The trusted source for
healthcare information and
Refereeing employee-physician disputes tactfully
It's a political hot potato that many senior managers have to face: One of your staff comes to you complaining that a physician is continually rude to her, interrupts her on phone calls and in meetings, and asks her to do things that are not her responsibility and interfere with her ability to do her job.
What can you do in a situation like that? The first step is to acknowledge the problem, says Robyn Smith, director of human resources for Atlanta Ear Nose & Throat, which operates 26 sites in metro Atlanta with approximately 200 employees.
"You have to listen to what that employee has to say," she says. "You can't discount it just because it is against the physician."
Smith usually listens to the complaint and then calls in the physician in question to talk. "It can be difficult," she admits. "I start out by saying that there is a perception that he or she is terse with employees, for example. Then I ask for his or her thoughts on this."
While you have to be careful not to offend the physicians, Smith says, you also have to be clear that the employees are a valuable asset to the practice. "You can't have someone running off your employees," she says.
That's something that many physicians don't consider, says Michael Handley, president of Michael Handley & Associates, an Everett, WA, medical consulting firm that specializes in staff training and practice management. As an administrator of a 12-physician family practice, he has experience in arbitrating physician-employee problems.
"A physician has to understand that in this market, people don't choose to make a career out of being a receptionist or billing clerk in a practice," he says. "Now, if you treat a person badly, that person will walk. Then you have to advertise for a replacement, conduct the interviews, and train someone new. That can get expensive."
Handley says that most of the time, the doctors don't realize they are offending people. "A lot of times, they are just rushed."
A good way to broach the subject is to tell physicians you are frustrated with turnover and that there a couple things that the whole practice can do to reduce the turnover, Handley advises. "Then say, `There is one thing about me that I can change,' and discuss it." Follow that with a comment that you have heard staff members say he or she is often gruff with them, or that he or she often interrupts them without checking to see if they are otherwise occupied.
Usually, Smith says, it is just a breakdown in communication that causes the problems. "But perception is reality, and for the employee, the perception is that the doctor is unfeeling and rude."
Smith says that in some cases, the physicians' personalities get in the way. "Maybe, they just don't have the social skills that you would expect," she says. "In those cases, you may have to tell staff to suck it up and deal with it. But most of the time, the fact that you listened to complaints is enough to make them feel better, feel validated."
Administrators can go a long way by learning to smooth over rough bumps with their employees, Handley says. "All you have to do is take time every week to deal with employee problems before they emerge. You don't have to do it formally, just ask how things are with their jobs, with the patients, and with the doctors."
Then follow up after a couple days, he says. "If the person tells you he or she has a problem, even if you don't get anywhere on it, check back. Say that you had some thoughts about your conversation. Or if you have made progress, explain what it is."
Handley doesn't buy the argument that administrators are too busy to baby-sit their employees. "Who has time to conduct job interviews or train a new person?" he asks.