Recruiting the Right People (Or How to Create Opportunity Instead of Disaster When Someone Leaves)
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2007
Carole J. Clarke, MA, VetMB, CVPM, MRCVS
Mill House Veterinary Surgery and Hospital
King's Lynn, Norfolk, UK

Whether we are working in a large or small practice, as owner, partner or a member of a corporate team, we generally find ourselves, without much preparation, responsible for people as well as the animals we treat. To work efficiently and achieve the results we want, we need to work with, train and develop other people--our practice colleagues and also the clients we see every day. Non-veterinary managers, nurses and other staff also take responsibility for managing the people in the practice, with the added difficulty of trying to work with the veterinarians as well! I hope this series of papers give some insight into how you can become more effective as a manager and as a working colleague within your practice, and to discuss some of the issues which concern our people, and the strategies which might help to harness their enthusiasm, time and knowledge whilst they are at work.

Deciding What You Are Looking For--Planning Recruitment

We are often so busy, we don't see it coming--that sudden resignation or pregnancy, or the need to get someone in to relieve the stress on the rest of the team because it's just got so hectic. There is one certainty in veterinary practice--things are always changing. Our staff and client's expectations are very different to how they were five, or fifteen years ago. New equipment and treatments, major advances in IT and changes in communications and the retail and service environments have brought both opportunities and challenges. We are all working differently now and acquiring new skills along the way. An in-depth knowledge of your own business and how its changing needs impact on your people is essential before you embark on any recruitment process. It's not good enough to just think about this when the need arises because you are short-staffed. It is vital to keep abreast of current issues, so that when you do need to recruit, you already have an idea of the skills and attitude you will be looking for, and how you will integrate these into your practice. You will often be looking for someone who is not a direct replacement for the departing staff member, and this is the vital opportunity that recruitment offers. Given encouragement, your existing staff will highlight for you where gaps need to be filled and where they feel their service could be improved. Knee-jerk recruitment is the fastest way to increased staff turnover.

The success of the knowledge-based practice is based upon the development of self-directed working. This happens when people move from following set procedures and waiting for instructions to making their own decisions about how to meet client and patient needs within the boundaries of the practice goals. It is the opposite of 'jobsworthiness'. This requires trust and space from you as the boss, and a skill set from your staff that includes active listening, assertiveness, problem solving and creative thinking on top of the expected technical skills they need to do the job. It is these 'soft skills' that we look for at recruitment, and an aptitude for this way of thought.

To decide the best way forward, use your team groups or practice meeting to discuss why and who you wish to recruit. The departing person can also give very useful information and ideas as part of an 'exit interview'. Start with an open mind, and you may find you will be looking for someone very different from the person who is leaving. A good plan is to list all the duties that you need to or would like to cover within the practice or team, and then allocate them by agreement to the existing staff members. Note any gaps or areas needing more support and then look at whether one person might be suitable to fit into the team. You may find part timers can be more effective, or that existing staff wish to move into the vacant roles and need their duties covering. Take into account the existing skills sets of your team so that they can be working effectively and enjoy what they do.

You should end up with a draft job description, and a list of essential (must have) and desirable (these would be good too) characteristics to aid your selection. Without these three lists, you will find that objective selection is very difficult indeed.

Finally, don't forget that you are looking for someone who will buy into the values, goals and branding of your practice. You can develop skills, but attitude may be difficult to change. Always avoid recruiting solely for skills as a knee jerk reaction without considering how the new person will contribute to your overall goals. If you are stuck, just offer a locum position and keep looking for the right attitude to move your practice forward.

Attracting the Best People to Apply For Your Job

Here we come to the most important part of recruitment. Without good applicants, your selection process will fail. Having decided what you will be looking for, you need to attract the best people for your practice. This must be a personal decision, as your new employee must fit in with your culture and your existing team and skills matrix. Attracting the best people starts the first day you open your practice doors. Always consider prospective employees as well as customers when marketing your practice--the reputation and branding you build up in your local community and nationally will attract the people you are looking for. Your existing staff will be your ambassadors and are networking for you from their first day at work. Your job ad is just the final part of this vital process of attracting people to the idea that working for you is a fantastic opportunity. Stop and think for a moment. Do you really believe that working for your practice is a good opportunity? If not, look very hard at yourself and your workplace because without your own enthusiasm and commitment to your goals, you will never have a winning team.

Ideally, your top applicants will already be waiting for your job ad to appear, but if they are not, they are probably not even looking for a job, because they are busy working elsewhere. Design your advertising to attract these people, look in unusual places and where you can, offer on the job training so that you increase your pool of enthusiastic candidates. Where you are able to train on the job, remember that taking on pre-skilled staff may seem easier but it restricts your choice of personalities. On the job training allows you to develop your recruit to gain the exact skills you need for the job, and also to cross-train. That is, to train people the technical aspects of other's jobs to increase flexibility. Advertising for veterinary surgeons is very different from advertising for nursing or support staff, and it is useful to monitor response rates from different advertising so you know where your advertising spend is most effective.

Flexibility is also key to attracting good staff from current jobs--they are often already loyal employees elsewhere, so may not be able to start straight way, and may have pre-booked holiday, salary and benefits expectations which do not match what you initially offer.

Selecting the Right People For Interview

Always use a standard application form and use the pre-discussed selection criteria for selecting your short-list. Never bypass this stage even if a comprehensive CV is sent. Initial selection must be non-discriminatory, and care must be taken to avoid falling foul of any national legislation. Try and interview as many people as possible, particularly where your selection criteria are fairly wide--e.g., you are creating a new post or are fairly flexible about the sort of person you are looking for. Give adequate notice of interview (dates in your initial letter enclosing the application form can be helpful), and tell your candidates how long they will be with you and what form the interview will take.

Interviewing and Selection

Matching expectations is a vital part of the interview, so an agenda for discussion is essential to ensure nothing is forgotten, and that the process is fair. Give as much information as you can about the practice, the job and your terms of employment in your initial letter, and enclose your proposed job description. This discourages unsuitable applications and most importantly saves time during the interview--you need to concentrate on finding out about the candidate, not discussing fixed aspects of the work.

Having involved your team in recruitment planning, involve them in your selection process also. Have a member of the team you are recruiting for show the candidate around and encourage conversation before the interview if possible. This puts the candidate at ease and is an opportunity to gauge their interpersonal skills, their interest in the practice and the job, and their reactions to being introduced to colleagues.

If you are using questionnaires, aptitude or key skills tests, consider how you can administer these to give maximum opportunity for interaction with the team. By conducting this part of the selection in a group, you can gain more insight into how a candidate interacts with others and your team. Specific task assessments can be helpful for certain positions, and you can conduct standard tests for Key Skills--language and number, which can be helpful in assessing strengths and weaknesses as well as in actual selection. If using tests, ensure that you give those with disabilities, for example dyslexia, notice of this and an opportunity to have accommodation made if necessary.

Part of your selection will certainly be a face to face interview. I find it easier if there are two people on the interview panel. Good preparation is vital, both to devise the initial questions and interview plan, and to ensure you fill in any gaps in the candidate's CV, explore issues raised in the application and answer the candidate's questions about the job. Having the question framework typed up with space to make notes of answers is useful, and it is helpful for one person to ask and listen, and for the other to take notes. Roles can be switched halfway through.

Open questioning and active listening is essential--we all know this, but it can be quite difficult in practice, as is allowing enough time for the candidate to develop answers without interrupting! Starting your questions with 'Tell me about....' is a good technique for those in the habit of asking closed questions; don't be afraid of silence. A common fault is breaking the silence by converting the open question to a closed question to prompt the candidate! Interviewing with a colleague allows you both to ask supplementary questions where necessary and to keep things on track and on time.

Never interview when your mind is on something else--it is better to spend an entire day on selection rather than fit in interviews around a busy consulting, operating or troubleshooting schedule. The phone should be unplugged and a prominent sign on the door should discourage interruptions. Interviewing is expensive for all involved, and it costs a lot more to do it badly or with insufficient attention. Set questions and employment history can be used as ice-breakers, and factual information should be on the application form, leaving motivation, ambitions, personality, attitude and specific achievements to be explored in the interview.

Avoid asking hypothetical questions (What would you do if ......), but try to find out exactly how a candidate has dealt with a situation (Tell me about the last time......). If required, hypothetical situations should be presented as role play. Using these questions requires an understanding of the behaviours you are looking for and those you do not want to see.

Scoring and recording the interview are crucial, and this should be based around your draft job description and agreed selection criteria. Always make a few notes as a memory aid to help you picture the candidate again if you do not have photographs. Keep notes (and doodles) objective and non-discriminatory to help you decide and as candidates may ask to see them afterwards.

Offering the Job and Getting the Details Right

When and how to offer the job can be problematic, particularly if interviewees impose their own time scales because they are applying for more than one job or are going on holiday the next day! Always follow up an offer in writing and give the recruit a copy of the contract before confirming acceptance. Always ask for references, and use a standard form.

Speaker Information
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Carole J. Clarke, MA, VetMB, CVPM, MRCVS
Mill House Veterinary Surgery and Hospital
Norfolk, United Kingdom

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