There is a reason payroll is your biggest cost: you pay the most for your biggest asset. Employees make or break a law firm. But realistically, working with others can be tough and employees can be difficult to manage. You can’t fix or change everything about an employee (Would you really want several clones of yourself?). But a well-run ship is a saving grace for all and can constructively address most issues. So give employment management some serious thought and effort, and then step into action.
Here are seven things to do to become a better captain of the ship and improve employee relations:
- Open that door wide to communicate. If you are closing your door to employee communication because you have too much work to do, you miss the news something is going sideways until it is too late. You are a team; you need to work together. Have an open-door policy.
- Engage in daily or weekly meetings. This is excellent for one-on-ones, teams, or for working on specific projects. They can be short, by Skype or in person, standing or sitting. At the meeting, check in by going around the circle and everyone answering two questions: 1) What you are working on? 2) Are there any obstacles you need help with removing? (Yes, that second one is the boss asking the staff if there are any obstacles. Really amazing bosses clear paths for their staff to achieve goals they set together. Really bad bosses create obstacles to staff accomplishment.)
- Training is worth investment. Ask your employees what additional training they need to accomplish their tasks better. Who would know better than the person actually doing the tasks? Spending money on training is a good investment if the training will be implemented and used. If you don’t have a budget, check out YouTube — a total treasure trove of quick trainings on a zillion different topics, especially tech. Or practice management programs often have free regular trainings or a bank of quick online trainings.
- Encourage creativity and critical thinking. Employees who disagree with you are not necessarily obstinate or oppositional. Employees who disagree with you are often courageous and thoughtful. Hear them out; they may be on to something. Surrounding yourself with the sort of people who ask whether you are considering the right path before you start down it makes for smart business. I think of surgeons with their myriad checklists they go through, where they ask, Does anyone have any concerns or want to mention anything they think should be addressed before we stitch this guy up? You want the law firm equivalent of the nurse who says Um, Doctor Doright, we are missing one of the eight sponges that we had when we started. Think it might still be in patient Susie here?
- Give recognition for work well done. I cannot emphasize this point enough: please give recognition. It equates not only to dollars; it goes miles toward building team spirit and engaging employees. Make it campy if you want, as long as the appreciation is authentic. Have a parade in the office where you crown an employee of the month and she wears a banner around the office. Give coffee cards, movie tickets, donuts, thank-you cards, bonuses, meals, or toys. State what it is for: Thank you for making clients feel at ease in the reception area. You have a way with making people feel comfortable that I really admire and appreciate. Or maybe it’s: For Recognition to Mr. Smith for going above and beyond the normal call of duty and spending an inordinate amount of time teaching me how to better calendar and read my emails, I bestow this award, the Golden Globe of Greatness, upon you.
- Set clear expectations and communicate at the first instance of a problem. If you need to reprimand, do so without delay. Don’t let things fester. Be firm and direct about it, but do it in private. Work to not shame an employee who has made a mistake. Instead, talk about how he can learn from the mistake and improve his performance. (This goes for how you manage your own mistakes, too.) Document your actions well.
- Do not keep an employee who fails to live up to the firm’s ideals. If you do, you risk other relationships — both employees and clients — and you taint the culture of the firm. How can a secretary taint the culture? He is the first person your clients communicate with (and maybe the last). He sets the tone for those relationships. And he spends more time with you than with his own family, if in-house full-time. You have to like him; the clients have to like him. So, if appropriate, let him go, so he can find his ideal work situation and you can find someone who suits your firm better.