10 signs at vet clinic job interviews that the clinic is toxic

Workplace Toxicity – how it negatively impacts on a clinic’s ability to ever become an Employer of Choice.  

I’m going to unpack some questions you can ask yourself if you’re getting ready for your next move and some of the things employers can do to start improving the morale – and in turn, profitability, at your clinic.

To become an employer of choice, you need to deal with what’s not working at your clinic first.  

If you’re listening to this as the employer – perhaps the principal, owner, hiring manager, HR manager or Practice Manager – please look at what I’m saying through the lens of “how does that apply to us at this clinic?”.  

Let’s start with the scenario where you’re job-hunting … you’re getting ready to make your next move and have started looking for good clinics to work at … you’re doing your online research … checking out reviews… websites…  and FB group chats and posts…

You’re the employee looking to change jobs.

Here are some questions to ask yourself (and/or the person who’s interviewing you) to make sure you don’t jump from one toxic workplace to another that’s the exact same – but different.

Does the leadership team inspire trust or does it rely on control?

For example, are employees empowered to make intelligent and reasonable decisions because management – the leadership team – shares information?   Or is everything on a need-to-know basis? 

What if that need-to-know is truly need-to-know but if there’s a clique, an in-team, and they don’t need to know but info is still shared with them anyway…? 

Then it’s not really on a need-to-know basis, but a who-you-know basis … which has hallmarks of ‘control’ going on …

A question you could ask at the job interview is about examples of employee empowerment systems, what policies and procedures are in place that empower employees to make decisions and/or take action.

For example, are nurses encouraged to utilise all the skills their education gives them?   It’s a good idea for vets to ask a question like this, because if the head vet at the clinic you’re considering has a superiority complex, that attitude will permeate in some destructive and toxic form or another through the entire clinic. 

Of course, if you’re of the opinion that vets reign supreme, then who knows(?), you’ll probably fit right into a clinic like that.

The flip side of that is maybe, just maybe, you have a nurse who somehow, believes that vets reign supreme and therefore discourages and maybe even obstructs, the nursing team from showing initiative and/or keeping them from doing higher level work.

I’ve heard stories where some vets are scared to take on the been-there-forever head nurse who rules the clinic with an iron fist. 

With empowerment comes being backed up.  What if there’s a customer complaint?   Will management back the employee or the complaining customer?   Will anyone be thrown under the bus?  

You need to know that management has everyone’s backs.

Why is the position vacant?

Why is the current incumbent leaving?    Reasonable answers can include variations on not returning from parental leave, taking parental leave (then it should only be a short term vacancy anyway), relocating, other opportunities, promotion … when we ask that question, we’re all happy with these reasonable and acceptable answers.

But if you hear anything like “personality conflicts” or “they didn’t fit in / weren’t a good fit” – then you need to know more.   What sort of conflicts?  Why didn’t they fit in? 

Because you might not fit in either and how sad would that be.

You might have the same personality conflicts as the previous incumbent.

What were the warning signs at your last clinic?

When you can recognise warning signs, you’re more likely to be able to respond in a different way.  

If you’re in a toxic clinic now and looking to leave (rather than reform), what signs did you start noticing in the beginning?

Hindsight always gives us 20/20 vision.  There will likely be lots of little warning signs that in and of themselves, don’t mean much, singly … but when you add them all together, well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing completely.

Jumping from the fat to the fire is exhausting and time wasting.   Life is too short to keep working in clinics where you don’t fit.

So look back – what do you see?  How do you think you’d recognise those events in advance now?  Do you give yourself permission to mentally flag these events the next time you see them?

Sometimes it’s easy to say that you recognise the warning signs retrospectively … but giving yourself permission to see them again in the future – rather than brush them off to start with – is something else.   So make sure you take the blinders off going forward.

What initial impressions did you have at the interview?

With lots of interviews starting off via Zoom or Teams, it’s a bit harder to get a read on the clinic.   There are some instances when a job offer is made and accepted solely on the basis of a Zoom interview. 

Of course, it’s usually the only way right now for overseas-based vets.   Accepting a position without visiting the clinic is par-for-the-course.

But if you get the opportunity to visit the clinic and perhaps spend a day or a few hours with the team, how’d that go?    And if it’s not possible for an in-person walkabout or meet-and-greet, ask for a Zoom walkaround and, when you get to job-offer stage, whether you can speak with employees yourself.   If they offer – so you don’t have to ask – it’s a step in the right direction that relationships at the clinic are good.

Remember, at job interviews, everyone will (presumably) be on their best behaviour because they want to impress you … but keep a look out for the little things …

  • Were you kept waiting?  It doesn’t matter whether you’re kept waiting in reception or via Zoom – waiting is waiting wherever it’s done.
  • Were you introduced to the front desk team and/or given the opportunity to do so?
  • Was everyone polite?
  • What was the atmosphere like when everyone got together?   Did they get together?
  • Was there an us/them or front/back demarcation?  How does that sit with you?   Are you okay with that?

What are your values?

Unless the majority at your current clinic would describe the atmosphere as toxic, doesn’t mean it is.   By this I mean that there’re are least two sides to every story.   If most people would regard the clinic as toxic then it’s highly likely it is.

The perpetrators – aka bullies – would deny that of course … but what about everyone else?

This is when it’s really important to know, and stay true to, your values.

I highly recommend you sit down and identify what your values are – this topic is so important I’ll be dedicating a whole episode to it, so stay tuned. 

If there’s a part of you that’s feeling kinda ikky – that’s a bone fide medical term – which usually starts in someone’s gut – if you’re feeling kinda ikky at any point during the interview process, then trust that gut feeling because it usually doesn’t let you down – it’s commonly referred to as intuition or gut-instinct.  Trust it!

Does your personality fit into the team?

If you’ve got an aversion to high tech and all thing computerised, and you’re interviewing at a clinic where EVERYTHING has an app of some kind, then you need to ask yourself whether you can get over yourself and work there?

Check inside – is how things are at the clinic you’re interviewing for – the bit that’s giving you some concerns about – something you need to get over yourself about, or is it a genuine concern …? Or is it an excuse for something completely different…?

Whatever it is, be honest with yourself because you’ll be spending 8-or so hours there so it’s kinda a good idea to enjoy yourself, right?

Spending 8 hours each day fighting yourself getting over yourself doesn’t sound like my idea of fun … if that’s the impression you’re getting, then thank them politely and move on.

Do the people – the leadership team and/or the influencers there – practice what they preach?

Or are they all talk?

Do some people get away with blue murder because they’re big billers? 

Or because they’re the loudest?  

Or because if anyone challenges their behaviour, they start making everyone else’s lives miserable?  

Change has to come from the top, from the leaders.

If a leader has a reputation for being “do as I say, not as I do”, then nothing is going to change… working in a clinic like that will result in very high staff turnover and with vacancies that’ll get harder and harder to fill as clinics’ employer brands and reputations are visible online more easily and readily.

Do any of the team have a reputation for doing things their way – for example, a vet who makes exceptions for clients (ie, “changes the rules”) … maybe they don’t charge fully – if one consult slot ended up being two, or maybe they give away rep samples to reduce the bill …  when things like this happen, it can have negative consequences and remove the feeling of functioning as a team.

If you’re not offered the opportunity to chat and/or meet other employees prior to accepting a job offer, then I’d be starting to wonder why … even if you’re interviewing from Kaitaia for a position in Bluff, with Zoom, Facetime, and Teams, there’s no reason at all why you can’t meet other employees.  If you’re in Devon or Dublin or Durban interviewing for a position in Devonport, again – there’s no reason why you can’t have a virtual walk-through the clinic and meet existing employees.

What’s their onboarding process?

It usually takes months for a new employee to slot into an existing team like they’ve always been there.  

Until that happens, they’re asking lots of questions about how to do things in that clinic … where to find things … what protocols are for certain scenarios – for example a hit-by-car that’s dropped at the door …

And while a new person is getting used to how things are done around here, others can get frustrated while they’re getting up to speed … especially when everyone’s busy – which everyone is right now.

So ask about the onboarding process – what does that look like?   What familiarisation will you be taken through?

Will you be walked through or just given an employee handbook, CMS login, name badge, scrubs and left to sink or swim?

Whatever answer you’re given, is that something you can live with and enjoy…?   Because if you’re stressed, others will be stressed as well … and then your patients will pick up on that and you know what happens when that happens!

Do you like what you see?

If you were able to visit the clinic and meet the team, did you like what you saw?   Was everyone respectful of everyone else?   Was there a general feeling of camaraderie or was there tension – and I’m not referring to patient-specific tension – you know what that’s like – but interpersonal tension. 

When you were walking around and being introduced to the team, were you then told about each person’s preferences – the way that vet likes things done, which might be different to another vet’s way of doing things … or that you never ask someone to do X because everyone knows he or she won’t do it …

If you’re being told things like that, that can lead to huge and unrealistic performance expectations – how on earth is a new team member expected to remember all of those different requirements …?

You need to ask yourself whether they’re reasonable expectations or does it sound like a team full of prima donnas and princesses? 

Could you see yourself pandering to all of those different needs?  

Could you see yourself working there?   When you consider working there, how do you feel?

Are you excited or anxious?

Can you see yourself working there?   Do you think you’d fit in?

How about the dreams and aspirations you had when you went to university or polytech to become a vet or a nurse – do you think those will be realised there?

Coaching for Job Interviews

Here at VetStaff we provide interview coaching to our job-seeking clients.   We’ve got a series of different scenarios we take our candidates through, different questions to ask to help level the playing field  – especially where job-seekers are nervous because they think the interviewer has all the power.  

This coaching service is 100% free to all our vets and nurses who’re registered with us. 


15 signs it’s time to look for another job – episode 037

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