by Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS,

Lazy coworker

Oct. 1, 2010
I am a hygienist in a small dental practice with one doctor, one dental assistant, and one front desk assistant. My problem is the dental assistant. Simply put, she is lazy.
Dear Dianne,

I am a hygienist in a small dental practice with one doctor, one dental assistant, and one front desk assistant. My problem is the dental assistant. Simply put, she is lazy.

Over the past year, the doctor has seen a decline in his business and increased open time on his schedule. This means the assistant has more free time than ever. When the doctor does not have a patient, the assistant sits in the staff lounge and reads a magazine or talks on her cell phone. She never, ever offers to help me by exposing or developing radiographs, performing sterilization duties on my instruments, assisting with periodontal charting, or helping with room turnover. It makes no difference to her if I have someone in the reception room waiting or not. If I ask for her help, she gives me a disapproving look that makes my blood boil! She helps me reluctantly, and only if I ask. She infuriates me with her blatant indifference and unwillingness to help!

One afternoon after a particularly frustrating day, I spoke with the doctor about the problem. This very nonconfrontational doctor seems unwilling to remedy the situation. I think he prefers to sweep it under the rug and hope the issue will just go away. I am on the verge of resigning, but many of the patients feel like family to me. It makes me very sad when I think of leaving people I have been seeing every six months for many years.

What do you think, Dianne? Should I stay or should I go?

Leaning Toward Leaving

Dear Leaning,

I see three issues here – a dental assistant that is not a team player, a doctor who refuses to deal with negative behavior/attitude, and a hygienist with an extremely high frustration level as a result of the assistant and doctor. Let's talk about the assistant first.

In many offices, there is a rivalry between dental assistants and hygienists. This rivalry is usually rooted in jealousy over the increased pay rate for hygienists compared to assistants. The light-bulb comes on for an assistant when he or she goes to hygiene school and discovers the difference in the work. One assistant told me that she had no idea how hard hygienists worked until she became one herself. The dental assistant in your office doesn't know what she doesn't know. She probably harbors some jealousy because she knows you make more money than she does. She doesn't see any reason to make your life easier by helping you.

However, I would like to ask you a question. When the situation is reversed and you have downtime, do you offer to help the assistant? Do you process her instruments and help with room turnover? By doing so, you are laying the groundwork to approach her when you need help. You could appeal to her sense of fairness by saying, "You know, I help you every chance I get, so I don't understand why you won't help me. Do you think that's fair?" I have observed hygienists that expect others to help them but they rarely, if ever, return the courtesy when they have the opportunity.

The second problem is the doctor. It sounds like he's not actively engaged in the leadership role he should take in his practice. Obviously, he does not realize that his aversion to confrontation is costing him in respect, production, and possibly turnover. Without a doubt, the doctor needs to get involved. He should not delay in telling the assistant there's no such thing as "your patient, my patient," and that she's expected to help where help is needed. He should make it very clear that whenever there is downtime on his schedule, she is expected to assist others who are engaged in patient care. He should also inform her that if he receives any more complaints regarding her unwillingness to assist with clinical duties, whatever they are, her job will be in jeopardy. A well-written job description for a dental assistant should include a statement about duties other than direct chairside duties, which include helping hygienists with chartings, sterilization, and room turnover when appropriate. There should be zero tolerance for the "that's-not-my-job" attitude.

The third problem is that you have allowed this to mushroom into a giant problem in your life. If the doctor's schedule was full and the assistant was constantly helping him, you would not be in your current state of frustration. People who possess strong work ethics have little patience with those who have lesser work ethics. The fact that the assistant is just sitting around while you're working hard pushes your hot button, and now it has become personal.

It is obvious that resentment has taken root and is growing. Resentment is like an aggressive weed that chokes out an otherwise healthy garden. Are you willing to let this weed continue to grow, or are you going to yank it out by the roots and throw it away?

Here are your options. You could give the doctor an ultimatum – either do something about this lazy assistant or you will resign. It might work, but then again, it might not. Most doctors do not appreciate being backed into a corner, so this tactic might backfire. You should be prepared for him to say, "All right, I accept your resignation."

Another option is to keep asking for help. The doctor is sure to hear your continuing requests. After awhile, he might just get weary of it and tell the assistant to adjust her attitude. Employers, no matter how nonconfrontational, do not enjoy paying people to sit around and do nothing.

The third option is the hardest – let it go. Kill the indifferent assistant with kindness. But to do this, you first have to weed the garden of your heart and put away the resentment. You cannot change other people, only yourself. If the doctor is unwilling to set a policy regarding the assistant's duties and stick to it, you cannot change the situation. If the assistant is unwilling to change her bad attitude, negative vibes from you simply reinforces her belief that she is justified in her indifference. What good can come to you from allowing her laziness to upset you?

Another option would be for you to resign, but would you be happy? You mentioned your longevity in this practice and your attachment to many of the patients. Is the assistant's laziness a valid reason for you to leave a job that you enjoy otherwise? Changing practices always carries the risk that you could get into a worse situation. There are no perfect offices.

Hygienists should be the ultimate team players in the practice and serve as role models of strong work ethics, camaraderie, and excellent patient care. Keep doing what you do best, and don't let the actions of a coworker with a bad attitude distract you.

Best wishes,

Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA, helps good practices become better through practical, onsite consulting. Her book, "Manage Your Practice Well," is available at Dianne also provides a variety of continuing education courses for dentists and dental staff members. For more information, visit her Web site, e-mail Dianne at [email protected], or telephone (301) 874-5240.

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