Addressing management issues

June 1, 2009
Lab workers concerned for safety

Q We work in a small community, and our doctors’ office
laboratory sits alone in a new construction area in a rather desolate
part of town. Two of us who work after hours — sometimes until after
dark — have asked for additional security measures for the building
since we have had a couple of concerning incidents. Once, because some
of the windows are only partially covered, we had someone peering
through the glass at us. The person disappeared before we could
ascertain who he was, but we were frightened. We are convinced the
second incident was likely the same person. We asked for total window
coverage and some added outdoor lighting, but we were told the
aesthetics of the building and its d’ecor were at issue. That was several
weeks ago, and nothing has been done yet. How do we persuade management
to do something to make us at least
feel more secure at night
since they have, thus far, ignored our requests? Should we ask our local
law-enforcement department for help?

A Alton B. Sturtevant explains, “It is not unusual for
laboratory employees to face concerns with physical safety due to the
unusual hours that laboratories operate. Being in lab management for
many years has allowed me to observe this situation in our various lab
locations. Each one has its own unique challenges, but with common sense
approaches, they can be addressed and solved.

“Take the extra step of putting your concerns into
writing to ensure management understands that you are seriously
concerned for your safety. Document the dates and specifics relating to
the incidents, and clearly express your concerns without being dramatic.
Additionally, ask for solutions that you consider important (to include
more lighting and window coverings that can be used after dark).
Schedule a face-to-face meeting with the manager, at which time you
should present the written document, and explain your issues and
proposed solutions.

Take the extra step of putting your concerns into writing to ensure management understands that you are seriously concerned for your safety.

“Ask the manager to speak with the local police
department on your behalf to explain the work hours, and request that
police representatives come by to speak to your group. The local police
appreciate businesses letting them know about work hours and concerns.
The police may stop by to speak with you periodically during patrols to
ensure everything is okay and that you know that they are checking up on
you. If the manager balks at calling the police, ask if you can call on
behalf of the practice.

“The practice has the responsibility of providing you
with safe working conditions, but you must take an active role in making
that happen as well. Do not feel that you are making a pest of yourself
when explaining the situation. If nothing is done by management to
alleviate the situation after continued discussions, then you must
decide if you want to continue to work in an unsafe environment.”

Larry Crolla says, “In this situation I would call
local law enforcement and make the police aware of the situation and the
incidents that have occurred. Simply ask if they can patrol the area on
a more frequent basis at night. You may also be able to have officers
visit with ‘the powers that be’ to recommend some measures that may be
needed to help ensure your safety on their premises. Document all
correspondence about this to management If they know you have created a
paper trail, they are more likely to believe your concern is serious.”

Marti Bailey states, “You have experienced two incidents,
so your requests for additional security measures should not be ignored.
‘Building aesthetics and d’ecor’ is not a reasonable justification for
failing to implement needed security.

“Document any and all incidents in writing to your
employer and the police. This will serve as notice to everyone that there is
a problem. If you know the dates and times of the incidents that have
already occurred, report these to the police, as well. When leaving the
building, arrange with other staff members to leave together, if possible.

“Your employer is responsible for providing you with a
safe work environment. The facts are that you have experienced incidents
that make it clear there is a safety threat, and requests for additional
safety measures have been ignored. Economics might prevent you from
resigning and taking another job, but if there is an opportunity to do so,
you may want to look into it.”

Bottom line: Employees’ safety should be of paramount
concern to employers. If you or your co-workers were violated in any manner,
it would be terrible for you both, but if you need to get your employer’s
attention, remind him that the negative publicity could destroy patients’
confidence to come to your facility. Our experts have offered good advice:
Document suspicious events and call the police to escort you out at night if
you feel unsafe. Better safe than sorry!

Fear of job loss

Q During this “season” of economic turmoil, we have had
layoffs, reassignments, resignations, and negotiations for part time or
take-home work. All of this is to be expected. However, the administration
— human resources (HR), managers,
and supervisors — do not make announcements or hold informative
meetings to discuss with employees the plan of action they evidently have
developed to cope with the situation. This has created an environment of
rumors, speculation, gossip, ill will, and fear. When some of us have
attempted to suggest to some of these authorities that these reactions have
placed a negative synergy on the lab, their response is, “just keep your
nose to the grindstone.” Those of us who are left must carry the entire
workload. In some cases, this is truly burdensome schedule-wise, but
moreover, it is beginning to get wearisome. Not only are some of us afraid
we will lose our jobs at some point, we are more afraid that we might be
responsible for making errors due to overwork and physical stress. What can
we do to set the record straight with our leadership?

A Larry Crolla says, “Have a discussion with the chairman
of the department, who bears the legal responsibility for lab quality.
Explain your concerns about lab quality. The chairman should then present
these issues to the administration; ask the chairman if he would please
notify you of administration’s response. If you feel your concerns are not
addressed after taking these steps, you can contact the CEO of the hospital
in writing. If you are certain patient care is at risk, you should contact
your regulatory agency.”

Alton Sturtevant explains, “Both parties involved in this
issue have a responsibility to ensure that the institution is able to
survive this economic downturn. The situation you describe is one that is
being played out in many facilities today. Management is tasked with the
fiscal responsibility while you are tasked with quality laboratory results.

“Having been on both sides of this issue, I can say
that management is walking a fine line between good open communication
and saying something that can be misconstrued as a promise to employees
when it is really a best guess of the current situation. I do, however,
feel that management owes it to the employees to provide factual
information to them. Employees must understand that honest communication
of the current situation is what management is attempting to provide —
not a guarantee.

Employees in many facilities are being stretched beyond their limits due to staffing reductions.

“Calm requests from employees to supervisors, and
supervisors to management, requesting a current update on the situation
to employees should help to encourage communication among the team. A
good place to solicit information is from HR, as that department is
tasked with relaying employee concerns to management. If there are
suggestion boxes or other anonymous methods of communication with
management, take advantage of them.

“Ensure that quality issues found in the lab are
diligently reported into the quality-assurance process, so if problems
arise due to staffing issues, they will be reported through the normal
channels to management. Focus on quality laboratory testing, not on the
uncertainties of the economy.”

Marti Bailey says, “Two different strategies are used
in my area for handling stressed hospital economics. Our hospital
developed a survival plan to protect jobs and communicated that plan
clearly to all employees. It was made known that a certain number of
positions had to be eliminated to maintain financial stability, and the
method of reduction was to be attrition. The positions of employees who
retired or left for other reasons would not be filled, and a selective
hiring freeze was to be implemented.

“Another local hospital also reduced positions but
did so by eliminating existing employees. The communication was via pink
slips on a Friday afternoon to the employees who were to be laid off —
with no advance notice or warning.

“In our hospital, employees sensed that the employer
was honestly acknowledging that the business was suffering from the
economic downturn, but everything possible was being done to avoid
employee layoffs. This, of course, was not the case at the other
hospital. Those employees go to work each day wondering who might be
going next and feel terrible for the employees who were let go.

“These difficult decisions, as well as the plan for
communicating them, are made at a high level and are a good indication
of the character and values of the people who make them. Employees’
commitment to their jobs and loyalty to their employer are strongly
influenced by their leaders’ performance during difficult times.

“Employees in many facilities are being stretched
beyond their limits due to staffing reductions, and the laboratory has
been particularly hard hit. It is not good enough to threaten that you
might make errors or complain that you are being overworked. It is
helpful for co-workers to lend one another support, and keep the
supervisor informed of workload impacts, including complaints from lab
users regarding test-turnaround times. We are tasked with patient care,
and failures in this arena are not acceptable, so it is important that
the administration knows when it needs to improve staffing.”

Bottom line: As our final commentary points out,
it is not good enough to threaten that you might make errors or complain
that you are being overworked. Document the bed census and outpatient
visits, and correlate that information to the laboratory’s workload,
staffing shortage, overtime pay, turnaround times, and quality issues to
prove your point. Without such documentation, you do not have much of a
case. The laboratory managers may be as disadvantaged by poor
communication as are the testing personnel. Communication from
administration, whether it presents good or bad news, is better than no
communication at all. Do not be part of a rumor mill, as it only
deteriorates your personal integrity.

“Management Q & A”
provides practical, up-to-date solutions to
readers’ management issues from a panel of laboratory management
experts. Readers may send questions to Anne Pontius at
[email protected]
Unless otherwise noted as “confidential”
by readers, all queries will be considered for publication without
further notice to them. Names, institution, city, and state will
be removed before publication. The following panel of laboratory
directors, managers, and supervisory technologists have provided their
input in the answers given in this column: Marti K. Bailey, MT(ASCP),
work unit leader, Pathology, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical
Center, Hershey, PA; Lawrence J. Crolla, PhD, consulting clinical
chemist, Departments of Pathology and Respiratory Care, Alexian Brothers
Hospital, Elk Grove Village, IL, West Suburban Medical Center, Oak Park,
IL, and Northwest Community Hospital, Arlington Heights, IL; and Alton
Sturtevant, PhD, laboratory director, LabCorp, Birmingham, AL.

Anne Pontius is a senior medical practice
consultant with State Volunteer Mutual Insurance Company in Brentwood,
TN, and president-elect of CLMA 2007-2009. Send questions to Ms. Pontius
[email protected]