- In Practice
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Employee satisfaction: virtue and reward
The Sunday Times list of the top 100 companies to work for does not quite have the cachet of the same publication’s Rich List, but it should still be taken seriously. I am not saying this just because my company, DBS Law, made the list in 2012 for the second year running, for I believe there are lessons to be learned for all business leaders from the employment practices of those companies in the top 100.
The award is presented to companies every year for their fulfilment of a range of criteria, including great leadership, investment in staff training and development, the health and wellbeing of employees, fair pay and benefits, and community service. The assessment of each firm is completed with the help of confidential employee surveys and on-site investigations. It is a nail-biting few months because the last thing you want, having put yourself forward as an exemplary boss, is to be told that you are not.
For many employers, though, being a good boss may come pretty low on their list of priorities in the business plan. There are, it seems, always extenuating circumstances or market pressures that render employee contentment a back-of-the-cupboard item. In any case, as long as unemployment remains high then we can be sure that our staff will turn up for work every day because they do not have anywhere else to go. ‘You’re lucky to have a job’ is an all-too-often repeated management mantra. It
may be true but it is offensive and counterproductive, and it is productivity that is the crucial factor for us all.
If you are in business you have to understand that you can get more out of staff who are happy and committed to their work than you can from fearful, forelock-tugging serfs. This is particularly true in a service industry like ours and it is something all law firms should urgently consider, as competition from non-legal commercial organisations comes into play.
We are now rated with three stars, coming in at 54 on the list. The fact that we have moved up is a result of a deliberate strategy which I put in train four years ago. The firm had a traditional approach to personnel management at the time - more crowd control than motivational. The business was ticking over nicely but it was still off the pace in terms of its potential. We had a higher than normal level of staff turnover and a tolerable level of negative client feedback. It was not a disaster by any means but we were not going to win any awards - and that is what I wanted for the business.
We needed an edge, so after some soul-searching we set out to change our culture and build a better business. We began by talking to staff. We avoided direct confrontational questioning about what would make them happy, mainly because the predictable response of ‘a 100% pay rise please’ was not deliverable. We asked them to engage with us on changing the business, actually involve them in deciding what the firm was going to be - and they responded very positively and enthusiastically. This engagement was so successful it led us to invest in a rebranding. Our new slogan ‘Bringing law to life’ embodied the social responsibility of the firm that had emerged as a key factor for the staff, particularly the younger ones. They wanted their work to mean something more than a business transaction and they wanted to be part of something socially significant.
So we set out to partly satisfy this desire by developing a community outreach project. DBS Heart, as it is known, is run by the staff and is financially supported by the firm. The project involves staff assisting in development and safety campaigns, as well as fundraising for the charities that run them. The most popular activity is the road safety classes we run for Brake in local schools. The commitment of our staff has resulted in Birmingham City Council seeking to partner with us in our continued efforts to educate primary school children on the importance of road safety. We also sponsored a development programme for unemployed young people in Birmingham run by the Prince’s Trust.
The business benefit of the project is the development of empathy in our staff. Not that they were sociopaths to begin with, but like many well-educated and relatively privileged professionals they do not necessarily form any contact with the lives of ordinary working people. Understanding the struggles most people endure to make ends meet is important for them. They have, as a group, developed solidarity with our clients. Now each claim they work on is a fight for individual justice not just a fee - and this engenders a greater sense of job satisfaction.
We developed this further with a political campaign opposing changes to funding for civil litigation, incorporated in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill. We employed a professional campaigner and communicator to lead it. His job was not only to express our views on the issue to the media but also to make use of our staff’s commitment. They got on board quickly and helped identify cases to use as examples to explain the effect of the changes to the public. They also explained the changes to clients - and enjoyed feeling part of a fight for social justice.
In other areas of the business we addressed our system of rewards and the professional development of our staff. Pay in our business is great if you are at the top - not so if you are starting out. I have heard many stories about unrealistic targets, excessive caseloads and paltry bonuses paid to paralegals or trainee solicitors, particularly at some big law firms. This feudal approach to management does not create loyalty; it only generates resentment in junior staff and contributes to expensive staff turnover.
So we decided to put our money where our mouth was and pay a bonus linked to both company and individual performance. We place a lot of emphasis on client feedback when it comes to individual assessment. We survey clients during and after the completion of their matter. Sharing the profit in an equitable way across all grades in the firm has helped gel the teams and solidified management-staff relationships. It also helped to eradicate the ‘them-and-us’ culture between fee-earners and support staff.
In terms of staff development, I was keen to create opportunities for individual improvement across the whole organisation. I am a product of the now ancient practice of starting at the bottom as an assistant at 16 years of age and being supported by my employer through to becoming a solicitor. In budgetary terms, we have increased our annual spend on training as a percentage of turnover. We have training contracts running constantly. More than 10% of our employees are currently engaged in supported university courses. We have support staff doing higher business studies degrees and other professional qualifications, all with company funding, with paid time off to attend classes and for exam preparation. This is all on top of a dramatic increase in direct job-related training for individuals. All vocational training provisions are mutually identified and agreed during the personal assessment process, and the key factor in the decision-making is always the needs of the business rather than pure expenditure.
'Happiness in itself cannot be overstated. In the same way that negativity can become toxic and spread from its sometimes single source to infect the business environment, so too can happiness'
What is the result of this effort? According to the return on the Sunday Times survey our staff gave us a 90% approval rating for their own personal growth, with 95% satisfied with how they were taken care of in their team. Some 80% were happy with their pay and benefits, with the same figure happy with how much the firm gives back to society. Both of these figures show room for improvement, and the exercise has demonstrated an impressive level of ambition among our staff.
This level of happiness has created a company with very small staff turn-over and fantastic feedback from clients, with 87% of surveyed clients stating that they would recommend our services. We have also achieved a 150% increase in turnover in four years and increased profit - all from the same level of instructions. Moreover, we have achieved bronze Investors in People status; we have been listed in the Legal 500 for the first time; and this year we were a finalist in the Birmingham Law Society’s Law Firm of the Year awards.
Happiness in itself cannot be overstated. In the same way that negativity can become toxic and spread from its sometimes single source to infect the business environment, so too can happiness, but the effects are positive on many fronts. This is not to say that delusional optimists walking around with smiles is good for business. However, positivity, optimism and happier staff have played a significant part in the increased revenue generated by our business. It is equally important to maintain focus on individuals who struggle with positivity. Simply getting rid of them is a short-term fix but in the long run can be just as damaging for the workforce. It is always worth asking yourself whether there is something which you have done, or not done, which may often be the case, that has allowed the situation to arise in the first place. Find out what the problem is and fix it rather than simply treating them as the problem. Turning negativity around while retaining the same people is a very important skill in the daily management and operation of a business.
A key factor in achieving what we have to date is grasping a full understanding of the different types of business model and being certain as to which one it is that you are seeking to be. There are typically only four different kinds and each can be successful in its own right, but one will stand out to you as the business culture you wish to create.
When this is firmly decided upon, create the strategy and structure to achieve this. It takes time and genuine engagement with staff. This involves exploring the different personalities in the company as well as your own, finding out what motivates people, and appreciating that there is no such thing as a complete leader. A successful leader will have many strengths but can have many weaknesses too, some of which may only become apparent when they receive honest feedback and are receptive to such feedback. A good leader will be aware of their strengths, and in areas where they are not so strong will not be afraid to put in place individuals who are better at such matters.
Intuition has played a significant part in how I have implemented positive change for the business. But I have also gained great insight from listening to others, not least from course tutors at Saïd Business School, Oxford University, during a one-week residential course on high-performance leadership. I also had the pleasure of listening to Shawn Achor, chief executive and founder of Good Think Inc and author of the Happiness Advantage, at a best companies presentation.
Rob Bhol is managing director of DBS Law