Losing a key team member unexpectedly earlier this year has led to countless hours over the last few months searching for her replacement. I initially hired a temporary replacement when I wasn't sure if my team member would be returning, and after deciding that she wouldn't, the temp has given our office the luxury of taking our time to find the best person for our practice. The interviewing process has taught me a lot about what keeps team members happy, and what causes them to make the decision to move on.

hiring dental team member

Starting my practice from scratch three years ago has caused me to endure the hiring process on quite a few occasions as we've grown. I've got it down to a science at this point in order to avoid countless hours of wasted in-person interviews or phone conversations. I'll share with you the system I've arrived at through trial and error.

Interviewing candidates for your dental team

I start the interviewing process by posting ads that request a resume and cover letter. This is the first step of the weeding out. I'd say that two of three people that send their resume don't send a cover letter along with it. If I get a resume that seems appealing, I then send the candidate three questions to answer:

  1. What systems do you use to keep yourself organized?
  2. Tell me about a time that you were in over your head and how you handled it.
  3. Describe yourself in 140 characters or less!

At this point I'd say only half of those I send the questions to respond. Of those that do, another half have had the incredible fortune to never fall into a situation where they've felt in over their head! So before I've even hopped on a call, I'm down to approximately 7.5 percent of the initial applicants that applied to a job posting.

Once I've received answers to those questions that catch my attention, I set up a phone interview. I set up a time to have the applicant call me, rather than the other way around. Although most of the applicants I've vetted for the call take the position seriously by this point, some don't call on time, and some don't call at all. I've gotten emails the following day apologizing for forgetting, subsequently asking to reschedule.

If the phone interview goes well, I'll have the person come to the office to meet the team and take a tour of our space. By this point in the process you may be thinking that I've created an incredibly cumbersome system, but it actually cuts out a huge amount of wasted face-to-face time.

For those candidates I meet in person that show up professionally-dressed and fit the bill, I'll have them return for a working interview. I make sure to have them spend lunch with my team, and I have each team member spend time with them when I'm not around.

Though my process may or may not be useful to you, the most interesting thing I've found in my recent search for a team member is the consistency in why people leave. With rare exception, it's not because of money, and it's not because of their commute. It's not any of the usual suspects. I've been overwhelmed by the amount of applicants wanting to leave their current offices for two major reasons.

Reason #1: They feel unappreciated.

Reason #2: They don't feel a sense of camaraderie.

It may be that the online presence of our office through Instagram, Facebook, and our overall reputation sets us apart as a small, tight-knit team (which we are). If that's the case, then I may have a skewed applicant pool. But if that's not the case, team members go home after a long work day and start searching for a new job because of two major reasons we may not be aware of.

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Keeping your dental team happy

happy dental team

Many of the people I've been speaking with feel like they go above and beyond for their “boss” without recognition. They feel that working late, through lunch, or answering emails on the weekends is expected, but not appreciated. Most of them are looking for a thank you, or a verbal recognition that they're valued as a key team member. Multiple applicants have gone as far as to mention that they'll take a pay cut in order to find increased personal fulfillment in the workplace.

The other major complaint I've heard from applicants is the lack of communication and overall disorganization of their current offices. No one knows what his or her job is or who is accountable, and the hard workers end up picking up the pieces while the other team members “coast by.” Many of the applicants have commented during their working interview about how nice it is that we have a morning huddle to get on the same page, and how impressed they are that I communicate directly with the team. I'm not sure how many dentists are hiding in the corner in silence, but it seems that the percentage is far greater than I would have expected!

So what can we do to keep the team members we value? How can we build camaraderie that makes it unappealing to look anywhere beyond the doors of our office for work fulfillment?

Here are some tips I've found useful in letting each of my team members know they're indispensable:

  1. Keep a mental or written list of things that the team member enjoys. If they mention where they get their hair cut and when they have an appointment, call ahead and pay for it if they've been killing it at work. If you see things that remind you of that person, like a t-shirt or a card, buy them and keep them for a day or week when they go above and beyond.
  2. Thank them in front of patients. If a patient mentions that you and your assistant work well together, let them know that you feel privileged to work with them. Comment, “I know, she's the best, isn't she?” Go out of your way to ask the patient how they were taken care of, and pump that team member up when the patient has nice things to say. Every time I walk into the hygiene room for an exam, I ask the patient if their hygienist is taking good care of them. When they respond with, “of course” or “she always does,” I'll respond with something like, “I'm lucky I get to work with her every day”.
  3. Say thank you one-on-one. While it's easy to ask a team member to stay late after work to discuss something that isn't going well, it's hard to remember to keep them a few minutes after to praise them. It's amazing how much a sit down to let them know how impressed you've been with their work will mean to them.

Here are some tips to build camaraderie:

  1. Lead by example. If you complain or talk badly of a co-worker, you can't expect your team members not to. Always start the morning huddle on a positive note, and end the day with a positive, too. Positivity should be the bookends of their work experience, even when you're tired, stressed, or angry inside.
  2. Spend time together outside of the office. We are trying to plan a get-together every other month outside of the office. We rotate who plans the event and I give them a budget to work within. This month we went to a lake for the day and went tubing, water-skiing, and floating.
  3. Have reviews. I give each team member a formal yearly review where I have standardized paperwork and ratings that we go through, but I also do six-month reviews to “check in.” This is a time to ask team members their level of happiness, what barriers to their happiness exist in the workplace, and what suggestions they have to improve our flow. If you don't check in often enough, small problems can snowball into big ones before you even knew they existed.

This most recent round of hiring has been a grueling one, but I've learned a lot in the process. I hope some of what I've learned can translate and be helpful in your own practices, whether it's through the hiring process, or in keeping the team you've got!

(Click this link for more dentistry articles by Dr. Courtney Lavigne.)

Courtney Lavigne, D.M.D., Spear Visiting Faculty and Contributing Author - http://www.courtneylavigne.com


Commenter's Profile Image Carl S.
September 9th, 2017
Great topic and something that effects all of us. I am in your shoes now as my main assistant will retire to be a stay at home mom. After a phone interview I also ask applicants to check out our web site and our office music video tour to let them see our practice style and if they like what they see call the office to set up a face to face. I believe the relationship is two ways, they like us and we like them...or three ways which includes applicant, Dr and team. :-) Carl
Commenter's Profile Image Mihaela D.
October 20th, 2017
I followed your system and it worked great! It helped me narrow down my search and I found a really wonderful receptionist. My team is thrilled as well. So great tip-thank you.
Commenter's Profile Image Courtney L.
October 23rd, 2017
Hi Mihaela, I'm so happy to hear I was able to help you navigate your new hire! I wish you all the best as you continue the transition bringing a new team member on. It's a difficult part of running a practice, but so rewarding when you get the right group of people working together! All the best, Courtney