We're worth it! Dental hygienists should stop being embarrassed to talk about pay raises

Carolyn Short, RDH, advocates that dental hygienists should be more assertive when seeking pay raises.

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By Carolyn Short,RDH, BSDH

I wonder how many of you can picture this or a similar scenario. A 35-year-old male sales representative exceeds his sales goal for the past year. He is proud of the product he represents and his clients respect him and have grown fond of him. He’s smart, went to a good college, has a flawless work record, and is a team player. This sales rep does not get many benefits and has not received a raise in three years. Yet he has decided that asking for a raise would be humiliating, and that his boss might be upset by his request. So the sales rep decides to wait for his manager to realize that he isn’t being fair in not giving him a raise, and he remains hopeful that he will eventually be better compensated for his efforts.

Wait. What?

This sounds ridiculous, right? Of course this male sales rep would address his situation and find a resolution. But in the predominantly female world of dental hygiene, this scene not only plays out over and over, it is actually the advice that some hygienists are given when faced with this situation. They’re told, “Don’t make waves. What if the doctor says no? It’s demeaning to ask.”

Many times this mindset is driven by fear and lack of confidence. We tolerate being treated in a way that makes us feel resentful or undervalued. It is a valuable exercise to remind ourselves who we are and how we got here. We are licensed, professional, educated health-care providers. We conquered our classes, and most of us are college graduates. We take many hours of continuing education classes each year and reverse the course of disease every day. We believe in our career choice and are proud of what we have accomplished. After years of working, it’s easy to forget how much we have accomplished and what it took to succeed. The definition of self-confidence is believing we can do what we want to do. Now, take your right arm, touch the back of your left shoulder, and start patting.

Talking About Money

Please, let’s stop being afraid and embarrassed to discuss money. Bravery is the willingness to confront uncertainty or intimidation. There are some things we can do to reduce uncertainty, such as arming ourselves with information. We all know that in order for a dental office to be successful, it must be run like a profitable business. Dental hygienists have a real opportunity to contribute to that business.

We can start with keeping track of our production every single day. I’ve always done this old school, on paper, in a personal notebook. Even though some dental software can keep track of these numbers, if a provider is not properly noted due to a default in preferences in the software or for insurance purposes, the updates will not be accurate.

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Here’s what I recommend you do. Calculate the total amount produced for every day you work during a month, and then average that total at the end of the month. Then, add your daily production to get a monthly total. Now, take a look at the monthly and daily production goals your employer has set for you.

How do things match up? Are you over your production goal for the month? If so, take a victory lap! Are you under your goal this month, and many months? Some things you can do to help increase your production can be as simple as making sure all x-rays are current, offering fluoride varnish treatments to adults when indicated, VELscope screenings, using the new gingivitis code (which should have a higher fee), and more. How does your salary look compared to those numbers? Are you producing $1,200 average each day and getting paid $250?

Taking control of change

This is where it starts to become empowering. Dental hygienists are pretty awesome to have on the dental practice team. We are educated, professional, executive-caliber individuals who are caring and make a difference in people’s lives. Even though we work as a team (I hope you are willing to do any task in the office, from front desk, assisting, stocking, and making a trash run), we are not the same. Dental hygienists are the only staff members who can produce income for the office, excluding the doctor. This is a big deal!

If your situation calls for it, be confident and schedule that salary review. This should be a private, professional meeting where emotions are checked at the door. Have your production information tallied for the last several months. If you are meeting or are above your production goals, your salary should be in the neighborhood of 30% of that goal.

Are you already topped out on salary, or is the doctor unable to budge? Consider negotiating for benefits, perhaps vacation days or personal days. Then try to schedule another meeting in three months to revisit the topic.

If you’re still not able to achieve any change, this is actually very valuable information to have. Everyone’s cards are on the table, and it’s time to make some tough decisions. Those decisions might be to start searching for another job, or to think about adding another job to your schedule. You might decide to change careers, or to stay in your current situation. There are many different events in our lives that drive these decisions.

The take-away here is that you took control of your own information. You had the confidence to have a respectful, professional, emotion-free meeting to discuss your concerns. Your employer should have new respect for your initiative and willingness to understand his or her business. For you lucky hygienists with employers who offer regular salary reviews and raises, that’s wonderful, but always keep track of your production.

You can bet that that high-achieving male sales rep had the confidence to direct his own future, not act the way I described him. We need to not let fear run our lives, but we need to stand up for ourselves and have the confidence as professionals to take control of our destiny. In the end, we get what we tolerate. RDH


Carolyn Short, RDH, BSDH, is a practicing clinician with 41 years of experience in cosmetic, periodontic, and general practices. She is also a part-time clinical instructor for the North Central Missouri College program located in the Hillyard Technical Center in St. Joseph, Missouri. Carolyn is past president of the Permian Basin Dental Hygienists’ Society and the Greater Kansas City Dental Hygienists’ Association. Carolyn can be contacted at short.carolyn@gmail.com.

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