A few months ago, when the idea of raising the federal minimum wage over $10/hour first became a hot topic in the news (with some federal workers even getting a minimum wage bump), we worked with an internal medicine practice in a rural area that had many employees earning around that proposed new figure (or even a little less). Although the news really had no effect whatsoever on the practice’s compensation structure or even the local economy (where $10/hour was still well above market rate), it still caught the attention of employees, and had started to eat at their morale.
“So now I could be paid just the same if I worked at McDonald’s?” said one front desk employee, whose hourly rate was right around $10, during our confidential interview. “I might as well work there. I’d never have to stay late,” she lamented. She was not the only employee thinking this way. Many team members were deeply affected by the idea that their compensation level — which in every case was at least 20% higher than the actual prevailing minimum wage in their area — was what some people now considered the minimum standard for people with no experience and no credentials. Even though no change to the minimum wage had taken place, these employees already felt like they’d been demoted!
This particular practice really prides itself (justifiably) on its attention to employee satisfaction and to paying employees a living wage — and the minimum wage discussion in the news, and its unexpected impact on employee attitudes, really threw them a curve ball. Employees who had previously felt appreciated and well-compensated versus their alternatives in their little rural town were suddenly wondering if they were underpaid — or worse, under-valued.
Medical practices are (unfortunately) accustomed to the unexpected impact of government actions on their business. But in this case, the impact happened before any action has even happened. Some markets may not be affected at all by new minimum wage rules, which seem to be much more likely (at least for now) to be driven by local market conditions and politics. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that discussions of fairness, income inequality, and a living minimum wage don’t touch nerves with employees — even when they’re relatively well-paid and when local market rates are unlikely to change.
It’s painful and damaging to your practice to endure a morale hit in your business for any reason — but especially when it seems completely out of your control and, in many cases, totally unrelated to what’s happening in your local area. Even though the minimum wage discussion may technically have nothing to do with your practice, you’ll still need to be on alert to manage employee expectations and be sure they understand their value to your practice — and how that is reflected in both their compensation and their job responsibilities and future in your organization.
Some ideas that can help fortify your practice against an unexpected re-setting of employee expectations:
- Aim to set career paths, with compensation bumps that can be earned — so employees have a sense of mobility and achievement;
- Allow employees to explore career interests within the practice through cross-training — a great way to protect your practice for unexpected absences, too;
- Support CE for employees, to help them earn and maintain their credentials;
- Explore options like adjusting schedules (e.g., allowing some employees who prefer it to work, say, 10-6 instead of 8-5 — which can also allow you to extend clinic hours);
- Be sure to remind employees frequently of the value their roles have to the entire practice;
- Allow employees to participate in suggesting improvements and implementing them — to foster a sense of teamwork and give everyone a chance to shine;
- Offer bonuses (even small ones) when the team achieves important goals like meeting Meaningful Use, improving the collection rate at the front desk, or improving patient reviews and ratings;
- Use meetings (yes, have meetings!) as an opportunity to call out staff achievements.