Is Your Associate a Horror Story?

By Addison Killeen

June 11, 2024

Have you ever heard some horror stories about dentists who hire associates?

There’s one where a group hires an associate to push out a partner. The oldest partner of the group has a problem with alcohol, and the younger members of the partnership hire an associate to push out the older doc. It didn’t end well.

Then there’s the one where the associate starts referring out everything. A young associate is hired into a practice but is scared of their own shadow. (Joking, of course, but you get the drift!) This associate starts referring out extractions, root canals, and other cases to other dental offices, even though the senior doctor could have handled those cases easily.

Then there’s this excerpt from the Associate Dentist Manual:

In this story, we see a senior doctor who was not prepared for an associate and did not want to coach the associate to succeed.

Dr. Kennedy was a younger doctor who was eager to settle in a small town in Indiana. This town had about 15,000 people and four dental offices, each about 35 minutes south of Indianapolis. The owner dentist of one of these practices was Dr. Jason, who graduated about 20 years ago and had been the town sweetheart since his award-winning days on the high school basketball team.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jason had started to get worn down by dentistry and was just not in a good mood most days. His back and neck hurt a lot, which contributed to his poor attitude. His leadership skills were also lacking, which led the office to be run, for all practical purposes, by his assistant.

This story begins at the end. On her last day, Dr. Kennedy didn’t say a single word to the other doctor, said her goodbyes to the team, and left. The team was heartbroken, as they had grown to love Dr. Kennedy. However, the grumpy owner doctor was holed up in his office, wondering how he would handle the practice going forward.

As they approached the end of their working relationship, the atmosphere in the office was pretty toxic. The senior doctor, who was 100% owner, would bring in the associate and berate her for not doing something correctly. When the associate worked harder to better adhere to this doctor’s standards, he would then berate her for taking too long.

After 11 months, the associate decided that she’d had enough and looked for jobs elsewhere. While she could have conceivably joined or purchased another office in town, she had signed a contract with a 15-mile non-compete. This negated any possibility of staying in town unless she wanted to fight with the owner doctor about the legality of the non-compete clause. She ended up leaving the city and having to sell the house she purchased just a year prior.

At the point of leaving, it dawned on her that she had missed a few red flags. One was that the owner previously had a partner in the practice, but she could not contact the prior partner during the interview process. She should have done more research into how the partnership dissolved and whether there was any backstory to this case. It turns out, Dr. Jason had driven the partner out with his poor attitude as well. If Dr. Kennedy had checked in on this story, then perhaps this unfortunate situation could have been avoided.

Another red flag is that Dr. Jason also wouldn’t allow the new associate into the practice to meet any of the team prior to her first day. This seems very odd, as there are usually not many good reasons for barring a visit to the office. This is understandable in the case where one associate is replacing another. However, if the spot was empty to begin with, it doesn’t make much sense. We assume this implies the team would have tipped the new doctor off to the toxicity in the office and the real reasons why there was an open doctor spot.

In all, this was a situation bound to fail from the beginning. Dr. Jason is not likely to find a new associate anytime soon. His demeanor towards the associate, as seen by the team, was horrible and toxic. Due to this fact, no future associate that does any research on the practice will find it appealing. This failure of the associateship might mean that Dr. Jason’s practice now shrinks to a permanent single-doctor practice. This also means that there may be lay-offs in Dr. Jason’s future, as the team shrinks to only handle the workload and patients of one doctor. If Dr. Jason really wants to have another doctor in the office, the most likely scenario is that he will have to sell to a DSO and then step back from all ownership responsibilities. Unfortunately, life doesn’t look easy for this owner after the failed associateship with Dr. Kennedy.

Stories like this are everywhere in the dental associate world, but it doesn’t have to be this way. With the proper planning and execution, the dental associate world can be fruitful and smooth. This doesn’t come with luck; it really only comes through proper planning.

The best resources to help you through this process of hiring and onboarding an associate are all found in the Associate Dentist Manual. This book is packed full of powerful resources that will help you get the best people into your practice, including letters to help recruitment, special hiring tests, and a complete onboarding system to make sure they understand how your practice works.

Together with these resources, let’s make horror stories like this a thing of the past!

Be well and do well,
Addison Killeen

P.S. Are you looking for a community that supports you through the challenges of hiring and managing associates? Join Dental Success Network today! Our members benefit from exclusive access to a community of over 1,000 dentists, real-time feedback on clinical and business cases, and a wealth of educational resources. Don’t face these challenges alone – become a part of DSN and transform your practice for the better.