October 23, 2012


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 Table of Contents | Features | Frontlines | Technology | Business

January/February 2011 Issue | Volume 37 Number 1 | Page 42



How can small firms compete with big firms when it comes to attracting and retaining quality staff? Easily, if they’re willing to think outside the box about win-win ways to create a positive work environment. This is good for you, as the employer, too, because just as negativity builds and feeds on itself, so does positivity—and from a business perspective, a happy workplace equals a productive workplace. So how can you achieve this pleasant goal on a limited HR budget? Here are some ideas.

Compensating Equitably and Creatively

Studies have shown that financial remuneration is not the most important factor in determining job satisfaction. Still, it’s hard to feel appreciated as an employee if you are being paid below the normal range. Plus, rewarding behavior that contributes positively to the bottom line helps motivate and retain quality employees, so it’s usually a win-win scenario from all sides. Some lawyers even tie their staff’s remuneration to the office’s profitability.

However, doing so by bonuses, rather than permanent wage increases, can make good sense from the viewpoint of small firm employers. And whatever your budget, it’s a nice way to compensate staff who come up with ideas that help your firm’s bottom line.

In addition, be open to alternative perks whose value to the employee outweighs their financial cost to the firm. Many employees rank flexibility in work hours and location (e.g., the ability to work some days from home) of high importance. As another example, an employee might choose to accept lower wages in return for certain benefits (e.g., medical ones). Another idea is allowing staff to “bank” time that they put in outside their usual work hours. They can then draw on this bank to attend a doctor’s appointment, enjoy a longer weekend or even work out at the gym during an extended lunchtime. This kind of banking can be as simple as setting up a ledger that keeps a tally of (1) overtime worked and (2) work hours missed for each employee on an annual basis. It lets employees tend to the surprises of life to which we’re all subject and gives them a sense of personal control over their time, while also helping the employer control otherwise avoidable absenteeism.

Implementing a “Respect Required” Policy

Nothing confirms being valued like being respected. Therefore, you should never tolerate rudeness in your office—from anyone, including clients. While it can be expected that clients involved in litigation, divorce, bankruptcy and similar stressful matters can be on edge and may act inappropriately from time to time, apologies should be required for any outbursts. For habitual offenders, consider terminating the lawyer-client relationship. Likewise with the employer-employee relationship with rude or unreasonable staff members.

According to the Pareto Principle, also widely known as the 80/20 rule, a full 80 percent of effects typically come from 20 percent of causes. So, for example, 80 percent of the aggravation or frustrations one experiences practicing law will come from 20 percent of one’s files. Similarly, 80 percent of staff problems will originate from 20 percent of one’s employees. Eliminating the source of the problem thus goes a long way in improving the workplace environment.

However, you may not even be aware that you have such problems, since staff may be hesitant to share the situation with you. An easy way to discover if there are any difficult individuals affecting your practice is to conduct a confidential survey of your employees. Ask them who are the three people they would fire if they could. This refers not only to clients and other staff members, but to vendors and anyone else they may be dealing with as part of their work. If the same name keeps reappearing, you are now aware of a major source of interference with productivity, which should be dealt with as quickly as possible.

It goes without saying that you also need to treat staff with complete courtesy. However, have you considered how the manner in which you handle delegation and supervision can create resentments, too? Minimal delegation and excessive supervision says “I don’t trust you”—and it creates employees who rely on the employer as their safety net. Before you know it, they stop trying to be the best because, after all, you are there to catch their mistakes.

On the other hand, excessive delegation can result in feelings of being overburdened and taken for granted. It’s important to discuss the kind of delegation that meets both parties’ comfort levels. Your mission is to show respect for employees’ capabilities and encourage their capacity to grow while simultaneously acknowledging that there’s only so much time in a day.

Showing Appreciation with Small Gestures and Get-Togethers

Small and continuous gestures can bring big dividends in staff satisfaction and loyalty. For example, calendaring your employees’ birthdays and then buying them a cake to share with the entire staff is an easy thing to do and a great morale booster. You can also take advantage of Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Secretary/Staff Day in inexpensive ways to create a positive atmosphere.

In addition, occasional out-of-the-office daytime events such as lunch get-togethers create a wonderful bonding opportunity and are almost always appreciated. The office needn’t be shut down all afternoon, of course—picking restaurants with buffets or preordering from the menu ensures that it can be done in a time-effective manner.

Another nice touch is to have a special stock of basic food staples in the office, such as specialty teas and coffees, hot chocolate and chicken bouillon, or ramen noodles, protein bars and other nourishing snacks. From a business perspective, these are relatively inexpensive items. Plus, it helps productivity by avoiding out-of-the-office trips by employees to grab these kinds of things, and it’s especially good for those days when people feel too busy to stop for lunch. The resulting productivity more than makes up for the small cost.

Also, how about creating a library of books, CDs and DVDs of your own material that your staff can borrow? You can periodically rotate the contents to meet everyone’s tastes. In addition, you could find out which magazines in your office your staff likes to read, so when new issues arrive, you can give them the older ones to take home. This is another small perk of no real cost to the employer.

Which brings us to charitable endeavors. Regardless of how often you are asked, it is important to support (even if nominally) your staff’s fund-raising efforts, whether they be for a favorite charity or their children’s extracurricular activities. Even if you are on a diet, buy that chocolate bar and give it to someone else. Refusing to spend $3 to support your staff’s charitable efforts sends an unnecessary negative message.

Another method of fund-raising that’s increasingly popular with charities is the silent auction. Here again, providing a donation is a win-win proposition, because while you are supporting your employee’s charitable efforts, others attending the fund-raising event will be made aware of your generosity, garnering you inexpensive publicity and goodwill.

Add Your Own Ideas

These are but a few thoughts on how to create a positive environment. There are many more ways you can show appreciation on a small budget—it simply takes a little creativity combined with the desire to see it through. Your efforts will invariably be worth it in achieving a more satisfying and successful workplace.

About the Author

Pascale Daigneault is a principal of Fleck & Daigneault, a personal injury litigation firm in Point Edward (Sarnia), ON.