The basics of employee management

Firstly, a disclaimer. I am not a psychologist or a human resources professional (although in hindsight degrees in both would have been handy).

However, as an employed solicitor and subsequently law firm partner, and as a workplace relations specialist, I have had occasion to observe the operation of law firms over the years. My comments are made from this perspective.

In my experience, most lawyers are very good at the legal advice part of their business but less so in managing the people aspects of their business. This is perhaps related to the introspective nature of many lawyers or the crisis management and intensive nature of much of our professional work. This is sometimes described as working on the business rather than in the business.

However described, it is important that law firm owners play a hands-on role in not just the financial aspects of their business but also the people aspects. In an increasingly services-based economy, people are the main resource of a business.

This will involve an investment of time and effort in developing practical people management skills, something that does not always come easily to lawyers. These comments also apply to any employees with management responsibilities or with management aspirations.

The legal aspects of the employment relationship have been addressed in a number of articles in recent years. I have pointed out that employment agreements are best treated as framework documents which set out the basic parameters of the employment relationship but they are not the complete picture.

People management involves considering how to employ the right people to start with, what it is that makes each person tick and how to get the best out of your employees. Many workplace ‘blow-ups’ can be avoided by implementing these skills.

It is important to put in place the proper foundations for a smooth employment relationship. The following principles should be heeded:

  1. Don’t rush in when deciding to create a new position. Consider whether your business really needs that new position or are there other ways in which the required outcomes of that job can be delivered.
  2. Take the time to engage the right employee. Have meaningful selection criteria and an appropriate selection process to match skills and character with your business. Always check references and don’t discount the relevance of pre-employment psychometric assessment.
  3. Make sure there is a clear, accurate and relevant position description in place including key financial and non-financial performance indicators which will help you and the employee measure performance. Setting out these expectations in advance can go a long way to minimising job dissatisfaction and subsequent poor performance. Position descriptions should be reviewed periodically to ensure they are up to date.
  4. Make sure an employment agreement is in place before the employee starts work as it can be more difficult once work has started. You should at least have a basic agreement for every employee setting out their role, hours of work and pay rates.
  5. Have up-to-date and relevant policies and make sure employees know about them. Many operational issues can be addressed in policies rather than the contract of employment, for example, email and internet usage. But in order to rely on a policy an employer must show the employee was aware of and understood the policy. So, employees should receive an induction session when they commence work, be provided with access to policies and sign a record of having read and understood the policies. Regular refresher training is also wise.
  6. It is important to ensure there is a regular and appropriate performance appraisal process for employees. Breakdown in communication is often a reason for breakdown in the employment relationship. Telling an employee what to do, how to do it, when they’ve done it wrong and how to improve it, and telling them when they’ve got it right are fundamental to any successful business. Increasingly, it is recognised that performance review is not just a once a year thing (if that) but should be continual and informal.
  7. As much as possible, keep a paper trail of notes of meetings. This may help in justifying later actions.

Larger firms will usually have their own systems for implementing these steps. In smaller firms, it will usually be up to the managing partner to ensure these steps are taken. It is tempting to just let the office manager or another senior support person supervise and run the office or, in the worst-case situation, not to manage staff at all.

This kind of ‘stick your head in the sand’ approach is likely to come unstuck at some point however. I have lost count of the number of practitioners who have approached me over the years wanting a quick and easy solution to staff management issues that have been allowed to fester over time until they can be ignored no longer. There is usually a high price to be paid for indifferent management.

There is also sometimes a tendency to manage by email, which is a poor substitute for the personal touch. The key is to engage in ‘active management’ of staff. At its most basic level, this involves consistent attention to the activities of staff (without micromanaging) and a calm, considered and courteous approach to all.

At an advanced level, this can involve the application of scientific principles to getting the best out of people (the developing area of neuroleadership). Above and beyond the key principles set out above, active management involves being present in the workplace, regularly interacting with staff and keeping an eye and ear open to ensure any workplace issues are addressed before they get out of hand.

Whilst the practice of the law can often be viewed as a solitary existence, team-building activities can also be useful in improving workplace cohesion. As a business owner, these traits should also be encouraged in staff with management responsibilities. Remote work obviously brings its own challenges but the same principles apply.

These comments are not intended to be an exhaustive statement of management principles, as different things will work for different people. However, they are intended to be a reminder of the important role that people management plays in ensuring the success of your firm.

Rob Stevenson is the Principal of Australian Workplace Lawyers and a QLS Senior Counsellor. rob.stevenson@workplace-lawyers.com.au

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