10 Tips for Avoiding a Toxic Workplace

Tonya Lanthier


It’s easy to assume when you work in the dental industry that one practice is pretty much the same as the next. I mean, we all do the same thing, right? We work to improve and maintain the dental health of our patients. So it stands to reason we all operate the same way. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. 

During my career, I’ve worked in hundreds of dental offices: full time, part time, temporary, and everything in between. Each one was a unique experience. Working in a wide range of office cultures means I’ve seen it all, from the best of the best to the most toxic of the worst. Whether wonderful or awful, practices don’t start out that way. It takes hard work to make practices really hum, and it takes apathy, or even neglect, to make them terrible. 

My experience has shown me 5 things that practice leaders and 5 things that team members can do to make a toxic workplace better or to avoid having one in the first place. 

5 Tips for Managers

  • Establish a strong culture for your office. First and foremost, you need to know who you are as a person and as a practice. Once you’ve identified what you stand for, it’s easy to outline what you want your workplace culture to be. List those characteristics, and then look for that shared culture in potential employees. At DentalPost, we have seen thousands of successful employee/employer matches made when work culture needs line up. 
  • Hire people who align with your values. Define and articulate your core values. What is most important to you, and how can that be reflected in your practice? When it comes times to hire someone, be direct about these values with potential team members. It will mean less conflict in day-to-day interactions in the future. When your team understands these values and believes in them, communication and performance will fall in line much more easily. 
  • Be realistic and pay attention. The first thing I learned as a leader is that not all team members are alike. You may have 6 RDHs with similar education and training, but they have different talents, personalities, attitudes, skill levels, and work ethics. It’s your job to adapt to that. Set your expectations and be clear. It’s human nature to better mesh with people who are like us. In reality, we need people who can make up for our weaknesses. It’s easy to favor employees who pull the load and go above and beyond. But don’t overlook team members who are trying hard to improve. They need attention and positive reinforcement, too. Maybe even more.
  • Keep your door open. You must remain connected with your team. There are so many things coming at you, like your family, your dental team, your patients, your bills, you name it. But be careful. I’ve seen too many times when the needs and opinions of the dental team fall last on the list. Don’t let this happen. Reiterate to your dental team that when they have an issue or concern, they can always set a time to talk to you. Life is busy, so it may take some creative scheduling. But don’t slam the door on your team. The next great idea could be on their minds, and they’re just waiting to tell you. 
  • Allow people the opportunity to learn. Yes, that includes failing from time to time. Providing resources and the ability to learn are essential to the growth and development of your team. Investing in your team takes time and money. It also takes the right people with great attitudes who are open to learning new things. As a leader, you should know enough about your team’s activities to figure out tools that would help everyone take their performance to the next level. When given the right tools and resources, the best employees will instinctively challenge themselves to be more innovative in their work and will perform better. 

5 Tips for Team Members

  • Look for a workplace that matches your culture and values. When you’re looking for the right role for you, remember this: You will only reach your true potential if you look for a culture that matches your core values. So think about what you value most in a workplace and don’t compromise. Search for employers who post job descriptions that include their core values, and articulate yours during your interview. 
  • Be respectful. If you see a change that needs to be made, don’t be afraid to speak up. With that in mind, respect is key. Hint: “This is stupid. Let’s do something else” is not the right way to communicate with others. Instead, try something like, “I understand your perspective, but could we set up a time to talk about some possible alternatives?” Be a good team player and let the manager lead, but remember that you have a voice and it’s important to use it to help the team succeed. If you speak with a lack of respect, no one—especially the boss—will pay attention to you.
  • Be your best. Be mindful that your performance and that of your coworkers is on your manager’s mind, even if he or she doesn’t focus on it all the time. To get yourself in the mindset of a top performer, think about how your contributions help solve problems and contribute to the success of the practice. Identifying how your work adds value makes it easy to step up your game in tangible ways. Being the best at what you do is how you win at work.
  • Never play checkers with people who carry their own board. This is key when you start to feel like going head-to-head with your boss. While I would never encourage anyone to stay silent if something is really wrong (see “be respectful” above), it is smart to pick your battles carefully. Know the facts and don’t get too emotional. And, keep your comments in the context of what’s good for the practice. 
  • Give genuinely, often. Whether you’ve been with the practice for years or you’re the office newbie, you can have an incredible impact on the people around you simply by giving genuine credit for a job well done. Some of the most toxic practices I’ve ever seen have people going behind each other’s backs in some fabricated “competition” meant to make coworkers look bad. Instead, take the highest road. Just a few positive words spoken with sincerity can take you further professionally than you can ever imagine. Stay away from your own personal agenda and focus on the team goals.

No one benefits from a toxic workplace. Drama and resentment always come through, and your patients can feel the negative energy right away, which means productivity and patient care go down. Think about it. If a patient is nervous about coming to the dental office to begin with, would a negative atmosphere make that better? Of course not. A positive environment can and will help ease anxiety. 

So, take these tips to heart, whether you are in a leadership position or part of the team. Your role is important when it comes to heading off conflict before it starts. And as an African proverb once said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”           

Ms. Lanthier is the founder and CEO of DentalPost, which she started in 2005 as a tool to help dental professionals connect and make better job choices and hiring decisions by using data. Since then, the company has grown into a networking community for more than 750,000 dental professionals and 38,000 dental offices. She is a member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a supporter of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry’s Give Back a Smile program, and a volunteer at several charitable organizations including Georgia Mission of Mercy and the Ben Mansell Clinic. And, she is a board member of the Oral Cancer Cause and Dental Entrepreneur Women. For more information on the ins and outs of hiring, check out her expert advice on The DentalPost Blog. She can be reached at tonyardh@dentalpost.net.

Related Articles

Six Mistakes Dentists Make When Hiring (and How to Avoid Them!)

Best Practices for Terminating Employees to Avoid Wrongful Discharge

Use Facebook to Better Connect with Your Patients