Dental Products Report
Think like a CEO

Play it safe 

Avoiding unrealized expectations with staff.

by Dr. Duane A. Schmidt, President of Pre/Op/Ed

Photo: Diane Macdonald/Getty Images

“Doctor, we need to talk to you.” Three long-term employees entered my private office and closed the door behind them.

“What do we need to talk about?” I answered.

“It’s Wanda,” the more senior of the three women spoke.

“And what about Wanda? She seems to do her job satisfactorily.”

“But she’s always the last to get here and almost always the first to leave. She rarely helps us set up in the morning or close down at the end of the day. We’re tired of covering for her.” The three all nodded in agreement.

Seeing how serious they were, I said, “Okay, let’s check her time cards. That should give us facts to go on.” Within hours my office manager had checked six months of Wanda’s timecards, circling 94 times when she arrived late and nearly that many times when she left early.

I called Wanda into my office, closed the door and told her what I had seen on her time cards. Then I asked her to give me her office key and gather her things. I said I would give her a two-week severance paycheck and wished her well in her next job. All within a day the Wanda problem had been solved. Or had it?

Little did I know that soon it would rebound into a professional crisis.

The fall out

Three weeks later I received a letter from Wanda’s attorney asking me to send him $15,000. Wanda had reported that I told her to have sex with me or I would fire her, upon which she told me she would do nothing of the sort and left of her own volition.

The attorney continued that if I failed to pay the $15,000 he would report me to the Civil Rights Commission for adjudication of the matter.

You undoubtedly have guessed where I went wrong. Hoping to spare her the embarrassment of being fired in front of her fellow workers, I fired her in private. Now I was cornered. She could make any charge she wished and it would come down to a “He said/She said” confrontation.

Because professional liability insurance does not cover sexual harassment, I called my own attorney. He explained that my three options were to pay the asked-for money, negotiate a lesser amount or call their bluff. In my anger, I vowed I would never succumb to legal blackmail, so I pitched her attorney’s letter into the wastebasket.

Three weeks later a front-page story in our local newspaper, circulation 78,000, was headlined: “Civil Rights Commission Charges Local Dentist with Sexual Harassment.” The article repeated Wanda’s charges in lurid detail. I was too upset to watch the TV news that evening, knowing they too would cover this ‘news’. No reporter contacted me for a rebuttal.

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Series finale

In the first article we published with DPR in June of 2009, we addressed the need for an informed consent protocol that can be taken to court to prove you fulfilled the standard of care and consent before you performed treatment. In October of 2009 we wrote a piece that demonstrated how binding arbitration adds fiscal peace of mind and bars one more way that difficult patients might come back to bite their dentists. Here, we’ve demonstrated how to protect dentists from their own staff.

Forms and brochures addressing each of these three situations may be downloaded at PreOpEd.com at no cost. Our Informed Consent DVDs also are available for online purchase.

The resolution

What happened next was much less dramatic. We showed the Civil Rights Commission Wanda’s timecards and they dismissed her bid for unemployment compensation. No follow-up news coverage reported my hollow victory, even though Wanda fled the state prior to the hearing.

The damage she left behind taught a lesson every dentist should heed. From this attempted miscarriage of justice, we learned two things:

  • Never visit about personnel matters with a staff member without another member present to witness.
  • Adopt a form that all staff members must sign monthly to prevent this calamity.

The Staff Disclosure form we developed at our practice states that our employee has never seen any illegal billing or activity in our office, has never seen a doctor prescribe any substance illegally, knows of no violations of any law governing a dental practice and has not seen or heard of any sexual harassment.

In the form we advise that in the event of a suspected violation, the employee is encouraged to report it directly to an appropriate state agency.

The advice

None of us are immune to the potential legal ramification of unrealized expectations among staff or patients. But we can build immunity for ourselves with barriers that can protect our most precious assets: our practice and our reputation.

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