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Spotlight on Special Treatment in Sterile Processing: What It Is and What It’s Not

Our culture is obsessed with the word “fair.” It’s in our politics, our break rooms, our message boards, and our playgrounds. Something deep inside us yearns for fairness and many of us have developed what we believe to be a hypersensitive radar for all things not fair. However, we must honestly confront the fact that some people on our teams, in our departments, or out in the world use the idea of fairness as a weapon, not to ensure equal treatment, but to make sure they get their way when and how they want it, without exception. For them life itself is not fair, and this includes anything that happens to them in the workplace, regardless of whether it stems from equal treatment or not.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the reality that special treatment does happen in sterile processing, and when it does, entire teams can be crippled, cultures destroyed, and trust evaporated nearly overnight. Department leaders must become aware of how their decisions, even small ones, can impact team dynamics for years to come. Likewise, front line employees must be able to distinguish special treatment from different treatment, and be prepared to handle the situations in a professional manner.

Unfairness in real life
One of the worst department cultures I’ve ever experienced came about in large part due to a long-term, systemic application of special treatment by a sterile processing manager. The vast majority of employees in this department had lost all respect for their leader and really lost any hope of ever seeing the situation change. These folks had basically come to terms with coming to work every day knowing they would be treated like second-class citizens in their own department because they were not personal friends with the department manager. If someone submitted a PTO request, the favorite employees almost always got approved, the rest almost always were denied. If someone showed up late or wanted to leave early, he or she may get written up or given a free pass depending on whether that person was in the in crowd or just a normal technician.

The anger and hopelessness of this department was palpable; you could see it on the faces of the employees on any occasion the manager spoke or any time the favorite employees received special treatment. It should be no surprise that productivity and communication suffered as well, all because a leader decided to reward friends and put personal preference ahead of the professional needs of the department.

Different is not the same as special
Even though this type of favoritism and special treatment occurs and has awful results, it is not true that employees sometimes can’t or shouldn’t be treated differently. There is a common assumption in the industry that every member of the sterile processing team must be dealt with in the exact same way or else it’s not fair. While equal treatment is good when it comes to things like approving PTO requests and holding staff accountable to department policies, it can be counterproductive in a number of other important scenarios. For instance, if you have two technicians working on a busy orthopedic day and one of them is twice as productive as the other at assembling the trays, it makes good business and leadership sense to assign the more productive employee to the assembly area. Is this always the best decision? Not necessarily. Newer employees do need the opportunity to stretch their wings and fly or learn how to operate under volume pressure; however, there is nothing inherently unfair or special about a manager assigning staff members to do certain roles if it means they get done better, faster, and more consistently. It’s just smart leadership.

This concept is also true when it comes to how department schedules are created, undoubtedly one of the most controversial topics in the realm of potential favoritism. Unless you are operating under a unionized contract environment that prescribes how schedules must be made, department managers and supervisors are tasked with creating custom staff schedules that ensure work gets completed productively, at a high quality, every single day the hospital is open. This is no easy feat. Departments with limited staffing resources and technicians with varying levels of industry expertise must be juggled around until there is some semblance of stability on every shift. This often means that certain employees must be scheduled certain ways and in certain areas—not because they are the manager’s favorite, but simply because those employees have the right combination of experience, skill, and availability that is needed for particular shifts.

Cultivating frontline growth and earning trust
If you have found yourself in the midst of a department with hints of special treatment in the air, there is still time to turn things around. If you are a manager, pay very close attention to both the reasons you make particular decisions (especially exceptions to department policies) and how those decisions are perceived by your team. Even if you can’t share all the reasons you decide to make certain assignments or publish particular schedules, try to find ways to give context and transparency when you can. If you are a frontline employee with concerns regarding favoritism and growth in your department, ask your leaders if there is anything else you can do to make yourself a more valuable (and flexible) part of the team. When possible, politely express your thoughts regarding certain decisions and inquire whether there is a strategy behind it that you are not aware of.

Admittedly, these conversations are hard. Sometimes a department culture may even be beyond repair without a leadership change at the very top. But before you give up as a leader or team member, try to see the issue from the other side of the desk, ask honest questions, and be willing to listen to the answers. You may be surprised (and encouraged) by what you hear.

What say you?

Feature articles exclusively for Ultra Clean Systems by Weston “Hank” Balch, BS, MDiv, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL

Weapon of Mass Microbial Destruction * Professional Clean Freak * Podcast Host * Safety Addict * CS/SPD Consultant

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