Employee Morale, Employee Retention and Common Civility

I recently had a conversation with a director of a major law firm about morale among employees. It was low, and employee retention was beginning to be an issue.

As we talked, it became apparent that while the lawyers had access to everything that would help them perform to their potential, the same could not be said for everyone else in the firm. People from managers and supervisors to support staff at all levels felt their contribution was not valued.

The problem was not money. On the contrary, these people were paid very well, and in fact that may have become part of the problem. Senior management felt that any unrest in the ranks could be quieted by simply giving them more money, and they were quite dismayed to find that was no longer doing the trick. For them, money was the first and only form of reward and recognition to offer employees.

Why would they think that, and why would they be surprised to learn they were wrong?

I wonder how often they actually thought about the feelings and attitudes of their people, and my guess is — only when there was a problem. Of course the problem was there all the time, and growing worse, but they just didn’t notice.

This situation is unfortunately all too common, and not just in law firms. There is much discussion among Human Resources professionals about employee retention, and how to make sure good and great employees stay around. The principles are understood, but the practice often doesn’t match up.

Of course there are numerous specific incentives that can be implemented, including formal appreciation programs, and these should certainly not be ignored. Many of these programs are expensive, and management might well feel employees are ungrateful not to appreciate them. Ironically, the root cause of discontent can often be successfully addressed with no financial outlay at all.

No matter how much money you pay someone, if they are overloaded with work and constantly stressed by unreasonable deadlines and treated as if they are invisible, don’t be surprised when they rebel. Again and again, studies have shown that the number one cause of workplace dissatisfaction is that employees don’t feel respected or appreciated — and those are two different things.

In another law firm where I facilitated a difficult discussion between a senior lawyer and his support staff, one clerk pointed out that the manner in which work was assigned was offensive. Citing one common task in their particular area of law, she said, “It takes you just a few seconds to throw the papers on my desk and tell me to do it, and for you it’s done. But you forget that for me it represents two hours of work.” She wasn’t complaining about the work itself, but felt that her contribution to the process was not appreciated. As part of a broader picture of discontent and deepening resentment, this was significant.

When I visit clients’ offices for meetings, I’m usually offered coffee, and in this simple situation I can immediately observe the attitude of the manager or executive towards staff. One person will introduce me by name to the assistant bringing the coffee and make the request in a friendly civilized way; another will simply buzz the assistant and say, “Bring us coffee in the meeting room.” This may sound like a small thing, but the second version demonstrates a lack of respect for the person as a human being, and when it’s part of an overall pattern, it can make a huge difference in someone’s quality of work life.

If you are a Human Resources professional facing morale problems, you might take some time to observe the interactions between management and staff. If you see the signs I’ve been talking about, consider meeting with managers as a group and pointing out the possible consequences of their thoughtlessness. Encourage them to recognize people’s deep human need for respect and appreciation and take any opportunity they can to meet it.

If you are a manager yourself, consider honestly how you treat people. Have some meaningful conversation with those who report to you to let them know you value their contribution and respect them as individuals.

There’s no financial cost to these initiatives, but the positive effect on employee retention, morale and productivity can be immense.