Navigating the Waters of Staff Retention

Hospital leadership has the biggest impact on employee retention. If you are a leader in your hospital, you can be the reason someone stays or someone quits.

By Jenn Galvin

Leadership, Team Building, and Accountability

1 goldfish leading a group of goldfish

Hospital leadership has the biggest impact on employee retention.

I would not describe myself as an athlete. So, for me, and many of my employees, paddling a kayak for 12 miles against a river current was hard, and we were sore for a few days after. We had a great time though, and would do it again because we laughed, adventured, and suffered together.

This kayak outing is the eleventh staff trip that my business partner, Erika Cartwright, DVM, and I have planned since opening our hospital in 2012. When we created Advanced Animal Care, we made it a priority to put our employees first. In the past, Erika and I have both worked for hospitals with high turnover that were unable to retain top talent. We watched our co-workers and friends leave because leadership couldn’t get it right. We have worked hard every day to ensure that our people know they matter and that they feel connected to the hospital and the culture we have built over the last decade.

Hospital leadership has the biggest impact on employee retention. If you are a leader in your hospital, you can be the reason someone stays or someone quits. I’ve had bosses who made my days as an employee feel like an absolute dream. They were positive, cared about me as a person, made sure I had what I needed to get my job done, and made me feel like I mattered. I’ve also had bosses who I’m pretty sure were from the ninth realm of nightmares, only showing up to collect their paycheck, and making everyone around them sorry they crossed their path before clocking out early to spread negativity throughout the land. Don’t be the nightmare. These are some of the things I recommend putting into place before you’re having to plug the holes in your boat.

10 Ways to Practice “Preventive” Employee Retention

I am a fan of preventive rather than reactive medicine. It’s the same when it comes to employee retention. Planning ahead can save you from big and costly headaches later.

  1. Take care of yourself first. If you are a leader, you need to take care of yourself if you have any hope of taking care of those in your charge. Focus on what’s important to you, prioritize yourself, and make sure other leaders in your organization are doing the same. There are many ways to ensure you are living your best life. Things that have worked well for me include getting off the hyperfocus carousel of stressful stuff I have no control over. I stop doom scrolling through negative social media and instead find the things that bring me peace. I appreciate the small things in life and take the time to notice them. This doesn’t have to be life-changing stuff. It can be as little as acknowledging not having to wait at that annoying red light to merge onto the highway that day, or that the dad joke I told to my niece made her laugh (and probably roll her eyes).
  2. Be intentional about leaving work at work. I say the words: “No, but thank you for thinking of me,” more now than I ever have before because it prolongs my sanity. If commitments have you spread too thin, you won’t have room or patience to care for others. It’s also important to find things outside of work that you enjoy. I am a veterinary practice manager, but that isn’t all that I am, and it certainly doesn’t define me. I am a painter, a dog mom, an obsessive nature walker (I don’t hike much; I told you, I’m no athlete), and I love playing nerdy tabletop role-playing games. The last thing on my soapbox checklist? We’ve got to eat better, sleep better, and get enough exercise.
  3. Have a purpose that everyone understands and communicate it often. My team works harder when they know what they are working toward and why their work matters. Explain what you want your team to accomplish and why you want to accomplish it. Tell your team why their commitment is important to you and how it will affect the people and pets at your clinic.
  4. Create development plans and check on employees often. People leave their jobs when they feel like there’s nowhere left to go or grow. If your employees are waking up and thinking “is this seriously it, forever?” they may quickly lose purpose and motivation. I highly recommend implementing individual one-on-one meetings at least every six months where you sit down at a scheduled time with each team member. You check in with them, take their burnout pulse, encourage open communication, and touch on goals that they have.I also set calendar reminders to follow up with employees periodically to help keep them on track with the goals they have set. Touching base allows you to provide resources they might need and hold them accountable for the things they are working on. If they have no goals, it is your job to work with them until they find something, anything. There is always more to learn at a veterinary hospital.

    Hold your team accountable. Not only does it help motivate them to get things done, but it also helps create a culture based around accountability.

  5. Hold your team accountable. Not only does it help motivate them to get things done, but it also helps create a culture based around accountability. Humans generally want to have a good reputation, and if they understand that they are directly responsible for their outcomes—good or bad—they will work that much harder to get it right. Have a project or goal you want your team to work on? Tell them, be clear about what your expectations are, and periodically follow up with them to check in.
  6. Know when to let someone go. If you have an employee who doesn’t belong in your practice, please terminate them. You know the employees I’m talking about. The ones that make everyone’s day worse, that call in sick all the time, spread negativity like it’s confetti, or don’t play by the rules everyone else seems to follow. If you have been empathetic with an employee and have given them all the tools, all the coaching, and all the resources they need but they still won’t do what you need them to do, I beg you to please liberate them from your team. You’ll drive great employees away when you keep that mean technician on your staff because they are really good in surgery but terrible for your culture. Have the discussion, be clear with expectations, hold them accountable, and if they refuse to budge, it’s time to move on.
  7. Assess compensation and benefits annually. No matter how good an employee feels about the culture of your clinic, they may look elsewhere if they feel like they are not being compensated appropriately for their work (or can’t pay their bills). It’s even better if you can show wage transparency by implementing pay scales, offer a bonus program to reward employees surpassing clinic financial goals, and provide regular cost of living and merit-based raises. It needs to be clear to employees what they need to do to earn more.

    Fish jumping out of water

    If you have been empathetic with an employee and have given them all the tools, all the coaching, and all the resources they need but they still won’t do what you need them to do, I beg you to please liberate them from your team.

  8. Think like your team members. What does working at your hospital look like for someone through the entire employment journey? Evaluate your attracting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, working, and departing processes. Break down the working process further by examining how employees are being engaged and developed while at this job. What are you doing as a leader to motivate, encourage, and reward your team?
  9. Get out of your team’s way. Micromanaging is the worst, so don’t hover. If the team gets it right, celebrate the hell out of it! If they get it wrong, it’s a learning opportunity where you’ll need to implement a small course correction, tell them to paddle a little more to the right, then encourage them to keep going. Usually with your coaching and guidance they will land at the finish line and perform even better in the next race.
  10. Openly communicate, ask questions—and then sit on your hands. Employees have such valuable information to share with management if we take the time to listen. It takes work, but creating a culture where employees can share their ideas, issues, and criticisms without fear of getting in trouble or being shut down will keep them engaged and employed with your practice.

Jenn’s Employee Satisfaction Survey Tips

GettyImages-1448304392_[Converted].pngTo see where you stand, I recommend using an anonymous survey platform, like SurveyMonkey, to see how engaged your employees actually are. Don’t take the results personally. Look at it as a chance to grow a better culture and bond your team together. Only poll your people every few months at most. (Question fatigue is real.) Once you get results, act on them! If something is confusing, get more team input.

Keep these surveys simple by asking 10 or fewer questions at a time. I ask both scored and open-ended questions.

Scored—On a scale of 1 (Strongly Disagree) to 5 (Strongly Agree) rate the following:

  • I would recommend working here to others.
  • I can imagine myself still working here in a year.
  • I work harder for this hospital than I would at another hospital doing a similar job.
  • I understand what is expected of me.
  • I feel like management cares about me and believes in my goals.
  • I have the tools I need to do a great job.
  • When I go above and beyond, I’m recognized for it.

Open-ended—Please answer the following questions:

  • What do you love about our hospital?
  • If you could change one thing about working here, what would it be?
  • What could we be doing better?
  • If you had a magic wand and could make something appear, what would it be?
  • If you had a magic wand and could make something disappear, what would it be?

The Power of Caring

My most valuable leadership advice is: Care about your employees. I mean really care about them as people. If you aren’t or can’t be that person, hire or promote someone who can. Have an open-door policy that allows employees to speak with managers regarding any concerns they may have. Get to know your team and appreciate the heck out of them. Ask them what their favorite things are—colors, ice cream flavors, coffees, etc. Do they enjoy written or verbal praise more? Public or private? Find out what their love languages are and reward them accordingly.

When someone does something great, tell them and tell others. Share amazing client reviews, celebrate anniversaries, share wins together, and laugh together. Go on a trip outside of work together. (Yes, this costs money. What would happen if you raised the cost of your exam by one or two dollars? What could you afford to do with your team?) Employees need to know you see them. They need to know you care. They need to matter.

A workplace with reasonable compensation, growth opportunities, open communication, and one that truly cares about its people stands a much better chance at keeping badass employees for the long haul.

Jennifer Galvin is co-owner and practice administrator for Advanced Animal Care in Arizona. She is a founding member of Uncharted Veterinary Conference and loves to read, play D&D, and has some artsy hobbies.

Photo credits: MrArtHit/iStock via Getty Images Plus, cienpies/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Ludmila_m/iStock via Getty Images Plus, SiberianArt/iStock via Getty Images Plus, ©AAHA/Alison Silverman



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