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How to not get shot as the messenger

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: January 14, 2018
  • Published January 14, 2018

Q: How do I tell our managing partner that he and the other partners are one of the main reason employees quit? As office manager for our law firm, I feel caught between a rock and hard place when our employees voice their complaints to me. On the one hand, I sympathize with the employees, and wish the MP and partners would treat the staff better. Small changes on the part of the partners would mean a lot. For example, the partners don't even say "hi" when they walk past the staff's desks in the morning. One employee has been here two years and the MP doesn't even know her name.

On the other hand, I realize the MP and other partners are under a lot of stress and have more important things on their minds than saying "hi." When I tried to share the staff's views with the MP, he got defensive and told me to stop hiring whiners. Then, I lost any chance at a bonus because I received "needs improvement" scores on my performance review in two areas: employee retention and effective hiring. The MP laid the turnover problem at my feet, saying I hired poorly.

What do I do? I'm afraid if I tell the MP that he and the partners are the problem and not me, they'll shoot the messenger.

A: The good news — he's told you to work on the problem. The bad news — he doesn't realize he and the other partners own the problem.

The solution — you don't tell him he and the partners are the problem. Instead, you present factual information so they see the problem for themselves and can appreciate that you've researched the problems and can offer them no-cost strategies that reduce turnover.

Meet with MP and let him know you've taken his guidance on your review seriously and plan to investigate the issues he raised — hiring and retention. Explain that you have a plan for assessing the hiring situation and ask him if he'll let you conduct an employee survey.

Then, lay out the facts. For hiring, pull the resumes of the last five to 10 employees you hired that left in less than one year. Prior to your firm hiring them, how long had they stayed at their prior jobs? What job-relevant skills did they bring aboard? How did their prior supervisors describe them? If you made solid hiring decisions, your assessment will clearly show that your hiring decisions weren't the problem.

Next, present the results of your exit interviews with departing employees. If you've asked effective questions, such as "what led you to decide to leave?" and "what could we have done to have kept you?" the compiled exit interview answers may surprise your MP. If your MP makes comments, listen and nod. Don't argue. Let the facts speak for themselves.

Then, present the results of your employee survey. If you've asked appropriate questions, such as "what are your favorite parts of your job and of working for our firm?" and "if you could change anything in terms of your work environment, what would you change?" the employees' actual answers will reveal what costs your firm its employees.

Few problems have only one cause. Your staff might benefit from training. For example, in one of our favorite personality inventory trainings, we outline the difference between "relators" and "deciders." Relators care if others say "hi." "Deciders" often don't say "hi" because they're so task-focused, they don't even "see" others as they pass by their desks. Relators thus need to learn not to take this personally.

Finally, you've correctly assessed that while telling your firm's MP he's the problem can be job-threatening, allowing turnover to increase can also cost you your job. If you try the above and it doesn't work, you may want to find a new employer with a corporate culture that better values employees.

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