Just Passing Through—How to Retain Restless Employees

Throughout much of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for people to find a job when they finished school and then stick with the same company through retirement. Lifetime employment was encouraged by large companies such as IBM. I still see some lifetime employees in dental offices—team members who have worked in the same dental office for decades—but they are a vanishing breed in dentistry and across the business spectrum.

The trend away from employees being loyal to a company had been slowly gaining momentum, but the COVID-19 pandemic greatly accelerated the process. The pandemic forced individuals to isolate and become more introspective. Many dental employees decided they did not want to spend future decades in a dental office. Employees started questioning the value of staying and felt emboldened and even entitled to job shop. Even in the absence of a clear plan b career path, restlessness among workers became much more common, and the available supply of dental staff contracted.

According to business author Steven Cadigan, the median length of employment for workers in the 25-35 age group is now 2.8 years. A recent survey conducted by Prudential Financial revealed that more than 50% of the U.S. labor force is either looking for a new job or considering making a change.

The challenge of finding good new employees is surpassed only by the difficulty of retaining the best ones.

To increase the chances of retaining good employees, do the following:

Challenge new employees to get the most out of their time in your practice.

One of the least satisfying hires is an employee who is just watching the clock, giving in to boredom, and hoping a better job will come along. If an employee is going to spend a part of their life with you, they owe it to themselves to become engaged in their work. You should even consider paying for additional education once an employee has been with you for at least a year. Tell the employee you will help them burnish their resume as long as they demonstrate drive, desire and hard work. Your message should be about helping them get the most out of their time in the practice. Encourage them to take full advantage of their time and learn everything they can—so that when they leave they’ll be even more attractive to their next employer due to the experience they’ve had with your practice. And finally, remind them their goal should be to one day get the best possible recommendation from you. Your new employee should not feel they are marking time, but that they are getting paid to do a job that doubles as a training program. You may be able to offer them more challenging opportunities over time, but if they outgrow your practice and leave your employment, you will wish them all the best and thank them for their service.

Explain to your team that one measure of their value to the office is their tolerance of ambiguity.

Jobs in dental offices have traditionally not required much flexibility, and dental team members often do not like change. In the aftermath of COVID-19, however, there are more part-time and off-site workers. Traditional lines have been blurred. It is becoming increasingly common to break down some traditional front/back barriers and, for example, ask a hygienist to retrieve voicemail messages or train a schedule coordinator to sterilize instruments. This cross-training helps cover staffing gaps when needed. When expectations are clear at the outset, there is greater acceptance of the required tasks. Instead of feeling uncomfortable when asked to complete a task, the well-informed employee knows in advance the scope of the job. This open communication is essential to establishing a long-term working relationship with a new employee.

You recruit by paying the going rate.

You retain through merit raises and by recognizing an employee for a job well done. Feeling unappreciated is one of the key reasons employees restart their job hunt not long after landing a new job. Praise is an underutilized behavioral reinforcement tool, and it costs you nothing. Be sure to make your positive words specific. It is fine to acknowledge good work in general, but the compliment is more impactful when it relates to a particular situation: You handled the situation with that patient perfectly. The patient is now very satisfied.  When you consistently praise good behavior, you substantially increase the chances that the behavior will be repeated. If you only make a mental note of an employee’s good performance but let the moment pass without verbalizing your assessment, you are making it easier for the employee to feel unappreciated and decide to leave.

Offer a retention bonus.

Recognize new employees in good standing after six months with a retention bonus. There is another retention bonus after one year. These incentives to stay are a countervailing force against their tendency to look for other employment. After a year, the new employee becomes integrated into the practice culture and may elect to stay longer. This strategy also works in your favor. Turnover is time-consuming and expensive. You cannot lose by incentivizing a good employee to stay with you that first year. A retention bonus also gives you some salary negotiating leverage. You may not be comfortable meeting a new employee’s salary demands, but you can close that gap by paying the retention bonus after you both know the job is a good fit.

Welcome back boomerang employees.

Keep in touch with good employees who leave the practice. There are employees who leave for family reasons or because their spouse has taken a job in a different city. These employees need to know they are always welcome to contact you if they need work in the future. In terms of the administrative team, I know many dentists who have re-hired former team members to work remotely, either from home near the office or from a distant location. In all cases, this arrangement has worked out for both parties. This type of non-continuous, episodic employment is becoming more common.

Those peripatetic employees are a challenge, but with proper planning, you can increase the odds of keeping the best ones in your practice.

David Schwab, PhD, is a practice management consultant and speaker who often lectures for Seattle Study Club affiliates. Website: davidschwab.com. Phone: 407.324.1333. Email: dschwabphd@me.com