For many doctors, managing employee behavior is a necessary evil, not an enjoyable task. Some say, “I love everything about my profession except correcting my employees.” Yet the success of your practice depends on having a competent, friendly team whose behavior represents your beliefs.

Some managers may procrastinate when it comes to confronting inappropriate behavior or poor performance; however, it’s important to address employee problems immediately. Failing to do so can lead to misunderstandings about what’s acceptable. Valuable employees may leave a practice if they see colleagues misbehaving without consequence. Certain problem behaviors may even make a bad impression on patients. Others might even be unsafe or may put your patients’ privacy at risk.

As with anything difficult, it’s helpful to have a plan. The following are actions you may take to clarify your expectations — and keep your team on track:

Create an employee handbook

It’s important that employees understand what’s expected. They’re not mind-readers, and it’s not fair or reliable to let more seasoned staff “train” new ones in the ways of your world. To prevent confusion, create an employee manual that details policies for everyone in the office, such as dress code, acceptable behavior, and disciplinary measures. Professional associations, industry-specific employment consultants, and payroll companies are excellent sources for employee manual templates.

  Tip  

Be sure your manual is customized to your state and city. Labor laws can vary significantly.

Develop standard operating procedures

In addition to the employee handbook, create a set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) for each task that anyone does in the practice. Go into great detail: Even tasks that may seem obvious could have an SOP that is several pages long! For example, answering the phone might include: We answer by the third ring, we smile before we answer, here is a script for greetings and goodbyes, here are the questions we ask new patients, and here is where we enter information about calls. Creating a manual of all office SOPs can be a big task that takes months to complete, but it may be worth the effort if it helps lead to consistency in practice operations.

  Tip  

When writing standard operating procedures, pretend you’re explaining the task to a new employee. This will ensure the SOP manual is also an excellent training tool when someone joins the team.

Verbalize key expectations

While manuals are important, you may make an additional impact by communicating verbally about those issues that are especially important to you, including consequences for noncompliance. For example, if one of your noncompliance issues is employees who use their mobile phones during work hours, you might use a team meeting to remind staff members that this will not be tolerated — and tell them what will happen if they continue the behavior. Communicating both expectations and consequences helps ensure no one is surprised should you need to take action to preserve the integrity of your practice.

  Tip  

Group communication should not be a substitute for individual correction. Don’t use a team meeting to try to correct the behavior of one person when the others are all doing it correctly.

Plan your words carefully

Before entering into a stressful conversation with an employee, do your research. Understand and be able to articulate the behavior you are addressing. Has it happened multiple times? If so, how many and when? Check your employee handbook to see if the situation or behavior is addressed there and, if so, bring the book along for direct reference. (If not, it’s likely time to add an entry.)

You may also want to create a script for starting the conversation and practice it with a family member or friend. A sample script should (1) explain your expectation, (2) describe the behavior you found objectionable, (3) communicate how this made you feel and why it’s a problem, and (4) restate your expectation and the possible consequences for further noncompliance.

In a situation where an employee was seen using her personal phone during business hours, the script might go like this:

  • As outlined in our employee handbook, using personal phones during work hours is not allowed.
  • This morning I saw you texting on your phone while at the front desk.
  • This made me upset because it makes us look unprofessional and creates the perception that patients aren’t getting the care they deserve.
  • I expect you to not use your personal phone during work hours.
  • Today I am issuing you a formal written warning. If it happens again, it could lead to termination of your employment. (Note that this may not be necessary if it was an honest misunderstanding and a first-time offense.)

  Tip  

If you find you need to terminate an employee, consider consulting an attorney who specializes in employment law.

Ideally, by being proactive about clarifying expectations and addressing issues as soon as they occur, you won’t have to resort to anything so dire as termination. A quick, private discussion may be enough to clear up most misunderstandings. If not, at least now you’ll know what’s expected of you.