Practice sales: Staff disclosure

Simon Palmer, June 2014 

When a practice owner is looking to sell their practice they will often put off telling their staff for as long as possible. Their reasons for this are usually to do with:

  1. A fear that staff will start looking for another job immediately making the owner’s time pre-sale more difficult due to having to hire and train new staff.
  2. A fear that the staff will tell the patients and they will subsequently start looking for another dentist.
  3. A fear that if the practice doesn’t sell (for whatever reason) they may have caused unrest and ‘spooked’ the staff for no reason.

These are rational concerns for an owner to have and it is often natural for people to put off confronting conversations like this one. However, what a practice vendor needs to weigh up is that the alternative to staff disclosure is not necessarily staff ignorance. Even if the vendor doesn’t tell the staff themself there is a very real risk of the staff finding out through other channels or through the owner’s own accidental indiscrete phone call or correspondence. Staff finding out that their practice is for sale in isolation of the owners narrative usually involves feelings of betrayal and allows their worries for the future and the flow of information/gossip thereafter to run unchecked.

The owner having a planned conversation with key staff, on the other hand, allows the owner to control the narrative, it gives them a chance to ask for confidentiality and it allows the owner to address the staff’s concerns and manage the situation.

What should a seller tell the staff?
I would start by telling the staff that this has been a difficult decision to come to and perhaps give the reasons why you feel the time is right for you and you are looking to sell (whether that is retirement or a desire to move or other).

I would tell them that there is a school of thought that that a seller shouldn’t tell their staff until the last minute when there is a transaction like this happening. However, out of integrity and loyalty to them you wanted to have the conversation and not be sneaking around keeping this a secret. I would tell the staff that you expect that this loyalty works both ways as you are expecting absolute discretion and confidentiality about the sale from them during the process.

How can a seller alleviate staff concerns about their practice sale?
When practice staff find out that their practice is for sale they are usually naturally concerned that they won’t like the new boss, that their new boss won’t like them and sometimes that their job may be in jeopardy. To alleviate staff concerns there are 5 things an owner might consider telling their staff about the practice sale:

1. Purchaser profile:
The owner should consider telling the staff that the practice (and the team) is something that they are very proud of and they would hate to leave it in the wrong hands. Tell the staff that that the success criteria for finding a buyer will not just be a financial decision but will include the buyer being of the highest calibre clinically, professionally and personally.

2. Purchasers need staff: 
Whether the purchaser is a corporate entity or a dentist, they will need staff. It is extremely unlikely that a practice purchaser will buy a practice with a full complement of staff waiting in the wings. Your team may be feeling insecure about their job security so reassuring them that their jobs are safe is important.

3. Purchasers want continuity for patients:
When buying a dental practice, a buyer usually wants as much continuity as possible from the situation that precedes them. It is important that loyal patients recognise that this is the same practice and service that they have been coming to and been happy with for years.
When you think about it, the dentist only makes up a small part of the patient’s experience with a practice. The patient spends a significant amount of time with the hygienist, with dental assistants and with front desk staff paying their bills, booking appointments, etc. The recognition and familiarity that patients have with staff brings with it a level of loyalty and trust; two attributes that an incoming dentist would want to maximise. Informing your team of the importance of their role in maintaining this goodwill will also help them to feel secure in this tumultuous time.

4. Practice knowledge:
If the selling dentist is leaving post sale (even after a transition period) it makes the established staff very valuable as they have local knowledge and know historical details about the practice’s patients and suppliers that isn’t collected and recorded on patient files. Practice buyers I speak to often remark how invaluable it has been to have someone available to answer questions about the history of things like patients’ attitudes, or the practice’s interactions with the landlord, etc.

5. Recommendation:
Tell the staff how highly you regard them in their individual roles and as a team, that you believe that this is one of the reasons for the practice longevity and success and that you will be saying this to any buyer and giving the team members the highest recommendation to any buyer.

If you believe that your key staff members are trustworthy and have your best interests at heart, then you should consider being up-front with them when you are selling the practice.

Telling your staff no doubt includes some inherent risks. However not telling the staff doesn’t eliminate these risks… it merely eliminates your ability to manage them.

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