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Tips for a Successful Associate Relationship

The changing dental business environment has increased the number and types of opportunities available to young and new Associate Dentists. They may choose an associateship, partnership, buy-in opportunity, or even to start a new practice. With most opportunities, the associate is going to share a practice with one or more other dentists. These opportunities require a great working relationship in order to be successful.

For associates joining an existing practice, it’s imperative that from the beginning, the Owner Dentist and associate agree on the same definition of what a successful relationship looks like. As with any business venture, preparation is necessary and building a relationship is just as important. The following points should be discussed to set the stage for a successful relationship.

  • Objectives – It is critical that the Owner Dentist’s objectives, expectations, and philosophies be articulated and compatible with the associate’s. Different qualities and interests may enhance a practice, but conflicting philosophies or personalities may quickly destroy a good working relationship.
  • Expectations – It is imperative that the Owner Dentist maintain realistic expectations of the associate. If the associate is a recent graduate, they may require some time to learn more advanced procedures. The Owner Dentist must be patient and willing to devote time and attention to an associate who may need mentoring. Mentoring may also be provided by an experienced staff member, such as a dental assistant or hygienist. Many times, office processes, policies, or protocol may be taught by a staff member working closely with the associate. The Owner Dentist should rally the staff around the new associate. If the associate’s quality of dentistry is a concern, offering additional training outside of the practice may be a valuable solution. Perhaps, attending additional courses with paid time off may be offered. Ultimately, this will benefit both the associate and the practice.
  • Schedule – A plan for the associate’s hours and days should be determined. This should include requirements for ‘on-call’ time. If it is your expectation to have an associate work outside of traditional hours (e.g., evenings or weekends) because of your location, client base, or office set-up, this point should be discussed up front.
  • Compensation – The compensation structure may create an issue if it is not clearly defined, understood, and followed. The deduction of lab fees will impact the associate’s compensation as well. The new associate will consider all attributes of an opportunity, but the bottom line is still the bottom line. If the compensation does not meet their income needs, they will not be able to accept the position. With the different opportunities available to the associate, the Owner Dentist must provide a competitive opportunity.
  •  Benefits – Discuss and agree on all benefits offered: paid time off, health insurance, relocation allowance, continuing education, and possibly student loan repayment. Determine the allotted amount of money offered for each benefit.
  • Employee vs. Independent Contractor – If the associate is classified as an Independent Contractor, the compensation percentage offered should be increased by three to eight percent (depending on the state) to cover the matching FICA and Medicare tax they must pay. It is recommended to consult a tax advisor before selecting either classification.
  • Ownership – As a practice owner, there is a great benefit of adding an associate to the practice. The practice is covered for sick days, vacations, and emergencies. The practice succession is more likely assured and the associate may help provide for the Owner Dentist’s retirement by becoming a partner or transitioning ownership of the practice in the future. All of the components of an ownership agreement should be agreed upon prior to the associate beginning work in the practice. This agreement will help to avoid problems at the point of sale. Many practice transitions fail because there is no pre-determined buy-in/buy-out date or a plan to establish a practice price.
  • Honor Commitments – The Owner Dentist should fulfill any promises made to the associate. Once the Owner Dentist and the associate verbally agree on all terms of an employment agreement, it should be put in writing. This may eliminate many disputes that could harm a good relationship.

If an associate has already begun working in the practice and nothing has been agreed upon, a meeting should be scheduled to discuss or address any unresolved items. Come to an agreement and put it in a legal document. At this point, both the Owner Dentist and the associate may need to compromise.

Remember, plan your successful relationship! Do not wait for it to come to you.

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