Turf wars

July 1, 2003
I work in an office part-time and share an operatory with another hygienist. However, I am having some real problems with the new hygienist that was hired in my office about six months ago.

By Dianne D. Glasscoe

Dear Dianne,

I work in an office part-time and share an operatory with another hygienist. However, I am having some real problems with the new hygienist that was hired in my office about six months ago. It seems she is not interested in blending in with us as a team but chooses to do her own thing. From the very first day, I knew there was going to be trouble!

For example, she does not use many of the charting symbols and abbreviations we use. She is forever changing the location of things in the operatory and does not help with restocking, making up trays, or sterilization. When she came on board with us, no one trained her in how we do things here. I have overheard her talking with patients about their home care, but her approach is totally different from mine. I fear that patients will be confused.

I tried talking with her over lunch to discuss some of the things that have been bothering me, like rearranging drawers, home-care protocol with patients, and ordering supplies. However, nothing has changed. Since we are not in the office on the same days, I have left notes asking her to leave things where I can find them. She just refuses to listen to me!

Recently, she took one of my notes and showed the other staff members. She began crying and telling them that she doesn't feel that I am treating her fairly and that I do not like her. On another occasion, she created an emotional uproar over a note I left for her. One of the other staff members thinks this hygienist is having emotional problems. The assistant complains to me that the hygienist doesn't help in the lab and leaves quickly at the end of the day without helping to clean up.

I have approached the doctor with some of my concerns, but he is so busy with our new building project that I do not think he is interested. I feel hurt and frustrated that he hasn't seen the need to talk to her.

Maybe I should just move on. Do you have any ideas you can share with me to help with this situation?
Anna in Atlanta

Dear Anna,

Having to share an operatory with another hygienist can pose some "turf war" problems when both parties decide to dig in their heels and not be flexible.

Your comment "from the first day" is revealing. It sounds like the new hygienist was judged and found guilty before her diploma was straightened on the wall. I don't know how old she is or how long she has been in the profession, but I have a feeling that adjustment has been hard for her. All new kids on the block have to go through an adjustment phase.

However, it sounds like she has a way of doing things that is not fitting into the clinical culture that was already established there. Every place I have ever worked had their own system, even with abbreviations. I have seen new people come into an established practice with some very good ideas — ideas that streamlined our old way of doing things. In most cases, a new employee will be sensitive to the practice culture and make the necessary adjustments. But her refusal to restock, to make up new trays, or help in the lab is a point of contention that has to be addressed. The doctor should address the issue of chart notes directly. At the very least, her notes should be fully legible (if you are not using computer charting) and consistent with the abbreviations used in your practice.

Actually, most good team employees don't require a lot of "training," as they are sensitive enough to pick up on things they need to do to fit in with the rest of the team. I can't remember anyone ever "training" me when joining a new practice. If she had been told in the beginning that someone would be helping her become acclimated to the new practice, necessary changes might have come easier. However, she still might have had problems keeping in step with the established routine. Some people just march to a different drummer.

Your idea to have a talk over lunch was commendable. However, you have to understand that she cannot be expected to be a "clone" of you. Every hygienist develops his or her own style of practice, his or her own comfort level and routine. In the last practice I worked in as a staff member, there were five hygienists. While we all graduated from an accredited hygiene school program, we had differences of practice. We didn't all agree all the time, but we did respect each other. We all agreed that we were there for the good of the patients, to provide the best we were capable of giving. Furthermore, we got along well.

My take here is that you are both kicking against the same wall, just from opposite sides. You want her to leave the room exactly as you want it, and she makes changes that accommodate her style. Her non-verbal communication shouts that she feels this operatory is just as much hers as it is yours — that she has the right to put things where she likes them. It angers you to come in and find she has moved something, and it probably aggravates her to move things back to where she likes them. Both of you are being inflexible.

You mentioned that you would often leave her notes, and that she has shared them with the other staff members. I feel this is very immature on her part. She is trying to garner sympathy by conquering and dividing the other staff members. She should bring this to you directly. She probably feels intimidated by you. I also wonder about the tone of your written correspondence. Does it ooze with friendliness and politeness, or is it sharp and biting? She obviously does not appreciate what you have written to her.

For a moment, I'd like you to put yourself in the other hygienist's shoes. Would you like it if she left you notes telling you not to do this or to do that? Would you be defensive, offended, hurt, or intimidated? Would you makes changes to suit the other hygienist or would you dig in your heels and keep on doing what you are comfortable doing?

One other thing I see here is that you are very different in organizational style. Some people have a built-in sense of neatness and organization, while some people are just happy as a clam in their disorganization. I see this contrast often with different hygienists. I have temped in many different offices over the years. Some operatories are a cluttered mess! I want to fly in and organize drawers, clean everything, and throw a bunch of stuff away! However, I try to resist the temptation, because the hygienist that works there is happy with things as they are. I've also temped in operatories that are spotless, the drawers are very neat and orderly, and there is no clutter. I love orderliness! What a difference it makes to work in an orderly environment.

Let's face it. The real issue is that you two have to share an operatory and you are both trying to establish boundaries that the other one doesn't like. This is not a new situation. It's kind of like two sisters having to share the same bedroom and arguing over territory, or two cooks in the same kitchen. It's tough sometimes when a hygienist has to hang her shingle in a shared operatory, because we all have differences.

Several years ago, I had to share an operatory with another hygienist. I can tell you that I learned a lot from her, as her organizational skills were better than mine were. I also shared an operatory with another hygienist that liked the ultrasonic scaler in a different position in the room. Every time I came to work, I would move the ultrasonic to the place where I felt comfortable, and the next day, she would move it to where she liked it. It was no big problem for me. It took all of three seconds to move. The operatory did not belong to either of us; it belonged to the doctor. We both had a right to place things where we felt comfortable.

One side issue I would mention is that the dental assistant should not be complaining to you about her problems with the other staff member, and ditto for you.

You are wise in being sensitive to your doctor's full plate right now. He does not need two staff members feuding with each other over where things are kept in the drawer. Doctors view most feuding among staff members as petty and immature, even though it may appear quite important and threatening to the offended parties.

Unless you are unhappy about other issues in the practice, please do not consider leaving. The two of you need to come to some terms. She needs to understand that it is her responsibility to restock, help with sterilization, etc., just as you do. In addition, you need to understand that she chooses not to practice exactly like you and respect that difference.

You have demonstrated much wisdom with your desire to make things better by asking for help. Here's how to start the healing. You have to open the communication here, as it has been effectively shut down. I don't think she will do it, because she probably feels intimidated. Here's what I would suggest. Arrange a private meeting with her, face-to-face, maybe over lunch, and begin like this: "You know, you and I didn't get off to such a great start as co-workers, and for that I am sorry. I'd like us to have a great relationship as fellow hygienists. I fear I have been rather inflexible and impatient with you when I found things different in the room. I never meant to hurt your feelings or cause you to think I did not like you. It had nothing to do with that. Will you forgive me if I hurt your feelings with my notes or otherwise?" After she has a chance to talk, you can continue. "I'd like for us to work out any differences we have and put all this behind us. Would you share with me your thoughts on how we can do this and would you allow me to do the same?"

I'll bet you a pizza that this will be like salve on a wound and start the healing process between you two.

Multiple hygienists in a practice need to get along with each other. More than anything else, we need to respect each person's differences and learn to be flexible. It's not good for us, the profession, or our patients to be involved in dissension like this. I hold hygienists to a higher standard of professionalism than the other staff members, and that often involves finding peaceful solutions to practical problems that are sure to arise.

We cannot change other people, only ourselves. We can learn to be flexible and bend with the wind or snap like a dry branch when the storm comes. You see, life is too short to let little things get under our skin. We have to pick our battles. When we are intolerant of other people's weaknesses, the frustration only hurts us, not the person causing the frustration.

Take the high road here. You'll feel a lot better in the end. Really. I have complete faith that you will think about this and work it all out. Furthermore, this may be a self-limiting problem when the new building is completed and you get your own operatory. After all, you are going to get new practice digs! How exciting is that?!

My good friend, Kristie Bouldin, RDH, from Trinity, N.C., shared a story with me about her frustrations in sharing an operatory with another hygienist who was left-handed. Melanie Staley (affectionately known as "Mel") was a Friday-only hygienist that worked four days in another office. Being a lefty, she would put things like prophy paste, two-by-two gauze, etc. in a drawer on the left side of the room where it was easily accessible. Kristie had designated that particular drawer for important papers, and it would frustrate her to find clinical supplies there. However, Kristie's feelings of frustration turned to sadness and regret when Mel died suddenly last year of a brain aneurysm. Mel was 42 years old and was a 1990 graduate from Guilford Technical Community College dental hygiene program. Later, when Kristie opened the drawer and saw the things that Mel had placed there, she realized that it did not matter that things were out of place. She stated that she wouldn't give such matters a second thought if Mel could still be here.

Dianne D. Glasscoe, RDH, BS, is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant to dental practices across the United States. She is CEO of Professional Dental Management, based in Lexington, N.C. To contact Glasscoe for speaking or consulting, call (336) 472-3515, fax (336) 472-5567, or email [email protected]. Visit her Web site at www.professionaldentalmgmt.com.