Here’s lookin' at you, contract
A trip I took to Morocco a few years back came to mind today as I was counseling a young veterinarian on how to negotiate an employment contract. During our conversation it occurred to me that negotiation is not simply about identifying what you want and asking (or insisting) that you get your way. Rather, it’s an art—like successfully operating a swanky restaurant.
Just like in the classic Humphrey Bogart film Casablanca, there is indeed an elegant eatery called Rick’s Café in the city from which the film gets its name. Though the upscale establishment is less than two decades old, it’s designed to transport patrons to the World War II-era establishment they fell in love with in the movie, which is precisely what I was hoping for when I stepped inside. I wanted one evening in which I could pretend I was Bogart, biding my time in a 1940s “gin joint,” and Rick’s Café delivered. I, in turn, handed over my money.
At the end of the evening, the restaurant’s management and I both felt like winners—just as both parties should feel when an employment contract is successfully negotiated. Taking inspiration from my experience at Rick’s, I’ll elaborate on how it can be done.
Practice owners: Environment matters
The staff of Rick’s Café goes above and beyond to make patrons feel welcome and special. The owner greets guests at the door, and the small number of tables makes the experience feel intimate and personal. Patrons are encouraged to come early and stay until closing.
Bright young doctors embarking on their careers after many years of sacrifice and economic hardship want to be treated like they are special too. So if you want a top candidate to join your professional team, treat your top applicant as if he or she just graduated as a doctor after eight years of grueling work.
In other words, skip having the second or third interview in the clinic breakroom, with its crumb-covered tabletops and mingled aromas of stale coffee and recently unblocked cat. Your salary and benefits offers will look (and smell) a lot more palatable if you invite the interviewee out for a nice lunch, or—better yet—to dinner with his or her spouse. You’re about to commit to spending a lot of time around this person, so take the time to get to know the associate before inking the deal.
Associates: It takes finesse to flourish
You won’t find Rick’s Café on a top 10 list of any Condé Nast publication, and it probably gets only a star or two in the Michelin Guide. The food is average—but the presentation isn’t. The servers and hosts, dressed exactly as the staff in the film (fez included), bring the relatively prosaic meal to your table with great fanfare and flourish. The delivery is so enchanting that it enhances the food.
Learn from this. If there are things you want (like extra CE days, a less constrictive noncompete or a higher salary), don’t just blurt, “I have problems with some of the items in the contract!” Instead, make your negotiating counterpart feel comfortable with revisiting the CE, noncompete and salary issues.
Practice owners don’t want to hear that you “expect more time off for CE.” The want to hear that you’re “committed to maintaining the highest professional standards,” and they want details about how your “knowledge of every available diagnostic and therapeutic modality” will make clients comfortable choosing what costs a little more but works far better.
The noncompetition discussion will require a certain je ne sais quoi (as they might have called it at Rick’s) as well. Instead of approaching the issue in a matter-of-fact or confrontational manner, try detailing the reasons you’re committed to the community where the job is located and therefore might need to take another position someday, if, perchance, your spouse gets a job on the other side of town or some such.
Be prepared to offer alternatives. If the noncompete is a 10-mile radius, for example, you could propose a new one that prevents solicitation or serving of clients of the practice for two years within a six-mile radius. It’s a compromise that shows you respect your boss’s needs without unduly limiting your future local job opportunities.
If you feel the salary is subpar, come to the meeting with a spreadsheet that breaks down your costs of living, including student loan payments, car payments, rent, groceries and utility bills. This way you won’t have to pound your fist on the table to support your request for a higher offer. Merely demonstrating that you are a hapless victim of inflation and outsized veterinary school tuition makes the point for you.
Practice owners: You may need some finesse too. If your candidate is chafing at the thought of being on call, help them see the benefits. Explain that emergency fees can really help with student loan payments, and regale the newbie with a few war stories that offered fantastic experiences when you were coming up through the ranks of the profession. I often tell associate candidates that if they don’t see emergencies early in their careers, they probably won’t ever see any. And that makes teaching the next generation of associates about emergency medicine difficult to impossible.
Associates: Learn the art of mutual backscratching
The owner of Rick’s Café spent a lot of money to make the restaurant a place where I could live out my Casablanca fantasy. And in return, I spent a lot of dough on dinner, more drinks than I ever planned to drink and tips for the piano player, who was kind enough to play “As Time Goes By” no less than three times. The owner and I ended the night without disappointment. When a veterinary contract is signed, both parties should feel the same.
If you know in advance there are certain items in the proposed contract you must have in order to accept the job, ease your potential boss into the conversation. In doing so, you may find there are things you can give up in order to secure what you really need.
For example, if your potential boss isn’t offering the benefits you want, don’t miss the forest for the trees. Give a little to get a little. A client of mine recently waived the gym membership and moving expenses he was offered in exchange for getting his new boss to give him a better health insurance policy. When the deal was closed, both were happy.
So from this month’s column, take home two vitally important things: First, approach contract negotiations with style and flexibility (or, more importantly, the appearance of flexibility). Second, if you are looking for some of the best preserved Roman ruins on the planet, be sure to visit Morocco (and don’t miss Rick’s).