Nothing solidifies a laboratory more than a core of dedicated technicians. The longer your employees are with you, the better trained they are and the better service they provide--not to mention the dollars saved in avoiding turnover costs. Depending on the employee's position and level of expertise, replacing an employee can cost you anywhere from 25% to 150% of his annual salary in recruiting, hiring and training costs.
In light of our industry's ongoing personnel shortage, keeping your key employees is more important than ever. Paying an adequate, competitive salary and providing benefits is a given for retaining talented dental technicians. Your employees need to feel that they and their families are financially secure, now and in the future.
However, money alone won't ensure employee retention and loyalty. You must provide them with a total package that isn't easily found at the laboratory across town. "Challenge, growth opportunities, flexibility, great coworkers, meaningful work, a good boss and recognition are examples of things that matter more to most of your people," say Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans, authors of Love'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay. "When those are missing, talented people walk."
The bottom line: anyone can offer your technicians a pay increase; your job is to make your employees feel like valued members of your team--not just another cog in the wheel. In addition to feeling valued and appreciated by you, employees who feel professionally and emotionally tied to one another will be more likely to stay. While you can't create the bonds between your technicians, you can nurture an environment that fosters a sense of teamwork and embraces the employee's psychological and professional needs.
Here are 11 strategies for keeping the employees who keep you in business:
Many lab owners have a tendency to think "I can do it better myself" when it comes to a challenging case or technical problem, but that outlook doesn't respect the skills of your employees. "I treat my employees with respect, allow them to tackle challenges and over the years I've found that my employees reward me with their loyalty," says Walter Fountain, owner of six-employee Magnolia Dental Lab, Jackson, Mississippi, who has worked with the same head technician and manager for over 20 years. Laboratory owner Mark Vallortigara agrees that respect is key. For example, if a client is verbally abusive to one of his technicians, he ends the relationship. "That means a lot to them," says Vallortigara, owner of Premium Dental in Chicago. "I can always get a new account, but it's not as easy to replace a good employee." On the flip side, give your employees reason to respect you in return. If you strive to treat your clients and suppliers with respect, your employees are likely to feel they'll always be treated fairly as well.
Show an understanding for life outside the laboratory.
Work-life balance is a concern for many employees, not just working parents. In fact, 14 million U.S. workers care for aging family members and report higher levels of stress than workers with dependants or children, according to a 2001 Time magazine report. Regardless of what issues your employees are dealing with, asking them to check their personal lives at the door is a mistake.
Providing flexible work schedules or arrangements is one way to harmonize work and life. While your arrangement may be as simple as allowing employees to adjust their work schedules as personal issues arise, other laboratory owners are formally instituting flextime. "Having the flexibility to take care of personal issues means a great deal to me and my employees," says Fountain. "For us, flextime works. My employees respect the plan, appreciate the flexibility and do not abuse it." The key, he says, is to foster a work environment in which the goal is to complete the work, not be present during a certain window of time.
Other innovative laboratory owners allow their technicians to "telecommute." For example, in order to keep two key technicians who are juggling the demands of motherhood and work, Gary Spadaro, Liberty Dental Laboratory, set up benches at their homes and has his pick-up-and-delivery people stop at their homes as part of their normal routines. "By altering my definition of the traditional technician and work day, I was able to hang on to two valuable employees," says Spadaro, owner of the Schenectady, New York laboratory.
Another flexible work concept is job sharing, in which two employees share the responsibilities of one full-time position, typically with a pro-rated salary and paid time off. Although on the surface it mirrors two part-time positions, job sharing requires two partners to work as a team, a full 40-hour week and one of the two members to always be present.
In addition to being a powerful retention tool, flexible work arrangements provide an unexpected benefit: they can actually increase productivity. One recent study conducted by Flexible Resources finds that 92% of employees with nontraditional schedules are more productive than those with traditional schedules. The conclusion: employees who have the freedom and flexibility to take care of personal business can be more focused while they are at work.
Be family friendly.
Another powerful tactic to retain employees is to take care of their children. While providing a flexible work schedule is one way to help employees juggle their family responsibilities, Dick Pilsner takes the family-friendly concept to a new level. In 1998, the owner of 80-person D&S Dental Laboratory, Waunakee, Wisconsin opened an on-site day care for his employees' children, as well as members of the local community.
Since this strategy is beyond the scope of what most laboratories can provide, alternatives are to subsidize off-site childcare costs or simply become a resource on childcare options in your area. You can also set up a flexible spending account (FSA) that allows your employees to set aside a portion of their pre-tax dollars for qualified childcare.
Empower your employees.
The more decisions you ask your technicians to make, the more they'll feel a sense of ownership about what they do. For example, Premium Dental sees about a dozen patients a day for in-house shade taking and the technicians call the shots. " If they need to call the doctor to request a new impression, they can," says Vallortigara. "It's important to encourage and foster responsibility because when employees "own" their jobs, they feel valued and trusted." Empowering his employees also allows Vallortigara to extract himself from much of the day-to-day operations and focus on his most important job: meeting with dentist-clients and recruiting new ones.
Challenge your technicians and provide growth opportunities.
By presenting new challenges through cross training and continuing education, you squelch boredom and keep your employees from shopping for a new position. Periodically meet with your staff to discuss their goals and establish training plans. Even if an employee isn't ready to learn something new now, he should feel that there's an avenue for professional growth within your laboratory should he become interested.
Vallortigara makes continuing education a priority by blocking out time for training in the lab's production schedule and--although his technicians are paid by piecework--paying them for the time away from production. As a member of two dental study clubs, he allows his technicians to attend any meeting in which they're interested and also brings in manufacturers for in-house training. He is also sending two technicians for advanced training next year and plans to have them cross-train some of the other employees when they return. It's a win-win-win situation, says Vallortigara: the laboratory saves money, the two employees feel respected and appreciated, and the other technicians are cross-trained.
Never underestimate the value of individual recognition and direct praise.
One-third of respondents to LMT's Employee Satisfaction Survey say their supervisors never or rarely let them know the effects of their contributions to the lab. When it comes to praise, it's not just the thought that counts. Never miss an opportunity to say "job well done" to an employee who deserves it.
And although a "thanks for your great work" isn't bad, experts say specific praise is even better. For example, "I'm impressed by the way you handled that irate doctor on the phone" or "we couldn't have done that case without your exceptional ceramic skills." In addition, look for creative ways to recognize a job well done. For example, include a personalized note with a paycheck or reward technicians with theater tickets or other fun items.
Be a mentor.
" If I knew then what I know now." Who hasn't uttered these words when reminiscing about their careers? Acting as a mentor is one way to help your employees avoid this regretful mantra and show them you're interested in helping them succeed. A good mentor tells his stories--both good and bad--of how he got to where he is today. What mistake did you make to lose a valuable client? What did you do to get him back? If you don't have the time to be a mentor, ask a valued technician to fill in; he'll feel flattered that you asked.
Share information; solicit information.
When striving to create lifetime employees, a "don't ask, don't tell" policy won't work. By sharing information, you keep your employees involved in and focused on the big picture. For instance, Terry Fohey, CDT, shares his laboratory's financial picture with his staff members. The key, he says, is to present the information in a way that is easily understood and allows them to see how their participation affects the laboratory. For example, each year the laboratory creates a cash budget that details the laboratory's daily projected expenses and what production needs to be in order to make a profit. At the end of every day, the laboratory manager tallies up the invoices to see if that day's goal has been met.
The budget also includes a monthly expense for employee bonuses that will be dispersed to employees at the end of the year. For example, if the budget slots $10,000 a month toward the bonus account, employees know that--if goals are met--there will be $120,000 in the account at the end of the year. "My employees appreciate the openness--they know there's no fluff," says Fohey, owner of Nu-Craft Dental Laboratory, Athens, Georgia. "They don't see me as an owner who sits behind closed doors counting his money. They see the fruits of their labor on a yearly basis."
Start sharing information from day one: share your laboratory's mission and goals with new employees. Whether it's to provide knockout customer service or to become the most knowledgeable implant laboratory in your area, let them know your expectations and how they fit into the equation. Ask for their commitment in accepting this as their mission, then be sure to let employees know when goals and milestones have been met.
On the flip side, encourage your employees to share what's on their minds. Do they have an idea to make production go more smoothly? Better yet, be proactive, share an existing problem and ask for solutions. You may be pleasantly surprised by their ideas and your employees will feel like an integral part of the team.
According to LMT's Employee Satisfaction Survey, 42% of technician-respondents rate the stress levels in their labs as high to very high. One way to combat stress, foster a happy environment and encourage camaraderie is to promote a fun workplace. "Research shows that a fun-filled workplace generates enthusiasm--and that enthusiasm leads to increased productivity, better customer service, a positive attitude about the company and higher odds that your talent will stay," say Kaye and Jordan-Evans in their book.
For instance, each year Terri Fodor, owner of Secret Aesthetics, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, holds a drawing at the company Christmas party. Each of her 15 employees wins a prize; the prizes increase in value with each drawn name. For example, one year the prizes ranged from gift certificates to a local restaurant to a walkman CD/radio to the grand prize: a cruise. Fodor paid for the trip using frequent flyer miles earned on a company credit card.
However, your efforts to promote fun don't have to be elaborate to be effective. "It can be as simple as bagels in the morning, pizza delivery for lunch or the occasional 'lunch out' for birthdays," says Daniela Hendrickson, CDT, owner of Northwest Ceramics, Columbus, OH. "Something that brings people together to relax, talk and share stories about themselves or even tell a joke." These breaks are an easy way to help reenergize your staff and prepare them for the next focused effort.
Create a sense of community.
Since the general public usually isn't aware of our industry, encouraging your employees to attend industry events and trade shows can combat the feeling of working in a vacuum and help create a sense of community. These opportunities are also a chance to get excited by new technology, learn about new products and network with their peers.
For instance, every year, Fountain takes his entire staff to its state association's summer Fun n' Sun meeting in Biloxi. In addition to helping his technicians see the "big picture," the trip gives him the chance to treat his employees. He pays all of their costs--including travel expenses, hotel rooms and meals--and also gives them a bonus to use as spending money for the trip. "It's an opportunity for me to thank them for their great work for the first half of the year and get them revved up for the next half," says Fountain.
Tailor your retention strategies to the needs of the individual.
Keep in mind that different issues will be important to different technicians. While a parent of young children may be interested in flex time, an older technician may be more interested in taking on a new challenge, like researching and implementing a new product or system. A good starting point: stop guessing about what keeps your best talent, ask them. Conduct "stay interviews" with your employees to find out why they stay and what would improve their chances for long-term employment. In addition, if losing valuable technicians starts to become a pattern, investigate. Conduct exit interviews to find out why they think the grass is greener at another laboratory.