3 tips to surviving in a family-owned veterinary practice

3 tips to surviving in a family-owned veterinary practice

Somebody else's mom or dad, husband or wife, or son or daughter. It’s easy to feel on the outside when you have a front-row seat to personal relationships in the veterinary workplace. Use this advice from Firstline board member Shawn McVey to navigate tricky waters with style.
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Jun 08, 2012

Whether it’s a husband-and-wife practice, the doctor employs her son, or the owner’s dating someone in the practice, it’s easy to feel on the outside when you have a front-row seat to personal relationships in the workplace. Use this advice from Firstline board member Shawn McVey to navigate tricky waters with style—and save your sanity.

1. Practice good communication. McVey says many of the problems that occur with personal relationships in the workplace stem from communication issues. People in personal relationships may be influenced by their intimate feelings for their co-worker when they communicate. “The familiarity you have with family is sometimes off-putting or alienating to other staff members,” McVey says. “And it creates power imbalances in social relationships in the hospital. Family is almost always going to side with family, right or wrong.”

The best approach, he says, is to be direct and candid and try to stay away from insider or family references when communicating.  "I think the family members have to be a bit above reproach when communicating professionally, or they open themselves to criticism and mistrust," McVey says. " Specifically, there should be professional rules and systems for communicating internally, and all employees  should have to follow those rules." For example, a good rule might be that no decisions for the business are made outside the confines of the formal staff or administration meeting when the entire management team or all partners are in attendance. "Family members enjoy a proximity and access to one another that puts the other team members at a disadvantage if business decisions can be made over dinner or over pillow talk," he says.

2. Establish boundaries. For example, McVey suggests asking your owners or managers to define the relationship so you know how to behave. Are you supposed to know your practice owner is dating an associate? Or does Dr. Cares want you to treat his wife as a fellow employee or his wife? It’s important to be realistic as well. For example, it’s unlikely that the practice owner will fire her spouse or child.

3. Get it in writing. The employee handbook should address how all employees should manage inter-office relationships.  If the family members are a part of the management team or share ownership with non-family members, the process for governance of the clinic should be spelled out in the operating agreement and the by-laws, McVey says. "Most family members don't want people in the organization to feel threatened by the family ties, so written guidelines help to ease concerns," he says.

Ideally, the owner will always be open to having conversations about his or her personal relationships in the practice if they’re affecting the workplace. “If you keep it professional, most people think it’s just fine that they have to work with the boss’s spouse,” McVey says.

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