How to Prevent Toxic Work Culture

Creating a positive work culture is critical to the success of your clinic and the health of your patients. Talented people won’t stick around in toxic environments.

In fact, a toxic work culture was the number one cause of employee turnover in 2021.

And those who don’t head for greener pastures certainly won’t have the energy and motivation to do their best work.

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Below, we’ll cover how to determine if your clinic suffers from a toxic work environment — and what you can do if it does.

How to diagnose a toxic environment
These are common characteristics of veterinary clinics with negative workplace culture:

  • Resistance to change: Of course, most people don’t love change — but excessive resistance can be a sign of a “stuck” culture.

Download our Veterinary Change Management guide to take the pain out of change management.

  • Poor collaboration: Hoarding knowledge and an “only I can do it” attitude can lead to bad morale, burnout, and miscommunication.
  • Defensive attitudes: Team members who are prone to being defensive or who are aggressive with their teammates and/or clients are fuel on the toxic workplace fire.
  • Low morale: Toxic cultures take a real toll on morale. If your team lacks engagement, or has seen a downturn in productivity, or an uptick in turnover, you might have a morale problem.
  • Unhealthy boundaries: Expecting team members to come in on their days off, take client calls on their personal cell phones, accept harassment from clients, or skip their PTO because of work creates unhealthy boundaries that breed toxicity.
  • Harassment and bullying: Any kind of harassment, whether it’s team member to team member or client to employee has a negative impact on workplace culture. It is tempting to adopt a “customer is always right” mindset, but not when it comes to harassment or bullying. Extend your zero tolerance policy to clients. If clients are allowed to bully your team it sends a message that harassment is tolerated.

Learn how to make difficult conversations with clients less daunting.

  • Negative customer reviews: A toxic environment can be felt by everyone, so if you’re feeling it — so are your pet parents.

Get the 4-1-1 on everything you need to know about reputation with our deep-dive guide.

Ultimately, the impact of a toxic culture isn’t just on team member attitudes, but also on pet owner satisfaction and patient care. Let’s talk about how to turn around a toxic team.

Identify a champion or create a cross-functional team

If you’re trying to build a team culture, start with a team. Recruit a small team that includes a veterinarian, technician, and customer service representative to ensure that each part of your practice has a champion.

Start with an open discussion about the team dynamic. Each member of the champion team should be committed to helping their peer group with conflict management. The champions should also be the voice of their smaller team groups to bring up problems to the champion team.

This small knit team can be the problem solvers behind the scenes working to improve culture daily — from within.

Leadership also plays a key role in making a cultural turn-around. Practice managers are critical to shifting team norms with one difficult, but critical first step: Clearing the air.

Clear the air and move forward

Clearing the air does not mean making excuses or assigning blame. Clearing the air means addressing the issues head on to start to build a culture of transparency and open communication. This is a critical step in establishing new team norms. As part of this process, make sure the team knows that it is safe to share feedback in a constructive way and that leadership is listening to them. Provide concrete examples of first steps that leadership will take to make workplace improvements.

Clearing the air does not mean brushing problems under the rug. It means being open to hearing what the team is challenged with and being willing to make changes in real time.

For example, if your team shares that they are so overwhelmed by the phone that they haven’t eaten lunch in months. be prepared to help. You’ll need to implement changes and bring them back to the group to prove that progress is being made.

Allowing the team to share what they are going through in a safe space is critical to turning over a new leaf. As part of this process establish a conflict management process to maintain positive progress.

Focus on team Building

First thing’s first, it’s important to understand buying a pizza isn’t team building. Forcing the team to do trust falls isn’t either. Fortunately, there are several ways you can bring your team closer together:

  • Foster collaboration: Intentionally connect teammates who have synergistic skills to foster professional development.
  • Recognition programs: Sometimes a simple “thank you” goes a long way. Implement formal recognition programs at your clinic that reward your employees with the things they really want: PTO, recognition among their peers, or personalized rewards that show you know what is important to them. If your team is large, peer-to-peer recognition programs are a great way to get your team sharing the love with each other.
  • Training and development: Ongoing training opportunities go a long way in making teams feel valued. Sending multiple team members together can even further strengthen the team bond. Learning together, traveling together, and sharing meals together can accelerate team bonding.
  • Mentoring: Formal mentoring is especially important for new graduates. If you don’t have the bandwidth to mentor them at the clinic, consider investing in a mentoring program to support them.
  • Celebrate wins as a team: Okay, now it’s okay to break out the pizza! Honor team wins by recognizing both individuals and teams. If someone turns around a negative customer service interaction, celebrate it! If a teammate went above and beyond to help a peer, recognize it. By celebrating wins you reinforce the kind of behavior you want to see on your team.

Finding the balance

One of the biggest drivers of poor culture, especially in veterinary hospitals, is a lack of work-life balance. Staff shortages have amplified this struggle. Use these tips to help your team find balance:

Learn more about what clinic automation is and why you should care.

Solicit continuous feedback

Workplace culture change is not a one-time fix. It’s something that needs to be prioritized and intentionally nurtured. Set a regular cadence of meetings to make sure you’re staying on the right path. Create easy ways for the team to give feedback — whether it’s an anonymous feedback box in the kitchen, office hours with the practice manager, or smaller group meetings, continuous feedback is key to maintaining forward progress.

Good luck!

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