Your Most Valuable Worker

by Mary Ellen Psaltis

She’s your favorite employee. Not only does she perform every task in her job description, she often finds things that need doing – and does them. You trust her with financial transactions, confidential patient phone calls, and making decisions. She’s an excellent sounding board, listens carefully to your business concerns and usually understands your point of view. You’ve been known to leave the office together, have dinner and end up at your place. And why not? She’s your wife. From your position, everything looks great. However, this job has its price. Gaining awareness of some of the multiple issues that can swirl around your spouse might heighten your appreciation of the scope of work she does, as well as help you work together to create the results you both are striving to achieve.

The field of dentistry welcomes more women practicioners every year. There are also men who are hygenists, front office workers and chairside assistants. However, a more common ocurance is the male dentist with a staff of primarily, often exclusively, women. It is this chemistry on which the article focuses.

Overall, the wife’s activity in the office supports the success of the practice. Let’s take a look at the roles she might manage and their implications for the dentist, the staff and the practice.

Sounding Board:  With a wife who works full time in the office, the dentist is able to talk about any aspect of the practice - scheduling, employees, payroll, patients, repairs and equipment – with a person with first hand experience. Her intimate knowledge can provide accurate analysis, honest feedback and careful consideration to your ideas and concerns. Employees often find it easier to bounce ideas off the wife before bringing their idea to “the dentist.” The suggestion can be made in a casual way during other conversation and the wife’s feedback is important in what happens next. If the wife really likes the idea, she might deliver it herself, giving it more credence and power. Or, if she thinks it’s a poor idea or badly timed, it might stop right there. This scenerio is appropriate for an Office Manager. However, since this is often the wife, her more encompasssing relationship with the boss makes talking to her a more direct line to the top. Employees may come to her with a variety of issues or ideas:  personal concerns, problems with other employees, uniform changes or scheduling conflicts. Compared to the dentist, the spouse may be more available, a more interested listener and be able to offer appropriate support to the employee. Many of these conversations will begin and end with the spouse, and never even make it to the dentist.

Office Manager:  One of the most typical positions for the spouse is Office Manager.  This position oversees everything except the actual dentistry. The Office Manager encompasses finances, personnel, reading the mail and taking out the garbage. This is great news for the dentist. He can what he has been trained to do in the back, and she can take care of everything else. The women with whom I spoke were proud to be invested in the progress of the practice. Rarely does an employee work with equal commitment and intensity of an owner. Your wife is an owner, and it shows. For the dentist, you get someone you can truly count on. For the employees, there are a myriad of possibilities. Since she’s married to the boss, can you confide in her? Whose side is she really on?  Is her attention to details due to the fact that she’s the boss’ wife or that she’s just fact that she obsessive and/or critical? Is she really qualified for this job? Many spouses have college educations and higher degrees, but it may be assumed by employees and people outside the practice that she got the job because of her marriage.  Some spouses feel the need to be extremely competent in the job to ally suspicions of underqualification.

Setting an Example:  You notice your wife looks lovely each morning. That’s nice; she probably does. But it goes way beyond being clean and courteous. It’s no secret that people look at people. Women definitely look at each other. The added element as the dentist’s wife is the level of scrutiny magnifies. Your employees are checking out her clothes, figuring out where she might have purchased them, noticing her jewelry, her make-up, her hair style and her shoes. Is she too fat or too thin? All these add up to a reflection of her own personal tastes and values, which in turn reflects back to the dentist. There is endless judging around material spending, success and values. None of this analyzing is bad or wrong, but ask a dental wife if she knows she has been “checked out.” She has.

Getting Respect:  The dentist has earned repect by completing dental school, perhaps additional specialty training and then opening an office. These are significant accomplishments. Many wives attended college with their husbands, held jobs, had and cared for children and worked side by side with their spouse to open the office. Many have earned their own degrees. But when they work in the office, odd things happen. There is a pervasive but quiet attitude that she’s “the dentist’s wife.” Undesirable connotations include She married him for his money, or She’s not as smart as he is. It is not unusual for people to express surprise when they find out the wife has an MBA, a business degree or a career totally outside dentistry. When patients come to your office, the dentist’s path is clear: University diplomas, dental and specialty degrees hang on the walls and the office is open. The spouse’s path is conspicuously unclear. Did she help him through dental school? Did she recently marry him? Does she have a degree? Does she have anything better to do? If she worked in someone else’s dental office, these questions wouldn’t come up. But whether asked aloud or not, these thoughts go through people’s heads.

Additionally, the dentist is on the payroll, meaning he gets a regular check. In many cases the wife takes her financial rewards through her husband or by way of the most advantageous tax plan. Wives told me they were satisfied with this arrangement, but it is not the same as employment elsewhere. Ironically, when wives were paid an hourly or monthly wage, employees were disgrunted  about implications of her salary cutting into their bonuses.

Working with Other Women: A team of female employees has strong chemistry. The male dentist may be or may choose to be clueless about the intricacies of these relationships, but your wife will be in the midst of it. In my experience and from information from interviews, men tend to work alone fine and don’t mind working in “packs.” The guys can hurl insults, get loud, posture, get over it and forget it. Women, on the other hand, tend to accumulate information, develop cliques, withhold feelings and bring in an array of emotions to any situation. They have greater concern for relationships, uniform colors, child care, and lunch. Woman are the great nurturers of the world, but they can be very mean. On any given day at work, someone was awake the night before with a sick child, has PMS,  and a list of things to do a home. She’s certainly there to work, but it’s not the only  thing on her mind. Many are taking stock of who comes in late, who is cleaning more trays, whose fingernails are too long or who is grumpy. Many dentists can keep out of the fray and let their employees work these issues out among themselves. Your wife, however, can not distance herself as easily. The importance of having clearly written job descriptions as well as Office Policies will take your wife out of the middle of many situations.

Whose in Charge? Few things will create as much destruction as a couple at cross purposes. Employees figure out quickly who to ask, who to agitate, who to activate in order to get their way. As a couple it is essential to have an understanding of who is in charge of what – where a decision ultimately lies. As the days turn into weeks and into years, habits get formed.  Make sure your employees know.

Communicating with Each Other:  The last patient walks out the door. For the dentist this might mean time to change clothes and get out of the office. For the wife, it might mean quiet relief to get a few more things done. What happens when you leave the office? Do you leave your work at the office or do you take some issues home? Since people have such different styles and needs, it is important to figure out with each other how and where you will deal with office business. One couple has lunch with each other most days. This is their time to talk about any office related topic. They don’t do it at home. One couple reserves time on Friday afternoon after the last patient. Their conversation takes place at the office so they don’t have to bring it home. It doesn’t really matter when you have these meetings, it matters that you have them.

Get Professional Advice:  The two of you may know enough about dentistry and business to get along, but it is not realistic to believe you know enough about everything. Investing time and money into people outside your practice can create desired results and in the long run, save you time and money. Tax advisors, financial planners, attorneys, interior designers, practice management consultants are a few arenas to consider help. Be sure to find responsible, trust worthy and compatable people and acencies. Your best referrals might come from your local dental community.

Have a Life Outside the Office: Both of your lives are more than dentistry. Keep your business to the office or designated time and places. After that, let it go. Cultivate activities you like to do together and feel good about doing some things apart.

A repeating theme of wives who work in the office was the satisfaction in their high investment in the overall success of the practice. By being part of everyday activities they understood financial and business matters as well as being able to add their personal care and touch to running operations. They liked being able to check details, present pleasant and helpful services to the public and be avaiable to solve problems. They took great pride in the assistance they provided their spouse and often felt their dental mate was relieved not to have to think about all those details.

Your spouse has value like no other. Her attention to the practice is equal to yours. She is supports your office in innumerable ways: keeping the business aspect current, taking care of special needs of patients, overseeing details, paying the bills. Your support of her is also important. Appreciate the circumstances in which she works. Incorporate job descriptions and office policies into your office, set up a system with her to discuss office business, get outside help when necessary, enjoy our lives outside the practice. One wife told me she believed that a spouse could make or break the practice. Check in with your most valuable employee. She’ll appreciate it and you’ll both enjoy the benefits.

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