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Finding the Right Associateship: Navigating Through the Interview Process

June 19, 2019 2042

Entering private practice as an associate is the most common career option for recent dental school graduates. Becoming an associate provides the new dentist with the opportunity to transition from the academic environment to clinical practice without the pressures of practice ownership that often seem daunting to a new dentist. The time as an associate can help the dentist assess his/her clinical and practice management philosophies, providing the opportunity to experiment with different models before applying them to his/her own practice. Many dentists find that being an associate fulfills their professional goals and decide that practice ownership is not the right path for them. Whether practice ownership eventually suits you or not, taking the time to carefully evaluate the practice as an associate candidate will help you create a successful and rewarding career.

The Interview Process

From the perspective of the practice owner, choosing a professional associate may be one of the most important decisions the owner will ever make. This choice will affect the staff, the well-being of the practice and the welfare of the patients. Many practice owners decide to take on an associate with the goal to offer extended hours, gain clinical support and companionship, provide mentorship and allow for the sharing of ideas on complicated cases, work toward retirement and relieve the owner of some of the patient load, help grow the practice and expand the practice’s mix of clinical services.

The interview process provides an opportunity for both the practice owner and associate candidate to assess whether the working relationship will be compatible. This is the associate candidate’s chance to discuss with the owner approaches to treatment, chairside manner and staff arrangements before deciding to become an associate of his or her practice

Preparing for the Interview

Once you have submitted your application, it is important to track and follow-up with prospective employers. Keep a detailed list of the jobs you have applied and all contacts you have had with the employer. Also, keep track of the CV and cover letter submitted with each position. It will be important to have these available to reference should the employer contact you for a brief phone interview and/or in-person interview.

When you are contacted by a practice after applying for an associate position, you will likely have a brief phone interview as an initial screening. Because you will not know when the interviewer will be contacting you, make sure the message you leave and ringtone selection reflect you in a professional manner. If you notice a call coming in from an unfamiliar phone number, answer the phone with enthusiasm and you may consider stating your name, such as, “Hello, this is Mary.” If you are not in a place where you can have a brief conversation, it may be best to let the call go to your voicemail and return the call when you are more prepared to talk.

Remember, outside of your CV and cover letter, this phone contact may be the first impression you make as an associate candidate. All information gathered from this phone call will be used to evaluate you for the position. On the phone, gain a sense of the in-person interview setting. For example, will the practice owner conduct the interview or will an office manager be a part of the interview as well? Will the interview be held in the practice or at an off-site location, such as a restaurant or coffee shop?

Prior to an in-person interview, make sure you do your research on the practice and are prepared. Carefully review the practice’s website if one is available. A significant amount of information can be collected from the practice’s website, and knowing this information in advance of the interview will demonstrate your interest in the practice and associate position. Many websites will provide information on the providers’ backgrounds, the dental team, the practice’s mission and treatment philosophy, the type of technology offered to patients, the type of dental benefit plans accepted, the type of patient demographics that the practice serves, the treatment niche and patient policies. In addition to studying the website, conduct an Internet search on the practice and provider(s) to see what information you can find. You may come across online reviews of the providers or gain a sense for how the practice is marketed throughout the community.

To best demonstrate your skills and strengths, you may consider assembling a professional portfolio. The portfolio should include a copy of your CV, the cover letter that you submitted for the position and pictures of cases you are proud to show and discuss in the interview. Be sure to de-identify any photos or other patient information to abide by HIPAA laws. Additionally, you should consider bringing a list of references and/or letters of recommendation to either include in the portfolio or have available upon request.

When choosing your attire for the interview, it is best to dress professionally and conservatively. Select attire that draws the focus to your face and will not be distracting to the interviewer. Loud patterns or extremely bright colors may seem like a smart fashion choice, but those are usually not the right choice for an interview setting. Women are often uncertain about how to wear their hair — if you tend to fuss with your hair when you are nervous, consider pulling your hair back into a professional and clean ponytail or bun. Be aware of what your accessories, hair (including facial hair for men) and shoes may say about you — they may be a distraction to the interviewer.

Finally, to prepare for the interview, practice, practice, practice! Role-play the questions you might be asked and the questions you wish to ask about the practice and owner. You may know what you want to say, but often if not practiced aloud, it may be difficult to convey your message effectively. Practice in front of a mirror or ask a friend or

family member to role-play with you. Practicing should go beyond your talking points — be sure to practice your body language and expressions. Make sure you have good posture, you are comfortable making eye contact and smiling, you do not cross your arms and that you face the interviewer squarely. Open body language demonstrates confidence and respect.

The Interview

The interview process can be time-consuming and complex. As with any professional assessment, you need to take great care and consideration to ensure the right decision is made. Trust your instincts — if some part of the arrangement doesn’t sit well with you, do not ignore this sign. The linked document "Interview Sample Questions" is a comprehensive list of questions to ask and questions that the practice owner may ask of you. Being prepared to answer and ask these questions will help both parties determine if the working relationship is a good fit.

The Working Interview

Scheduling working interviews may be beneficial in the decision-making process and are very common. Working interviews allow candidates to practice in the clinical setting and provide them the opportunity to observe how the practice owner conducts his or her office. For practice owners, working interviews are the best way to observe a candidate’s technique and will demonstrate how he/she interacts with patients and staff.

Before the working interview, you need to be sure you have your own professional liability coverage. Sometimes the owner will mistakenly tell you that you will be covered under his or her policy. This is not likely the case. Contact a liability carrier and request a binder for a working interview. Do not go to any interview without coverage.

Be sure to clarify with the practice owner whether you will be performing treatment on patients or whether your time in the practice will be a day of observation. It is fair for you to expect compensation for a working interview, and the amount is typically based on a per hour rate, $70- $100 per hour is not uncommon. In addition, you will want to know if payment will be given at the end of the business day or if payment will be mailed to you within 48 hours. Be sure that all arrangements that are mutually agreed upon are in writing and determined before the day of the working interview. Keep a copy for your own records.

Ask the practice owner or office manager about the attire for the working interview or pattern your attire for the interview with that of the practice owner. If treating patients during the working interview, be sure to ask if the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) will be provided. It is better to ask these questions before the working interview than it is to come unprepared.

During the working interview, request to review some of the patient records. Look for any pattern of practice issues and signs of supervised neglect in patient charts. This will help determine whether you will be comfortable joining the practice. Be aware that joining a practice whose services are below the standard of care places you at risk of professional malpractice, as you may be held liable for the negligence of others with whom you associate. Also, ask for proof that the practice owner has professional liability insurance. If he or she practices “bare,” seriously consider passing up the position rather than being a lightning rod for malpractice cases.

Ensure the potential employer has like approaches to treatment, philosophies and patient communication skills. Effective resolution of future patient and business issues may rely upon your like values. Observe the practice owner’s case presentation techniques and the way in which the practice owner interacts and coordinates treatment plans with the hygienist(s) in the practice.

The working interview is an excellent time to observe the interactions and behavior of the staff. Watch how the entire dental team interacts and communicates — does the day run smoothly and does communication flow easily between staff or does the doctor seem stressed and the staff appear to be frazzled? Are the appropriate staff acting within the scope of their license? Are infection control standards being followed? How is the communication between the doctor and dental team? Does the team meet for a morning huddle to discuss the day’s schedule? Are there communication breakdowns that you can see between the front and back office? If yes, how are these errors managed and resolved?

In addition to observing the staff dynamics, the associate candidate will have a chance to interact with the dental team. Make sure your interactions are professional — after all, this is still an interview. Although it is important to maintain a respectful and kind relationship with the dental team, you should be cognizant of becoming too much of a confidant the staff. Remember, if you become an associate in the practice, you will serve in a leadership capacity, whether directly managing staff or not, and should demonstrate this role throughout the interview process. Ask the staff lots of questions about their roles in the practice. This will not only show you how the practice is managed but also give you a sense of the team dynamics.

Following each stage of the interview process, it is appropriate to send the practice owner, or whoever conducted the interview, a thank-you note. Always check for spelling and grammatical errors when sending written correspondence. Simply thank the interviewer for the opportunity and point out a few aspects you appreciated about the interview, the associateship opportunity and/or the practice.