Real Deal: The Case of the Optical Pied Piper

A key employee leaves for another practice — and starts actively recruiting members of Lana McNeely’s optical team. How does she stop it?

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 edition of INVISION.

Case studies for eyecare businesses

A focus on family had always paid off for Lana McNeely’s practice. She had built the business over 10 years by staying open some evenings and on Saturdays to serve patients busy with jobs and children.

That familial atmosphere had transferred to her staff of four opticians, office manager and receptionist, who adapted their shifts to accommodate the business hours. Lana’s staff seemed content with the reasonable pay and enjoyed the training McNeely Eyecare provided.

So when Lana’s office manager Alison asked to meet with her about a staff issue, she was not initially overly concerned. “Dr. McNeely, Joanne just gave me her two weeks’ notice,” Alison said.

“Joanne is leaving? Two opticians in a month ...,” Lana said. “What is happening here? Is it because Robert left a few weeks ago?”

“I asked Joanne why she was leaving,” Alison said. “She told me Robert called her at home last week, and convinced her she’d enjoy working with him at the practice he’s at now.”

The doctor’s mouth dropped. “Robert did that? Wow.”

Lana had hired Robert three years ago with no experience in the field, but he had a strong sales background and an upbeat personality. But after intensive training, development and promotions within Lana’s office, he had recently left to work for a big new group practice a few towns over.

“I want to meet with you and Joanne right now,” Lana said.

Alison left and came back leading Joanne, who looked nervous.

“Joanne, Alison just told me you’ve given your notice,” Lana said.

Joanne tried to look confident in her decision. “That’s right, my last day will be the third.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that. Can you help me understand why?”


Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual eyecare businesses and people.

“Well,” Joanne began. “The pay is a bit higher. They aren’t open on Saturdays. And they close every day at 5:30, so there won’t be late nights. What it really means is a set schedule, which is impossible to get here.”

“I really like working for you, Dr. McNeely,” Joanne added. “I love everyone here, and it wasn’t an easy decision, but I need to do what’s best for my family and my future.”

Alison stared at Lana, hoping the doctor could change Joanne’s mind. The optical department had been cut in half, and the remaining opticians were overwhelmed with work. In their market, it was easier to hire a sales star from another industry, rather than recruit someone with actual optical experience. But that route required a great deal of training, and the new hire sometimes didn’t pan out. The office couldn’t afford to lose another optician.

“Joanne, we rely heavily on the retail side of optometry; that means we need to be open at hours that are convenient to our patients,” Lana said. “But we try to create a rewarding, pleasant work environment —”

Just then, Lana’s extension rang. It was the front desk; Joanne was needed to help a patient.

After Joanne left, Alison closed the door and sat down.

“This is a serious problem,” she told Lana. “We need to take action. Of course, we aren’t going to modify our hours to suit the staff. But until we hire and train replacements, the remaining opticians will be stretched even thinner than usual.”

“A raise is reasonable, but it tends to be a short-term solution,” Lana said. “We need a more fundamental change to keep people from even looking elsewhere.”

“Don’t forget about Robert,” Alison said. “What can we do about him recruiting our remaining people? We actually had him sign a contract forbidding this behavior, but I’m not sure how to enforce it.”

“Our employees would need to be willing to attest that Robert recruited Joanne, and I don’t know that I want to drag anyone into that,” Lana said. “I want to work out a plan for Joanne today, so she can go home with our counter-offer and discuss it with her family.”

T H E    B I G    Q U E S T I O N S

1. What could Dr. McNeely offer to Joanne to keep her at the practice, aside from a raise?

2. The needs of retail chains, ophthalmic and optometric practices and warehouse stores vary, but how can eyecare practices in general differentiate to attract the best opticians?

3. Is there any way to stop Robert from recruiting more staff?

R E A L    D E A L    R E S P O N S E S

Cassandra B.
Danville, IN

It is best to rotate evening and weekend shifts. Having a weekday off once in a while is good to take care of some of our needs. Working only two Saturdays a month instead of every weekend is a great compromise. Another option is to have some part-time staff, like college students who might prefer to work weekends. It sounds like Dr. McNeely already retains good staff through education and training. Combine that with incentive programs that not only allow an employee to make extra money — but time off, gift certificates, and the like — will make sure staff members retain their drive. Last, treat the staff as equals in the business. Make sure they understand where the business is headed and the plan to get there.

Dr. Michael D.
Eldersburg, MD

The staff needs to know that the practice feels they are important (but not irreplaceable) and that the management will work to keep them happy (within limits). I would call Robert’s new boss and let them know what is going on and how this reflects badly on them. It would be a shame if someone started to recruit from their staff, wouldn’t it? (Wink wink.)

Steve W.
Wayne, PA

Once someone decides to leave, I let them go and look forward to hiring someone better. I like change. These things are not a lot different from high school. If your girlfriend/boyfriend breaks up with you, get someone better. Move on. If this happens too often, evaluate your worth to others. Pay them well. Communicate with them. Do they feel important? Are they happy?

Bryan Q.
Jackson, WI

Employees’ free time is probably the most undervalued aspect of an employment relationship. Not giving them the ability to have real time for themselves, their pursuits and their families that’s not just commuting or sleeping makes the best pay look cheap. Lay out the schedule far in advance — with no last-minute or even two-week surprises. Recognize work is not always the focus of their life. Then give them all an appreciable raise. You’ve made yourself a standout employer in a field of retail hell.

Dr. C. A.
Katy, TX

Why not offer Joanne the set schedule she’s looking for? Certain days she works evenings, other days she leaves early. The same thing would go for the remaining staff. As a practice owner, it may be easier to justify staying late evenings, and even coming in on Sunday, because ultimately you are the one to profit. It’s your name on the door and your decision to go into business yourself. However, it seems unreasonable to expect that of an employee. Also let Joanne know that recruiting of a previous employer’s staff is against contract and an unethical business practice.