Written By: Dr. Ernie Ward, Chief Veterinary Officer.
If you own or manage a veterinary clinic, chances are you’ve encountered an employee who was once outstanding and has recently started to slip or a new team member who isn’t pulling their weight or meeting expectations. You know they need to change but aren’t sure how to proceed.
You’ve got three logical options.
The first option is to accept it. Embrace whatever the issue is as a “new normal” and move forward. The challenge is to stop complaining about the problem and adjust your expectations accordingly.
The second solution is to quit it. Fire the problem employee. You’re the boss, after all.
The third choice when dealing with “people problems” in your business is to change it. You create a plan to train, mentor, and evaluate the employee.
Most managers do none of these. Instead, they behave illogically and irrationally when dealing with employee issues. They complain to their family and friends. They gossip among co-workers. They hope that by ignoring the issue, radiating negative vibes, and rolling their eyes, the problem will miraculously resolve.
The only miracle is these folks remain in business.
Why Feedback Matters
Giving frequent employee feedback is foundational to a successful - and sustainable - business. Yet most vet clinics wait until an employee asks for an evaluation or a catastrophe occurs before providing honest feedback. In the former case, that’s employee-speak for, “I want a raise.” In the latter, it’s simply too late to do any good.
When business leaders fail to give employees feedback on their performance, both positive and negative, workers are left to guess how they’re doing. Team members continue to act in the way they believe is right or acceptable without any outside perspective. Until there’s a problem, they don’t receive feedback; they receive punishment.
Positive feedback informs employees where they excel and how to do more of it. It can be as simple as “catching someone doing something good each day.” A slap on the back and a “thank you” can go a long way toward inspiring the type of work you want and need. More formal feedback sessions, ideally every six months for the first two to three years, can focus more intensely on skills and attributes you want to hone.
Negative feedback offers employees an opportunity to improve. It shouldn’t be viewed as antagonistic but sympathetic to a specific issue and seeks to make things better. It doesn’t necessarily focus on the worst in employees but on what we can change.
The goal is to provide constructive, not critical, feedback. Constructive feedback encourages growth and improvement, while critical feedback only tells someone they’re not good.
Delivering Negative Feedback
Giving negative feedback requires preparation, the proper mindset, and intentional delivery. When done correctly, it should leave everyone feeling appreciative and eager to improve. Done poorly, it can cause emotional outbursts, demotivation, and termination.
The first step managers and owners need to do is prepare the feedback. Most of the time, feedback, especially corrective conversations, occurs in an emotionally-charged setting, with tension running high. Something goes wrong, and you lash out in anger. That is the worst setting to try to communicate rationally and motivate change.
When you’re calm, focused, and willing to focus deeply on all aspects of the problem, you’re ready to prepare your feedback.
What is going wrong with your employee? Be specific. Document actual events rather than general feelings. "They refused to help Sally with Buster Smith's blood test because they said Sally didn't help her." This is better than "They don't help out in treatment." Employees don’t need to hear vague generalizations of their wrongdoings; they need real examples.
How do their actions (or inactions) affect the team or workflow? Again, be specific.
How can they improve? Giving feedback is an opportunity to draft a course for change. It's essential to have some direction you'd like them to take. Writing down your thoughts allows you to refine them and helps keep your feedback session on track. You can still negotiate future actions based on the employee's responses, but you must draft the general process beforehand.
Next, tell your employee you’d like to meet with them to discuss their work. Nothing is worse than springing bad news on an unsuspecting employee. Pull them aside and say, “I noticed you and Sally had a disagreement earlier. I’d like to share some feedback and discuss how we can improve things moving forward. Let’s meet tomorrow morning at eight.”
Your tone and demeanor when giving feedback are critical. Remain calm, measured, and center your thoughts on solutions. Resist the urge to become upset, regardless of how your employee acts.
Avoid using the “feedback sandwich” tactic of hiding the bad news inside a golden bun of good when delivering negative feedback. The standard compliment/critique/compliment strategy may diminish the actual negative impacts of the employee’s actions. Be direct but empathetic. Clearly articulate the problem and offer your plan to correct it. Encourage self-reflection by asking the employee their thoughts on what happened and why. If they veer into blaming others, steer them back to what they control - their actions and attitude.
Be honest, sincere, and listen. Most employees know when they’re underperforming, so negative feedback isn’t surprising. Make it clear you intend to help them improve rather than pointing out faults. Many managers fear asking employees to speak when giving negative feedback, resulting in a one-sided conversation. Allow the employee to participate in the dialogue as long as they remain professional and civil. Listening demonstrates empathy and can enhance your insight into the problem.
When your evaluation ends, the employee shouldn’t walk out thinking, “What just happened?” Summarize your feedback, action plan, and follow-through process. Provide the employee with a copy of your assessment to review later.
Create a written development plan with regular check-ins to monitor progress based on your conversation. Offer specific actions or changes you’re looking for. Weekly five- to ten-minute meetings while you’re working on the problem ensure the issue remains top of mind for you and the employee.
When improvement is observed, celebrate it. If the employee fails to change, document it. If no meaningful gains have been made in two to three weeks, it may be appropriate to part ways or change your approach. Your business won’t grow if you foster a team of employees disinterested in progress.
Giving negative employee feedback is unavoidable in owning or managing a business. Constantly monitor your processes for areas to enhance, provide regular and thoughtful feedback to employees, and strive to elevate your communication and leadership.
Here’s to getting better,
Dr. Ernie Ward
Chief Veterinary Officer, VerticalVet