Party foul: When loose lips cross the line

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Party foul: When loose lips cross the line

When a veterinary clinic employee has too much to drink, is an apology enough to rectify the situation?
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Jun 28, 2017

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Tass Animal Hospital was a progressive 21st-century veterinary clinic. Over the past 22 years Dr. Jim Tass built his one-doctor clinic into a five-doctor veterinary center. His secrets to success were satisfying a skilled staff, providing excellent customer service and not having partners. He lived and died by his decisions and his alone.

Dr. Tass fervently believed that a happy staff was a productive staff. He enabled flexible work schedules, offered excellent benefits and kept his door open. In return he expected dedicated medical professionals with integrity and compassion.

The annual July Fourth picnic was both a staff get-together and the boss's reward for a job well done. There was swimming, barbecue and beer and of course much wearing of the red, white and blue.

It was a warm day and Jill Simpson, a veteran technician, definitely enjoyed her beer. She was chatting with her coworkers late in the day while eating hot dogs and drinking yet another beer when she let it slip to some of the other technicians that she thought Dr. Tass threw a great party but wasn't a very good veterinarian. She also said she had to correct a lot of his mistakes. Jill added that of course he was the boss and fixing mistakes was her job.

It didn't take long for Dr. Tass to become aware of his technician's comments, and he was upset when he learned that one of his senior technicians didn't respect his veterinary competency. He prided himself in being a capable, hardworking clinician. So he arranged a meeting with technician Simpson to discuss her comments.

The meeting was awkward but also revealing. Dr. Tass asked if what he had been told was accurate, and if so why she hadn't come to him with her concerns. Her response was surprising. She admitted to having too many beers, which loosened her tongue and impaired her judgment. When she was somewhat inebriated she started posturing and bragging to impress her coworkers. She said that this often occurred when she'd had a bit too much to drink.

Technician Simpson assured Dr. Tass that she actually had total confidence in his veterinary skills. And as long as they were both being honest, she continued, she thought an office function with free-flowing alcohol maybe wasn’t a great idea since it created an opportunity for staff to use poor judgment—just as she had. She said this with all due respect, because technically this party was an extension of the workplace.

Dr. Tass thought Simpson was painting herself as a victim in this situation. He did take their conversation as an apology, but in the end he had to decide if he could still trust his once-valued technician to be honest with him, his clients and his staff. He decided that he could not. He discharged his "at-will" employee, thanking her for the time she had spent at the clinic.

Do you think Dr. Tass made the right decision? Did he contribute to the incident as his technician claimed?

Rosenberg’s response

There's always a risk when you mix business with pleasure. The veterinary workplace can be stressful and recreational working rewards are often a welcome relief. All of this notwithstanding, we are all ultimately responsible for what we say and do. It must be noted that all work-related functions—from parties to conventions to break room moments—mandate workplace behavioral standards.

Dr. Tass provided alcohol to adult staff members as part of a celebration. Technician Simpson used poor judgment, drank too much and said things she regretted. Whether she should have been fired is up for debate. She can't blame her boss for providing temptation, she can't disavow her self-inflicted bad behavior and, as she found out, she can't apologize and make the whole thing disappear. Unfortunately this was a tough lesson for technician Simpson to learn.

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. In his private time, he enjoys playing basketball and swing dancing with his wife. Although many of his scenarios in “The Dilemma” are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.

loose lips

I am concerned that she stated she often said inappropriate things when she drank too much. Are we sure this was the only time she drank too much and stated that the veterinarian made mistakes? I think she left the possibility open that she may go out to bars on weekends with friends and try to impress them with stories of how she covers the veterinarian's "mistakes". She could potentially say something in a bar to a client who lost a pet at the clinic and bring a lawsuit to against the veterinarian. Although it would probably go nowhere, it is really unpleasant to have to go through this process. I am not sure the veterinarian should be responsible for her problems. If she does things like this repeatedly, it is her responsibility to get help for her condition. He is her employer, not her father or her friend.

Another Option - Support Your Staff

Let’s review. When Dr. Tass asked his employee about her inebriated comment that he was not a top-notch veterinarian, she admitted she had misspoken while her judgment was impaired as a result of over indulgence in alcohol. She told him that she was, in her sober judgment, confident in his skills. She also admitted that she had lied in the past when under the influence of alcohol, many times. For this he fired her. Is that okay?
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No. That is not okay. Consider what the staff learned from his action. How likely will the staff be in coming forward regarding mistakes in the future? Rewarding honesty about mistakes with firing will decrease honest behavior in the future. Ask any animal trainer about behavior modification basics.
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What if Dr. Tass supported his technician by providing access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)? What if Dr. Tass expressed concern that the technician freely admitted to often lying while inebriated? What if the technician was evaluated at no charge via the EAP, found she suffered with a disease, substance use disorder, got treatment, and recovered? What if, as part of the treatment and recovery process she shared with her coworkers the facts that she admitted she was dealing with substance use disorder, was confident in the vet’s skills, was grateful that he had pointed her toward recovery, and hoped they could forgive her lapse in judgment while she was suffering from disease?
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Imagine, for a moment, the staff loyalty and honest interaction that would result when inevitable problems occur in the future.
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Is it a good idea to offer an open bar at company functions? Probably not considering that the employer might be legally responsible for the consequences of employee drinking, such as inappropriate sexual behavior, accidents, and injuries.
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"At Will" does not mean "At Whim"

With all due respect, Dr Rosenberg, I shudder to think that the moral of your story is one that allows an employer to think that he/she/it can fire an employee simply because he "could no longer trust her" - especially after she simply expressed an opinion about the workplace.
Historically, this style of employment termination was how resentful, immoral, or unscrupulous employers would impose their discriminatory or retaliatory decisions in the workforce. When the National Labor Relations Act (a federal law) was passed, employees were provided protection against this type of scenario in which they chose to discuss certain types of workplace conditions - including negative comments about management - without fear of being fired in a retaliatory manner by the boss.
Employers who get their feelings hurt or don't allow their employees to voice opinions about the workplace, such as Dr Tass in your story, could be paying compensation to a long-term employee (like the technician in your story) who was fired without any apparent warning or policy violation.
Regardless of a "loose lips" scenario, the National Labor Relations Act protects employees from being fired by employers, such as Dr. Tass in your story. I recommend to all my practice-owner clients that, unless you can validate a termination decision based on written notice, written policy or violation of law - firing an employee "at whim" can bring consequences from federal agencies (EEOC, DOL, etc) along with lots of indirect problems (poor morale, lawsuit, State Board grievance, online complaints, etc.) from a disgruntled employee.
My moral: Avoid making termination decisions (1) in haste, (2) relying solely on your gut feeling (that you can no longer trust someone), or (3) based on "at will" employment laws. There are too many legally carved-out exceptions to "at will" employment - especially for firing someone at whim. Best to make termination decisions based on documented violations of written policies, contracts or laws.

I concur.

I concur.