Introducing Alton Sturtevant, scheduling staff meetings, handling performance appraisals effectively, developing policies for selling in the lab, and being paid for on-call work

Feb. 1, 2002
Edited by Christopher S. Frings PhD, CSP

Meet Alton Sturtevant

This month is the last of five updates to help you get to know the people who contribute to this column. In this issue, we feature panelist Alton B. Sturtevant. 

Alton Sturtevant, Ph.D., is general manager of Dynacare Laboratories-Alabama Region. The region is composed of more than 13 locations with 11 testing laboratories that employ more than 650 full-time equivalents. The laboratories vary in complexity from a five-person stat laboratory to a 330-person full-service laboratory that includes most disciplines of clinical pathology, including SAMHSA-certified toxicology and anatomic pathology. Dr. Sturtevant is a co-founder of
LabSouth, which was acquired by Dynacare Laboratories in 2000, and has more than 30 years of senior management experience in the laboratory industry. He was a senior vice president at a large regional reference laboratory before co-founding LabSouth in 1989. He is certified by the American Academy of Microbiology (AAM) as a Specialist Microbiologist in Public Health and Medical Laboratory Microbiology. He received a B.S. and M.S. from the University of Alabama and a Ph.D. from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Following completion of his Ph.D., Dr. Sturtevant served as a captain in the United States Army, where he participated in joint research with CDC and directed a large full-service microbiology laboratory. He is an active member of the Alabama chapter of CLMA, where he has served as president in addition to filling other elected positions. Dr. Sturtevant is currently the CLMA representative to the Alabama Medicare Carrier Advisory Committee. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

Frequency of staff meetings

Q: How often do you have routine or regular staff meetings? How do you make certain that there is input from everyone who needs input and that the information is distributed to all with a need to know?

A: Marti Bailey advises, I dont believe there is a standard for frequency of staff meetings. This interval should be dependent upon the size of your operation, the number of staff members, and the particular moment in time for your institution. If you happen to be going through a period of rapid and expansive change, you will need to hold staff meetings more often than you would in ordinary times. Frequency of staff meetings should be in direct relationship to the amount of information that needs to be communicated. If you have a large staff, making it relatively impossible to communicate on an informal basis, then you need to hold staff meetings on a regular basis. You can establish the best frequency by determining how long you want the meetings to be and comparing this with the amount of information you have to share. If you want to keep the meetings to one-half hour, then youll probably need to hold them more frequently than if they can be scheduled for one hour. Its not reasonable to expect the technical staff to be away from their bench work for more than an hour at a time. Most organizations could probably fit their staff meetings into a weekly, twice/month, once/month, or quarterly schedule. There is no disgrace in choosing an interval only to find out that its not meeting your needs and to make adjustments. Encourage your staff to let you know if a different frequency would work out better for them. Remember, these meetings are for the staff and should be set up for their convenience, not yours. To make optimum use of the time, you want the staff to be as receptive as possible. If their bodies are at the meetings, but their minds are back on their accumulating workload, time spent at the meeting will not be particularly well spent. Remember, if there are ten people attending for one-half hour, this equals five hours of productive time off the bench. In order to make this time as value-laden as possible, be sure to circulate a brief, written agenda at least several days before each meeting. This will give everyone an opportunity to think over the topics and to gather their thoughts on the subjects to be discussed. Let everyone know that the meetings will start on time. This means that you should make it a point never to waste even five minutes of your staffs time. If youre going to be late, ask someone else to start the meeting for you. It also means that you shouldnt wait for stragglers nor attempt to bring them up to speed when they finally arrive. Stick to your agenda, but if you find that a particular topic requires more discussion than you thought, be flexible enough to allow adjustments.

Ms. Bailey adds, Your staff is the best resource for making certain that everyone who needs to provide input does so. Encourage them to question each other during discussions and to indicate who outside the group needs to participate in the discussion or know of the outcome. Be certain to ask the question often, Is there anyone else that we need to discuss this with? until it becomes second nature to the group to offer this information without being prompted. Be sure to follow up your meetings with written minutes that are circulated to everyone. Your staff should be able to recommend the best way to circulate the minutes, whether it is by hard copy to each member, by e-mail, posting at a particular place, etc. Your staff can also help in deciding the circulation list. For any particular meeting, there may be additions to the list, depending upon what was discussed. Be sure to identify additional recipients of minutes before the end of the meeting. Your staff is also your best resource in ensuring that information from your meetings is distributed to the correct people. This is a particularly difficult matter in organizations as complex as healthcare, where many decisions made do not have isolated impact, but tend to have a ripple effect on other departments. Decisions on subjects that will affect other departments need to be made in conjunction with those areas and should not come out of your staff meetings. I tend to think of staff meetings as being a vehicle for dissemination of information and decision making on relatively simple issues. For any more complex issues, pulling stakeholders into workgroups to make the decisions is the best way to go.

According to Larry Crolla, We have monthly staff meetings. The easiest way to get input is to ask for it. You also need to ask several times. We have supervisors meetings also on a monthly basis and distribute information to them to give to their staffs at their monthly meetings. Some institutions also hold weekly supervisors meetings only you know if you need a formal meeting more often than on a monthly basis.

Terry Jo Gile advises, Staff meetings should be held weekly on all three shifts. For those who cannot attend the meetings, there should be written minutes posted for all to read and a sign-in sheet to verify that employees have attended and/or read the minutes. This ensures that everyone got the same message. Where you have outreach facilities in other cities or states, the use of e-mail or teleconferencing or videoconferencing is helpful.

Alton Sturtevant adds, We have routine monthly supervisors meetings in conjunction with our QA/QC meeting at our two main laboratories. We encourage (strongly) that the managers follow-up with departmental meetings. The goal of these team meetings is to pass along the information gained at the main meetings along with department-specific information. This is well received and helps to build teamwork in those departments that conduct routine meetings. Our laboratory network consists of two main laboratories and 11 other sites, some of which are testing sites and others service centers. Personnel from the remote facilities do not usually attend the monthly meetings and do not get to hear firsthand the information provided at the meetings. To provide updated information to these personnel, we send monthly information packets. 

He continues, We have also begun routine conference calls with all operations managers to ensure that they receive firsthand management information and have an opportunity to ask questions of management. We also place important policies, procedures and other management information (for example, HR forms) on our computer network for access by the managers and staff.

Bottom line. If you hold a regularly scheduled meeting, redetermine on a periodic basis if the meeting is really needed. If you have regular meetings, ask the group periodically, Do we still need this meeting at this frequency? Often the answer is, no. Listen to what the group says. Ask the group 1) who needs to attend that is not attending, and 2) who is attending that should not attend? The meetings should have written action minutes with assignments in bold face. Minutes should be distributed in a timely manner to attendees and those with a need to know.

Employee performance appraisals

Q: I would appreciate any suggestions from the panel about how to perform effective employee yearly appraisals. What type of evaluation forms work well for you?

A: Terry Jo Gile advises, The best evaluation I have ever seen allowed the supervisor to write a narrative on each employee which acknowledged what the employee had accomplished throughout the year. Although time-consuming for the supervisor, it provided the employee with the recognition that the supervisor was aware of his/her job, which was especially gratifying to off-shift employees. Those evaluations were usually three to five pages long, and required about one hour to deliver. It often took two to three hours to write, but that could be reduced by having a tickler file for each employee and adding notes to the file as accomplishments were noted. Using a check-off sheet with a one- or two-sentence summary of a years accomplishments is demeaning. Ongoing dialog with each employee is best.

According to Alton Sturtevant, We use a standardized company-wide evaluation forms that cover all phases of the job. They allow for narrative comment as well as a quantitative scoring section that lends itself to assigning a score (0-100 percent). The score can then be used for assigning raises (for example, 80 percent of possible allowable raise). Areas covered include job competence, attendance, leadership abilities, knowledge of compliance, ability to get along, etc.

Larry Crolla adds, Give undivided time to this situation, so make sure this can occur in a place free of phone calls and other interruptions. Also, sometimes it is good to ask other people to rate themselves. Then go over how you see their performance.

According to Marti Bailey, If youre looking for a silver bullet, there is none. Evaluation forms are only a means to document the appraisal process and do not make or break the process. As you search for your answer, bear in mind that surveys have shown that few employees are satisfied with their performance appraisal systems. Therefore, a goal of performing effective yearly appraisals might be too lofty. If you define effective performance appraisals to mean that you meet the requirements of your institution for annual evaluation of employee performance and that a motivating interaction has taken place between supervisor and employee, then youre probably only going to realize a 50 percent gain. You may meet the documentation requirements, but most employees find their appraisals less than motivating.

Ms. Bailey adds, Traditional performance measurement generally operates on only one or two dimensions downward appraisal by supervisors and self-appraisal, with the outcome relying mostly on supervisory ratings. Since supervisor-only performance assessment relies on a single perspective, problems typically encountered are:

  • they may reflect individual biases;
  • they are easily influenced by politics, favoritism, and friendship;
  • they are often based on insufficient observation of the employees performance;
  • supervisors are often unwilling to confront poor performance; and
  • inconsistency among supervisors in how rigorous the evaluation is.

I mention these negative aspects of performance appraisal particularly so you realize that no matter how hard you try, you cant eliminate the subjectivity from what you want to be a very objective, measurable process. And this lack of objectivity is what defeats the process in the end.

She adds, So what do I recommend? The answer will vary depending upon whether or not your appraisals are tied to pay increases. If they are, you need to first develop standards of performance and then design your appraisal form to evaluate performance based on your standards. You need to make your standards of performance as quantifiable as possible. Number of continuing education credits earned and number of errors made in a year are quantifiable. How well an employee relates to co-workers is not. At the very least, if your appraisals are tied to raises, you need to get your supervisors together to agree upon who exceeds and who does not meet standards. This will minimize inconsistent ratings by different supervisors, at least where it really counts. If your appraisals are pretty much just for the record, I recommend that you go with something simple that just documents whether or not employees meet standards, but doesnt try to quantify how much they exceed standards, which is the main bone of contention. I also highly recommend competency checks either in conjunction with or in place of performance appraisals. This is a very overlooked aspect of one of the key attributes of performance in the laboratory.

Bottom line. Employee evaluations, like exams in college, are necessary. Seldom do employees like evaluations or the appraisal forms used. Refer to Marti Baileys ideas for a good discussion about employee appraisals.

Selling stuff in the lab

Q: People who work in the lab and in other departments always seem to have something to sell (for example, Girl Scout cookies, gift wrap, magazine subscriptions, etc.). It is almost always for a good cause; however, it is sometimes disruptive, and some people feel like they should purchase something even though they dont want to or really cant afford to. Any suggestions about managing this issue?

A: All of the panelists agree that you should check whether your institution has a policy regarding on-site solicitation, and enforce the policy. Most policies dont allow selling in the workplace. Make certain that all employees have a copy of the policy.

Marti Bailey advises, If there is a policy concerning on-site solicitation, get a copy of it. Its your responsibility to make sure your employees are aware of such a policy and that they follow it. If there is no institutional policy, it sounds like you need to develop one for your department. Whenever there are complaints about workplace solicitation either outright or alleged the matter needs to be addressed. In order to achieve buy-in by your staff, I recommend that you ask for volunteers to draft such a policy. Your question hit on the two most important issues that need to be addressed in any policy drafted: 1) buying and selling infringing on productivity and 2) people feeling pressured to buy.

Ms. Bailey recommends, I recommend that the following guidelines be considered:

  • Employees may not be individually solicited. A central area will be designated where information about fund-raisers and sign-up sheets can be posted. 
  • All taking and filling of orders must be accomplished on employees own time.
  • Company resources other than a place to post announcements may not be used for solicitation (unless you decide to allow e-mail announcements).
  • If any of the solicitation involves gambling (for example, football pools, etc.), find out if this is legal in your state. If its not, then this type of solicitation must be forbidden.

Bottom line. If there is a written policy about solicitation and selling in the lab, enforce the policy. If there isnt a written policy, write one with input from the human resources department.

Being paid for call on the night shift

Q: Recently our lab manager assigned call to the staff. This laboratory is staffed 24/7, and the call is to provide coverage for the evening shifts in case of illness. The night shift has a staff of one. The morale is at an all-time low. The staff includes both MTs and MLTs, and according to our human resources department, we are nonexempt. We are paid overtime, but are encouraged to take time off. If we are forced to work a night shift during the week, our 40-hour salary is paid, even though we might not get in 40 hours. We are paid $3 an hour for being on call if we are not called in. Can management force you to come in, when you have already completed a 40-hour week, to work a 12-hour shift? Do we have any recourse? We dont like this arrangement. 

A: The panel offers some suggestions that you may find useful. They suggest that your expectations about call may be unreasonable. This is a legal question. For a definitive answer for your situation, you need to get the answer correct from a labor relations lawyer.

According to Terry Jo Gile, Most facilities pay a fee for taking call. Yours pays $28 per shift, which is very generous. Many places pay only $15 for being on call. Most places also pay your wage with a certain number of hours minimum, regardless of how long you are called back. For example if you are paid $15 per hour, and you are called back for two hours, but the facility has a four-hour minimum, you would get $60 plus your $28 call pay for two hours of work. I would say that is fair compensation and part of the job description under other duties as assigned. If you dont like this arrangement, suggest alternatives to management that provide a win-win for everyone. There are studies on working eight- vs. 10- vs. 12-hour shifts. Go on the Internet and get the information to make your case. I doubt if there is any data for laboratory work, but there is some for nursing, and as you well know, lab work is no less demanding.

Alton Sturtevant adds, It is unfortunate that you are being forced to take call for backup in case of illness or other factor that may require someone to be absent from work, but if that is a part of the job requirements, then that is your obligation. In my opinion, management can require you to work hours as a call person as long as the wage and hour laws are not violated. If the call arrangement does not suit the desires of the staff, then you/they have at least the following options: find another job, suggest an alternative means of covering for illness, or make the best of the call situation.

Dr. Sturtevant suggests, One alternative coverage situation that could partially alleviate the situation is establishing a pair of seven-on/seven-off personnel to work the shift and to cover for each other in case of illness. Perhaps there are several techs who would like to take all of the call. You could establish a pool of personnel to cover the call and work schedule from within the community.

Marti Bailey advises, Generally, employees schedules can be changed with advance notice. Sometimes there is a specified minimum notice that must be given. As long as youre being compensated for your overtime and for being on call, I dont think any regulations have been violated. However, if you havent been taking call or working much overtime and its suddenly thrust upon you, it can be very difficult to deal with. Im assuming that your shifts that are staffed with one person are appropriately staffed for the workload. The only alternatives for providing coverage if this staff of one calls in sick are to try to find an on-site person to work a double shift, phone staff at home to try to find a volunteer, or schedule on-call coverage such as your manager has done. I cant really find fault with this decision. By scheduling call, the chore should be shared equally, and at least the staff has advance notice of their commitment.

Ms. Bailey adds, I believe that there probably isnt going to be a way to avoid this change, but perhaps the staff members who are affected could brainstorm to find ways to make life easier. For instance, there are often people who want to take call and work overtime for the extra pay. Are there any staff members who are willing to take a heavier call schedule? If there are, remember that this needs to be considered temporary and subject to change per their request. Perhaps an option for folks who work 12-hour shifts would be to take their compensatory time off the following morning. Another thing to be aware of is how much overtime and call time is accumulating. Somebody needs to track this because when it equals a tech salary plus benefits, then its time to consider adding staff to replace the overtime and call. Call is nothing new to the laboratory, and I think if there is a real need, then the staff needs to adjust to the new requirement. Mandatory overtime meaning overtime not resulting from being called in is not standard laboratory practice, however, and is one of the reasons that healthcare professionals are leaving the field. This would probably be a good time to think carefully about your career options.

Bottom line. Since this is a legal question, you need to get the definitive answer for your specific situation answer from a labor relations lawyer.

Christopher S. Frings is an internationally known consultant and speaker on the topics of leadership, managing change, time management, reaching goals, and stress management. His consulting firm, Chris Frings & Associates, is in Birmingham, AL.

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