Hire Ground



If you’ve ever hired the wrong person, you know how stressful, awkward, and costly that mistake can be. As a practice development trainer, I have visited with thousands of dentists over the years and I can say without hesitation that hiring the right person is a universal challenge. I am constantly asked about it when I travel around the country for my in-office coaching appointments and Total Team Training seminars.

The challenge is further complicated by the fact that creating an effective dental team is probably the single most important factor you can do. It determines your practice’s level of productivity and thus directly affects the bottom line.

So when you embark into that unchartered territory of hiring your team, how do you know that you’re reaching “higher ground” by hiring the right people for the right positions? After all, you went to school to become trained as a dentist, not as a human resources expert!

If you’re like many dentists, you probably approach hiring as a series of independent tasks, whereas you should consider hiring as an integrated process. Many of the daily procedures that dentists do are based on a progression of linked activities to create beautiful outcomes for your patients. Similarly, standardizing the hiring process is a way to bring about results that are consistent, predictable, and repeatable.

Overcome the Obstacles
Hiring dental staff involves a couple of basic challenges. First, hiring is not something that dentists do every day. Everyone becomes good at the things they do often. Second, much of the hiring that I have seen is based on intuition rather than established criteria.

Dentists usually interview candidates and ask them about their work history, skills, and qualifications. Then they review each individual’s performance and simply hire someone.

This approach to hiring, though very common, can lead to disappointing results. Dentists tell me all the time that hiring a dream team staff member is impossible. Well, it doesn’t have to be! The power of having the right people in the right positions is a competitive advantage. To find the best team members, dental practices should adopt a system when hiring.

Find What You’re Looking For
Hiring the right person starts well before the interview. I recommend that every dental practice create clear criteria for each of their team roles. This criteria is defined in “team member profiles.” I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill job descriptions. If you are looking for dream team members, get specific with these descriptions.

A team member profile is both an exercise and a tool designed to clearly identify what you are looking for, so that you can recognize it when you see it.

Team member profiles should include
• a brief description of the position, including its responsibilities,
• the work expected,
• the kinds of personality traits required to be successful,
• any specialty skills or certifications required, and
• key performance indicators (KPIs), which measure a person’s success in the job.

Below, a chart shows the traits that each dental team member must have to be effective. It can be modified to fit the needs of your particular practice.

What Can Be Taught?
With each position, identify characteristics and/or skills that are trainable versus non-trainable. This is important because you don’t want to become blind to near-perfect candidates, who may only need a little training to become perfect candidates. Near-perfect candidates may be only missing one skill that can be learned.Hire Ground-Tawana_Chart v2

A good example of a trainable skill is proper phone etiquette. You can teach someone how to answer a phone properly with a prepared dialogue and with scenarios of how to address conflicts that may arise.

However, an example of an untrainable skill is friendliness. Either a candidate is naturally warm and friendly with others or they find it difficult to convey a sense of friendliness (and may come across as reserved or aloof). It’s not something that can necessarily be taught (but it is critical to certain positions).

Knowing which skills can be trained versus which characteristics cannot be trained may help you spot a candidate with potential. It’s important to keep in mind that even though you may identify trainable skills versus non-trainable skills, you also need to identify candidates who are teachable and willing to be trained.

Some final things for every team member profile are indicators that show how success in the position will be measured. In business, such measurements are called key performance indicators (KPIs).

For example, a good KPI for the front office person would be to look at the number of people on the recall list. A highly effective front office person will never have more than 50 to 60 people across all recall lists.

Identifying KPIs helps you set expectations when you bring a new staff member on board. It also allows you to quickly identify if employees are performing their duties well or not.

Hiring Is a Process
As noted previously, most dental practices follow a basic, intuition-based process when filling a vacant position. Although my model for hiring contains some similar elements, there are also significant differences.

My hiring process consists of three main steps: to identify (step one), to verify (step two), and to quantify (step three) each candidate and their potential for success in your office. Each step acts as a filter that allows you to evaluate potential employees, and spend your time and effort where it offers the most benefit for your team.

Step One: Identify The Candidates
The first objective is to find a candidate that meets the requirements of the position. (The requirements are contained in the team member profile. Remember, you can modify the team member profiles according to your specific needs.)

Start by comparing the requirements of the team member profile with an individual’s résumé. Keep in mind that résumés only offer a narrow view of the candidate. Therefore, the primary focus should be to quickly verify that the candidate has the experience, work history, and any certifications or licensing required.

When reviewing a candidate’s work history, don’t limit work experience to dental offices. People who work in the business office (such as the front office person, schedule coordinator, and financial coordinator) don’t necessarily need dental experience to effectively fulfill their roles.

Other details, such as how the résumé is organized, worded, and formatted may also provide critical insight. For example, if you are looking for a scheduling coordinator, pay special attention to how the résumé is organized. A poorly organized résumé is a red flag that perhaps this candidate might not have the skills that he or she needs to be a successful scheduling coordinator.

While you should not necessarily exclude such a candidate immediately, if you proceed and interview the candidate, you should drill down on his or her organization skills.

Résumés are not the most telling step in the identify phase, but they allow you to quickly locate candidates that might be worth talking to.

The Interview
The interview is where the rubber meets the road! Meeting with candidates in person and interacting with them is a great way to assess their personality and compare it with the traits in the team member profile.

When I interview candidates, I always make note of four specific qualities: their professional appearance, their ability to make eye contact, their listening skills, and their body language. These four qualities tell me a lot about a person and whether or not he or she will be a good candidate for the dental office.

How a candidate presents him or herself at the interview is also a sign of how seriously they take the job opportunity. It is a good indication of how the candidate will represent your practice to patients.

I recommend that dentists ask themselves a question after meeting a candidate, “Does this person convey the image that I want presented to patients when they come into my practice?” If your answer is “no,” it’s better to determine that early on rather than after you have spent time and effort hiring them.

The Eyes Have It
A candidate’s ability to maintain eye contact and engage during an interview is a good sign of confident communication skills and the ability to connect with patients. Eye contact reveals an openness in communication. It lets other people know that you are interested in them and care about what they say.

Making and keeping eye contact helps you build a relationship of trust. If people can maintain good eye contact with you during an interview (usually a very stressful time for prospective employees), it speaks volumes about their ability to communicate with patients in a similar way. If they can’t, this is likely not a person you want closely interacting with patients.

Listen Up!
Good listening skills are also imperative for dream team members. They need to listen to other team members, to the dentist, and to patients.

During an interview, test prospective employees’ listening skills by paying attention to how well they answer the questions. Do they listen to what you’re asking and respond with an appropriate answer? Or do they “go off on a tangent?”

If candidates are unclear about what is being asked, do they follow up with questions? Or do the candidates assume they know the question? A red flag is raised when candidates assume that they know what I am asking and interrupt me before I finish asking a question.

Such behavior identifies a person as having poor listening skills and in most situations, this could be a dealbreaker for certain positions, such as a financial coordinator, a dental assistant, or a hygienist.

Signs and Signals
Body language is a great way to get insight on potential candidates, especially those who interact closely with patients. This is important for the financial coordinator role, in particular. Dealing with the financial concerns of patients can be a stressful interaction. When I interview a potential financial coordinator and his or her body is rigid, with arms tightly folded across the chest during the interview, it raises some concern.

During interviews, look at what a candidate’s body language communicates and if it changes throughout the interview. To learn more about body language, read the article, “Understanding Body Language,” by Kendra Cherry at About.com. If what someone says doesn’t match what their body is telling you, proceed with caution.

Finally, when interviewing, watch out for candidates who are eager to offer a lot of change. Candidates who tell you what problems they will solve may seem attractive, but instead, look for candidates who want to fit into the existing culture.

Step Two: Verify The Résumé
When hiring new employees, it is absolutely crucial that you not only get references and look at credentials, but that you actually verify them! It is surprising how often claims made by candidates on résumés and during interviews go unverified. The implications of not checking on résumé details can lead to legal and operational disasters!

Before hiring a candidate, check references and verify any and all credentials. For example, if you are hiring for a clinical position that requires state licensing, you must take the steps to verify that the license is valid.

I know a dentist who, many years ago, hired a hygienist but didn’t check her credentials. The dentist just assumed that she had them. After she had been working for him for a while, the dentist learned that the hygienist had never even passed her boards!

Because the dentist failed to verify the hygienist’s credentials, he failed to meet his requirements as an employer. This oversight opened him up to a large liability that could have cost him his practice had something gone wrong with a patient.

In most cases, verification is done simply by contacting your state’s Department of Professional Licensing and asking for proof. The prospective employee should present a copy of the license for you. If they don’t, request a copy of the license before making any hiring decisions.

Once you hire a verified candidate, add the licensing documentation to their employee file. Also, make note of expirations or recertification dates, so that you can follow up with the employee and make sure the license remains in good standing.

Finally, always make sure that serious candidates have all of their continuing education (CE) hours up to date. Credentials and licensure of prospective employees must be checked, documented, and kept in good standing.

Verification of references is important, too. References are a great way to obtain additional information about a potential employee. Make sure, however, that you have quality references. I recommend asking for only professional references. Every prospective employee should have some kind of reference that he or she can give you.

If they are right out of school and this is their first job, they might not have work-related references in the dental industry. However, they should have someone who can vouch for their abilities in the field, such as an instructor, mentor, or trainer.

Always ask candidates for references, and don’t be shy about requesting professional references if they have provided only personal ones. Then check the references using the criteria established in the team member profile to ask very specific questions related to the candidate’s past performance and personality traits.

Test Skills and Personality
Verifying skills and traits is important. After the first round of interviews, invite good candidates back for a second interview. When hiring, I tell dentists, “Don’t be in too big of a hurry!” Take your time to find the right person. A little extra time in hiring can make a big difference in ensuring that a candidate will be a good fit.

During a second interview, you have the opportunity to check a candidate’s skill level with testing, scenarios, and role-playing exercises. Standardized testing is a well-established exercise in many human resource departments.

Some tests identify personality traits and compare them to the job requirements. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and the DiSC® personality assessment are widely used tests that can measure compatibility with your culture and the specific a position.

In addition to personality tests, pre-employment tests are available that are specifically customized for the dental profession. Some employee testing companies with dental tests include Criteria Corp. (www.criteriacorp.com) and Optimize Hire (www.optimizehire.com). These companies test primarily for cognitive ability, motivation, and personality.

Scenario and Role-Playing Exercises
Scenario and role-playing evaluations are great ways to determine if a candidate has the skills you need. With these exercises, verification is intuitive, quick to administer, and easy to customize to the needs of your practice. Here are some examples:

1. Front Office Assistant/Receptionist

  1. Ask the prospective candidate to take a call, to see how he or she handles an interaction with a patient.
  2. Then ask a member of your staff to call the office from a cell phone and run the candidate through a predefined scenario like a cancellation or an emergency caller.
  3. Watch how the candidate handles the situation and compare this behavior to what you would normally expect.
  4. For further confirmation, ask the prospect if it’s okay to call his or her current office sometime. This gives you a chance to hear how the candidate answers the phone at the office. It will give you an idea of how the candidate will treat the people who call your office.

2. Schedule Coordinator

  1. Provide prospective candidates with sample schedules: a productive schedule and an unproductive schedule.
  2. Ask candidates which schedule they think is more productive and why [for Dr. Dick Barnes Group attendees, a sample schedule is available in the Total Team Training Manual].
  3. Ask candidates to identify problems associated with confined and unconfined procedures (this shows how deep their understanding of proper scheduling is and also where additional training might be required).

3. Financial Coordinator

  1. Setup a role-play exercise in which a patient is in need of a large amount of dentistry. Use a full arch reconstruction as the hypothetical case.
  2. The fee for the case is $40,000. Ask the candidate to present the fee to the patient (you).
  3. Watch how the candidate responds—it reveals a lot about whether or not he or she is comfortable presenting financing for large cases.
  4. Consider—does the candidate communicate clearly under pressure?
  5. Does his or her body language express caring and empathy?
  6. Does he or she review financing options? Or does the candidate simply present the fee?

4. Dental Assistant

  1. For this position, ask the interviewee to identify various dental tools to confirm that he or she is proficient with all instrumentation and its functions.
  2. Quiz the candidate on how he or she would handle various situations, like dealing with a fearful patient.
  3. Consider asking a candidate to set up one of your operatories that isn’t in use for a specific procedure.

5. Hygienist

  1. For this position, ask the hygienist to set up the operatory for a hygiene appointment.
  2. Make sure that all the requisite tools and supplies are pulled and in the proper quantity.
  3. Ask a member of your team to play the role of a patient. In the course of the role-play, ask the patient to inject what I call a patient “wish,” and see how the candidate responds. For example: 
Candidate: So [Patient Name], how is everything going? Have you been having any problems?
    Patient: Everything seems okay. I haven’t noticed any problems with my teeth. It would be nice if I didn’t have to wear this thing any more [patient points to a removable partial denture in her mouth] but I guess that is just part of getting older.

A good hygiene candidate should notice the patient’s concern and develop additional information. Such action shows that the candidate can identify additional procedures like implants that the doctor might wish to discuss with the patient.

Before using scenarios or role-playing, create a scoring system so that candidates can be consistently evaluated and compared. Without a scale, you may resort to relying upon how you felt they performed rather than accurately comparing one candidate against another.

These verification exercises measure what the candidates know and give you insight into what, if any, additional training may need to take place.

Step Three: Quantify The Results
If you haven’t vetted candidates appropriately in the identify and verify phases, the quantify phase can be frustrating and/or disruptive. The quantify phase begins once you hire a candidate.

I advise dentists to closely observe and evaluate the performance of the new hires for the first 60 to 90 days. This is a time period in which you should pay particular attention to the new employee’s performance.

This period of time is also when the value of the team member profile becomes apparent, especially if you have defined KPIs for each of the roles. KPIs allow you to focus on key measures of success in terms of concrete results rather than feelings or “gut” impressions.

With these measures, you can quickly evaluate the performance of a new hire and determine if he or she is indeed the right person for the job. The profile will also show you areas where ongoing training and improvements may be needed and how well the employee is doing with that training.

Taking the Higher Ground
Turn the hiring process into a journey to “higher ground.” With a well-defined process in place, you can increase your chances of finding the right fit for your practice. Once you have a team of such individuals, your practice potential will dramatically increase. You’ll have higher productivity, better care for your patients, and more time to focus on the dentistry you want to be doing.

As you encourage your team members to advance and improve their skills, each member of the team will become more effective. And therefore, you will all be on the higher ground together!

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Tawana Coleman was a practice development trainer with the Dr. Dick Barnes Group for more than 20 years. She worked with thousands of dental practices across the United States and Europe. The structure that she taught empowered dental practices to dramatically increase production. For any questions, email Tawana at rtcoleman@cox.net.


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