Hiring Properly in a Tight Labor Market

A common theme at conferences and in dental media lately is a shortage of people to hire.  The sustained pre-Covid economic boom was already exerting pressure on the labor supply, and the past eighteen months have made things much worse.

The American Association of Dental Hygienists states that 8% of dental hygienists have left the profession since Covid struck, and we have every reason to believe that the same is true for other dental office positions.

Whether externally imposed or an office policy, a requirement for staff to be vaccinated can make things worse by further limiting the pool of available talent.

So how can a practice owner achieve full staffing when there is a shortage of available people?  Here are some ideas:

  1.  Keep existing staff happy.  The value of a trained, motivated staff member who knows the office and the patients is considerable.  So respect that.  Money is always a factor in job satisfaction, but there are others that are often more important.  For example, the extent to which an employee feels listened to is integral to job satisfaction.
  2. Be proactive.  Every dentist understands the value of a short-notice list for patients.  But relatively few apply the same concept to staffing, which means that, when someone leaves, many practice owners begin a “cold” job search.  Every practice owner needs to be continually looking for people who could be a fit for their practice.  People you meet at conferences, patients, or that particularly attentive food server on a Friday night restaurant outing should all be noted and filed away. Your short-notice job search will always be more effective if you have two or three promising candidates in mind.
  3. Broaden your horizons.  Many practice owners limit themselves to looking for people with dental experience.  This results in a very small pool of possible applicants.  In a credentialled position like dental hygiene, it is obviously impossible to hire people from other fields.  However, provided you have good manuals and other training resources, customer service positions can be filled from outside dentistry.  While this is not a short-term solution, some dentists have addressed persistent shortages of dental assistants by creating an assisting school.
  4. Be productive.  Removing bottlenecks to productivity can allow you to function temporarily or even permanently with less people.  Productivity improvement can be anything from replacing a ten-year-old workstation to utilizing patient communication software to using dental assistants to increase hygiene output.
  5. Outsource.  There are companies that allow various front-office functions to be outsourced.  This could include anything from the submission and follow up of insurance claims to answering the phone to providing online chat response for your website.  The best candidates for outsourcing are things that are technical (e.g., insurance claim management) to allow lesser-trained people to function in your office or things that are disruptive such as online chat response.
  6. Overstaff.  While there is a measurable cost to having more staff on hand that you strictly need, the cost of being understaffed can be much higher.  Also, if being well-staffed allows you to enhance the patient experience, (“Would you like some coffee while we are getting ready for you?”) then suddenly instead of a cost you have a practice builder.

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room.  One of the best strategies for protecting your practice from embezzlement is to screen potential employees carefully.  We have written extensively on our website about what constitutes proper background checking (see, for example, https://www.prosperident.com/dentist-hire-badly/).  Dentistry has earned a justified reputation among criminals of being casual about pre-employment screening, and as a consequence, we see many “serial embezzlers” who have victimized multiple practices.

It is tempting, when you post a position and get only a single applicant, to eschew proper screening.  Sooner or later, this approach will hurt you.  While a tight labor market may cause you to lower your standards of what constitutes an acceptable applicant (one dentist recently described his current standard as requiring “two feet and a heartbeat”), any decision to settle for less than ideal should be based on a clear idea of the shortfall versus usual requirements.  Unwittingly hiring a serial embezzler is unlikely to solve your staffing problems, and will certainly create plenty of other issues.

Fortunately, dental office jobs offer steady employment, good working hours and the ability to help people in a healthcare environment.  There are lots of great people for whom the vacancy you are filling represents a great fit.  The challenge is to find these people, and to do so in a compressed period.  The strategies in this article will help, and should also increase your ability to screen applicants properly.