December 2000 Bulletin

Tight labor market requires new tactics

Practices have to offer promises of future raises, perks

By Sandra Lee Breisch

In some tight labor markets, group practices find it challenging to negotiate salaries for receptionists, schedulers, patient account representatives and other administrative personnel due to competition.

"A skilled and talented person with clerical skills is extremely valuable today and becoming a rare commodity," says Helayne Williams, chief administrative officer at the Sports Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Medicine Associates in Menlo, Park, Calif. "We’ve found there is not much room to negotiate at these levels. Although we attempt to negotiate an appropriate salary for a job classification, we sometimes find there is no base of applicants to draw from at that salary level. And the unemployment rate in this area is just about at zero."

So, to entice candidates to take a job offer—even though Williams says their group’s compensation plan and benefits package is competitive with other businesses—she often uses some "creativity" at the negotiating table.

"We try to convince an applicant that if they’d give the job a chance at the lower salary, we’ll increase their salary at six months—if they prove his or her worth," Williams says. "Other employers offer bonuses after six months or a year that would bring the employee up to the annual salary they’re seeking."

Another lure that Williams uses is giving new hires a chance to apply for a higher position in the company and tuition reimbursement.

With the demand for administrative employees high, the standard benefits package is often not enough to bring an applicant on board. And if a practice cannot offer applicants what they believe he or she is worth, then the group might have to turn them away.

Or do they?

These days, it takes "more aggressive bargaining" from employers to lure a prospective employee, says Jack Valancy, president of Jack Valancy Consulting in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. "Basically, you’re competing with every other employer in the marketplace," he says. "What you have to do is figure out what people want, what people are looking for."

According to Valancy, "straight compensation is great," but "perks" are great, too. "The employer could offer flex-time, job-sharing and be liberal with time off if somebody has some personal business to attend to—without penalizing the employee for it," he says.

Nonstandard perks that do not cost a lot of money, Valancy says, include "a work environment that begins with the basics. A nice staff lounge is always appreciated or for lactating mothers, a private room to pump [breast milk]. You’ve got to be sensitive to your employees’ needs. This is basic humanity."

One thing that is important when negotiating a salary is being consistent in offering everybody the same benefits package. "If one person gets something nobody else gets, you’re really opening up a can of legal worms here," says Valancy. "You’re also going to feel that market pressure from employees who are on board and are aware of what others are paying. High turnover costs money."

According to Bill Appling, regional vice president for MediSpere Health Partners, Inc., in Memphis, Tenn., their competition is not only local, but across the state line. "Right across our state line, there’s a lot of casinos that pay better than some clerical positions," he says. "So our pay scales may be inflated just because we’re having to pay for competition—and it’s not even in our own industry."

One of Appling’s negotiation tactics for a candidate who wants higher wages and/or has doubts about coming on-board is to encourage that person to interview with the competition. "Then that person can compare job functions, salary, benefits, and observe the culture within the group," he says. "Because if I eventually hire him or her, I don’t want that person to leave after a month or so."

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