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Turnover and the Tales We Tell Ourselves

“Well, we didn’t lose him to another firm. He went in-house with XYZ Corporation.”

“She couldn’t hack it here. She really needed to go to a lesser firm.”

“He wasn’t up to our technical standards, anyway.”

“You know, it’s really not a loss. He just wasn’t a good fit with our culture.”

Any of this sound familiar? If it does, you might want to reassess your recruiting, retention, and operations models. Turnover in both law and accounting firms remains high. Yet ask a partner about it and you’ll hear stories like those above. In short, it seems like "everyone else has a problem, but not us. People are leaving us for legitimate and uncontrollable reasons".

This got me thinking. What if my husband came home and announced he was leaving? Would it make a difference if it were for someone who I perceived to be a lesser person? Would I be able to tell myself the relationship just didn't work out and leave it at that? No. Whatever the reason, he would still be gone, and a tremendously important relationship would be lost to me. I would be forced to consider my role in the breakup.

Losing an employee doesn’t rank as high with losing a marriage, but it certainly deserves more honesty and more soul-searching than it gets in most firms. Mostly what I hear from clients is sort of a heavy collective sigh, with an “Oh, well…” and then whatever story they can tell themselves without putting too much effort into it. Then they go out and spend a bunch of money to replace lost employees.

Fibbing to ourselves like this is not how we learn. If we want to increase retention, we need to review carefully who we are hiring and why (Desperation? Demanding partners? Inefficient operations?). Then we need to be sure we are orienting the new employees appropriately, to include helping them understand the links between their success and the less technical elements of the practice, including business development, communication skill, and civility.

After that, we need to remind ourselves as owners that the people who work with us are our greatest assets. Lip service often is paid to the “our people as assets” idea, but every time a partner demonstrates something that doesn’t match up with the lip service, a firm’s cultural credibility is endangered. We need to hold partners and employees accountable for their behavior, to reward them when the behavior useful and, at a minimum, make them aware when it isn’t. Only when our behaviors are demonstrably congruent with the way describe ourselves will we have a culture that encourages people to stay and grow with our firms.

So let’s stop kidding ourselves and painting those who leave our employ with such a broad brush. Take a closer look at your own culture and behaviors and see what needs fixing. It will translate into higher retention, lower operating costs, and a more truthful, authentic work environment.

© Melinda Guillemette 2009