Running a successful equine practice presents its fair share of challenges but none quite so crucial as bringing in a new veterinarian. After all, the process of hiring is time-consuming and expensive, and can have either a positive or negative effect on the practice’s business. Not only should potential recruits possess the skills required, they need to fit in with the culture of the practice. For owners and practice managers, this demands an investment of time in an effort that, for many, can be a daunting—and, at times, discouraging—task.
According to the Society for Human Resources Management, an association that supports HR professionals, you can determine the cost-per-hire for each associate or practitioner by adding together all the expenses required to recruit and then hire the individual, including travel, advertising and other costs. If you add up all the costs per hire of each associate, it can be quite a substantial sum of money, so making sure you hire the right person to begin with is key. When you hire the wrong person, it’s even more costly: 100 to 150 percent of their annual salary, according to SHRM.
So how do you know if you’re making the right hiring decision? According to Kurt A. Oster, practice management consultant at Oster Business Solutions in Sterling, Connecticut, practice owners can begin by envisioning an ideal candidate: What characteristics, exactly, are you seeking in a veterinarian? And, once you’ve established these criteria, Oster emphasizes that you should stick with those attributes, no matter what.
“What happens is, people say: ‘I think I want somebody who can do this and this.’ Then someone else who doesn’t fit that mold will show up, but they’re there, they’re interviewing, they’re interested, and they end up hired,” he says. In many cases, veterinarians and practice managers aren’t fond of the recruiting and interviewing process, leading them to make quick—and not always wise —decisions to get it all over with.
Articulating a list of attributes—both personal and professional—that you want in a candidate before you start looking is as important as job description. When you meet someone at a meeting, a conference or in another practice that you think would be a good fit in your operation, take note of his or her information and keep it on file. Then, when you’re ready to hire, you’ll have a starting list of potential candidates. Even if that individual isn’t interested, he or she may know of someone else who would be a good fit.
David Grant, DVM, founder of Animal Care Technologies in Denton, Texas, advises that when seeking associates and practitioners, practices should cast their nets wide. “Recruiting doesn’t necessarily mean geography; it also implies time,” he says. “You want to be looking for people all the time—not in that reactionary, two-week window when most people do all of their resume-gathering, and then they make a quick decision.”
Depending on the practice’s focus, market and location, the definition of the ideal practitioner or associate varies. In many cases, owners and practice managers are seeking to diversify in order to grow the business. Some practices, for example, may need someone specializing in lameness, while others may want to branch out into reproduction, necessitating a practitioner with these particular skills.
The Three Cs
Regardless of a practice’s specific needs, when assessing a candidate, Grant believes in applying the “Three Cs”: character, competence and confidence. The “character” element combines maturity, emotional I.Q. and good communication skills. “Competence” comprises hard skills, such as those associated with either general medicine or specialties, such as lameness or reproduction. “Confidence” is the trickiest—again, especially in relation to younger doctors. “What we find in young practitioners who lack experience is a lack of confidence,” he says. “They haven’t seen the diseases and conditions as much, so their diagnoses are oftentimes shadowed by a lack of confidence. That is almost impossible to hide from a client, so confidence is key.”
Which, in a way, points back to “character,” since good communication skills—and the confidence therein—are important in reassuring clients. “Good communication skills make a good veterinarian,” Grant says. “Oftentimes, we are too quick to associate skills, training and advanced degrees [with competency], but having hired hundreds of veterinarians, I would take communications skills and bedside manner any day of the week.” He adds that in equine veterinary medicine, clients tend to demand even more communication than in other areas of veterinary medicine. “Whatever it is, I find that they’re going to be a more particular decision-maker when it comes to who is vetting the needs of their horses.” Thus, an increased need for equine practitioners to be communicative.
Oster notes that while skills sets and personality are the primary factors in determining whether or not a candidate will be a good fit, “soft” items can often act as deal-breakers . . . and should be examined before both the practice and the candidate sign on the dotted line. “Scheduling is huge,” he says. Do you require your practitioner to be on call? How is scheduling handled on weekends? Do your vets work five consecutive days, or are they scheduled for four long days, followed by four days off? “A lot of times, you start these relationships by looking at the hard criteria like skill sets and experience, and the relationship goes south because of things like disagreements over the schedule,” he adds.
Beyond Veterinary Medicine
When assessing resumes, Oster advises owners and practice managers to look for any listed job experience that may have little to do with veterinary medicine—especially if you’re hiring younger practitioners. “There is a tendency on the part of how they train younger veterinarians on putting together a resume. They tell them to only list their veterinary experience,” he says. General job experience, however, often provides certain skills that are useful for veterinarians. “If I had two veterinarians that were equally trained, equally experienced, equally skilled, with equal personalities—everything was perfectly the same, only one flipped hamburgers at McDonald’s and one didn’t—that shows me that the person who flipped hamburgers for two years can get along with co-workers, they can follow a routine, they can show up on time, they have basic job and interpersonal skills and have demonstrated some responsibilities.” A candidate in his or her late 20s who has either been in school or only practiced veterinary medicine may not possess the work ethic or discipline your veterinary practice demands.
It seems like there are as many books out there on the art of interviewing as there are opinions on recruiting itself, but one thing for interviewers to remember is that their job is to listen more and talk less.
“It goes back to the old saying: Two ears, one mouth,” Oster says. “One should use that ratio when interviewing.”
He points out that problems arise when practice owners and managers who dislike the interviewing process use the job interview as a way to sell their practice to the candidate: This is the equipment we have on hand. These are the types of clients we service. These are the benefits we offer.
“They spend the whole time selling the practice, and they never really find out what that candidate is about. During an interview, you want to learn about that candidate to see if they fit into your mix.”
This is especially important in today’s economy, where the market for jobs—even among veterinarians—has dwindled. “With student loan debt and everything else, a candidate will grab a job that is a less than an ideal fit thinking: Well, in six months or a year, if something better comes along, I will jump,” Oster notes. “That doesn’t help the owner of the practice.”
Stephanie Keeble, operations manager at Campbellville, Ontario’s McKee Pownall Veterinary, explains that at McKee-Pownall Veterinary, interviewers apply behavior-based questioning, asking candidates to give examples of how they handled themselves in specific situations.
“We find this more effective than questions like, ‘In this situation, what would you do?’” she says. She adds that candidates must demonstrate open-mindedness and an emphasis on customer service. “Customer service is extremely important to us, so what’s their experience with that? What’s their viewpoint on treating customers?” A sense of humor and an acceptance of change are also important. “We’ve grown a lot over the last little while and the people who work for us have to be willing to go with the flow. If you can’t stand change, then this is not the place for you.” After the initial interview process, candidates undergo a “working interview,” during which they spend several days working with associates and staff to determine if they will integrate well into the practice’s culture
Temp to Perm
Many companies hire temporary help as a way to fill gaps and as a way to “vet,” as it were, potential employees. In fact, the temporary-to-permanent phenomenon is well ensconced in American business. According to the American Staffing Association, 59 percent of companies that use temporaries do so to find good, permanent employees.
So, one way to determine whether a practitioner or potential associate is a good fit with your practice is to enlist him or her in relief work. Grant notes that some of his company’s most successful placements resulted out of such an arrangement.
“I don’t think you can replace the benefit of actually working with that person, even for an extended period of time if that’s an option,” he says. “It’s kind of like a low-pressure date—they’re not even thinking in terms of putting on their best face.” In this scenario, both the temporary practitioner and permanent staff are more relaxed, giving both the opportunity to see each other for who they really are. “Whenever possible, hiring relief veterinarians as a way of looking for future associates or partners can be valuable,” he explains.
Few successful relationships are born out of rapid-fire decisions, and this applies to hiring as well. Oster advises that owners and practice managers spend the necessary time to find the right candidate rather than settling for the wrong candidate and then trying to fix him or her.
“I see so much heartache and people trying to fix things down the road,” he says. “Not only is it your time and energy, but it also has an impact on your client base as well. You’re better off short-staffed than with the wrong staff.”
Refer to their References
We’ve all heard it, but it merits stating once again: One of the biggest errors recruiters commit is being remiss when it comes to checking references. “Believe me, if you have a problem employee, you will spend a lot more time fixing mistakes than you will checking references,” warns Kurt A. Oster, practice management consultant at Oster Business Solutions in Sterling, Connecticut.
Oster suggests that recruiters go above and beyond the references listed on the candidate’s resume.
“If you know a practice that they worked at before, or if you know the university they attended, contact somebody there and ask some questions,” he says. He cites a case in his own business, where not long ago he hired a doctor who happened to have served on a committee on veterinary medicine.
“I talked to some of the other people who were on the committee. They weren’t people listed as references, but they were people who had contact and experience with them.” It’s often these individuals who will give you the most candid assessments on the candidate in question.