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The Case of the Conflicting Co-Owners

This office has two owners whose decisions often conflict and the staff is fed up with their contradictions.

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HEY, DR. ADAM, Elaine just said that when she comes back from lunch she is only working another four hours!” Mary, the technician, then added, “I asked what she meant and she said she is tired of the indecisiveness and won’t be coming back after her vacation.”

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are not a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you have any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carissa Dunphy has been working in private practice optometry since 2008 and is the founder of Optician Now (opticiannow.com). Follow Carissa on Instagram and Facebook at @opticiannow.

“Damn!” Dr. Adam exclaimed.

Mary replied, “And my vacation starts when hers was supposed to end so I guess the office will be without a tech and a front desk person until I get back?! Don’t ask me to change my vacation or you’ll be losing two staff members,” she said, only slightly joking.

“We can work this out. Let’s all talk during lunch so we can get on the same page,” Dr. Adam replied.

At lunchtime, Dr. Adam, Dr. Kaitlin, Elaine and Mary all met to figure out the vacation dilemma.

Dr. Kaitlin began, “Elaine, what is going on to where you don’t want to return to work after your vacation?”

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“I had my vacation planned and on the calendar after Dr. Adam approved it months ago.” Elaine continued, “Then, Dr. Kaitlin asked me if I could move it so that Mary could take her vacation that same week. I like Mary so I moved my vacation up a week so she could take hers.”

“But then Dr. Adam approved the new girl’s day off during that same time because he didn’t know Elaine moved her vacation up.” Mary commented, “So now we have two people out at the same time making us super short because there was no communication about it.”

Elaine added, “I feel like every time I want to take a day off I can’t even enjoy it because there is always a problem with time off and being short-staffed.”

“We can deal with being short-staffed a few random days. Elaine, we don’t want to lose you because of this.” Dr. Kaitlin replied, “How about you take your vacation, re-charge, come back to work while Mary takes her vacation and Dr. Adam and I will promise to do better when it comes to juggling days off…”

“This seriously happens any time anyone takes a day off. It’s never as simple as it should be. I’m just done dealing with all of the contradictions,” Elaine concluded.

Dr. Adam, somewhat surprised, replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way. Mary, do you have anything you’d like to add?”

Mary decided this was her chance to get her gripes out safely. “It seems like the lack of communication and agreement between you two is about everything, not just days off.”

“Could you be more specific?” Dr. Kaitlin prodded.

“It’s literally about everything. From the words we’re not supposed to use with patients, to how we document eyewear benefits, to the technicians having to work up patients completely differently depending on the doctor, to your insistence on what frames to buy,” Mary said in one long breath, followed by a sigh of relief that she finally got all of that off her chest.

Dr. Adam and Dr. Kaitlin looked at each other, both dumbfounded and a little embarrassed.

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The Big Questions

  • How could the co-owners be this completely clueless about the many areas of their business with conflicting protocols?
  • What responsibility does the staff have to bring conflicting directives of the co-owners to their attention?
  • What ideas do you have about how the co-owners could get on the same page and communicate to the office more effectively so a problem doesn’t get this bad in the future?
Ryan P.
Minnetonka, MN

I would guess that unless huge problems are happening the owners probably don’t even realize that they are conflicting the protocols. In our business, even if small things get missed, a lot of times it won’t interrupt normal business. Or a staff member takes care of it and doesn’t mention that there was a problem to the owners, so they might not even realize there are issues happening.

If staff are uncomfortable voicing their concerns through fear of retaliation or just not wanting to be a problem, things can get missed. In a healthy practice employees should be able to bring this up without consequence. Anything that is keeping the team from working together on the goals should be addressed — even if it is an owner problem.

My advice would be that during their meetings, whether it’s weekly or monthly, they go over protocols and whether they’re being followed correctly. I would also check in with the practice manager and see how the staff is feeling. It really helps to have a manager that can talk to you about the difficult things and also for the owners to understand that they’re part of a team as well.

Tommy P.
Waynesville, NC

Every business with more than one person has potential issues with communication; but these owners have a bigger problem than just their communication with their staff. It is clear these two doctors have not communicated with each other about their expectations on a number of items; employee vacation, how to request time off, employee expectations and a number of internal business processes. This can easily happen when owners get busy working in the business and forget to take time to prioritize communication and team development.

Communication is only successful if the leaders of the business make it a top priority. I assume Dr. Adam and Dr. Kaitlin hired Mary and Elaine to complete a specific job that did not consist of operations analysis or relationship management. While some employees may be able to communicate their frustrations professionally some may never do or will only do so when they quit. Employees need to have a known and respected way of communicating; especially when they are frustrated. Are there ways either employee could bring their frustrations up to both doctors in a non-confrontational way? If no regular office meetings or employee check-ins happen, a business relies on an employee to muster up the courage to confront management, which is a recipe for disaster for the business or employee. Business leaders must recognize that employees communicate differently and consistently approach their team through different channels to ensure they communicate with everyone.

These two doctors have a lot of work to do. They have two major problems: Communication with each other and communication with their staff. The remedy is simple but by no means easy. First, Dr. Adam and Dr. Kaitlin need to have regular meetings with each other, at least weekly, to discuss pressing office issues, business ideas etc. This needs to start ASAP to ensure they can turn around staff morale quickly. Additionally, they should analyze all of their office protocols and write down their expectations and work through any differing opinions they may have. They should do this for every single office procedure, not just this example. This process will be tedious and time consuming but have a substantial impact on their team. Once they agree on expectations they can present a united vision to their team on what they expect for every office procedure. Just as important, these two need to address and acknowledge their leadership mistake in an open conversation with their entire team. They should update their team on how they plan to fix it and give staff members a respectful way to approach them if this issue happens again.

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Judy C.
Virginia Beach, VA

This office needs an experienced office manager, STAT! Also, an office manual with all the rules and the chain of communication defined. The docs and office manager need to meet regularly and regular staff meeting/in-office training needs to be scheduled. When everybody’s in charge, nobody is in charge and chaos ensues. It won’t be an easy or quick fix, but it needs to happen before the practice is known as the place NOT to work.

Blake H.
Alma, GA

This seems to stem from a lack of communication and absent office policies. Better communication between the doctors to verbalize their wishes in office policies or a handbook would paint a clear picture of how the practice should run.

Staff should have every opportunity to bring issues to owners. As owners we hold the responsibility of creating a safe workplace, where that is both fostered and encouraged to happen.

A healthy partnership of any kind is usually rooted in trust, discourse and compromise. I can’t imagine this happening in an office where the doctors work similar hours and have a common goal. The owners would be well served to construct a mission statement or common direction for the office and work towards that end in developing an office handbook outlining specific details of big picture and day-to-day policies.

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Carissa Dunphy, ABOC, has been working in private practice optometry since 2008. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Optician Now (opticiannow.com) and recently launched opticalgifts.com. Follow Carissa on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter at @opticiannow.

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