What to Do When Other Practices Poach Your Dental Assistants

Maggie Augustyn, DDS


An unofficial poll on a Facebook group called Dental Nachos, home to 30,000 dental professionals and counting, asked an intriguing question. Have you had an employee poached by another dentist or dental practice within the last six months?

My answer wasn’t just yes. It was yes, as it applied to multiple employees within a span of several weeks. Based on my current employees’ descriptions, my assistants (yes, multiple assistants) had been offered positions while seeking treatment from another provider such as a childhood or family dentist, or they had been proposed employment via a spouse seeking treatment at a specialist’s office.

Fifty-four of the 94 respondents said they did not have an employee poached, so 43% of the dental practitioners did lose an employee to another dental practice. I have no supporting historical data or facts, but 43% experiencing that kind of specific loss of employee seems very high. And as I continue to stroll through social media pages, I am reminded how much this challenge is still affecting practice owners.

In my particular instance, the poached employees gathered a sort of leveraged confidence, stormed into my office, and one by one asked for an increase in pay, a pay they were promised by the other dental office.

They all were forthcoming about their individual situations and said that despite how much they loved our office, our culture, and me as the dental provider, they could not turn down the significant increase in pay. One by one, they asked me to match the poacher’s wage, even though they lacked actual evidence of that prospective wage.

Raises in Post-COVID Times

All of the assistants at our office are appropriately compensated. Their salaries are higher than average for our area, adjusted accordingly, of course, for skill and level of experience. Recently, however, we had engaged a wage freeze and have not been able to grant raises since returning from the shutdown.

As I continued to consider my decision to freeze compensation, I wanted to gather how common wage increases were in dental offices during the pandemic. I posted a poll on social media asking if employees in other practices had requested a hike in salary.

Once again, with a small sample size of 99 respondents, 19% of offices had given out raises without being provoked. Also, 48% of employers were asked for a raise, and 32% were not. That’s an astounding percentage of employees who had asked for a hike in compensation during the pandemic, one of the most difficult times to operate a private practice in dentistry’s history.

After reopening in late May of 2020, we slowed down from seven to four chairs without letting a single team member go. However, we did go from 15 employees to 12, as some of them did not feel comfortable returning following the break.

But in the face of running a business and responsibly continuing to provide jobs to all of our people, our overhead increased, though we hoped it would be momentary. That alone prevented us from being able to afford an increase in employee pay.

For a dentist owner, a further increase in overhead was also brought about by things like gloves, masks, and wipes, which not only were rationed by supply companies, but some even tripled in cost. Previously underutilized extraoral suction machines, HEPA filers, UV filtration systems, Isolate or Dry Shield systems, disposable gowns, face shields, and KN95 masks all took away from the bottom line as well. 

The increase in overhead we were experiencing was not unique to my office. Another informal social media poll on January 9, 2021, revealed that close to 98% of dental practice owners had experienced an increase in the costs of operating their practice, out of 88 respondents.

The pandemic has been very taxing. The return following the shutdown brought about a significant influx of patients and procedures. Our office, for example, was open seven days a week, with patient hours each day until 7 pm for the first six weeks.

The newly enacted protocols have been difficult for patients to understand at times, increasing the level in job difficulty for our front desk and benefit team. As the head to toe PPE worn by the clinical team increased how hot and sweaty we got during procedures, it also didn’t help matters in how we perceived the already significant increase in stress.

As patients were grinding and breaking their teeth from the same stress we also experienced, we were pushed to the brink. We relied on the camaraderie and laughter to carry us through the difficult days, with maybe even snacks and lunches on the practice.

Here and there, we were able to treat our team to additional paid days off, along with welcome back, birthday, and end of the year gifts. The hope was that these extracurriculars would help offset the additional hardship as a sort of reward for all the undue stress.

Why Poach?

If we could drop our holier-than-thou attitude, maybe we too would poach. Carefully considering the circumstances, we may encourage an employee to accept a job if we deeply believe the employee may be unhappy with their current standing. We also may poach if we lose one of our own employees. And truthfully, the greatest reason for poaching in any employment market is the significant decline in supply and increased demand.

After last year’s shutdown, many dental professionals including hygienists, assistants, and even dentists simply did not return to work. Everyone may have had their own influences, but I’d gather the most common was a fear of the virus, as they were acutely aware that clinical professionals are among the people most at risk for contracting the virus.

I love my team. The people who support me, who stand by me, and who laugh at me and with me are my family. When I don’t see their faces, each day, my day is off. I feel more alone, not just as a provider, but as a person. And many of them feel the same about me, or at least I hope.

Being asked for a significant wage increase amidst the most difficult time in running a practice is difficult to swallow. Threats to leave unless given the additional $5 or $8 an hour felt like hostage holding. The poached employees who came forward knew full well that I could not remain productive without them.

With no immediate potential prospects for a replacement on the horizon, how could I deny their requests? And if I do give in to the demands of these employees, will the hard work of the others go unnoticed? This decision was difficult both in terms of business strategy as well as emotionally.

So, do you give in? Do you allow for the increase? Out of fear? Out of desperation? What is the right business decision? What is the right “human” decision? Is the employee entitled to a wage increase simply for the asking? Is it an “ask and you shall receive” situation?

What to Do?

My business coaches taught me to only offer an increase in pay if the employee job description or level of engagement can change. The increase in pay is only a smart business decision if the employee in question is able to add to the overall productivity of the practice. So, what did I do?

The first employee who was poached had asked for an $8 an hour raise. Due to her level of expertise and her engagement in the practice, also due to the fact that I was unable to add further responsibilities to her current job description, I chose not to match her request. She left with three days of her notice.

The second employee requesting the increase in wage received a match to her request, but as I made that decision, I also decided to start looking for her replacement. I chose to do this because I could not function without the assistant, as our productivity would have significantly declined. Thinking about it further, I decided that someone who values an increase in pay over the office culture I take pride in is simply not the right fit to move my practice forward. Within two months of interviewing, we were able to let her go, with a replacement ready and trained.

How to Prevent Poaching

During a conversation with Bob Pick of the Pick Group, we addressed this particular situation. As a business coach, he gave me some advice moving forward.

First and foremost, create the kind of office culture that would make your team members not just look forward to coming to the office but thrive and flow within it. This can be accomplished with team-building meetings, exercises, and gathering the team together in writing up a “team culture” mission, which is a sort of supplement to an already existing mission and vision of the practice and its brand.

Second, as far as salary considerations are concerned, he simply stated: “Who wants to be average?” Pay your team members what they are worth. Awesome team members deserve awesome rewards. Average team members will bring just that to the table, an average presence.

Finally, remember to hire slow and fire fast. As soon as you realize that you have an employee who isn’t a great addition to the team, know that hanging on to them too long will bring more damage than good. On the other side of the token, take your time in finding the right candidate. Interview them several times, allow them to spend time with your team, and require working interviews. Inform them that how they feel about your culture and team is as important as you feel about their performance.

We all underestimate the stress that COVID-19 has brought about. As human beings, as practitioners, and as parents, our lives have been turned upside down. It is possible that many people’s ability to withstand that stress has grown in difficulty, and as a result of that we have times where we are likely to suffer from shortcomings on that account.

I know, for myself, with the growth in my responsibilities as a mom, spouse, and practitioner, I am more on edge and slightly more irritable. The good news is that the end is in sight. As our kids go back to school, restaurants reopen, and people begin to travel and go on much needed vacations, we may regain our footing.

But as we continue in this struggle, it is of utmost importance that we come to work creating a culture of cohesive growth and mutual respect. What has helped me through my toughest moments is the belief that all people do the best they can with what they have. And with that in the back of our minds, we can create a culture of inclusion and appreciation. We all are in this together. However you choose to move forward, keep Paul Goodman’s words in mind: “If it isn’t helping, it doesn’t matter.”

Dr. Augustyn is a practicing general dentist. She earned a DDS from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2004. She has completed the course sequence with the Dawson Academy’s continuum in oral equilibration and cosmetic dentistry. She participates at least 50 hours of continuing education each year. Additionally, she is a moderator of Dental Nachos, a Facebook group. Dr. Augustyn also is an avid writer who enjoys listening to nonfiction books, vacations by the water, and spending time in nature. She lives with her husband of 18 years and daughter in a Chicago suburb. She can be reached at maggie.augustyn@gmail.com.   

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