By Yasmine Healy, Managing Director of ClinLegal. Yasmine is an experienced lawyer and chartered secretary, who established ClinLegal after seeing too many unfair work claims against her clients. ClinLegal provides legal, compliance and human resources expertise to healthcare professionals in your industry.
We were recently engaged by a highly successful, city-based dental practice that had enjoyed an excellent reputation for many years. They had a happy team of employees and a steady stream of thankful patients. It was one of the most popular dental practices in the city.
However, the practice principals noticed that staff were not working to optimal levels, or as effectively as required so they decided to employ a new practice manager. Shortly after commencement, the practice manager introduced several policies requiring stricter compliance to basic standards of behavior from staff members, which many of the younger, inexperienced dental assistants resisted.
We were asked to investigate and recommend solutions for the unhappy workplace.
Initial overview With respect to privacy, we’ll call the practice manager, Beth.
The policies Beth introduced were basic, and necessary, e.g. use of mobile telephones and workplace internet or email for personal use during business hours had to stop; clocking on when not ready to start work is unfair to other staff members, and the boss, and must likewise stop.
Clearly this created a cultural change in the workplace and most of the staff accepted it, especially the experienced ones who understood why, but Beth’s good intentions of increasing staff performance and establishing a level playing field for all staff were misinterpreted by the junior dental assistants. The relaxed environment they had enjoyed so far offered considerable flexibility and leniency; this approach meant they would have to become accountable.
Babes in arms
Sarah, a fulltime dental assistant, had been working in the practice for two years and was a good team member. As the changes unfolded she refused to comply and the dentist and management team were compelled to commence daily performance management. Sarah hated this and started to criticize the practice. Her disparaging remarks to other staff members were worrying, but outside the practice it was dangerous and inevitably came back to the dentist and practice manager via loyal staff and patients.
Sarah’s derogatory, manipulative behaviour knew no bounds. She approached other staff to encourage them not to log off during lunch meetings, urged them to arrive late, and enticed them to break Beth’s new rules. The vulnerable dental assistants were easily manipulated and followed their new leader.
Ultimately, our client had one junior dental assistant influencing staff members to refuse to follow new policies whilst simultaneously slandering the practice, internally and externally.
The practice at stake
Sarah was running the show by default. A negative culture permeated the workplace, forcing the principal and senior staff to urgently address the situation.
The irony was not lost on them. They had recruited Beth to improve the efficiencies and equalities of one and all and had finished up with a junior staff member dictating the terms. Sarah could no longer to be trusted and the practice could not afford to keep her.
Health professionals unwittingly pitted against each other
Before this decision was communicated to Sarah, she visited her general practitioner who naturally learned only her side of the story.
He was sympathetic to her ‘stress and anxiety’ and supported her as she commenced her work cover claim.
This came as a shock to the practice. During Sarah’s two years’ fulltime employment they had sent her overseas to further her education, promoted her, given her pay rises, amended her duties to suit and participated in conciliation and mediation when she reported other staff members; she was the highest maintenance staff member in the history of the practice.
Her listed workers’ compensation grievances included bullying and harassment (populist and emotional terms in today’s environment). She claimed she was bullied when asked to empty a bin she’d forgotten, alleged she had been isolated and punished when she was given more admin than dental work, despite requesting this change herself. There were many such incredulous allegations supported by her GP and she received payment for her workers’ compensation claim through the insurer until the matter was determined independently.
Employer’s name debased and profits diminished
As a result of Sarah making the claim, the practice environment deteriorated further and the investment of time required by management to dispute the matter, plus engage independent legal advice, added to the downturn in the business.
Three months after Sarah started receiving workers’ compensation, the matter came before the tribunal. Thanks to her sympathetic GP providing medical certificates, she was paid her normal weekly wage without having to work.
The tribunal concurred that the employer was not liable to compensate the employee any further, and that our client was not obligated to pay the employee her wage, or pay doctors’ fees or medical certificates. Therefore, in one sense, Sarah was unsuccessful.
But it wasn’t over yet. Sarah decided to make a claim to fair work for discrimination! The reason she gave was that she had told the employer she wanted to go to university! Our client responded and fair work accepted that no further action would be taken. But once again, the Employer was forced to incur legal costs.
Employer wins – and loses
Sarah was treated arguably excessively generously by her employer for two years. Threatened with change, she made vexatious, frivolous and false claims to work cover and fair work, with no concern for anyone but herself. Employers can’t win when staff are not held responsible for their actions, and words. Lessons learned by our client
• Trust and confidence is the most important part of an employment relationship. You can train the skills but you can’t train the trust. • Don’t allow employees to disparage your business. Take bullying seriously and ensure you have comprehensive policies in place that outline the consequences of inappropriate behaviour.
• Put comprehensive processes in place for dealing with internal disputes and complaints.
• Employment contracts should state clearly that inappropriate behaviour is a substantial breach and may result in termination.
• Remember that diversity is a positive in the workplace. A mix of staff age, interests and experience works best.
• Emphasize and reward honesty and loyalty in the workplace.
• Don’t forget the message you send to staff when deciding whether to pursue claims. If Sarah had succeeded in her claim, i.e. if the employer had decided not to fight, this would send a message to other staff members that their employer can be held to ransom.
• Most importantly, at first sign of non- compliance, disparaging remarks or bullying of any kind, deal with the issue immediately. Mild troublemakers through to serious bullies must be stopped as soon as they begin or they will quickly grow stronger and be capable of doing severe damage to your business before the week is out!
For further information or advice in relation to any issues connected to the above please contact Yasmine Healy at [email protected]