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September/October 2020

Taking the Lead

Relationships—An Easier Model for Employee Engagement

Lina Klein and John Hinton IV

An employee knocks on your door unannounced and asks to meet. You know from the tone of her question, the look in her eyes and her body language what she wants to discuss before she sits down. After you mentally process the impact of her departure, your thoughts turn to how it could have been avoided. You have several ideas, but they don’t lead to tangible changes. The press of business, such as completing work, serving clients, managing firm finances and replacing your key employee, takes precedence. Why is this not a priority? It should be. That departing employee may signal larger issues that affect not only employee retention, but also the productivity of your remaining employees.

We spoke with our friend Kimberly Evans at Relations Research about this issue. Although she gave us many helpful ideas for how to address these issues at a firm-wide level, much of her insight turned our attention to how we personally can (and should) improve employee engagement and retention. We quickly learned that it does not take a grandiose plan to succeed.

1. Setting Aside Our Assumptions

We need to challenge our assumptions about our employees. We should not assume employees who are performing well in their role are also satisfied in their work, or that aggregated information from anonymous surveys provides us an accurate picture of individual employees. As Evans pointed out, “there are employees in every law firm who are craving greater challenges or silently stewing over a work frustration, and their supervisors are totally blind to it.” Those unmet needs and unresolved frustrations not only lead to surprise exits of talented employees, but also wasted potential and suboptimal productivity from those who remain.

2. Rethinking "Employee Engagement"

“Employee engagement” is the current buzz phrase and paradigm for efforts to increase employee productivity and retention. Evans teaches us to view this instead as an investment in relationships with our staff rather than seeking to promote their engagement in the firm’s mission. She asked us: “If talent relationships are crucial to business success, why not treat them with the same diligence and rigor as other crucial relationships such as customers?”

That is a thought-provoking question. We know that engaging our clients solely in transactional terms does not build the satisfaction and loyalty necessary for a long-term business relationship. The same is true with our employees. Without investing in those relationships, all we offer our employees is a financial transaction—they give us 40 hours of their labor and we give them a paycheck. If we want them to be engaged, then we must invest in the relationship. Otherwise, there is no reason for them to give more to the firm and its success.

Most employees want more than a transactional job. This was made more evident to us during the work restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Every weekday our office held a brief voluntary videoconference to allow all of us working at home to connect and discuss firm matters. Most of the attendees were staff, not attorneys. They chose to attend the videoconference not because it was necessary to do their jobs, but because they desired to stay connected with their colleagues.

3. Removing the Barriers to the Feedback That You Need

Obtaining the feedback that we need to replace erroneous assumptions about employee needs and satisfaction goes hand in hand with investing in these relationships. However, if the best source of information about problems that need to be addressed is your employees, then how do you best get that information? Evans notes that this is tricky because employees usually don’t feel safe being transparent with their supervisors. She also points out that we cannot expect our employees to assume the responsibility for holding us accountable for creating a work environment that brings out their best. That is our job.

There is no magic formula beyond the same steps that you would take with any other relationship that you value. The key is to create trust. Your employees will not take risks in sharing information with you unless they trust that you will respond in a way that is in their best interest, not yours.

Communicate. Let them know that you value and want their feedback—both the good and the bad.

Facilitate. Give them opportunities to provide feedback to you in an informal, comfortable setting.

Execute. Thank them for their feedback and act on it in good faith, even if that action does not result in the exact result they seek.

Be patient. Building this trust takes time. However, as you invest in this process, it will bear fruit. And just as word gets around the office of who not to trust, word will circulate that you can be trusted with the information that they want to tell you and that you need to know.

Firm-wide efforts to improve employee productivity and retention are important, but we hope that you see that there is much that you can do on your own to limit those unannounced knocks on your door. Good luck. 

Linda Klein

Senior Managing Shareholder

Linda Klein is a past president of the ABA and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. [email protected]

John Hinton IV


John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law. [email protected]

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