Hospital chain headhunts for talent among veterinary practice staff

Veterinarians debate ethics of Banfield's recruiting methods

Published: July 03, 2012
By Jennifer Fiala

Dr. John Lutz's practice is under attack, or so to him it seems.  

A major corporate player in veterinary medicine is opening a franchise 10 minutes away, leaving Lutz frustrated — not by the prospect of more competition but because several of his staff have been asked by the company to apply for positions.  

Some call it headhunting, others refer to it as poaching. Either way, the business of veterinary medicine appears to have turned cutthroat, experts say, exposing a profession known for collegiality to aggressive competition.

For Lutz, that means worrying that staff in his Erie, Pa., practice will receive and ultimately accept repeated employment invitations from Banfield Pet Hospital. The national chain of more than 810 practices is opening next month in a nearby PetSmart. At least five of Lutz’s employees have received written solicitations and phone calls from Banfield representatives that include a “talent acquisition partner.”  

As a result, two of his staff members have left to work with the hospital chain.  

Lutz characterizes Banfield’s actions — and employee poaching in general — as unethical. In a message board discussion on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, Lutz explained why he considers Banfield’s recruiting to be frustrating, responding to several veterinarians who characterized the company's attempts to source talent as “just business.”  

“So how would you feel if it was an associate vet setting up their own practice that was doing the ‘recruiting’ (assuming they were not in violation of a non-compete)? Still just doing business?” Lutz asked of his colleagues on VIN.  

When queried by the VIN News Service, Banfield representatives explained that they source professional talent in a variety of ways: via the company’s career portal, email, direct mail and an employee referral program. Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, Banfield's chief medical officer, said he considers the company's relationship with the profession, including private practitioners, to be “extremely important.”  

“Banfield does not in any way engage in inappropriate headhunting techniques,” he said by email. “Like many other reputable companies, we purchase contact information from state licensing boards, which is a common practice. … Above all, we believe that our approach to recruiting new associates is conducted in a professional, responsible and respectful manner.” 

Dr. Amanda Jones, an associate in Lutz's practice, challenges that statement. On March 30, she received an email from Danielle Andrews, talent acquisition partner with Banfield, who laid out an employment pitch:  

“We are opening a brand new hospital in Erie, Pa., and are currently seeking a highly qualified veterinarian to join our team at this location. If you are considering a new opportunity, or know of a colleague who may be interested, we would love to hear about it!”  

Banfield also attempted to solicit her at home, Jones said. When her husband picked up the phone and told her Banfield was on the line, she asked him to hang up.  

Jones said she isn't interested in leaving Lutz’s practice or working for corporate veterinary medicine. She finds Banfield’s headhunting practices to be distasteful.

“I certainly had negative feelings about Banfield before this, and that's been solidified,” she said.  

Asked to specifically address the “talent acquisition partner," Barbara Amato explained that the job title resides within People & Organization, the term Banfield uses for its human resources department. Amato is Banfield's senior director of talent acquisition.

“Cold calls to potential associate’s place of business is not a practice Banfield feels is in the spirit of appropriate recruitment practices," Amato said by email. "As to the specific allegations that Banfield called Dr. Lutz’s employees at their homes, I personally looked into this and have not been able to identify how this could have happened. I was assured by Danielle that she did not place a call to Dr. Jones at her residence.”

Either way, some believe Banfield is simply operating like any other American business.

In the message board discussion, Dr. Greg Nutt of Canton, Ga., responded to Lutz’s grievance with Banfield this way:   

“I know this can be very disheartening, but nobody can steal your employees,” he said. “They are free to go and work wherever they want. If the grass is greener (or appears greener), they often leave. It happens to all of us.” 

Dr. Bree Montana of Kings Beach, Calif., shared Lutz’s feeling of irritation but downplayed the offense as “tacky and rude.”

Dr. Elizabeth Anne Williams, however, sees Banfield’s side, having done her own headhunting in the past.  

“I do not see anything wrong with approaching potential hires and inviting them to work for me,” said Williams, of Fayetteville, N.C. “Everyone an employer wants to hire already … has a job. These are the people with the skills and drive to make an office successful.  

“People who are currently between jobs are a much riskier proposition,” Williams added, echoing a sentiment she's heard from her former bosses. “Many are unemployed for a reason.” 

Jon Dittrich, a practice management consultant in Knoxville, Tenn., said the fact that the headhunter represents Banfield heightens the irritation for some.  

“Banfield has the marketing prowess and a lot of money behind it,” he said. “People don’t like it because it’s corporate America, but it’s capitalism. Veterinary medicine was in a cocoon until 20 years ago, and things are changing.” 

Dr. Thomas Haig, another consultant and a 37-year practice owner, agrees that attitudes have evolved, redefining what's considered acceptable behavior among veterinarians competing for business. 

“Years ago, you could lose your licensing for advertising (services to the public) in some states,” he said. “But in this day and age, to expect someone not be hired from your practice is a little Pollyanna.”

He added: “There is a lot of competition in veterinary medicine today. I think for a lot of people the fact that Banfield is associated with this, people automatically thinks it's wrong. It’s not cool, but it's not illegal.” 

That doesn't make it any less irritating for Dr. Katie True, a practice owner in Sacramento, Calif.

"Every so often, my associates get letters from Banfield recruiting them to join their hospitals,” she said. “Now that’s all and good, but it chafes my backside because it’s delivered to my work address. We laugh and they toss it in the ‘round file’ because they know I provide a great working environment.”  

Dr. Michael Riegger, a consultant and practice owner in Albuquerque, N.M., said the workforce has “dramatically changed” since he opened his practice in 1974, and with that, collegiality in the veterinary profession.  

“Certainly, non-collegial behavior in the profession is more visible,” he said, noting that aside from raiding staff, practices also have been known to poach each others’ clients. 

Riegger surmises that the change stems from the fact that veterinarians aren’t connecting on a personal level as they did in the past. “Local meetings are dying social groups," he said.

Does Riegger envision the profession becoming less competitive? No way.  

“My solution to poaching: Pay them well, treat them nicely, give them chocolate. Make them look forward to wanting to come to work,” he said. 

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