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Will Your Veterinary Practice Be Unionized Next?

In 2002, my wife and I opened our equine veterinarian practice. We were very purposeful in what we wanted to achieve.

  1. Grow large enough so we have enough veterinarians so our vets can have a life by not being on call too often. We realized that the newer generation of veterinarians didn’t live to work, rather their profession gave them the income to live life fully. The days of the war horse vet on call 24/7 was not sustainable.

  2. Focus on client communication. In our many externships and internships, the vets of that time had a very superior attitude towards their clients. It was almost as if client questions were answered on a need to know basis. We promised that clients would be very involved in the process and decisions about their pets’ health.

  3. Pay support staff enough so they can make a decent living and give them opportunities for professional growth. We saw too many LVTs and long-term employees that if they didn’t have a partner with a “real” job would be living close to poverty levels. It didn’t seem right that these extremely skilled and educated co-workers were treated so poorly. They had no room for development and pay was dismal.

I thought of the last point when I read that employees of a large veterinary practice in Washington State ratified the first union contract at a private veterinary hospital in the USA. There are three other practices waiting to ratify their union contracts, so this isn’t an isolated case.

While reading the many articles on these hospitals facing unionization it became obvious that poor human resource management was a contributing cause of the push to unionize. The demands of the employees seemed reasonable. They wanted minimums for base pay, differential compensation for overnight shifts, extra certifications and proficiency at their job, and cost of living wage adjustments for the three years of the contract. By the end of the contract in 2023 employees will see their wages increase by 17% on average.

I am not here to praise or demonize unions. They were necessary to improve working conditions in the early 20th century, contributed to the large middle class after WW2, but also have limited the ability of companies to respond to changing market forces. In North America, we tend to demonize unions, while in parts of the EU unions have seats on the board of directors of companies and are very involved with the management of the company with excellent results.

What is clear from these efforts to unionize is that the employees felt underpaid and underappreciated. People can put up with that for a while until they have no choice but to consider extreme solutions. These first steps of unionization affect all veterinary practice owners since pretty well any sized group of employees can unionize. Does it have to be this way?

I would argue that a veterinary practice that has an employee first philosophy will likely never get to the point where employees are so disgruntled, they want to unionize. One of the things we realized at our practice is that unless our employees love where they work there is no way they can genuinely offer great customer service and care to our clients and their pets. In the absence of valuing where they work most employees will put on a fake smile and give fake customer service. It is only when they love where they work will a real effort be made towards customer service.

We consider our employees as our first customer. We take care of them as well as we would take care of a client. We want our employees to love the company they work for and each other before we focus on our clients. How do we do this?

We are a purpose-based company that lives by its value and purpose. They are the foundation of our business. People want to work for a company that has meaning and lives that meaning. We don’t do anything that would compromise our values and purpose.

We carefully select the people we hire. We don’t hire in desperation to fill a position. We take our time to make sure who we hire will fit our culture and shares our values and is passionate about our purpose.

We train our staff. Too often people are thrown into the deep end and told to swim. We take our time and make sure our new employees are confident in their new role before letting them loose. We feel this helps create a foundation of trust and motivation.

We have a transparent and merit-based performance review system. We perform anonymous peer reviews which include a self-review by each employee. 50% of their score is based upon how they demonstrate our values. That shows how important our values are.

We use the score from the performance review to guide any wage increases. Each position has a range and the employees' review score and current wage fit into a predefined matrix that tells us what the raise will be. If someone scores 85% on their review and they are paid lower than the median wage for the position they will get a higher raise than someone with a lower score or is paid towards the higher end of the wage range. It is clear from day one that each person has the ability to influence their wage.

We encourage each employee to set goals that will help them be better at their role and also as a person. We want our employees to aspire to be better.

Finally, we have created a culture of open communication and appreciation. We involve our staff in major decisions. We have difficult conversations. We don’t allow office gossip or toxic personalities. We show our appreciation every day to our co-workers. Rather than pointing out whenever they screw up, we make a point of thanking each other for a job well done.

Are we perfect? Far from it. We strive to improve all the time. I would love to pay our vets and support staff more than we do, so we are always searching for ways to make more profit so we can share that with our staff through our profit-sharing program.

The result of all this is that we have highly engaged employees. The research is clear that companies with highly engaged employees are more profitable, have more loyal clients, and have less employee turnover and absenteeism.

Would these vet practices have avoided unionization if they had an employee first mentality? Perhaps, but we can be sure it would be far less likely that engaged employees that feel cared for, appreciated and supported would feel the need to unionize.

Too often in veterinary medicine, we look at employees as our biggest expense that we need to curtail, rather than as our biggest asset that is responsible for all the great things that come from the business. We should be investing in our employees and not restricting them.

Take care of our employees and they will take care of us are words we live by. I believe if more vet businesses acted like this, we would have a much healthier and happier profession.

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