Viewpoint: Staff retention is addressed

November 15, 2009

My friends in practice tell me that the starting pay packages being offered to ophthalmologists right out of training are becoming more modest.

My university did not give out the typical pay raises this year. I shouldn't complain, because some universities imposed pay cuts. My friends in practice tell me that the starting pay packages being offered to ophthalmologists right out of training are becoming more modest as well. In a recession, most companies impose these freezes, and universities are no exception.

The absence of a pay raise can upset people who have come to anticipate annual pay raises as a given. My friends who are executives in industry tell me that people will tolerate one year without raises, but if repeated this becomes a major source of resentment.

In a recession companies are not hiring (just ask my son and his classmates who finished college in May), so the options for unhappy employees to defect to other companies are limited. They stay, but as soon as things begin to pick up, some will leave. Somewhat ironically, companies start losing good employees once the economy begins to pick up. How does a company keep the loyalty of its best employees through tough times?

Not wanting his chairman to hear about the courtship via the rumor mill, the professor told his chairman about it, ending with his assessment that "I think they are going to offer me the position. They really seem to want me."

His chairman replied: "They better want you. If they don't want you, I sure as hell don't."

"That response really hurt my feelings," said my colleague.

In my opinion, the chairman was actually paying his faculty member a compliment. He meant that he had hired this promising young ophthalmologist and helped him develop over a dozen years into an extremely successful academician. Naturally other departments would appreciate his abilities and try to recruit him away. The chairman prided himself on the talented faculty members in the department; if my colleague were not so talented, the chairman meant, he would not even be in the department. But the faculty member interpreted it a different way.

Common refrain

How can a company keep morale up among its employees when finances dictate suspension of salary increases? I have seen this topic covered in a number of newspapers and magazines lately, and most of the articles include a common refrain. Employees who believe they are developing and growing professionally, by garnering new skills that make work interesting and increase their abilities, are happier. At the same time, they are also becoming more attractive to other companies that are looking to steal away high-performers. One way to look at it is that employees are kept loyal and retained by preparing them to move on.

It makes sense that academic departments should hire ophthalmologists with the idea that they are being trained to take on leadership roles, such as division chief or department chairman positions, and that if something doesn't open in their department within a reasonable time there is a good chance that they will leave. In private practice, the situation may be somewhat different. The loss of a good partner can hurt a practice economically, especially if he or she continues to practice in that community, and most practices today have noncompete agreements that represent a major financial disincentive for someone to leave.

The idea is to keep people happy and, we hope, to retain many of them by making them more attractive and (in a sense) better preparing them to leave. It is counterintuitive, to say the least.

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building 600 N. Wolfe St. Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu