Just Another Day in Crisis : Dealing with Staff Challenges
“Oh my God,” Sarah cried into the phone as Brian walked into the office. He had feared a crisis even before he set foot in the building at 7:45 am. The yellow Volkswagen Bug and the red Mustang convertible were not in their usual assigned parking spaces, so he already knew that his hygienist and chairside assistant had not shown up for work. Having to deal with staff absenteeism and their day-to-day issues made his stomach churn. He wondered what sort of personal crisis Sarah was tying up the phone line with today. It seemed to Brian that Sarah had crying spells at least once a week. As he passed the reception area, he saw her weeping into the phone and ignoring the line of patients waiting at the reception window.
His wife, Jen, had told him that he needed to change his attitude toward his staff. She suggested that if he tried it, he might be surprised to find that their attitudes would change as well. But Jen didn’t have to walk in Brian’s shoes through the constant crises in the office. It seemed like every day he was dealing with another disaster. Brian had little patience left for these things as he worried over financial challenges, like the fact that it seemed patients were constantly canceling procedures because the out-of-pocket expenses were too high. Running a successful practice involved prioritizing, and encouraging unprofessional behavior by coddling weeping employees was not at the top of his list, no matter what his wife or all those practice managers out there might say about learning to empathize with your staff.
Brian embarrassedly looked out at the waiting room. He could see the discomfort on his patients’ faces as they tried to unobtrusively glance at Sarah. One of them must have been waiting for at least half an hour for Melody, his hygienist, to begin. Usually, Sharon, his assistant, arrived early and got the room ready for his first patient, pulling charts and setting up instruments, and Melody should have started cleaning her first patient’s teeth by now. Where could they be? Maybe they were planning a shopping trip or hung over from a night out. He scolded himself as soon as the thought formed. He didn’t know why they both happened to be out, but a part of him didn’t trust his staff and thought that they sometimes took advantage of him.
Reluctantly, Brian approached Sarah and motioned that he wanted to talk to her out of the hearing range of the waiting room. Without acknowledging his head motion to come into his office, Sarah wailed, “Dr Lerner, she’s in the hospital!” All of the patients turned to see how Brian would respond.
“Sarah,” he replied sternly, “Who’s in the hospital?”
“It . . . it . . . it’s Sharon,” she stuttered, sobbing. “Melody is with her.”
Immediately, Brian felt guilty for assuming the women were in cahoots. Sharon, his 26-year-old assistant, was the best assistant he had ever had—even though she tended to be moody and too serious—and with her five-foot four-inch, well-filled-out frame and cute blonde hair, she provided the kind of attractive, friendly image that Brian wanted for his practice. Melody, the hygienist, was also an excellent employee. Her work ethic, rapport with the patients, and professional skills were superb. This situation was serious—not only because Sharon was injured but also because he had no idea what he was going to do with his waiting room full of patients.
“Sarah, please try to calm down. Come into my office and tell me what happened.”
“Melody, I’ve got to go. Call me back in a few minutes, promise?” Sarah hung up the phone and walked nervously into Brian’s office. Brian followed closely and shut the door. His five-foot ten-inch frame was average but towered by almost a foot over Sarah. Wanting to make her feel comfortable, Brian sat down on his couch.
“You know how torrential the rain was when we left work yesterday?” Sarah began, weeping again. She plopped down onto a cushion and began wringing her hands and shaking her head. “Well, Sharon’s car hydroplaned into a guardrail when she was getting on Highway 90. Melody was right behind her. She saw it all!”
Not waiting for a response, Sarah continued, “Sharon didn’t have a seatbelt on, and her head hit the windshield. Her car was totaled, and she was hurt really bad. They are doing some kind of brain tests on her. Melody stayed with her all night. She’s still there. Dr Lerner, what are we going to do?”
Brian’s head was spinning. What were they going to do? After a pause, he told Sarah, “Give me five minutes to think. In the meantime, Sarah, please apologize to the patients in the waiting room for the delay. Tell them an emergency has come up, and we’ll give them an update in a few minutes, OK?”
As Sarah closed his office door, Brian couldn’t stop his mind from calculating what this mess was going to cost him. Melody generated a lot of the next month’s business. She was not only superb technically, but also a great salesperson. Even one day without her could cost him several appointments. And without Sharon assisting him, he would only be able to handle a portion of the patients on his own. This crisis was going to take thousands of dollars out of his monthly profits.