How a noncompete harmed a veterinarian

Employment consultant regrets, deplores the common contract clause

March 28, 2022 (published)
By Paul Diaz

Photo courtesy of Paul Diaz
After years of believing noncompete clauses to be benign aspects of employment contracts, recruiting consultant Paul Diaz now views them as unacceptably unfair and damaging to employees.

Last November, I received an email from a veterinarian I'll call Sara. A friend had suggested she reach out to me. At the time we made an appointment to talk, I did not anticipate how her story would affect me.

Sara started her veterinary journey like most: Becoming a veterinarian was a dream of hers from a very young age. She dedicated herself to the pursuit, graduating at the top of her undergraduate class, being accepted to one of the best veterinary schools in the United States and eventually landing what she thought was her dream job.

Sara grew up in a small rural town. She was excited to work and live in a big city. Her interview went well. The practice owner made her feel like family. She was promised the world: solid mentorship, a great work schedule, the opportunity to collaborate on challenging cases alongside experienced veterinarians and more. Sara and her fiancé relocated and started planting roots in their new community. They couldn't have been happier.

Within six months, she started noticing things weren't exactly as promised, but she made excuses in her head to justify it. The mentorship was nonexistent, but the experienced doctors were all so busy. That great work schedule was inconsistent at best, but she was the most junior doctor on the team. Every challenging case was handled by the senior doctors, but she figured she just had to wait her turn. She couldn't even get enough extra shifts, which she sought on top of her full-time schedule to help alleviate the stress caused by her student debt and basic life bills. All the while, she did her best to maintain a positive attitude and focused on caring for patients the best she could.

It took almost two years before Sara was comfortable voicing her concerns, and when she did, things became worse. The practice owner didn't do anything to address her issues. Instead, he began treating her so poorly that she dreaded going to work. The other doctors attempted to console her, saying, "It's just the way he is. Don't worry. It'll pass." Well, it didn't pass, and Sara decided to look for another job.

That's when the reality of her situation set in. Sara had signed a 10-mile, 18-month noncompete — meaning she could not take a job at a competing practice within 10 miles for 18 months from the time she left. She desperately looked for work outside the 10-mile radius, but the options were limited. The nearest hospital hiring was almost one hour's drive away. Due to personal circumstances, she couldn't deal with a daily two-hour commute, and moving would be too disruptive to her family. I was so taken aback by Sara's situation that all I could say was, "So what did you end up doing?"

Her response hit me like a cannonball. "What can I do? I just go to work every day, do the best I can and suffer in silence."

I've been in the recruiting industry for more than 20 years. I led veterinary recruiting for one of the largest veterinary companies in the country. As an independent hiring consultant now, my business is devoted to placing veterinarians in practices. I've had a hand in securing thousands of contracts for veterinarians that included what I had looked upon as a standard of business: noncompete clauses. It wasn't until I learned Sara's story and heard her weep on the phone that I suddenly understood how damaging noncompetes can be.

Fast-forward about a month. I found a new practice owner close to Sara's home who was willing to hire her. I explained that the job offer might need to include a noncompete buyout. I helped Sara build up the courage to submit her resignation. Her employer's response was no surprise. He said, "That's fine, but if you work within 10 miles of my hospital, I will sue you." That's when I knew I had to step in.

With Sara's permission, I called her boss. Our call lasted maybe 15 minutes. That's all the time I needed to determine exactly what he wanted — money. He started at $30,000 to buy out her noncompete, I countered $15,000 and we settled on $20,000. This greedy SOB was willing to torment a colleague, a fellow veterinarian, over a dollar.

I spoke to the new practice owner and told him what I had negotiated. He was willing to pay it but candidly admitted he couldn't afford to buy out her noncompete and pay my fee. I immediately waived my fee. It was the easiest decision I've ever made.

As badly as I wanted to call out her old boss by name, Sara asked me not to. Even after all she went through, she had the professional tact to simply walk away. It's one of the many things I respect about her. I asked if I could use her story to help educate other veterinarians, and especially veterinary students, on the perils of signing a noncompete. I told her I never wanted to hear another veterinarian say they have to suffer in silence. She told me to shout it from the rooftops!

This story is my "why." Sara and every other veterinarian being restricted by a noncompete are the reason I decided to advocate to end the noncompete. They are why I announced in January that my company will no longer place veterinarians with employers who require a noncompete. I immediately lost the vast majority of my clients, going from more than 1,500 to well under 100 in the blink of an eye. I don't care. I slept great that night.

Now I am trying very hard to get the attention of every veterinarian and veterinary student. They need to understand the damaging effects of noncompetes and refuse to sign them. I know this initiative is dead if I'm not supported by veterinarians. I have no expectations that employers will eliminate the noncompete simply because I'm writing about it, but they absolutely will when they no longer can hire a veterinarian because everyone refuses to sign it.

The veterinary industry is one of the few in which a majority of the revenue is generated by a single job classification — the veterinarian. If I — if we — can educate and empower enough veterinarians and veterinary students to simply refuse to sign noncompetes, the industry will buckle. That's when I anticipate you'll see companies posting comments like, "The noncompete issue is something we've been considering for a long time, and we feel now is the right time to end it." We will all know it's bullshit. Who cares? It's not about the credit; it's about the result.

There are so many ways that a noncompete is damaging to a veterinarian. One critical reason, the one impacting Sara the most, is also the one most easily overlooked. It's well-known that the veterinary industry is plagued with mental health issues. Let me be very clear: I am not saying the noncompete is the reason for the mental health issues, but I am saying it's a contributor. Anything adding stress to this already stressful job is a contributor. If eliminating the noncompete has even the smallest positive impact on veterinarians' well-being, why wouldn't employers do it? If they truly do care as much as they say, why not? You cannot say you care about the well-being of veterinarians while requiring them to sign a noncompete. I will continue to call out the hypocrisy in this industry until the noncompete is eradicated.

For a long time, I was proud of the fact that my last corporate recruiting team hired more than 1,100 DVMs in just two years. It was an incredible feat. In hindsight, I recognize I was responsible for more than 1,100 signed noncompetes. I didn't realize what it meant then, but now that I do, I am trying to right that wrong.

If you represent an employer who requires a noncompete, I hope this story changes your perception. I hope you realize veterinary professionals deserve better. They deserve to practice wherever they want, to earn as much as they can, to find a practice they can thrive in, to see any animal that needs them. They do not deserve restrictions on how or where they practice.

Here's my call to action to every veterinarian, veterinary student and anyone who truly cares about the profession:

  1. When you see job ads, posts or comments from a veterinary employer, publicly ask if they require noncompetes. Let them know you will not sign one.
  2. When an employer visits your school, hosts a job fair, promotes a webinar, etc., publicly ask if they require noncompetes. Again, let them know you will not sign one.
  3. Post about this subject on every social media account you have. If you're a veterinary influencer, share our story. Voice your support.
  4. Sign and share our petition.

Lastly, don't stop. Keep the pressure on. Employers need you. Once they realize they cannot hire a single doctor, once they realize entire student classes are refusing to sign, noncompetes will disappear.

Paul Diaz is founder and principal consultant of Hire Power Consulting based in Denver. He has a bachelor's in business management and is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. He was vice president of recruiting at VCA in 2017-20. Diaz posted a version of this commentary on LinkedIn on Feb. 24.

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