You may have heard – from a fellow practitioner, practice management consultant, or a continuing education conference – that a great way to test a potential hire is to have them come in for a couple of hours, or even a couple of days, and submit to a “working interview.” Great idea, right? You can test their skills to make sure they meet your standards, and see how they interact with the rest of your team. Bonus, you can skip the tedious paperwork and don’t have to pay them, right?
Wrong. On many levels.
Though it’s commonly touted as an excellent recruiting strategy, especially for dental and medical practices, the “working interview” is a myth for several reasons. The first and most egregious is that it isn’t a legitimate practice, at least under Texas’ standards. For starters, anyone who performs the general work of your practice for your practice must be compensated. Period. You are also required to have documentation for anyone performing work for your practice, either as a W2 employee or a 1099 contractor. Because this person is doing productive work for your practice, using your tools and equipment, and presumably working with your patients, they’re likely to be considered an employee, even for the short period of time they performed productive work for you.
Another component of this myth is practice owners labor under the misconception that since this is a “working interview,” they will not be liable for Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits should the interviewee file with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). As previously mentioned, however, you should have employment documentation for this person, so it would stand to reason that you will be considered an employer in a UI case with TWC. (This goes hand-in-hand with the myth about the “90-day probation period.” Look for details in a future article!)
Bringing in an undocumented potential employee to work with your team can also open your practice up to liability. Would you really want someone you haven’t hired working with patients? Being privy to personal medical information of those patients? Aside from the clear HIPAA violation, consider what would happen if the person made a mistake, or a patient was somehow harmed. Imagine explaining the situation to your insurance company, or in some cases, to a judge.
So how can I ensure I’m making the right hire?
No hiring system is perfect (including a “working interview” scenario, since the candidate is likely to be on their best behavior, even if you made them work for a week before hiring), but there are steps you can take to see if a candidate is a good fit. First, transparency is key. If this is a position where the employee is expected to work long hours, cross train for several positions, hit production goals, or be required to open the office on a regular basis, say it! Making your expectations clear can weed out candidates who may prefer a more flexible schedule, or who wouldn’t be happy answering phones 20 hours a week if they are skilled in another area.
The second step, one that many practice owners skip, is a reference check. Sure, some employees give fake numbers and some practices won’t tell you anything useful about the former employee. However, a good reference checker will know how to get critical information to help you make an informed decision about a candidate from someone who can truly speak to their work history – their former employer.
Consider shadowing. Another method of interviewing involves having a potential hire shadow an employee of the same job description for which they would be hired. This is not the same as a “working interview.” For one thing, you would not have the potential hire complete any work that is relevant to the business. They would be following a current employee to view how their job is completed and meet who they would be working with – not acting as a replacement for that employee. Therefore, since they are not performing any true work, they do not need to be compensated for that time, particularly if the shadowing appointment is typical interview length (1-2 hours).
Make sure you’re not violating HIPAA regulations if you take this interview route. Keep documented confidential patient information out of sight of the potential hire and do not allow this person into any treatment areas or rooms in which patient medical information is being discussed.
Set up a mock treatment. If you feel that shadowing won’t give you enough of a feel for this person’s method of working, set up a mock treatment. For example, if you wanted to see how a hygienist performs a cleaning, have her perform a cleaning on yourself or another practice owner. If you have an employee who is willing (and you’re willing to take on the potential liability or have them sign a waiver), that should be fine too. This will give you a sample of their work without compromising patient care or violating labor laws.
You’re paying attention, but…
Some practice owners may understand the issues with “working interviews” and recognize the alternative methods but still insist that they’re the best way to hire. At the bare minimum, they should follow these steps:
• Fill out appropriate paperwork. Make sure to get an I9 and W4 filled out before the employee begins working. According to TWC, this person will not be classified as an independent contractor – even for the short duration – because of the nature of the work, the venue, the use of the practice’s tools and equipment, and because they are representing your practice. You should also strongly consider conducting a background check prior to the “working interview.”
• Pay for the time. You don’t have to pay the full hourly rate you would a regular employee in that position, but you should pay at least minimum wage for each hour spent “interviewing,” and payment should be made through your payroll system with applicable withholding, not a check from an office or personal account.
• Limited sessions. Limit the amount of time spent working, as well as the scope of the work being performed. Have the person come in for two or three hours, instead of a full two or three days, and make sure the time is logged on your standard time clock. This will support your case that this person wasn’t hired as a full-time employee in the event that they later file for unemployment benefits.
• Get it in writing! Whatever you decide, make sure you get any agreements you make with potential hires in writing. Work with your employment attorney to draft a document that details the terms of the time spent interviewing as well as the employee classification, and have the employee sign to acknowledge their agreement. Make sure the length of time spent working, rate of pay, and temporary status are included in the agreement. If you decide to retain them as a regular employee, you’ll need to submit an offer letter with updated terms to them before they begin working their regular shift.