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3 Reasons Why You Cannot Find a New Associate (and What to Do)

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Did you try giving them food? You KNOW that always worked in vet school.

Hiring isn’t easy. You wouldn’t be here reading this if you didn’t already know that. I like the quote from Howard Schultz, Seattle Sonics owner and former Starbucks CEO: “Hiring people is an art, not a science, and resumes can’t tell you whether someone will fit into a company’s culture.”

We’re trained scientists. If hiring was simply a science, we’d likely already be following protocols, right? Well, I’m going to diverge a bit from Schultz’s statement and say it’s a bit of both. There’s absolutely a science to it – in fact, the area of human resources has its own peer-reviewed studies that have been completed under the scientific method as well (I got to just blithely skim over that section in class).

However, there is a bit of an art to it. And anyone who’s been practicing for a few years would likely admit that there’s a bit of an art to medicine as well. The art of hiring helps you figure out areas like “culture.” I mean, you can put a definition on culture, right? But can you really measure it, scientifically?

If the art is the hard part, how do you get better at this “hiring thing?” You do exactly what you’d do in medicine – get good at the science, then start applying it. Over time, you’ll pick up the art as well.

In this article, I’m going to outline three areas where I see potential employers erring when looking for future associates:

  • The most “arty” of all: they don’t know who they are as a practice.

  • A more common issue: the message is being crafted incorrectly.

  • Potentially the hardest from the standpoint of one’s ego: stand in their shoes.

Employers, I hope you read this with an open mind. I want you to be the best version of yourselves, and of course, I want you to find employees. To do so, especially when nothing you are doing is working, it sometimes takes deep introspection and big changes. And sometimes not.

Let’s see what the answer is for you!

1. You don’t know "who you are" as a practice

I suspect the reactions on this first point are going to be split: some of you are probably fully convinced that you know “who” your practice is, while others are probably shaking your head in agreement thinking, “Yes, I have no idea what direction I’m going in.”

I think the majority of the former group are in denial (hear me out if that's you). I was one of them, too.

Does your mission statement read: “High-quality medicine

at a good value?” ERR. WRONG. Try again. This is not a mission statement, nor do I believe it’s even feasible for a majority

of clinics (food for thought).

I’m going to use an illustration. There’s a practice that I know that placed a job ad to replace a young new graduate that had recently left. They described their clinic as a “fun place to work.” I know this clinic, and although I love them, that is a word I never would have picked out to describe them. When I think “fun,” I think bouncy, high-energy, laughing. That is not their clinic. I’m not saying that as a bad thing at all – that’s just not them.

Many months later, as far as I understand, it’s still unfilled.

This is not remotely an insult to this clinic, nor to the person who wrote the ad. I doubt most clinics are fun, to be honest! Veterinary medicine is stressful, so that’s a tall order to pull off.

I'll tell you how I'd describe this clinic from a third-party perspective: laid back, steady, quiet, and geared toward a more senior clientele. The associates seem calm and never worked-up. That’s what they should write their ad about. I can see so many vets, especially later in their careers, responding to an environment like that. Right now, during this pandemic, how many vets want that? I’d venture a lot.

But a young vet looking for fun? I suspect they will keep turning over that position because they are setting incorrect expectations from day one.

And just an additional note: we all have our version of "fun," some word or quality that we think we are but in reality aren't...really. Or perhaps, that's not our defining quality, when there are dozen of words that would better describe our culture to someone who didn't know us. I use this example not because it's egregious, but because "fun" is more simple to define than many other veterinary culture descriptors.

What you can do:

I’m going to be straight-forward: This fix takes some real introspection and often time. It takes multiple trials until you get it right. And then you will keep changing it as you grow.

thinking skeleton
How soon did you say you needed help?

What am I talking about? Your Mission Statement and Core Values.

I know some of you just tuned out, as you already have this. But once, again stay with me.

Does your mission statement read: “High-quality medicine at a good value?” ERR. WRONG. Try again. This is not a mission statement, nor do I believe it’s even feasible for a majority of clinics (food for thought).

Here’s what a mission statement should be: it should define the scope of services or products provided by your practice, and it helps to make decisions. Anyone – employees, customers, whomever – should be able to refer to your mission statement and understand these things. In other words: the more specific, the better. It should be unique to you.

For me, a mission statement would have been something like: “ To provide constantly improving large animal medical care based on peer-reviewed research; to provide 24/7, timely, continuously-improving customer service; to educate our clients and the general public about large animal diseases and preventive measures; and to give back to the animal community through fundraisers, discounts, and low-cost clinics.” It’s not short, nor eloquent, but I feel that this encompasses the gist of what I really wanted to do (and didn’t always accomplish).

I suspect people tend to forget about core values, but I personally find them even more useful as a tool. Core values are the individual driving values of you or your business, which you and your employees can refer to at any time as instruments to help make decisions. When life gets tricky, you can look to your core values to redirect you to the right path again. If you want to check out my core values, click here.

Once you get your mission statement and core values straightened out, they are invaluable tools for many uses, but in this circumstance, you would use them to find the associate who is right for you and definitively eliminating those who are not right for you. I would also strongly encourage sharing these with your applicants so they have a better sense of your clinic.

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2. Your message is not being crafted correctly

You’re truly offering a great situation for the right person, but you are getting no bites. What gives?

Let’s discuss how Communication works (see illustration above). Here’s an example:

  1. You decide you want to hire an associate.

  2. You encode this message: “You want to hire an associate.”

  3. You deliver this message via some medium.

  4. The potential applicant receives it and decodes the message.

  5. Noise can occur, which is anything that distracts from or changes your message: for instance, someone messed up your posting, someone miscommunicated your word-of-mouth job offering, or maybe your job didn’t get posted at all!

  6. Feedback is when the potential applicant contacts you about what they think you said about what the message you think you correctly relayed.

If you didn’t read the subtext of that, there are a lot of steps at which mistakes can, and often do happen, and during which, the utter awesomeness of your job listing is dulled.

What you can do:

It’s easy! Ensure you encode the message exactly as it was meant in your head, it’s delivered properly, the receiver understood exactly what you meant, and no noise occurs! Simple.

I did not major in communications, but I do know marketing, so I’m going to tell you how marketers think: it’s “The 4 Ps:” Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. This is also called the “marketing mix” and is used to create a marketing strategy around a product.

Coincidentally, you’re marketing your position, so it can just as well work for you to create a strategy to market it in just the way you mean to while minimizing "accidents."


In this case, your “product” is a job position. Think about the non-monetary details of the product that make it unique, valuable, and desirable.

  • What is your “brand?” This is where your mission statement and core values matter. If you truly are fun, own it, but if not, dig deep to find other attributes that are truly unique to your clinic.

  • Services: Not only what services do you offer to clients, but what can you offer to the new associate? What toys? What level of assistance are they going to have?


dog stroller
The author doesn't have a dog stroller, but wishes she did. She would value dog-sitting.

Don’t get discouraged if you can’t offer the highest salary. Remember the bell curve? Most of us cannot offer the highest salaries out there!

Also remember that not everyone is motivated by the same things – and yes, that does mean that not everyone is motivated by money. Some prefer mentorship, time off, location, dog-sitting, or other (yet to be discovered!) benefits more.

Think about what else can you offer based on your strengths, talents, and circumstances? It’s all about trade-offs when you’re low on cash.


“Place” is not where you are, but where you’re advertising your product.

For instance, if you’re a cat clinic, you better be hitting up all the boards that cat people will be looking (sorry, I’m a horse person?!). For equine, most applicants are going to be looking at AAEP’s job listings.

But, did you know: about 70% of jobs are filled by word of mouth? It’s not hard to understand why – employers are more likely to trust a recommendation from a friend than a cold resume from an unknown entity.

That begs the question: are you fully utilizing your friends and colleagues to find employees? It may feel uncomfortable to do so, and perhaps is time-consuming, but what’s worse? Going without an employee forever?

I’ll even self-endorse this method: I was lucky enough I find my first position in 2010 during the heart of the Great Recession via word of mouth. There were 8 equine listings in the entire country on AAEP’s job boards for months. I was getting scared. The situation is now reversed: it’s an employee’s market.

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Finally, the packaging is where you can get creative. You may not have THEE best offering, but you can use the “packaging” of the ad to get your personality across. If you say you’re that aforementioned “fun” clinic, show it in the ad! (Full disclosure: I had an ad I wanted to share to demonstrate how you can infuse personality and still keep it professional, but it’s gone in less than two months! It clearly works, people!!)

I do believe everyone’s “right” employee IS out there, but you need to advertise correctly and honestly to find them. What is dishonest advertising? Saying you’re a fun place to work when you’re not. It’s not like the job police are going to come to arrest you for false advertising, but what is going to happen is you’re going to keep filling that position with someone who is seeking excitement when your clinic is boring-as-heck.

women having fun
Fun, i.e, not a veterinary job. Think otherwise? *Prove it* with your ad.

The thing is though: there are people out there that are totally looking for boring-as-heck! Probably those of us that are a bit exhausted…but I digress. These people are perfect for you; however, you will never find them if you keep saying your clinic is fun.

And if you feel bad being honest, let me remind you of real estate techniques: what does “cozy” mean? “Quaint?” Everyone knows this means small, tiny, infinitesimal, however, no real estate agent in their right mind is going to write that. So your client is not “boring,” it’s “easy-paced.”

2. You’re not looking at the situation from the eyes of a future employee

Finally, remember: if you’re the marketer, the potential employee is the consumer. You would be remiss not to look at the position and your practice from their point of view.

What you can do:

I’d advise completing two exercises. Note: all clinics will have features from both.

1. Figure out what’s good about your practice.

In other words, your clinic is actually actually pretty good, but either you don’t realize it, or you're not selling it. To further clarify this topic, talk to employees and clients (surveys are great), and do online research to see where you stand against local, regional, and national competitors.

2. Figure out what’s truly bad about your practice.

AKA, “It’s not you, it’s me.” This is the hard one I mentioned earlier, where you need to push down your ego and understand that to grow you need to first locate the problematic areas before you can improve them. Trust me. They’re there. Again, trust me. I find letting go of my ego an issue sometimes, so if you find this hard, you’re not alone.

However, if you find yourself unwilling to change, keep in mind that hiding underneath this "area" might be the solution to finding your next employee. If you have high employee turnover and/or low retention, you especially need to consider breaching this topic.

If you are open, options could be as simple as surveying your current/past employees and asking them what most needs to change up to a full practice audit. Take those results, prioritize in order of most important, and start conquering one-by-one. Eventually, you will get the new employee you need.

A final thought on this topic for resisters: I find excuses as to why you can’t change anything unacceptable (maybe even under COVID). There are always ways you can change your systems, even in little ways – often that don’t take much time, effort, or money. Excuses speak to a mindset that doesn’t want to change.

Now that I’ve yelled at you for your pathetic excuses, I’m going to tell you I believe in you! Finding employees is hard under normal circumstances, but everything is super-messed-up right now, in case you hadn't noticed. With that said, a lot of people are reflecting on their life circumstances. They are recognizing that their difficult practice is perhaps not really worth it when peoples’ lives are at stake around them.

Here's what it comes down to: if you can understand your “customer,” clarify your clinic’s vision, then transmit your message as clearly as possible to them, you will dramatically increase your odds of placing a new employee in your clinic.

This is not easy; however, it is a step-by-step process. It can be done if you commit to it, and it can garner the results you need. I hope you will start this adventure today so that you can be on your way to your new employee as soon as possible!


I want to sincerely thank, who not only sponsored this article but inspired the content. Times are hard right now, but they have a very interesting new veterinary career website!

Placing job ads is free and easy for employers. It is also free for employees, as well as simple and intuitive. There are more features to come, and I cannot wait to see how this website grows!


Hi, I'm Karen Bolten! I'm a former large animal veterinarian and practice owner. I'm a current #dogmom, horse brusher, and fish tank cleaner. I have a Bachelor's in Business Administration (Operations and Supply Chain Management), and I'm now an MBA candidate.

My goal is to help other veterinary business owners to better understand their businesses, whether you are just starting out or you've been at it for a few years! While it may seem insurmountable, I truly believe it can be done, and you deserve to understand what may be holding you back.

Please, if you have any questions about anything I wrote in this article, and how you can make this work for you, please reach out below in the comments, or your can contact me via:

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