Stopping staff separation

6494498_xxl_PPYour staff is one of your business’s most important assets. But what happens when they leave you for someone else? Tracey Porter looks at what you can do to make your practice a place where workers love to be

Employment law barrister Edward Mallett calls it an industrial divorce—that point beyond redemption where no amount of compromise or mea culpas can encourage a boss and their employee to rekindle their previously successful working relationship.

And just like the divorce of a more traditional nature, Mallett says there are rarely any winners.

Australian insights group Mercer estimates that staff turnover costs range from 50 to 150 per cent of an individual’s annual salary depending on the role and level of seniority.

Even taking the most conservative of those figures, this means a practice employing a dental assistant on about $40,000 a year would need to find around $20,000 in recruiting and training expenses to replace them.

Mallett says while it’s always difficult to determine the exact cost of employee loss, in reality the cost is always more than merely financial.

Being known as a ‘hire and fire’ organisation or one that is unable to retain its staff not only affects a dental practice’s reputation and credibility but invariably leads to poor staff morale and loss of productivity, he says.

While some staff turnover is normal, a small practice losing “anything over 30 per cent of their staff annually” leaves itself vulnerable to being tagged with this moniker.

Mallett says there are a number of legitimate reasons why a practice may lose staff, such as stunted career progression in smaller practices frustrating ambitious individuals, spikes in newer businesses where employers are still getting to grips with best practice HR skills, or the impact of age cross sections where the “Gen Y phenomenon” may be making its mark.

Records kept by the Australian Dental Association (ADA), which represents 11,000 members across 8000 practices, show that over the long term, practices have slowly become bigger but the make-up of roles within those practices continues to change.

The figures show there are now more dental hygienists and dental therapists in practices but fewer dental technicians, while the number of receptionists and secretarial and practice management staff has slowly increased.

None of this provides any comfort, however, to those practices consistently facing staff unable or unwilling to continue working for them—no matter the role.

ADA president Dr Rick Olive, an orthodontist who runs a practice in Brisbane, says he still has three employees working for him who started—before he did—more than three decades ago. However, he concedes that other practices may turn over their entire staff every three to five years.

“I am sure management style has a great deal to do with that. Most dentists do not have additional management training and due to the highly technical nature of dentistry, tend to be more detail-oriented and therefore are seen to micromanage.

“Dentists who have been given some training by the military would, in turn, have benefited from the management and leadership skills. It certainly has helped strengthen staff retention rates at my practice,” Dr Olive says.

Victorian dental practice Smile Solutions, which has a quarter of its staff who have worked at the practice for at least seven years and 14 who have worked there for 12 or more, believes good staff retention levels are the most critical indicator of its success.

Owner Dr Kia Pajouhesh, whose Melbourne practice won the Employer of Choice category in the 2014 Australian Business Awards, believes the most common error SME (small- and medium-sized enterprise) dental practices make around the issue of staff retention is putting revenue, in particular profit and key performance indicators, ahead of people.

Mallett, whose consultancy, Employsure, works with several Australian dentistry practices on employment relations issues, says being such a customer-centric industry, the employee/employer relationship is more important in the dentistry profession than in other sectors.

For this reason, it is critical the owner or general manager of the practice swings the odds in his or her favour by making the right choice when it comes to choosing staff.

“The starting point for retention is always selection. [These businesses] are not simply producing a product that goes out in a box and no-one actually speaks directly to a customer until there is a problem. Having someone at the front desk embodying everything that the practice owner wants is absolutely important.

“We often say to clients that employees are your biggest asset. But it’s also important to remember that small business employees are typically your biggest cost as well. Therefore, what you don’t want is to have a poor relationship with people who are essentially taking money out of the business and not giving you any return for it.”

Dr Pajouhesh agrees, and says his city practice takes a personalised approach. It aims to understand and appreciate candidates’ values and be satisfied that they will align with the practice’s culture, rather than focusing only on skill.

“Another secret to retaining great staff is to ensure that our people feel valued and respected. No two people are the same, so we take an individual approach. Beyond remuneration, we take the time to understand what motivates the best people and we tailor our offering accordingly. To attract the best support staff, we offer genuine career paths within the practice (very rare in the dental industry), truly beautiful and harmonious work environments, and an enviable social calendar.

“Additional incentives to attract the best clinicians include the support of a complete team of like-minded dentists, specialists and hygienists, the very best equipment and technology, and lifestyle incentives such as flexible hours and a four-day work week,” says Dr Pajouhesh.

Mallett says there has been numerous studies that show people “tend not to work purely for money”, so providing a practice is not underpaying its staff or denying their entitlements, few will want to leave purely for higher remuneration.

“If you’ve got the culture right, people shouldn’t leave for that reason,” he says. “I think culture is the key to making sure you do retain staff. If you get that right then everything else comes together.”

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