How to Recruit and Hire Great Dental Employees

Richard Gawel


Practice owners have to hire a variety of personnel, including hygienists and assistants, receptionists and billing coordinators, and even associate dentists. Good help can be hard to find, though. With new regulations and the evolving online world, it may seem nearly impossible.

Fortunately, the California Dental Association (CDA) offers advice and resources for finding, hiring, and retaining the right candidate on the Practice Support section of its website, along with a team of experts who are available to answer tricky questions.

Don’t Hire in Haste

So your longtime receptionist has given you her 2 weeks’ notice just as you’re about to start your busy season. Who’s going to answer the phones, file insurance claims, and more? Whatever you do, don’t panic and hire the first person who comes along just to fill the position.

“Take your time,” said Michelle R. Corbo, a practice analyst with the CDA. “Don’t make a knee-jerk reaction and hire somebody and then regret making a bad mistake.”

The Job Description

Take a step back and examine the position you need to fill, and then write up a job description of that position. Even if you already have one in your employee manual, it’s probably time for an update, especially if you’ve recently introduced new technologies into your practice.

Plus, consider the duties of the position itself, not the person who had been performing them. Be specific about the skills that are needed, such as chairside skills, clerical work, or communication and other soft skills. The description also needs to be specific about employee classification.

“Employee versus independent contractor? We probably get this call a couple times a day,” Corbo said. “Then we move into exempt versus nonexempt classifications. Salary versus hourly? Job title alone does not qualify an employee as a salaried employee.”

These descriptions will be needed long after the hiring is done, too. When employees go on leave, they’re sent to the healthcare provider to help determine the job’s essential functions and if accommodations need to be made. Also, descriptions can play a role in reviews.

“They can be something that you should have sitting on the desk when you do your performance evaluations,” Corbo said. “It gives employees an understanding of what’s expected from the job if you’ve got a description specific to what they’re doing.”

Advertising the Position

It isn’t enough to say you have an opening available. Emphasize why your practice is a great place to work. Your ads should be as dynamic as possible, explaining why candidates would want to work for you. This should be easy if you already are known as a solid practice.

“I talked to an employer recently who had potential employees coming to her wanting to work for her because she had such a good reputation, and she was concerned that the other doctors in town were going to get mad at her,” Corbo said. “She was known as an employer of choice.”

Ads in the newspaper and online still have impact, and social media like Facebook and Instagram can help extend your reach. The personal touch helps, too. Your current patients might know good candidates. So might colleagues at conferences and society meetings. Just ask them.

“One of my favorite phrases is ‘Birds of a feather flock together.’ If you have great employees, they probably have excellent friends who are looking for positions. Or friends of friends,” Corbo said. “I would use those internal referrals.”

The Application and Interview

The application should include a cover letter and simple instructions to follow. The cover letter gives applicants a chance to show off their writing and communication skills, as well as their personality. Plus, ask for names and contact information for references.

“Ask for a sentence or 2 about why they would want to work for you. What makes them the ideal employee?” Corbo said. “And then, quite honestly, eliminate the applicants who can’t follow simple directions.”

Many practices speak to applicants by phone before deciding who should be invited into the office for an interview. These screenings can save you and the applicant alike some time while giving you a better idea of their personality beyond the cover letter.

“How personable are they on the phone during the conversation? Do they seem distracted? Are they articulate? What’s your first impression upon having a conversation? Do they seem nervous?” Corbo said. “Really get a gauge of who they are.”

Before these candidates come in for the interview, develop a list of questions that you will ask all of the candidates, which will maintain a level playing field and head off potential claims of discrimination. Provide a copy of the job description during the interview, too.

“Stick to job history. Stay away from hobbies, asking about marriage, religion, sex, and age. Really keep it more about the position and the progress of their career over time,” Corbo said. “Discuss the position and how they feel they would fit into the job.”

Hypothetical situations are good topics for the interview. How would they react to changing schedules in light of emergency cases, for example? Or, how would they handle a disagreement with another member of the staff? Get an idea of how they work under pressure.

And beyond the answers to these questions, the interview is the best time to observe the candidate’s personality. Was the candidate articulate and able to look you in the eye? Were answers candid and honest? Interpersonal dynamics will play a significant role in your practice.

“Do the airplane test,” Corbo said. “Would you be willing to sit next to this person you’re interviewing for hours and enjoy the time? Keep that in the back of your mind when you’re working through this process.”

Some practices then call likely candidates back for a “working interview,” where they spend time performing the anticipated duties to give you an idea of how they work. While this seems to be a practical strategy for evaluation, Corbo advises caution.

“There’s really no such thing as a working interview. Once you have somebody work in your practice, in the eyes of the State of California, they are employed by you. Even for one hour,” Corbo said. “You need to provide all new-employee documentation. They need to be paid for their time.”

Instead, Corbo recommends having the candidate come in to shadow your current employees. These candidates wouldn’t do any actual work, but they could see how you operate, chat with your staff, and get a feel for the office’s pace and operations—and your staff can get a feel for them.

“Do they give you the thumbs up or not?” Corbo said. “They may have a feeling for somebody or notice something that you didn’t notice.”

References and Background Checks

Though some practices overlook them, references and background checks are essential in any new hire. You also need to validate licenses and credentials as necessary. Applicants should be aware that you’re going to perform these checks, though, on all candidates.

“You need to do it for everyone. You need to provide a separate release form. It shouldn’t be a buried part of the application. They should know what they’re signing and that they’re going to have a background check prior to eventually being hired, as well as what steps you will take if you find something in there that is questionable and decide not to move forward,” Corbo said.

If you reject a candidate based on something you discovered, you should tell that candidate, Corbo said. Also, provide the name, address, and other contact information of the company that sold you the report. And the candidate should understand that you were the one who made the hiring decision, not the investigating company. In California, candidates have the right to dispute the accuracy of the report and get a copy of it within 60 days as well.

As for references, employers should stick to questions that are specific to the job. The biggest question, Corbo said, is if the candidate is even eligible to be hired. Other questions can include salary and length of employment, though the intangibles are fair game too.

“You can ask anything. Really. What matters is what they say to you. They’re putting themselves out there,” Corbo said. “How did they socialize in your practice? How were they with their chairside manner? Were they quick? Were they thorough?”

And then there are licenses.

“I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve had from dentists who just decided one day to check their hygienist’s license that happened to be on the wall and found out it was expired and wondered what he could do,” Corbo said. “Others have found that they were on hold because of serious criminal violations. So I can’t stress enough to check the licenses. And continue to check them for your current employees to make sure that they’re keeping them accurate and up to date.”

The Decision and Onboarding

Of course, you should consider candidates who successfully meet the needs of that carefully written job description. But new hires aren’t just your employees. They also are new members of your team, so the way they may interact with your current workers should be a big part of the decision. Your current employees’ participation in the process may be essential, too.

“Do you have the support of the team? Have you included any of them in this process?” Corbo said. “When the candidate came in to shadow at the office, did they get a good feel? Sometimes people are different around their peers than they are with their employers. What kind of conversations did they have?”

Once you’ve made your decision and the offer, and the candidate has accepted it, it’s time to prepare for the transition. Provide any forms that need to be filled out ahead of time, so your new employee doesn’t spend a couple of hours on day one dealing with paperwork. Additionally, set up a defined training schedule.

“Don’t just have them come in and go, ‘Okay, this is it. Here’s sterilization, and go.’ Set them up. Give them an opportunity to learn,” Corbo said. “Also, the schedule should allow them time to get to know your staff and systems. And if possible, allow time in your schedule too. Try not to overload your day so you have time to check in and make sure they’re doing well.”

And don’t forget to make the first day fun. Corbo suggests welcoming your new employee with a breakfast or by going out to lunch. Or if you know that your new hire has a favorite kind of candy, for instance, have some waiting on that day.

“It’s a stressful thing to walk into a new practice and have them succeed,” Corbo said. “Welcome them in and give them an opportunity to acclimate, and they’ll do good things for you.”

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