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Don't let toxic attitudes poison your veterinary practice

Posted in Our Community @ Oct 19th 2016 - By Dr Cathy Warburton, Make Headway
Managing Toxic Attitudes In Your Veterinary Practice

Ignoring toxic attitudes and behaviours in your veterinary practice is easiest..right?

You are busy, your mind is on other things and you choose to walk past toxic attitudes and behaviours in your workplace. It might avoid unpleasantness in the short term, but what is the longer term impact?

Many practices have a staff member with negative attitudes and toxic actions. Does yours? You know that person who comes in at the beginning of their shift as if they have a black cloud over their head, who doesn’t even say hello to the rest of the team and whose mood is infectious so that everybody starts to feel down? They may be the same person that leaves jobs they don’t consider fun to others, takes the credit for things they didn’t do or even shifts the blame for stuff they did do. Often they are people with great clinical skills – people we think the practice can’t live without.

Ignoring the behaviour can be easy...

Walking past and ignoring these behaviours can be such a relief at the time - it avoids conflict and allows us to concentrate on tasks we enjoy. It may seem like the easiest option, especially if we don’t feel like we have the power or the skills to do something about it. 

Short term gain though leads to long term pain.

Toxic attitudes can lead to toxic environments

Toxic attitudes in veterinary practices lead to toxic environments 1.  The bad behaviour of one, or a small number, can have an impact on the health and well-being of the entire team as people’s head space gets cluttered with thoughts of how to avoid either the toxic person or their wrath. They may spend so much time and invest so much emotional energy into coping with the situation that they have less energy and focus for their real job – that of looking after clients and pets.

They may lose trust, become defensive and withdraw their discretionary effort. And the simmering tension and conflict in the clinic creates additional demands on people and contributes to burnout. People start looking for other jobs or careers.

Changing your culture

Back in 2013, the Australian armed forces wanted to change the entrenched culture present in their workplace. Lieutenant General David Morrison (Chief of Army) told everybody that, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” In saying this, he wanted each and every member of the workplace to take responsibility for the culture and to make a stand against unacceptable practices.

In your clinics - the ostrich approach may be the currently accepted way of dealing with bad behaviour. Understanding the cost of this approach, is it time to tackle it? Is it time to draw a line in the sand? Is David Morrison’s statement and message something that you could put to use in your practice?

Trying to tackle an entrenched problem can seem overwhelming.

But if we break into small achievable steps, change can happen.

  1. Be an observer in your own practice – watch closely and really notice what is happening.

  2. Draw the line in the sand – have a staff meeting and, as a group, decide on acceptable ways of conducting yourselves. Display your code of conduct prominently.

  3. Consistently hold people accountable for their actions and give them the opportunity to change.

  4. Be prepared to lose people who cannot or will not change.

My experience as a manager is that steps 3 and 4 are the hardest.

Consistency is key

Consistency can go out the door in the face of sickness, busy periods etc  - but consistency is crucial. Everybody must be held accountable to the same code of conduct, no matter their experience, position or longevity in the role.

Helping people with established and unhelpful patterns to change their behaviour can be difficult. This is unlikely to be a smooth process– it may be one step forward and two steps backwards, and it will take time. One option you could consider is to provide a course of coaching with an experienced veterinary professional – an objective outsider who can provide a safe place to explore the reasons behind the actions and support the new ways of being, without having to simultaneously manage them.  The coaching course could be part of the support you provide on a performance management plan.

And if you have provided support to meet the behavioural guidelines and it is still not happening, the next step is to make the best decision for the team, the clients you care for and your clinics productivity.

You can live without that toxic person and it probably will be a damned sight better than living with them.

Have any questions about managing a toxic employee? Ask Cathy in the Comments section below.

1. Moore IC et al (2015) Exploring the impact of toxic attitudes and a toxic environment on the veterinary healthcare team. Front. Vet. Sci. 2:78

About Cathy

Cathy is a coach and well-being consultant/educator with Make Headway.  Prior to this, she worked as a veterinarian, trainer and manager in private, university and corporate practices for 25 years.  Please visit her site at to make an enquiry about coaching or to find out more.


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