Whether you're running a multinational corporation, a family-owned restaurant or a veterinary practice, appropriate delegation is one of the foundations of any successful business. No single individual can or should be doing every task, and it certainly doesn't work to have everyone giving orders and assigning projects to everyone else. Rather, there needs to be a chain of command that gives employees reasonable discretion and a limited degree of autonomy.
Of course, finding the right balance is tricky. A failure to appropriately delegate—or, on the other hand, a tendency to micromanage—can lead to serious inefficiencies and employee resentment. In veterinary hospitals, screwy approaches to employee task monitoring happen all the time. And the legal and economic implications are huge. As discovered by business leaders in the epic delegation debacle known as Enron, the higher you are on the organizational chart, the more oversight duty you have and the bigger the consequences should you foul up your managerial responsibilities.
Consider these areas where too much delegation—abdication of responsibility, really—can lead to problems in practice.
One equine veterinarian with a collapsing marriage plus one unattached bookkeeper who finds him attractive can equal some novel accounting practices. Here's how it goes down.
The doctor ostensibly uses his animal hospital's corporate credit card to purchase fuel for his truck, footwear, overalls, oil changes, paper towels and practice-related retail items. But after he begins dating the person in charge of monitoring the credit card expenses, she overlooks the sudden doubling of the gas bill as the doctor fills up his own car on a routine basis. Clothing purchases go up too. It's not just overalls anymore but trousers, designer shirts and underwear—pretty much anything the doctor might look good in when he and the bookkeeper go out for a night on the town.
I've seen plenty of instances where these types of subtle shenanigans have gone on for decades. Two individuals who are independently trustworthy join forces to become a powerful negative influence on the veterinary practice's bottom line when they're given unmonitored control over their own domains.
This type of example is well-known in our profession, especially when the power grabber is the practice owner's spouse, significant other, sibling or child. One day the family member comes into the practice to work and before anyone can say, "Holy nepotism!" he or she is ruling the roost. This individual consolidates and maximizes his or her personal authority, making unapproved expenditure decisions, arbitrarily or capriciously raising some pay rates, and unfairly stalling raises for others.
Sometimes these power-hungry staffers—who may be favored employees rather than relatives—even insist on unprofessional or illegal conduct in order to save money and make themselves seem like more efficient managers. I've run across practices where powerful personnel have ordered veterinarians to use off-label or outdated medications. I've seen numerous instances where office managers or bookkeepers have refused to provide personal revenue figures to associates who ask about the calculation of their production pay.
And often the rest of the staff is afraid to say or do anything. In many clinics, employees who are nervous about these abuses can't even obtain an audience with the practice owner because the power person acts as a gatekeeper, effectively insulating the owner from hearing about important management problems. The hospital owner or owning partners may never even get word of perpetual problems in budgeting, staffing—even surgical or case management improprieties—that could be daily occurrences.
The potential consequences
Sometimes poor delegation in a veterinary practice goes on indefinitely with no apparent impact. But in the case of excessive delegation, consequences are not spotted for many years, and suddenly a crisis ensues. Here are a couple of examples of what can happen when staff members have too much autonomy.
Massive credit card fraud. In one instance, the business owner put authority for financial matters into the hands of a longtime employee, Sharon, who had always proven trustworthy in the past. Everything was fine until Sharon quietly started dating one of the other employees, John. At about that time profits began to drop. The practice owner blamed the recession for declining income.
It wasn't until he was involved in a serious traffic accident and his wife took over his financial affairs during his convalescence that she determined the real reason for declining profit. The actual problem was that John was running up charges on his corporate credit card, and Sharon simply paid the bills knowing they contained a small fortune in inappropriate personal expenses. If the trusting practice owner had merely scanned the credit card bills periodically, he would've noticed the thousands of dollars in unrecoverable theft.
Unemployment fraud. This is one of those rare instances where the government came to a veterinary practice's rescue and helped save the owners from their own overdelegation. Again, a true story: An employee was fired from Practice A and the same day applied for and was approved for unemployment benefits. Later the same day, the employee found a new job at nearby competing Practice B. This employee continued to receive and cash unemployment checks charged against Practice A's account. This went on for nearly two years until the state department of labor matched the social security number on the employee's W-2 to the one on his unemployment claim documents.
Practice A knew the employee had taken a new job with a nearby animal hospital—team members had called him and spoken with him about various client records. Yet the bookkeeper at Practice A never bothered to look at the weekly unemployment statements from the state labor department. If he had, he would have realized that a former employee who was not qualified for benefits was illegally plundering the practice's unemployment insurance account.
Who knows if Practice A will ever receive much credit in its unemployment insurance account. And innocent Practice B? The bookkeeper will probably be required to testify in court against the employee, because unemployment insurance fraud is a felony. And then he will have to arrange to garnish the employee's wages after a judge establishes the amount to be withheld and remitted to the state.
Don't let these horror stories scare you—delegation is a good thing. It can help you run your business more effectively and it can empower employees and maximize their strengths. In that situation, everyone wins. Just make sure that the buck ultimately stops with you.
Dr. Christopher Allen is president of Associates in Veterinary Law PC, which provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians. Call (607) 754-1510 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org