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Three ways to handle staff complaints

This Reader Tips idea is a triple one. It comes from a consultant and also from a manager, and it is three approaches to solving a single problem – dealing with one staffer’s complaint about another.

The consultant is Cindy Fondren-Muise, a practice management consultant in Peyton, CO, who has also served as practice administrator of a pain management clinic.

And the manager is Patricia Board of Santa Barbara Cardiovascular Medical Group in Santa Barbara, CA.

First, cull out the unnecessary

The first approach is to sift through the complaints to identify which ones warrant the manager’s attention and which ones staff should deal with on their own.

Make it a rule that before anybody brings in a complaint about another staffer, that person has to be prepared “to tell what can and should be done to fix it so it’s fair to everybody,” Fondren-Muise says.

“That forces staff to set their feelings aside for a minute and think of a solution and understand how that other person might react to it.”

In the process, staff will often realize the issue isn’t so bad after all.

Even when the complaint is valid, considering how the other person will respond often generates a new attitude of “I know how busy Staffer A is” or “she does a lot for me, and this isn’t a big deal for me to do for her.” And that leads to a more pleasant solution. ‘

Second, discuss it at the next staff meeting

If the matter isn’t resolved there, go to the second approach, which is to discuss the issue in a staff meeting.

Suppose a medical assistant gets overwhelmed with work and starts sending patients’ prescription refill calls to the receptionist. In turn, the receptionist comes to the manager complaining “that’s not my job.”

Tell the receptionist that the issue will be brought up – anonymously – at the next meeting, and discuss how the receptionist can participate in the discussion.

The opener at the meeting might be “is anybody overwhelmed with work and needing help?” The receptionist is prepared to say “I’m getting calls about X. Am I supposed to be handling them?”

That not only gets the problem identified but also gives the medical assistant an invitation to say something about being unable to take all the calls because of extra work.

“Not everybody will be happy with the resolution all the time,” Fondren-Muise says. But staff know they can bring problems to the manager and the manager will help get them solved.

Third, handle it quietly and alone

The third approach comes from Board, and it is the approach she uses it with all complaints, serious or small – perhaps that Staffer A is being rude to patients or that Staffer B is always visiting instead of working or that Staffer C is doing something wrong with the computer.

Her standard response to any valid complaint is “I will watch for this until I see it myself. Then I’ll decide what to do.”

Board then watches for a few days to see what is actually going on. “It always appears,” she says. And when it does, she goes to the staffer at fault and says “I have noticed X. It is not appropriate, so let’s talk about it.”

There’s no indication at all that somebody else has said something. It’s only something Board has seen.

She takes the same route even if a physician complains about a staffer. She observes and approaches the staffer herself, and nobody is the wiser that a physician mentioned the issue.

Knowing they can bring concerns to the manager without having to get involved in them “makes staff feel safe in reporting things,” she says. There’s trust. They know there won’t be any “So-and-So said this about you.” And because of that trust, they don’t hesitate to tell Board about anything that is detrimental to the office.

Obviously, not all complaints can be kept confidential, she notes. For example, if the complaint is that a staffer is being unkind to patients, “there’s no way I could go in and observe that, because it will never happen in front of me.” So in that situation she asks the complaining staffer “do you mind if I use your name?” And only if the answer is yes does she mention that person’s name.

What about the exceedingly petty things, particularly personal issues not related to the office? “Every complaint gets respect,” she says. But in that case, “the mom hat goes on.” Board explains to the staffer that the issue doesn’t involve work and then helps the person come up with an appropriate way to handle the problem.

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