LMT's survey--based on responses from 176 owners and managers--addresses Daichman's inquiry.
Continuing Education Reimbursement
How many times has this happened to you? You just paid for a promising technician to take an expensive course on a new technique and, two weeks later, you find out he's leaving to open a lab across town.
The majority of respondents--82%--don't have a policy requiring repayment of continuing education costs if a technician leaves soon after taking a course, and many point out they can't let the fear of training their future competition stop them from investing in their staffs.
However, others try to protect themselves from losing training dollars on technicians who don't have a long-term commitment to their laboratories. "When we send an employee to a course that costs several thousand dollars, we will first ask him to commit to a length of time with our lab," says Jason Garanzuay, Authentic Dental Laboratory, Inc., San Antonio, Texas. "This commitment is in writing and includes a pro-rated repayment if he quits." For instance, if an employee leaves within six months of the course, he must repay 100%; after one year he's responsible for 50%. Hotel and travel costs are often included with the amount to be repaid.
Labs that don't have reimbursement policies may be warming up to the idea, citing the current unstable economy. Scott Emett, owner of Riverside Dental Studio, St. George, Utah, says, "Reimbursement has not been our policy, but because courses are so expensive and the recession is so strong, we may need to reconsider."
E-mail and Internet access is not a major concern to most respondents since very few labs have computers at the bench. However, 39% of respondents say they do allow Internet use, typically during lunch hour or breaks. Fifty-three percent do not allow access at all and another eight percent have no policy in place.
Seventy-four percent of our respondents allow cell phone use in the laboratory, believing it leads to greater employee morale and loyalty. "We all have lives away from work and the more we allow our employees to stay connected to their own lives, the more they seem to connect to the lab," says Troy Cook, manager of Hilltop Dental Laboratory, Inc., Virginia Beach, Virginia. Of that percentage, two-thirds take measures to monitor their use. For instance, they require employees to put phones on vibrate, restrict use to emergency calls only or require employees to clock out for conversations.
While respondents overall are reluctant to ban their use--only 14% do--cell phones sparked some criticism from survey respondents who find them to be a distraction. "Our cell phone policy restricts use of cell phones at the workbench," says one respondent. "Our feeling is that 1) they shouldn't be paid to talk personal business, and 2) other employees in their area don't care to listen to them chat about Grandma's bunions or how rowdy that concert was last night."
Fifty-six percent document their policies in writing and, not surprisingly, there's a direct correlation between lab size and documentation. For smaller labs, a written policy manual is generally too formal and not consistent with their close working relationships. Others say their lab's policies are "known" and prefer to handle issues on a case-by-case basis as they arise.
On the other hand, larger staffs typically dictate a stronger need for written policy manuals that clearly outline the laboratory's expectations. William Grill, owner of 32-person Thompson Suburban Dental Lab in Timonium, Maryland, says, "A handbook that is read and signed is the best tool for keeping good employees--it holds everyone accountable, employee and employer."
In some cases, these documented policies have "saved the day" for the laboratory owner. "We have a policy that makes it our employees' responsibility to know and familiarize themselves with our Material Safety Data Sheet manual and we require them to sign a form verifying that they attended our annual safety meeting," says Sandra Stuart of six-person First Impressions Dental Lab, Inc., Mt. Vernon, Washington. "When a disgruntled former employee accused us of unsafe storage of chemicals, we were audited by our state labor department and we deflected a fine by producing our written policy as well as his signed form."
The majority--79%--allow MP3 players. The prevailing opinion is that MP3 players and headphones allow technicians to better concentrate. "People who wear MP3 players seem to 'tune out' lab distractions and focus on the work they're doing," says Diane Hughes, owner of Oak Tree Dental Lab, Columbus, Ohio. On the other hand, 15% of respondents feel MP3 players are counterproductive to teamwork and communication and ban their use. "We work in one large, open area so we can look at each other and talk," says one respondent from the Midwest. "My lab works as a team, not as individual units, so I believe that requires listening to what is going on around you."
Food at the Bench
When it comes to owners who allow food and drink (58%) and personal items (85%) at the bench, the prevailing sentiment is everything in moderation. Some respondents allow covered drinks and small snacks, while others allow small personal items--no larger than a slice of bread, says one respondent. "We show all of our employees respect and they give it back to us two-fold," says Tom Anderson, co-owner of Cornerstone Dental Labs, Ivytown, Pennsylvania. "Why wouldn't you allow someone a drink or a picture of a Harley at his bench?"
Many owners who don't allow food or drink at benches refer to state laws or OSHA safety regulations prohibiting such items from production areas. For instance, OSHA mandates that food and drink should not be allowed in risk areas, such as those containing hazardous chemicals or potentially infectious items.