Ace your interview: tips for hiring dentists and candidates

New dentists have many career options after graduating from dental school. One possibility is joining an existing practice as a new associate.

Though this may seem like an ideal route for a dentist just starting out, it’s essential that the practice owner and new hire are aligned from the very start. This begins with the rapport built in the first interview and continues as you discuss key terms such as compensation, benefits, laboratory expenses, supplies and more.

Whether you’re looking to join a practice or hire a new associate, this article will offer helpful guidance. Let’s start with 9 questions that job candidates might ask when they are considering joining a practice.

1. Why is the practice bringing on a new dentist?

If the practice needs help keeping up with a growing patient base, the candidate will want to know if there is enough physical space for them. How many operatories are available? Will additional staff (such as dental hygienists and assistants) be hired to round out the team? What are the plans for handing new and existing patients to the new dentist?

Perhaps the reason for hiring a new associate is to allow the owner to slow down a bit. In this case, there should be an open conversation about work schedules, which patients the owner (or other dentists) will keep and which will be reassigned.

2. Why is now the best time to expand staff?

If this has already been explained, then there’s no need to delve further. But the practice owner may plan to sell within the next few months or years, in which case the timeline for this transition should be discussed in more depth. The new associate should know what to expect, including what role they may be expected to play as the practice changes hands.

The candidate has a right to know why a new associate is needed. There are times when practice owners feel the need to reduce hours, but don’t pair this need with plans to build the patient base so that the new associate has plenty of patients to see. Being clear about work hours and potential growth is essential for both parties.

3. What would the new associate’s work schedule look like?

Candidates might ask to see work schedules from a few typical weeks. This might lead to questions about the procedure mix and the amount of time allocated for each treatment. It’s a good time for both of you to evaluate whether the candidate has the skills to handle a typical week at the expected pace. If new skills are needed, how will they be gained? The owner may offer to mentor the new associate or pay for CE courses.

4. How will compensation be determined?

This is a two-part question. First, the candidate must know whether the practice is seeking to hire an employee or an independent contractor. This issue goes well beyond the question of pay, since contractor status means the new associate will be fully responsible for state and federal taxes, expenses and more. Make sure this point is covered and the associate’s status is clear.

Once this is established, the associate will need to know whether they will earn a straight salary, a percentage of production or collections, or some combination of the two. The difference between production and collections can be significant, especially if the practice works with many third-party payors or has difficulty collecting revenues.

Candidates should be concerned if the practice has a collections rate of less than 98% and hopes to pay based solely on collections. In this case, a better approach would be to seek (or offer) a slightly lower cut of production, which may help assure more stable income.

5. Along with pay, what benefits are offered?

Benefits can add significantly to the value of a total compensation package. Be sure to discuss any benefits such as health, dental, vision or life insurance that are offered, along with retirement programs (including employer match, if applicable). If there is a generous CE allowance or other free or low-cost training, include these in the conversation.

6. Which insurance plans (and other third-party payors) are accepted?

Knowing a practice’s payor mix offers insight into how the office runs. Candidates may choose to check the fee schedules for each payor. The practice should disclose who will treat fee-for-service patients and who will treat patients covered by a PPO, HMO or government plan. If the new associate will be assigned most of the patients with third-party payors, it’s good to disclose collections rates to affirm that pay rates will be fair.

7. What’s the long-term plan for the practice?

Incoming associates must think about their long-term potential for growth and success. Owners should be willing to discuss plans to expand, open new locations or sell the practice at some point in the future. Candidates will evaluate whether their career plans fit into the long-term vision for the practice.

If the owner is moving towards retirement, the candidate should know if there will be an opportunity to buy into the practice when it’s time. If this option is part of the employment offer, it should be documented in writing. No associate wants to join, only to find out that the promise of ownership was simply a lure and not a solid plan.

8. Will the owner (or senior dentists) offer mentoring?

Candidates may want to learn new skills or dental specialties. They may also want to learn about the business side of running a practice so they can start or buy their own someday. They may also want to improve their case presentation skills or learn how to manage dental teams.

With this in mind, the interview can cover any mentoring the owner is willing to offer. This may take the shape of a mentorship-to-ownership pathway or simply involve hands-on guidance and learning as the associate gains experience.

9. Are there opportunities to shadow the owner or review cases together?

Candidates who ask to shadow the owner for at least half a work day are signaling positive interest in the practice. This is a great opportunity for the potential new hire to see how things run and how patient care is handled. Gaining a sense of the practice’s energy level, procedures and approach can help assure a good fit – or signal that it’s not the right match.

Reviewing cases together is a good way to check out work styles, especially if shadowing is not possible. This might involve looking at before-and-after images and discussing treatment plans and outcomes. While methods vary, there should be mutual respect for the work that owners and potential associates do – and a sense that you will communicate well with each other and with patients.

10 tips for successful interviews

Interviews are typically the first time that two dentists have time to discuss their goals and consider how well they will work together. Since this is a high-stakes decision – especially if the employment offer will include an option to buy the practice in the future – both parties should prepare thoroughly. Here are 10 insights that can help.

1. Frame the conversation as a two-way street.

Whether you are the hiring dentist or the dentist seeking an associateship, you both have power and authority to decide what will happen. If one or both of you assume it’s solely about your own wants and needs, the conversation will be less than fruitful.

2. Talk less than 50% of the time.

In a job interview, both parties need space to express themselves. Allow time for the other dentist to ask and answer questions and share reasons this may be a good fit. Embrace any awkward silences, allowing pauses so the other person has time to tell their side of the story.

3. Focus only on the conversation.

Silence your phones and put them out of reach. Make sure the other dentist knows they have your full attention. Allow no interruptions from staff while you’re talking. If the interview takes place by phone or teleconference, put other devices away so you won’t be tempted to answer texts or emails.

4. Affirm that you are listening and understanding.

The best way to let someone know you are listening is to provide gentle signals that don’t interrupt. For example, you might nod, say “mmmm-hm,” or smile after the other dentist makes a key point. This may be even more important during a phone interview, when neither party can see facial expressions or body language – so light verbal cues such as “yes,” “agreed,” and “I understand” can help move the conversation along.

5. Do your homework.

Run an internet search on the other dentist to see what you can learn about them, beyond the resume or web links you may have exchanged. Read any blog posts they’ve written, podcasts they’ve done or stories about community work they’ve been involved in. Glance at LinkedIn to see if you have a shared school or other connection. Candidates should know as much about the practice as possible, which can help in preparing good questions.

6. Think about ways to keep the conversation moving.

Bring notes to the interview that will help you stay on track and move past any momentary lags in the conversation. Refer to your notes casually rather than reading from them, and maintain eye contact as much as possible. Let questions flow naturally from earlier answers or main points covered.

7. Make sure both of you have time to ask questions.

Questions reveal as much as answers do, so don’t allow the balance to tip too far toward the hiring dentist and away from the candidate. Plan ahead so there’s plenty of opportunity for questions on both sides.

8. Be yourself.

The goal isn’t to present some idealized (yet unnatural) version of yourself. This will only hide the style you bring to your work – which doesn’t allow either of you to judge how well you will collaborate. If either of you is uncomfortable with the other’s personal style and manner of expression, your working relationship may not work out. It’s better to notice these differences at the interview stage than discover them later when serious tensions arise.

9. Pay attention to non-verbal communication.

Candidates and hiring dentists can both show interest by leaning toward one another in conversation. Crossed arms may signal a closed attitude or even fear. Eye contact helps both parties make a more substantial connection. If you’re doing a phone interview, try standing while you talk so that your body moves around freely, giving you a sense of ease. While the other dentist won’t see this, it will help you maintain positive energy during the conversation.

10. Be open-minded.

If the other dentist surprises you in any way, or seems different from what you anticipated, relax and see how things go. Often, people who are different from us bring fresh possibilities we never expected – and that can be a great thing! One question that can help you explore each other’s point of view more deeply is to ask about a person that made a difference in their life, whether as a mentor, guide or friend. Listen closely to the answer with no fixed expectations. You may find that the other dentist can speak openly about this valued person, giving you incredible insight into their values and experiences.

More resources for you

These ADA articles can help you prepare for successful interviews and a smooth hiring process.

More Than Meets the Eye: How Associate Pay Can Vary

What Went Wrong: The Practice Wasn’t Ready for Another Associate

What Went Wrong: The Quality of Care Wasn’t Up to My Standard

Red Flags and Must-Ask Questions for Dental Job Interviews

Accepting a new associateship – or hiring a new associate – is a major step. If you’re looking for support, the ADA Career Services is ready to help.