Dianne Sig

Toxic office manager

June 1, 2018
Dianne Watterson, RDH, advises a dental hygienist on what to do about a toxic dental office manager?
Hygienist baffled by office manager’s ongoing behavior

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA

Dear Dianne,

I enjoy reading your articles, and I wanted to get your opinion on my situation. I have been practicing hygiene for over 10 years. I enjoy the work, and for the past six years, I have been employed by a fabulous doctor. He is kind, honest, and exceptionally skilled. He is a fabulous clinician, but he is not a businessman. The patients in our practice are lovely.

The issue is our office manager. She is argumentative and combative. She is aggressive if questioned about a mistake. Oftentimes patients are billed incorrectly. Many things slip through the cracks. Patients have written letters complaining about her behavior, even sending letters to the doctor’s home. Patients often complain to me about her aggressive, abrupt manner. The doctor has specifically asked me if she yells at patients. We have already lost a long-term employee who could no longer handle her outbursts. I feel I am in an impossible situation. She will attack whoever she feels is threatening her. I don’t know how to respond when patients complain to me. I encourage them to speak to the doctor, but nothing changes. I have resigned myself to staying away from the front desk. Do you have any insights?

Thank you,

Midwest RDH

Dear Midwest,

In the midst of describing your office dilemma, the sentence that nailed it for me was when you stated that some patients have mailed written letters of complaint about the office manager’s behavior to the doctor’s home address, obviously to avoid the offensive office manager’s scrutiny. For most doctor-employers, receiving even one letter from a patient would have been sufficient to convince them to terminate this person’s employment. It’s bad enough when the doctor receives verbal complaints, but a letter that a patient actually takes time to write steps it up to a “level 10” in my opinion. The doctor is showing a serious lack of discretion and courage by neglecting to take steps to ameliorate this situation. He should immediately terminate her employment before she is allowed to do any more damage to his practice.

There is never, ever a legitimate reason for a staff member to raise his or her voice when interacting with patients or with coworkers. The office manager’s proclivity for “outbursts” is clear proof that she is unfit for the position. People with hair-trigger tempers rarely—if ever—function well in managerial positions.

As a consultant, I have dealt with spineless doctors who are actually intimidated by employees with bullying characteristics like the one you describe. When I detect a bully in the staff group, I know there is only one way to fix it, and that is immediate termination. Otherwise, employers risk being sued by other employees for allowing such a person to stay. Employers have a mandate to provide a workplace free from abuse or harassment.

When I detect a bully in the staff group, I know there is only one way to fix it, and that is immediate termination.

If I was in your position, I think it would be appropriate to ask for a private conference, just five minutes when no one else is in the office. Here’s what I would say: “You are a wonderfully kind, skilled, and honest person, and I so appreciate working with you.

“I’m very concerned about the practice and how our patients are being treated by X, whom I consider a bully. As a result of her behavior, I try to avoid the business desk.

“Several patients have complained to me (it would be great if you could give him a couple of names) and I do not know how to answer them except to apologize.

“She is a negative force in the work environment, and she makes it hard to focus on the job at hand, which is doing the best I can do for our patients.

“Thank you for your time, I just felt I needed to express what is happening. It is your practice, and I want you to know that I’m worried.”

That’s really all you need to say. If he doesn’t act definitively and remove this person, the result will be (1) loss of patients, (2) staff turnover, and (3) irreparable damage to his practice. He has to decide if he can muster enough courage to do something.

When my children were young, temping was a good work option for me. Once, I temped in a great practice with two hygienists, one of whom was a serious bully with a vile mouth. At lunch, she sat at the lunch table and trashed the doctor while two very impressionable young dental assistants laughed and nodded. At the end of the day, the business assistant asked if I could work the following Wednesday, and I hesitated and replied, “Uh, no, I’m not available.” I simply did not want to work in that toxic environment. Later that evening, I was surprised when the doctor called me. He wanted to know why I would not work in his office the following Wednesday. I certainly was not going to tell him how the hygienist trashed him (and his wife), but I just said that I found her to be an unsavory person and a bully, and I choose not to work with her. (That’s the beauty of temp work . . . you don’t have to go back if you don’t like the office.)

That’s all I had to say, because he said, “I thought that might be the case. Thanks for your time.” Two days later, the business assistant called me again. She said, “We would like for you to fill in for us next Wednesday, and the doctor wants you to know that you will not be working with [the bully].” I said, “OK, I’ll see you Wednesday.”

On the following Wednesday, the doctor thanked me for filling in, and he told me that termination had been on his mind ever since he had lost a key staff member who resigned because of this hygienist’s harsh treatment of her. At least one other staff member had threatened to leave as well. The doctor should have taken definitive action earlier, but he didn’t exercise good leadership. I guess my refusal to work with the bully was the final straw.

Your doctor is not stupid. Your warning/conversation with him may be the prod he needs to act in the best interest of his practice.

Then again, he may be such a wimp that he doesn’t do a thing. I sure hope that is not the case. It seems ridiculous to me that the doctor would allow such an obviously negative and disruptive person to remain in the practice. This is leadership at its worst.

All the best,

DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON,RDH, BS, MBA, is an award-winning author, speaker, and consultant. She has published hundreds of articles, numerous textbook chapters, and three books. Dianne’s new DVD on instrument sharpening is now available on her website at wattersonspeaks.com under the “Products” tab. Visit her website for information about upcoming speaking engagements. Dianne may be contacted at (336) 472-3515 or by e-mail at [email protected].