You’re Doing It Wrong: Why Some Employee Engagement Tactics Increase Turnover Rates

employee engagement
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The news media today is full of articles about the draw of the Google-style office culture, the domination of the Millennial mindset in the workplace, and the looming threat of automation on tomorrow’s competition for top talent. And yet, even the law firms that overhaul their employee engagement strategies as a result of these trends continue to struggle to retain high-performing employees. What’s going on, and how can they achieve their ultimate retention and satisfaction goals?

The answer lies in a subtle but critical distinction among employee benefits and perks: their effect on long-term well-being. Buying a ping-pong table or hosting weekly happy hours, for example, won’t go very far to keep staff around so long as your workplace culture ultimately shows little regard for personal or professional sustainability. When attorneys and staff observe day in and day out that these “benefits” are only surface-level gestures toward informality and relaxation, then they are more likely to perceive them as insincere and are less likely to use them, driving an even larger wedge between employees and management. This negative view is reinforced when the office gossip takes on a reprimanding tone: “If you have time to use the associate break room, then you must be a low-performer with time to spare.”

As much as we would like to believe that employees no longer work around the clock, this is still the ideal vision for workers in most professional services firms. And the clock is always ticking, especially now that technology like smartphones enables uninterrupted connectivity with our jobs. Many benefits initiatives blunder by keeping only the short game of their firm’s interests in mind. If short-term productivity is an employee’s most-valued commodity to their employer — what they can deliver this week, this month, this quarter — then a long-term strategy isn’t worth the focus for either party involved.

Investing in benefits that promote long-term well-being, like professional development programs, can change this narrative for the better. If planned and executed properly, they signal to your employees that you recognize them as co-contributors to your firm’s overall performance, that the bottom line of your financial reports relies heavily on the value they see in the ledger of their own careers. It converts their value from finite to renewable, by strengthening their capacity for professional resilience.

Experience from my client work shows that a thoughtful professional development program can do wonders to reverse the revolving door of turnover that many law firms experience today. In fact, employees often rank training and growth opportunities high on the lists of benefits that keep them at their current organizations. Perhaps this is because training teaches people how to be more effective at their jobs, which helps lessen the constant drumbeat of stress found in legal careers today, especially when the market forces threatening job security loom large.

Communication training, in particular, also helps solve some of the problems of ongoing workplace stress. Lessons learned about the brain’s default processing in terms of conflict, bias, adversity, and novelty can help put us back in the driver’s seat of our own decisions and behaviors, while simultaneously freeing us from some of the attachment to our thoughts that get us in trouble.

They also equip us to embrace and move through discomfort, by constantly challenging us to grow. A healthy communication style is especially important for professions in the legal industry, which can rely heavily on tacit cultural codes and on deftness in managing teams of people in high-stakes situations. Initiatives like the ABA pledge on attorney well-being indicate that on-the-job burnout is a major issue for some firms — and that job-seekers now have a way to see which employers are and are not committed to their long-term health.

Such initiatives are encouraging as an industry trend, but only day-to-day evidence in real-life situations will be enough to convince employees of management’s support for their overall well-being. Office environments are always driven by unspoken norms more than by written policies, or worse — one-off campaigns that solve for problems employees don’t have (e.g., the burning urge to play foosball after a long day at the office). No matter the strength of your official internal messaging to the contrary, firsthand observations will win out in teaching employees what is and isn’t acceptable at your firm.

Law firms that invest in a strategically planned professional development program — and then actually support application of those skills on the job — show employees that they care about their long-term productivity, not just their Q4 FY19 output on a performance dashboard. It doesn’t take too long for new hires to learn the difference between empty gestures and the real thing. And anecdotal evidence suggests that even after this realization, many attorneys and law firm staff stay much longer than they would like or that they feel is good for their mental health.

Eventually, however, they break — and they leave, often writing off the legal industry altogether as too toxic, as too crippling for even the bleakest vision of how they want to live their lives. Their former company is then left to face the starkness of their own long-term reality: a constant focus on finding replacements for perfectly qualified and dedicated employees, who have the audacity to want more than just free snacks.

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