Dont Burn Your Bridges!

Aug. 1, 1999
The future is unpredictable and tenuous. Security lies in proper, ethical behavior on your first day ... and your last.

The future is unpredictable and tenuous. Security lies in proper, ethical behavior on your first day ... and your last.

Cat Schmidt, RDH

Jennifer* stumbled out of the office blinded by red fury. Stomping across the parking lot to her car, she vowed that they would never again take advantage of her. She thrust her foot on the gas pedal and peeled out in a huff of blue smoke.

Mary, the receptionist, had squeezed her last 30-minute prophy into Jennifer`s already packed schedule. Jane, the assistant, had forgotten ("accidentally," of course) to put Jennifer`s instruments into the autoclave for the last time. Jennifer didn`t care whether or not she and her husband had to take a second mortgage out on their house. First thing in the morning, Jennifer would quit.

Most of us can identify with Jennifer`s plight. The small, yet annoying, incidents build up in increasing intensity until one day we simply implode. The straw that breaks the camel`s back feels heavier and more significant that the identical ones that preceded it. We reach a breaking point, despite our efforts to resolve or solve the problems at work. The only option left seems to be to resign our position. Our new script reads clearly: exit stage left.

Faced with the inevitability of resigning, you might decide to leave with a flourish, especially when you`re overflowing with emotion. Now a dramatic exit initially may seem much more appealing and possibly more satisfying than a staid and rote departure. You might want to exact revenge on the assistant who sat idle, filing her nails while you struggled with a difficult ultrasonic patient. You may desire to admonish the dentist`s obvious unprofessional chairside behavior. You may even want to expose the employee who doesn`t help clean and refuses to lend a hand. While unburdening yourself of these pent-up grievances would be freeing, it comes at a steep price. Look at what happened to my friend Sheila.*

Sheila hit her breaking point one October. A bubbly hygienist and knowledgeabable practitioner, she had finally had it with thelinner-office politics and strife. She decided to leave. When she was hired by a practice across town, she gave her current employer a scant two-week notice and then failed to show up for her last Saturday at work. On the way out of the door, Sheila told the dentist just what she thought of his business skills ... which wasn`t much! She enunciated her disdain of certain staff members, telling everyone exactly what she thought of them. She felt perfectly safe in venting her frustrations because she was headed for greener pastures. She`d landed the perfect job away from the pettiness and gossip that surrounded her in her current job. Needless to say, she burned her bridges with her current employer. The practice was happy to see her go.

The following January, Sheila was dismissed from her new position. The dentist simply told her that she "didn`t fit in." Sheila found herself back in the job market, only this time she didn`t have any references. Neither employer would give her a letter of recommendation. Unfortunately for Sheila, dentists move like big fish in small ponds. They interact with each other socially and professionally. They`ve formed strong bonds through schools, organizations, and clubs. If one of them doesn`t know a particular dentist directly, he`ll know someone who does. Sheila had no inkling of the vast network that spread her bad reputation like a wild fire in drought. I don`t need to tell you she hasn`t worked as a hygienist in that town since.

The lag time between giving notice and departing is the most important period of employment. Ronna Lichtenstein, author of Work Would Be Great If It Weren`t for the People: Ronna and Her Evil Twin`s Guide To Making Office Politics Work for You, advises departing employees to always leave with style. She says that the last impression always is the one that is remembered. She likens the last days of a job to a photograph - i.e., an image stuck in time. You definitely want to be placed in the best possible light. If you vent your rage on the way out, you leave your colleagues with a negative perception. If you depart with a positive, upbeat attitude, you are golden in their minds. Your last words linger in the air of your former office like smoke from grandpa`s pipe. Fortunately, you get to determine if the wisps are a pleasant, sweet aroma or a foul, choking fog.

Robert Half, an expert on employment issues and author of numerous books, including How To Get a Better Job in This Crazy World recommends always keeping good ties with former employers and co-workers. They can be valuable assets. You never know when former employers can provide crucial help for future employment. It`s important to realize that, during lifelong career paths, people enter and exit and enter again. He advises, "Keep each bridge intact; burned bridges can seldom be crossed again." Over the course of a career, you may have to traverse the same river several times. This is especially true in the relatively small world of dentistry. Here, our bridges are not merely assets; they`re necessities.

Leaving requires an announcement. Half encourages those resigning their positions to give their employers a fair amount of notice. Two weeks is the formally accepted minimum notice, yet some experts now counsel one month. The more responsibility the job entails, the more time should be given for the notice. For hygienists, I would advise giving three weeks` notice at the very least, but four weeks` notice would be better yet. Considering that most of us schedule our appointments six months in advance, a four-week notice is not out of the question. A full month gives the employer cushion time to find a suitable replacement, not just a robot to fill your shoes.

Hall also advocates going into overdrive during your final weeks. Give 110 percent as you race to the finish. The last days of a tenure are no time to coast. He tells his readers to commit themselves to leaving a job the correct way, with honor and dignity. You should leave as you entered: spruced up and sparkling with energy. The person heading out the door should mirror the person who entered for the interview. Excellent behavior at work, especially near the end of a run, will ensure an excellent recommendation. Likewise, those who slack off in the final weeks should expect less than stellar words of endorsement.

One of the biggest taboos in any industry is an employee searching for employment while at work. Daniel Moreau, author of Take Charge of Your Career: Survive and Profit From a Mid-Career Change, warns that using company printers and copy machines for job hunting is not only unethical, but can be a cause for dismissal. A stray resume left in the company copier can fall into the wrong hands quickly and sound alarm bells for employers. Depending on the office policy, the incident could be seen as a simple infraction or a much more serious breach of trust. It`s best for job hunters to play it safe. Circled classified ads should never be brought to the office, and all phone calls should be taken at home. As for those copies of a resume on the company copier, visit Kinko`s instead. They`re open 24 hours a day!

If your practice has an employee handbook, consult with it during your job hunt. The procedures for resignation should be in it. It will spell out the amount of time needed for notice, whether a formal letter is required, and how vacation pay will be reimbursed. Double-check the policies on employee dental work if you or a member of your family had visited the office as a patient recently. For some practices, it is customary to extract payment for dental services from the employee`s final paycheck. Like a crystal ball, the employee handbook reveals all.

If an employee manual is not available to discern your rights, jot down a list of questions to ask your employer. Make precise, written notes of his or her answers and keep them for future reference. Some topics you`ll want to discuss include payment for dental work for yourself and your family, amount of notice required, the procedure for giving notice, dispersal of vacation pay, and retrieval of IRA or pension-plan deposits. Other topics may also need to be covered, depending upon your particular situation. The most important thing to remember, though, is that sidestepping office procedures can cause monetary penalties. Play by the rules to receive your full due upon departure.

Exit interviews are becoming increasingly common with larger dental practices and even in some smaller ones. However, these interviews are not the settings in which to be candid, says George Fuller, author of The Workplace Survival Guide: Tools, Tips, and Techniques for Succeeding on the Job. Mr. Fuller counsels that departing employees are not paid consultants. Speaking frankly in an effort to help the practice could backfire. Rarely will what you say in an exit interview remain confidential, he says, and anything negative may resonate more vindictive than meaningful. An exit interview is hardly a venue that promotes good parting relations or positive letters of recommendation. Your best bet would be to bow out, but if faced with the prospect of an exit interview, provide vague, innocuous answers. Pretend your employer is a sweet, little old grandmother who doesn`t warrant your upsetting her.

Mr. Fuller also warns employees to think twice about accepting a counteroffer. Sometimes, an employer will pull a raise or bonus out of the hat like a magician. This is natural. To keep a wonderful employee like you, your employer would do anything. But, remember that you had a legitimate reason for departing this practice. Carefully think over the offer before accepting. Why didn`t your employer give you the raise/bonus before? Mr. Fuller cautions that the employer, once putting you back on the payroll with your new raise, may wait a long time before offering you another one. Don`t be swayed by immediate monetary gratification. Weigh out the pros and cons before making a commitment.

I think it`s a good idea, though, to listen to your employer to see what kind of counteroffer is made. For instance, my friend, Patty*, forgot to count her free gym membership and city parking privileges when counting her salary. Her employer pointed out that by adding the extra benefits and a forthcoming, customary quarterly raise to her wages, Patty would make more money staying put. Since compensation motivated her move, Patty astutely decided to accept the counteroffer.

In scrutinizing the details with her employer, Patty could make a logical, informed decision. Had there been other reasons for her departure, no amount of money would have kept her in the practice. That evil co-worker from Hades has a unique ability to make us bolt. It`s vital when leaving a position to know exactly why you`re quitting. That way, you can be better prepared to accept or decline a counteroffer.

Training your successor

Oftentimes, a hygienist will be asked to train her successor in office policy and introduce her to some of the patients. Any ill feelings should be stuffed like an olive, and the training hygienist should show the utmost graciousness. For instance, our egos can be lofted by the patient who says, "But, Debra, you`re the most gentle, tender hygienist I`ve ever had. No one can replace you. What will I do?" Humility is the key for your reply. With a smile, you should say something like, "That`s kind of you, but Allison here is a wonderful hygienist, too. I`m sure you two will get along great."

Notice that Debra sensibly did not mention that she was moving on to an office three doors down. Unless Debra has a legal, contractual agreement that she "owns" certain patients, the patients belong to the dentist. It is unethical - and in some instances, illegal - to take patients with you to your new setting. Patients generally are expected to remain with a practice when a hygienist departs.

Since hygienists network just as much (if not more) than dentists, it`s only logical for your employer to ask you to help find your replacement. This is a great opportunity to shine in your employer`s eyes. Call your local hygienists` association, contact old school pals, and get in touch with the local hygiene school. You don`t need to go overboard, but you should put forth the effort to assist your dentist. Not only will it strengthen your own professional contacts and maybe aid a jobless, fellow hygienist, but it will ensure a great recommendation from your dentist. Who couldn`t resist saying, "Guess what, Steve? She actually helped me find her replacement!" Steve certainly wouldn`t hesitate to hire such a thoughtful employee, especially if he was wavering between two equal candidates. The act of finding a replacement could be the deciding factor in landing a new job.

Your next position may be lined up and you may not need those super kudos at the moment. However, you never know what path a career will take. A new job may not work out as perfectly as you had hoped. Your new employer might decide to quit his practice and enter the teaching profession. Your commute may be more than you bargained for when you took your new job. The future is unpredictable and tenuous. It reminds me of the saying: "If you want a guarantee, buy a kitchen appliance." You may not be able to receive a guarantee in your career, but you can ensure a bit of security. That security lies in proper, ethical behavior on the first day of a job ... as well as on the last day.

Cat Schmidt, RDH, holds a bachelor of arts degree in communications from Southern Methodist University and a dental hygiene degree from New Hampshire Technical Institute. She resides in San Mateo, Calif., where she is a free-lance writer and shares a business with her sister selling dental-training videos to long-term care facilities. Her book, Not Just the Cleaning Lady: A Hygienist`s Guide To Survival, is available from PennWell Publishing for $29.95. To purchase the book, call (800) 752-9764 or fax (918) 831-9555.

References available upon request.

Eight steps to a gracious exit

(1) Don`t vent your frustrations. Leave on a positive note.

(2) Don`t burn your bridges. Keep your career network intact.

(3) Give ample notice - four weeks is best.

(4) Don`t coast at the end - give 110 percent.

(5) Confine job-hunting activities to home.

(6) Read your employee handbook for departing procedures.

(7) Be mindful of exit interviews and counteroffers.

(8) Find and/or train your replacement.