There are several strategies surgery centers can follow to improve supervisor-employee relations in 2017, but one of the first steps is to know what current federal workplace regulations say and be up to date on all changes.

Surgery centers’ human resources (HR) departments must pay close attention to workplace regulations, as the Trump administration promises big regulatory changes for employers.

Ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) always should keep an eye on changing regulations, says John Park, JD, a partner with Waller Law in Nashville, TN. Park speaks about regulatory and legal risks affecting employers at national seminars and conferences.

“This is particularly important in terms of wage and hour regulations and immigration,” Park says. “Always stay up to speed on what the law requires, and make sure you’re checking those boxes for employees.”

HR staff can follow HR associations’ newsletters and websites to keep abreast of what’s new, he says.

“Especially in the landscape we have today, things are going to change pretty quickly and drastically in terms of the administration and its policies, so watch for bulletins from the Department of Labor and the EEOC,” Park suggests.

For example, the Department of Labor proposed amending the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regarding which employees are paid on a salary basis versus which are paid based on an hourly basis. The standard cutoff was $23,600 per year, or $455 per week. The Department of Labor proposed changes to raise the minimum salary threshold for full-time salaried (exempt) workers to $47,476 annually, or $913 per week. The changes were set to take place Dec. 1, 2016, and the minimum salary would be automatically updated every three years. Those earning less than that amount would be eligible for overtime pay. The threshold had not been updated since 2004.

This rule remains in limbo after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas issued on Nov. 22, 2016, a preliminary injunction blocking the new rule. On Dec. 1, 2016, the Department of Labor filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The Trump administration might also weigh in on this proposed rule change. Surgery centers must watch for news reports to see what happens next.

“That change is the biggest one, and it’s pending,” Park says. “But there also has been a lot of legislation or court action on transgender employees and sexual orientation, and all of those things could change.”

Park also offers the following advice for how ASCs can improve employee relations:

  • Focus on communication. “Make sure you are setting clear expectations and documenting things correctly,” Park says. “Perform feedback when people are doing things well and not well.”

Often in professional environments, managers are focused on so many issues that they can overlook focusing on issues where they can make a big difference, such as how successful the organization is in keeping and maintaining great employees, he adds.

For instance, managers might forget to give daily, consistent positive feedback to employees who are performing well.

“I think, especially in surgery centers and healthcare in general, you are so focused on the task at hand and, by its nature, dealing with emergencies, that it’s hard in these fast-paced environments to stop and think about areas where an employee has had successes,” Park says.

Managers enjoy giving positive feedback, but they sometimes forget because of time constraints, he adds.

“Employees crave the feedback, and it’s helpful to have had it when things go wrong in the future,” Park notes. “So you should reinforce to your supervisors and managers that you don’t want the only feedback they give to employees to be negative feedback. Make positive feedback a habit and make it part of a supervisor’s or manager’s job.”

  • Give timely negative feedback. It’s a tough conversation when managers have to give employees negative feedback, Park says.

“You want to overlook things because people by nature avoid conflict, and you want to give people the benefit of the doubt for good reasons,” he says.

But if managers have been giving employees positive reinforcement all along, then it shouldn’t be as difficult to occasionally point out what went wrong. Also, managers should provide the negative feedback soon after the incident that prompted it, Park says.

Those who delay giving feedback might hinder documentation of the event and feedback, delaying opportunities to fix the problem.

“It’s not a comfortable conversation, but it’s better than when things get out of control and you have to have a tougher conversation later,” Park says. “A lot of times, if you address the little things, then the big things won’t happen.”

Especially in healthcare, the key is paying attention to the details to avoid a later catastrophe. “They may seem like small things, but in surgery, everything can be a big thing,” he adds.

  • Establish rules and express rationale behind them. Supervisors must set forth expectations and communicate why there is a policy change, articulating both how and why.

“Employees never want to feel like you’re being arbitrary,” Park says. “People have a suspicion that if it’s brand new then it’s not in their interest, because people hate change just generally.”

So communicating why the surgery center is making these changes will help staff understand and more readily accept the policy or practice change, he says.

“It doesn’t mean there was something wrong, but it’s something that you have to do for certain reasons, based on information you’ve gained, and I think employees appreciate hearing that,” he adds. “It’s just human nature that people want to be treated fairly and not arbitrarily.”

  • Set firm expectations. Supervisors can better manage problem employees if they set clear guidelines and expectations and clearly communicate these to staff.

Consistency is crucial to successful resolutions involving problem employees. “You don’t want it to look like it’s arbitrary and that you make exceptions for some people, because then everyone is going to expect an exception, too,” Park says.

“The first thing people always claim is, ‘I may have broken the rules, but he or she got favorable treatment,’” he says. “If you have been treating certain conduct and offenses the same throughout, and the employee continues to break rules, then employees will know that behavior is subject to disciplinary action or termination.”

It’s not that employers always have to do what’s right or fair, but in some cases, it’s more important to be consistent, which can prevent employee retaliation and discriminatory claims. “It comes up all the time in employment lawsuits because the first thing they’ll look at is how the other people were treated,” Park explains.

“Not everything will have bright line rules, but the more you can set forth clear expectations and consequences that come from failing to meet the rules, the easier it is to manage employees,” he says. “They know what the guidelines are and can act accordingly, or not.”

  • Avoid retaliating to staff making complaints. “One thing I’d note, especially in healthcare and surgery centers, is that you have to be careful in terms of handling complaints and retaliation,” Park says. “You want to encourage a dialogue with employees, and I think a lot of people think of the problem employee as one who complains a lot, but that’s not always the case.”

A surgery center should want people to report problems and bring forth complaints about things that are not performed correctly. These reports can prevent major issues.

“We always want to have an open-door policy and encourage employees to bring forth any complaints or reports of illegal activity,” Park says. “So make a whistleblower policy to ensure complaints are confidential and that employees will be encouraged to bring forth those concerns.”