Vol. 43, No. 6

Don’t forget to say ‘thank you’: Staff members share how their bar shows appreciation

By Marilyn Cavicchia

Recently, Bar Leader Weekly highlighted an article that pointed out just how important workplace culture is in helping employees decide whether to stay or go. The article, at ragan.com, shared the following findings from a recent survey on workplace culture:

  • Fifty-eight percent of employees said they’d take a job at a competing company if the new company had a better culture than their current one.
  • Forty-eight percent of respondents would be willing to work a 60-hour week in exchange for better office culture.
  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) of respondents said that having “good relationships with supervisors” is very important to job satisfaction, and 60% said the same about “good relationships with colleagues.”

Add in the fact that the nonprofit sector is not generally known for high salaries, and a positive workplace culture may be especially important for bar associations. Bar Leader recently heard from several bar staff members and bar executives who shared what their bars do to make the staff feel appreciated.

Time: The greatest currency?

Several bars have reduced or rearranged hours during the summer, especially on Fridays, with varying approaches to how this affects the rest of the schedule.

At the Knoxville (Tenn.) Bar Association, summer hours run from May 31 to August 30. “Staff will work the same 35-hour week,” explains Executive Director Marsha S. Watson, “but they’ll be scheduled an hour longer Monday through Thursday and off at noon on Friday.”

Staff at the York County (Pa.) Bar Association and Foundation are on summer hours from Memorial Day to Labor Day, says Chief Executive Officer Victoria A. Connor. The office closes at 3:30 on Fridays, and the staff arrives 30 minutes earlier on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

At the Toronto Lawyers Association, there’s a smaller portion of summer hours—but the time doesn’t have to be made up elsewhere during the week, says Executive Director/Library Director Joan Rataic-Lang. The office closes at 4:00 instead of 5:00 on Fridays from Canada Day (July 1) to Labour Day (observed on the same day as Labor Day in the United States).

Another option for summer is to take some time off together. “Our ED closed the office for a day last summer and took the staff on a sightseeing tour of the Missouri River,” says Joe Menden, communications director at the State Bar of Montana and editor of Montana Lawyer, adding that there are plans for another summer outing this year.

Acknowledgment that summer is different doesn’t even have to involve time off; for example, Carol Manning, communications director at the Oklahoma Bar Association, appreciates the relaxed summer dress code that allows jeans on Friday.

And the gift of time isn’t just for summer: Whenever possible, Executive Director Sebrina Barrett closes The Missouri Bar office on the day after Thanksgiving, and lets staff go home at 3:30 on Halloween so families can trick-or-treat before it gets too dark.

An eye toward wellness

At the Vermont Bar Association, a staff member who reached her 25-year work anniversary chose a gift that benefited the entire office. “We had a half-day wellness retreat with a facilitator who came and taught yoga and mindfulness,” recalls Jennifer Emens-Butler, the bar’s director of education and communication. “And our dogs were welcome, too!”

An annual staff appreciation week at the Hennepin County, Ramsey County, and Minnesota State bar associations incorporates wellness by having a masseuse come in to provide 15-minute chair massages, says Nick Hansen, the bars’ communications manager and editor of Hennepin Lawyer.

The Dallas Bar Association takes a less relaxing approach to wellness, with FitBit-driven weekly and monthly challenges that encourage movement, walking, and healthy habits. Small prizes are given, with larger prizes at the end of the year for most steps, most active, and similar accomplishments. “It’s fun to compete against each other, and sometimes team up with each other,” says Jessica D. Smith, the bar’s communications and media director, and editor of its Headnotes publication.

Food, fun, and festivity

Several staff members from various bar associations mentioned lunches for staff appreciation week, service anniversaries, and other such occasions. For example, at the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Bar Association, Executive Director Theresa Hurley gave all six full-time staff members a gift for each day of Administrative Professionals Week. These included candy, candles, flowers, lunch, a bottle of wine, and a thank-you card—with a $50 gift card inside.

“It made it even more special that we never saw her leave anything,” notes Carole Lucido, the bar’s communications director. “It just magically appeared.”

At The Missouri Bar, one staff appreciation lunch is held after the bar’s annual meeting, as a way to thank everyone for their teamwork leading up to and during this big event. The bar’s Workplace Committee plans these lunches, along with a holiday party, wedding and baby showers, and other such events, which Farrah Fite, media relations director, notes are voluntary.

Hansen points out that it helps set the right tone when director-level staff participate, too. “We’ll often have silly games during staff celebrations,” he says, “and it does a lot to see your director of marketing trying to play wedding-themed hangman with everyone else.”

Hansen appreciates that staff members are allowed to organize team-building events, such as the Oscar and World Cup pools that he runs (just for fun). One summer, he organized a weekly “Snackstravaganza” competition in which people would bring in an unusual snack to share; at the end of the summer, the person who brought in the highest rated snack won a trophy.

“I know it doesn’t seem like a lot,” he says, “but it means a lot that we can have fun in the midst of an industry that isn’t typically known for fun.”

Culture matters

Several of the bar staff members Bar Leader heard from mentioned that it’s not just about “stuff” or about occasional celebrations—it’s the overall environment, and how it feels to come to work every day, that matters.

Consultant Elizabeth Derrico, herself a longtime bar staff member, echoes that sentiment, and says that morale-boosting events can’t be effective in an otherwise toxic workplace. “They have to come in a culture that values employees and recognizes their work and treats them with respect,” she believes. “All of the free coffee and pizza won’t counter a culture that devalues individual contributions, limits autonomy, and treats folks interchangeably.”

Unfortunately, Derrico adds, when budgets tighten, often the first things to go are investments in the staff, such as outings, professional development, and travel related to professional development—which is a great way to drag down the staff’s morale right when they need it the most.

Adding to this problem, she notes, is when these perks for staff are cut, while elected volunteer leaders continue to be recognized and rewarded in ways that cost money—and the staff is sure to notice it.

Saying thank you

“A simple thank-you card really goes a long way,” says Nicole Ogan, assistant director at the State Bar of South Dakota. “I’ve had a very positive response from the folks I’ve sent notes to.” Ogan is also pinning a lot of employee appreciation ideas on Pinterest and recently did some shopping in the clearance section at employee recognition swag website baudville.com.

The Missouri Bar’s Barrett is another fan of thank-you notes, and she also makes a point of commending staff members’ work to officers and board members, says Farrah Fite. Similar to what Derrico said about culture, Fite notes that this gratitude is backed up with staff-friendly policies. Both Barrett and the assistant executive director have open-door policies for staff to share new ideas and concerns. Among the full slate of thoughtful benefits and policies, Fite particularly appreciates that the sick leave policy includes parents and siblings in addition to spouses and children.

“I recently told a new hire that I have never worked in an organization where I am told ‘thank you’ so often for performing my job as we are here,” Fite says. “From our team members to leadership—executive director, board and officers—there is a sense of supporting one another.

“So, even if your bar has limited funds, the two very powerful words of ‘thank you’ are at the core of the positive environment we have here.”