Staff raises? This year? Absolutely

By Sheri Doniger, DDS, contributing writer

March 27, 2009 -- Editor's note: Sheri Doniger's column, Dental Diaries, appears regularly on the advice and opinion page, Second Opinion.

OK, we're in a recession. At least, the collective economists have finally agreed that we are. And it is definitely affecting dental offices across the U.S.

From the practitioners I have spoken with, patients are opting out of most nonessential care, including aesthetics and orthodontics. Larger treatment plans are being curtailed. Implants are being put off, with patients opting for a "wait and see" approach. I have heard that some patients are even holding off on endodontic treatments, regardless of pain. A colleague in New York, who was very close to retiring this year, said this is the slowest she has ever been in her 30 years of practice.

      “The cost of not
      giving a raise is
      just too high.”

I was called by a major media network a few weeks ago to do an interview on "the great state of dentistry." The interviewer had heard that dental practices are booming -- that we are producing more than ever and that patients, who are in fear of losing their jobs, are running to the dentist in droves to take care of all their dentistry before the boom drops on their jobs and they lose their dental benefits. She also wanted to know if I had seen more teeth grinding these days, with patients being so nervous about the economy.

Well, I explained to her that dentists are the ones grinding their teeth. Some of us are doing great, but the majority of dentists are either holding steady or seeing a slowdown, and there is more open chair time. I pointed out that patients on the verge of losing their jobs are more interested in paying their mortgage and feeding their families than getting their teeth fixed.

Economic concerns aside, I think slowdowns can be good for a dental practice. They give us time to catch our breath, re-evaluate our systems, respond to correspondence, and try to reactivate patients who have fallen off the dental wagon. Some of us are even remodeling.

Even so, it's hard not to think about cutting back. But the truth is, now is the perfect time to do the opposite: Invest in your dental team.

I had an interesting conversation with my accountant the other day. I mentioned that, despite the recession and the slowness (I prefer to call it "steadiness") in the office, I still believe we should give out raises this year. (I haven't been asked about increases, but I wanted to be forward-thinking.) Surprisingly, my accountant concurred. The cost of not giving a raise is just too high. I do not want to lose my trusted team members. It is very stressful, not only for the dentist but for the practice, to lose employees. Stability is a great asset.

Most of my employees are thankful just to be working. With a 6% unemployment rate in my state and companies decreasing work hours to maintain employee benefits while still cutting costs, they are happy to be employed.

But the reality is we lost two employees this past year. Both needed full-time work with different hours to compensate for their husbands' decreased workload. One woman had been working in our office for more than four years, but her bills became so intense that she needed to leave to get more hours. For the other, a full-time job came up and they needed money for parochial school for their kids. Two different reasons, but both with the same result: We had to train a new team member.

The thought of interviewing and training a new employee is something that induces nightmares. When you think about the time and cost of training, not to mention the interruption of office harmony, the value of your trusted team members will increase exponentially. We need to reward them for their excellent performance and their work ethic. They are crucial to the financial success of our practices.

A typical balance sheet includes assets, liability, and net worth (cash, equipment, inventory, and investments). But it does not include the value or true worth of a trained team member. The ability of a business to perform is tied directly to the efficiency and effectiveness of your team. Rewarding your team members is justifiable and will yield rewards into the future.

Interestingly enough, during the last major recession (in 2001), dental spending was on a slight upward trend that continued well into the following years. Patients may not be increasing their spending now, but we need to prepare ourselves for when things turn around.

Giving your team a salary increase this year is truly one of the best things you can do for the future of your practice.

Sheri Doniger, D.D.S., practices clinical dentistry in Lincolnwood, IL. She has served as an educator in several dental and dental hygiene programs, has been a consultant for a major dental benefit company, and has written for several dental publications. Most recently, she was the editor of Woman Dentist Journal and Woman Dentist eJournal. You can reach her at

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.

Copyright © 2009


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