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MANAGING STAFF

What to do when a staffer lodges a valid complaint against a doctor

Any complaint from a staffer about a boss is unpleasant to address. But when the alleged culprit is a physician, the situation can get grim. Confronting the doctor could put the manager in a job-threatening position.

It’s a touchy situation, says Linnda Durre, PhD, a business consultant, corporate trainer and author of “Surviving the Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against the Coworkers, Bosses, and Work Environments that Poison Your Day.”

Durre, who is a psychotherapist, lays out the best possible—though admittedly risky—approach.

Collect every little fact

Start by getting prepared to meet with the doctor. Really prepared. Get the entire picture with every detail.

Ask the staffer to describe exactly what happened: the dates, times, places, names of witnesses, how the behavior has affected the staffer, and whether it has affected other employees and if so how. Then write out a chronology of the events showing that on this date X happened and on that date Y happened and so on.

Collect even the tiniest points. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the physician is going to challenge what’s said.

Set up a formal appointment

It’s now time to beard the lion.

Schedule a meeting with the doctor.

There’s psychology to that, Durre says. A scheduled meeting emphasizes the seriousness of the situation. Right away the doctor knows “this is important,” she explains. Moreover, being the one who does the scheduling, Durre says, gives the manager “a little more power and authority.”

Send the doctor a written agenda—another indication of the seriousness—with a list of items to discuss so the doctor can’t walk away from it or blow it off.

By contrast, she says, popping in on the doctor and laying out the issue is nothing short of ambush and the conversation will begin and end in conflict.

Neither will it work to toss it out in a hallway conversation. Do that and it looks like the problem isn’t that big a deal and the physician will give it only passing attention and the manager will walk away a loser.

Durre adds a caution, however. “A lot of bosses hide behind their assistants” and won’t schedule unpleasant meetings, she says. If that happens, there’s no other choice but to confront the doctor in the office unannounced.

Presenting the case

Now for the dreaded meeting.

Speak calmly and logically, Durre says. Go in with notes in hand. Notes serve two purposes. They help the manager make the presentation as logically and clearly as possible and they serve as protection. If the matter is a serious one, such as discrimination, notes show how the manager addressed it.

Start by setting ground rules.

I would like to give you my full comments and then hear what you have to say.

Follow that with a compliment.

Doctor A, many employees here love your commitment to excellence. You have motivated them to do a good job and the profits have gone up because of your efforts.

Then drop the other shoe.

What we have now, though, is a complaint of abrasiveness. Staffer Jones feels you are making it difficult for her to produce quality work.

Then on to the actual problem.

Staffer Jones says that when you assign work to her you constantly change the directions and deadline and she has difficulty getting the work completed because of it.

Never accuse the boss of anything. Instead of “you did such-and-such,” say, “so-and-so feels” or “he got the impression that” or “her perception was.”

Lay out the specifics

Then move on to the specifics. And mince no words.

She alleges that on September 1 you gave her an assignment of X and the following morning you told her to do Y instead. She claims that when she asked for clarification, you said, “Finish it today or else.”

Be abundantly clear about what the staffer claims has happened. And if the matter is an exceedingly serious one, such as sexual harassment, don’t hesitate to be blunt.

She says that on October 3 you called her a voluptuous woman, that on the morning of October 4 you made a comment about her hips, and that later that day you patted her backside on your way to an exam room.

Next, explain how the behavior is affecting the staffer:

She says she is frustrated and feels you don’t want to see her succeed in her job.

If the doctor has really crossed the line, this is the time to say so lest the doctor dismiss the complaint as trivial.

Now lay out the possible consequences.

If what she says is true, we are in danger of producing inaccurate work (or whatever).

Finally, show a desire to solve the issue positively.

We don’t want to lose Staffer Jones, because she’s a valuable employee and we don’t want to give our patients anything but top quality care. That’s why I’m bringing this to your attention.

This says the manager is fair and open-minded and is honestly trying to avoid trouble. No accusations have been made. The manager is only presenting what someone else has said.

Now give the doctor the floor. Durre’s advice is to “take extensive notes” to avoid any question later about what was said or promised.

Also keep in mind that everybody is innocent until proven guilty so don’t dispute what the doctor says. Just listen and take notes.

End with a call to action. It may be that the manager will get some type of training for Staffer Jones. On the other hand, the doctor may be required to do something.

Staffer Jones requests that after you give directions for a project you give her time to ask questions and make comments. We don’t want to lose her. She’s a valued employee.

A follow-up letter now

After the meeting, send the doctor a follow-up letter detailing what was said. A good opener is “Thank you for meeting with me Monday. My understanding of our meeting is as follows.”

Number the discussion points.

  1. I spoke with you about the difficulty Staffer Jones is having with your directives. She has said you constantly change your directives, making it difficult for her to produce quality work.
  2. She requests that you spend time with her after giving directives so she can clarify what work is required.
  3. We agreed she is a valued employee.
  4. We agreed to do X, Y, and Z.

Besides keeping the matter on a logical course, that letter is yet further proof the manager has addressed the situation appropriately.

A balance of hierarchy

What if the psychology fails and the problem continues? That depends on who the offender is.

If it’s a situation involving a doctor to whom the manager does not report, Durre recommends giving the matter a week and if nothing is done, play hardball.

“If this isn’t resolved you leave me no choice but to go to your boss.”

But if the offender is the boss, that’s not an option. About the most aggressive thing the manager can say is, “This really needs your attention. It’s affecting patient service and profits.” That’s often persuasive, Durre says. “Nobody wants to lose profits.”


Related reading:

Physicians behaving badly: what to do when it affects patients


How to be a strong manager even when dealing with over-controlling physicians


Use weekly meetings with doctors to keep office running smoothly


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