Breaking hearts vs. breaking rules in veterinary practice

Should you fire employees if they’ve jumped into an intraoffice romance?
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Jun 13, 2013

Reese Veterinary Center was a large multidoctor hospital in an upscale urban setting. In the 13 years since Dr. Alvin Reese opened the doors, the hospital had grown from a staff of five to a group of 55 veterinarians, technicians and receptionists. A 1,200-square-foot clinic now was a 10,000-square-foot veterinary center.

Dr. Reese articulated his formula for success openly. He felt it was better to be proactive rather than reactive, he employed modern technology and social media, and he ran what he described as a tight but very fair ship. He paid his staff well and encouraged professionalism. He did not tolerate drama, and his team members affectionately referred to him as an “old-school” practitioner.

Dr. Reese wore a white coat at all times. He did not allow staff to display overt body piercings or tattoos while on duty, but he did not refuse employment for these reasons. He also believed that intraoffice romantic relationships were disruptive to both efficiency and staff. Employees engaging in such activities were told that one or both participants had to resign their positions. The staff understood these rules before they were hired and although most disagreed with this policy, they all agreed to the parameters before accepting their jobs at Reese Veterinary Center.

Dr. Rex had been a member of the RVC staff for six years. He had an interest in veterinary dentistry although he did not hold board certification. He was one of 21 veterinarians, he was well-liked and he always received excellent reviews. Two years ago Dr. Plate was hired to meet the facilities’ surgical needs. He was a boarded surgeon with excellent results in the many hip replacements he performed.

Reese Veterinary Center conducted internal academic education, grand rounds and staff social events. Dr. Reese believed that a happy, educated professional staff resulted in the practice of excellent veterinary medicine. In recent months Dr. Rex and Dr. Plate had worked several cases together and had developed an affection for one another. This affection led to a budding romantic relationship. They both knew the prohibition concerning such relationships at RVC and made a concerted effort to see that they maintained a clandestine romance.

As time went on, however, the two veterinarians decided to make a serious commitment to one another and could no longer keep their relationship a secret. In their opinion, their relationship had not impacted their work negatively. In fact, they felt they were better veterinarians as a result of their common commitment to themselves and the practice.

Drs. Rex and Plate scheduled a meeting with Dr. Reese to discuss their situation. They believed that his prohibition concerning intraoffice relationships was antiquated and that their presentation coupled with their excellent veterinary performance would lead him to make an exception or possibly change his policy.

Dr. Reese did not see it their way. In a very professional manner he stated that his regulations were clear and that they had agreed to these rules at the time of their employment. He asked to have a couple of days to evaluate the situation and said he would inform the doctors of his decision.

After those days had passed, Dr. Reese informed the two doctors that he’d decided to enforce his regulation and was terminating the employment of Dr. Rex. Dr. Plate would retain his position. Since there were no longer two employees involved in a romantic relationship, the clinic regulations returned to the status quo.

The doctors questioned why both of them were not terminated if they both broke the facility rules. Dr. Reese replied that he did not want to terminate two capable veterinarians when relieving one of duty solved his problem. Dr. Reese politely informed both doctors that he was within his rights to discharge any employee at his discretion as long as he was not making the decision based on race, religion or gender. In his charismatic but businesslike manner he said that his decision was final. Dr. Plate retained his position while Dr. Rex left the practice and gained employment in a neighboring veterinary facility

Rosenberg’s response

I personally believe that hard and fast rules lead to black and white decisions. As veterinary hospitals get larger, it is less effective to implement unwavering rules to guide employee performance. Individuals are dynamic and problem resolution must be tailored to the needs of the staff and the hospital. This approach is more time-consuming but ultimately more effective. Twenty-first-century veterinary medicine is about diversity and the benefits that patients and staff gain from multifaceted skills and diverse origins within the veterinary community.

That said, Dr. Reese was the sole owner of a successful clinic. He was within his rights to make these decisions. I would not want anyone to tell me what I could and couldn’t do at a clinic I owned. Nevertheless, I believe Dr. Reese will find his approach will not be as effective in the future as it has been in the past.