What kind of people are you looking for when you hire a veterinary assistant?

by Sam D Meisler DVM

Warren Buffet – CEO of Berkshire-Hathaway and investor who avoided the internet bubble bursting – stated in a lecture to MBA students that the three characteristics that he looked for in people were energy, intellect and integrity. When you look at your top team members, you will probably find that they possess these attributes and it is these attributes that set them off from the others. Energetic people have initiative and find things to do; they are motivated about their job and energize others. Obviously, one has to have the appropriate intellect for the job or success just will not happen. Integrity, however, is the toughest to determine. And what is integrity anyway?

Stephen Covey of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame defines integrity as having that unique combination of character and competency. He illustrates this point by asking would you rather have a competent but greedy surgeon perform a knee surgery on you that you did not need or an honest but incompetent surgeon perform a knee surgery that you did need – or neither.

Integrity implies competency; it implies that one gets the job done and finish tasks, and that one does it well. Someone can ask a person of integrity to do something and not worry about checking up on that person later. But that’s just half the picture. Possessing good character is essential as well. Persons with good character do the “right thing” and are honest, trustworthy and make good choices.

So how does one screen for people with energy, intellect and integrity? Generally, people with energy show it during the interview process. They are interested in what you have to say, excited about the chance to work for you, and have questions. People who are slightly introverted, however, may not show their enthusiasm until they have been on the job for a few weeks. So be careful you don’t exclude a person from your roster just because they were a little shy.

Intellect is easy to screen for. If you are not testing applicants for basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic, then you should be. You can devise your own screening tests or use an IQ testing company like the Wonderlic Corporation . For reading and writing skills, have them read a passage from literature and then ask them to answer a few short answer essay questions on the passage.

Integrity, on the other hand, is the hardest to screen for. Here you can also “outsource” integrity screening to third parties or try to develop some questions of your own to ask an applicant during an interview. Here are some relevant questions:

Tell me about your last boss?

I would strongly urge you to consider another candidate if the person disparages a former employer. This has more to do with how they will act in your hospital and whether they will disrupt the work place by complaining about you without your knowledge. See Stephen Covey’s article on Be Loyal to those Absent. Warning: don’t expect your prospective applicants to behave better than you.

If a client comes in with a very ill pet and can not afford the medication to treat it, do you think that you should give it to them anyway if it means saving the pets life?

There isn’t necessarily a correct answer on this one. You are the owner or manager of the hospital. How do you want them to act? Should they act on their own and give the medications away or should they ask you about it? Consider how many of your employees fit in the same profile where they can’t always afford the medications either. It’s about trade-offs and about moral trade-offs in particular. How the candidate presents the trade-off to you says a lot about how they would behave in the future.

If you saw a fellow employee smoking marijuana outside of work and it was a long enough time from their next shift as to not interfere with work, what would you do?

This gets at the heart of attitudes towards illegal drugs period. Again, the answer depends on you and how you feel. Be careful, if you don’t mind your employees having relaxed attitudes against drugs for recreational use then expect them to have some relaxed attitudes against stealing if they have a good reason to do so (ie like “I couldn’t afford the Heartgard”).

Describe a product you were able to sell in a previous job position that you didn’t believe in yourself. What techniques did you use to overcome this?

This is sort of a trick question. I would be looking for the “deer in the headlights” look. If they can’t come up with anything then that’s good. If they do come up with something, then examine it carefully. Obviously, in order to sell something that they didn’t believe in, they had to make some sort of trade-off (ie dishonesty vs a paycheck, or dishonesty vs feeding my family). This question is from personal experience. I had a receptionist who was my best “seller” of pre-anesthetic bloodwork and pain medications (before we made them both mandatory). When I asked whether she believed in them, she replied, “Heck no. But I can sell anything.” She later became a very disruptive force in the clinic as soon as she no longer believed in me.

These are just some thoughts on the hiring process. Indeed, it can be very tough. Also, please be mindful of staying well within the law with your interview questions.

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