Pearls of Wisdom II: The Gwen Commandments

Feb. 1, 2000
Look out Cecil B. DeMille! One hygienist has some ideas that could part the Red Sea of employee-employer problems in the dental workplace.

Look out Cecil B. DeMille! One hygienist has some ideas that could part the Red Sea of employee-employer problems in the dental workplace.

Gwen Krenz, RDH

It took finding another job to put it into a proper perspective. It took time to eliminate the frustration. It took reflection to understand the lesson. It took strength to handle the lingering stress. At times, and despite hindsight, I still find myself in a state of disbelief. All of these statements are in reference to a job I held for the shortest time in my career, although it seemed to be an eternity.

It was one of those workplaces you hear about, and one of those situations you read about. My time may have been short, but what I experienced, and what I learned from that experience, will last a lifetime. If you have the impression that it was anything but good, you`re right. I will not go into details, because they would only dig up buried emotions that are better left untouched. There was nothing illegal, just unethical. There was nothing impossible, just immoral. Nothing was improbable and most everything was unreasonable and unbearable. I`ve decided to chalk it up to experience. The saying, "experience is the best teacher" is true. I`ve learned a valuable lesson and I`m a better person because of it.

I have 28 years of experience in five different locations. Even though I worked harder - mentally and physically - than I ever have before and never will again, it`s difficult for me to include the three months I spent in this aforementioned job as "real employment."

With this in mind, I want to pass on to you some of what I have learned. I hope what I present will prevent you from an experience similar to mine. I am living proof that you`re never too old to learn. I`ve compiled a list of "what to do, what to expect, and what you are entitled to as an employee." Since it is my list of top 10 recommendations, I`ve decided to call it "The Gwen Commandments (for the hygienist/employee)."

Commandment I

When interviewing for a new job, ask for the job description and the scheduling requirements, restrictions, and flexibility in writing. Get the compensation (pay) and benefits (if any) in writing. Get signatures on these written statements, both yours and the employer`s. Keep the original.

Request to observe the office for at least one day before committing to the job. Use this day to observe everyone, from receptionist to doctor, keeping your eyes and ears open. Talk with your future co-workers over lunch, or after hours when they might feel more at ease. You will benefit from their opinions and will get better insight into the real office atmosphere.

Remember, if you take the job and things aren`t as they were written and presented, go back to your employer and discuss the problem. The original document may be a legal contract. If it isn`t abided by, you may have some legal recourse. Don`t accept double talk or excuses. Stick to your guns.

Commandment II

As an employee, expect to be treated respectfully and honestly. If you aren`t, go back to your employer and discuss it. If you`re not satisfied, move on. There are decent employers out there, but the "bad apples" can leave a horrible taste in your mouth.

Commandment III

In the workplace, treat all others with the same respect and honesty that you expect from them. Perform your duties to the best of your ability. This doesn`t mean bowing to unreasonable demands or doing less than quality work for the sake of production - a very "touchy" issue in a strictly production-oriented office, and one of the most difficult areas for hygienists to manage. Don`t lower your standards, and don`t go against your principles.

Commandment IV

Accept that occasional problems will arise that require a little extra time and effort on everyone`s part. Be a willing part of the "team" at these times; cooperation generally begets cooperation. But if these occasional problems become constant occurrences, go to your employer and decide what is the source of the problem and why it is becoming more frequent.

If you discover that the constant occurrences will not go away, request greater compensation (if you can deal with the change in office climate); otherwise move on. Too often, minor and subtle changes accepted without question give your employer the impression that you will willingly accept any and all implemented changes. Remember the old adage, "Give them an inch, and they`ll take a mile?" It applies here.

Commandment V

Know that many states are considered "at-will" states, meaning, in a nonunion setting, an employee can be dismissed for any reason, and the employer does not have to give the reason. The only exception to this situation is if discrimination exists due to color, race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and/or for union/organizational activities. If any of these are believed to be the reason for termination, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will address the issue. You do have the right to be heard without discipline or intimidation but, by law in "at-will" states, there is strength only in numbers, i.e. a group.

Even though the private dental office is a nonunion setting, if the employees as a group approach the employer with a problem/grievance and one or more are fired or threatened with a job loss as a result, the NLRB will take the case. The group was performing an "organizational activity."

Commandment VI

Acknowledge that some employers have been "burned" by a former employee. So be open, trustworthy, and, if necessary, try to reinstate a solid employee-employer relationship. If you discover that the openness and trust is not returned in a reasonable length of time, ask why. If you don`t receive an answer, or if the one you get is unsatisfactory, leave. Go somewhere else where you will receive the respect that you deserve.

Commandment VII

Realize that there are few, if any, perfect jobs. Sometimes personalities clash and philosophies differ. If you find that you don`t fit in your new work environment, or you`re not comfortable there, start looking elsewhere. If you don`t like your co-workers and/or employer, move on. Life is too short to have to deal with this frustration on a daily basis. Believe me, there is a better place for you.

Commandment VIII

If you don`t care for the actual work that you are doing, or don`t feel comfortable with your patients, it will eventually show - probably sooner than later. Even considering the time and money invested in your education, and regardless of the "good pay," you`ll never be happy or satisfied.

Find another profession or a different area within the same field. If you don`t, you will make life miserable for everyone involved - the patients, fellow hygienists and employees, the doctor or employer, and especially yourself. If the shoe doesn`t fit, it will not only be uncomfortable, but it will actually damage the foot over the long run.

Commandment IX

Remember the old saying, "You get what you pay for?" It doesn`t exactly hold true in today`s world. Shoddy work, fraudulent practices, and over-inflated prices exist in today`s society. Don`t stick around if you find any of these things happening at your place of employment. Don`t risk your reputation, self-image, and the integrity of your profession. Don`t take a chance - get out as soon as you discover it. If illegal practices are occurring, contact the authorities and quickly find a lawyer. It might be a good idea to approach the ADHA`s legal department.

Commandment X

When all is said and done, do the following: keep smiling, keep teaching, keep upholding the high standards of our profession, and keep up the good and valuable work.

I am an equal opportunity "adviser" so, following a similar train of thought, I`ve put together another list. Using my experience, knowledge, and opinions, I`ve devised another 10 recommendations/suggestions. These are "The How to Be...attitudes (for the dentist/employer)."

Be...attitude I

Be forthright and honest about all job requirements and inclusions when hiring. Completely explain scheduling procedures and if there is any flexibility. State the wages to be paid so that the interviewee fully understands whether it`s a salary (without overtime), hourly (without overtime), or a commission/combination. Clearly explain the benefits, such as paid holidays, vacation, personal/sick day policy, uniform allowances, continuing education compensation, health insurance or dental benefits, and retirement/profit sharing/401k plan.

Be...attitude II

Let your actions speak louder than your words by putting all of these "promises" on paper. Both parties should sign original copies in acceptance, and each should receive an original copy. If changes occur, both parties should be notified at least two weeks in advance of the change, and an explanation of the change should be given. All changes, if accepted, should be noted on the original document and initialed by both parties. Remember that increased work and effort, as well as longevity and loyalty, deserve increased compensation.

Be...attitude III

Treat your employees with the same respect and honesty that you expect from them. Acknowledge the fact that your employees have helped you achieve your success.

Be...attitude IV

Communicate face-to-face with your staff members. Be willing to discuss and consider everyone`s opinions. Your employees` thoughts, problems, and concerns are as important as your own. Their lives are as complicated as yours. If they have to listen to your "woes," then you should listen to theirs.

Be...attitude V

When telling an employee that you can`t afford to give him or her a raise, don`t use phrases such as "Do you know what kind of taxes I have to pay?" "production is down," or "overhead is up." Those are flimsy excuses. Those "reasons" are difficult to accept, especially if the employer has just bought another new, fully-equipped luxury vehicle, returned from a breath-taking vacation, or just waved goodbye to the third child as he or she left for an even-more-exclusive-than-the-other-two-children-attended private school.

Be...attitude VI

Don`t forget to consult, consider, and communicate. If you want to make changes that involve your employees in any way, remember that they have lives too. Their families and priorities are just as important as yours. Penalizing, chastising, or threatening an employee into compliance doesn`t equate to a good attitude, pleasant atmosphere, or office stability. Good employees don`t deserve that kind of treatment, and you most likely will lose your best employees because of it.

Be...attitude VII

If changes are being made to increase production and profits, the effort deserves an increase in compensation for all involved, especially if the changes will complicate, inconvenience, disrupt, or intrude on your employees` lives.

Be...attitude VIII

If your practice is in an "at-will" state, use this "power" with wisdom. You may own the practice, but does that give you the right to abuse or take advantage of your employees? It`s a simple rule - do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Be...attitude IX

Realize that a new employee may have previously had a very bad workplace experience. It is imperative to build trust and prove honesty. If this is of little importance to you, don`t expect those virtues to be exemplified in any of your employees.

Be...attitude X

If you smile, your employees will also. If you laugh, so will they. If you act in a professional manner, the staff will follow suit. Be the example that you want them to emulate. If you expect something from them that you don`t expect of yourself, willing cooperation and mutual admiration will be scarce.

My "rules to work by" could have undoubtedly included much more, but why belabor the point? We should learn to trust our instincts because, generally, first impressions are accurate. Listen to your "gut feeling" during an interview.

Communication is a two-way street. Cooperation and teamwork require everyone`s involvement. If the "talking" is merely orders being given and cooperation comes from only part of the group, the "communicating team" is a farce.

In this situation, modern terms are merely being used to dress up archaic and unreasonable tactics. Tyranny is not synonymous with teamwork! A good workplace motto would be, OWork with people, not on them or for them.O Every person?s experiences and opinions are important and should be heard and considered. You should have pride in the work you do and be proud of your co-workers. If you don?t and/or you aren?t, this is a problem that best be addressed and changed, or move on. Compassion is just as important as production. There is little that is as important to oneself as personal and professional integrity.

OA promise and a handshakeO no longer works in our society and legal system. If you aren?t willing to put something on paper, don?t expect loyalty or trust from the other party involved. The term Oself-made man or womanO is an oxymoron. The OAmerican dreamO has never been achieved through the work of one individual without the help of others. If you are successful, haven?t there been others who have helped you succeed? Don?t they deserve your appreciation and acknowledgement? Isn?t it reasonable and justifiable that they should expect to Oshare in the wealth?O Most people today are working to pay for their living expenses, so shouldn?t they receive a decent salary? If, as an employer, you are making more than a decent living, it should be understandable that your employees should make at least a decent wage. If big business cost-cutting and/or downsizing tactics are used in a small-business setting, they are just as deplorable and destructive. If full-time production is expected from part-time work, is this justice, honesty, or fair play? If no incentives or reasonable wages are offered, how can employee loyalty and longevity be expected? Using these practices will result in the hiring of inadequate, inexperienced, and untrained help. You will get what you pay for.

Don?t forget ? there is little that is as important to oneself as is personal and professional integrity.

Gwen Krenz, RDH, lives and practices in Mendota, Ill.