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How to Deal

The Trick to Hiring and Retaining Resourceful Employees

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By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 26, 2009; 12:00 AM

Hi. I'm in middle management at a small law firm. Inevitably, out of every three associates we hire, we end up parting with two of them within a year of hiring for performance reasons. The pattern is always the same: The associate is hired on, struggles with his hours for the first few months, then over a few more months develops problems maintaining a responsible level of contact with clients, next they struggle with deadlines, and finally when the partners and I are at wits end the associate pretty much stops working, stops billing and becomes a professional liability.

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We've offered training and performance plans, we have regularly scheduled weekly meetings with the associates, and we're small so someone is always available for guidance. The folks that have lasted through and past a year are, admittedly, rock stars. We're looking at letting go of an associate this week. Is firing people just the way it is? I absolutely hate it. And is it common to be fired? I worry about them, even when they've totally dropped the ball and should probably seek another line of work. And I keep wondering where I've screwed up?

There are aspects of a law firm associate job that you cannot change. You might not be able to help the fact that the hours are demanding or that the work is stressful and deadline-driven. But you can take steps that will minimize the chances that you will have to fire yet another associate.

Foremost, make sure that you do an effective job in the recruiting and hiring process of describing the nature of the work and eliminating candidates who are ill-equipped to handle it. Employers struggle with how to advertise for jobs that are highly metrics-driven or competitive. They worry that their candor about the demands of the job will obfuscate the corresponding benefits and rewards and frighten potential applicants. Never fear. If you do a good job of explaining the nature of the position, then many people who would not have been a good fit anyway will not apply and you will tend to attract candidates who are motivated by challenge and thrive in a high-pressure environment. This will save you time in the recruitment process and possibly save you from having to deal with another performance problem.

Carry this philosophy through to the interview. Make a list of attributes that are essential for success as an associate and ask questions that elicit data regarding those attributes. Think about the toughest circumstances that an associate at your firm might encounter and ask related hypothetical questions that will allow you to gauge how the applicant would perform. Taking this approach will provide you with valuable data about the person's ability to handle the position and give the candidate a clearer idea of what he or she can expect to encounter.

Beware of allowing your personal preferences to skew the interview results. It is important, of course, that your employees be pleasant and able to interact well with others in your small office, but make sure that you are sticking to the relevant professional criteria in evaluating whether someone would succeed. If you don't trust yourself to be faithful to these factors, then create a numerical evaluation system under which you assign each interviewee a score of one through five for each key function of the job. Then decide between the two applicants who have the highest overall score, regardless of how you might feel about interacting with them socially.

Even if you have made a good hiring decision, this does not guarantee that your new associate will make it. If an employee is struggling, it is easy to assume that it is because of poor attitude or lack of ability. Either or both of these issues could be contributing to their problems. But it is environmental factors, from an employee's supervisory relationship to the training and support that he or she receives, that most accurately predict the likelihood of success or failure.

Once a new associate has joined your firm, you should provide an organized program of training and mentoring to ensure that he or she is fully equipped to succeed. I realize that you have provided training plans in the past, and that you work for a small firm where someone is always available to answer questions. However, you should evaluate the effectiveness of your training plan and also formalize the mentoring relationships. Many employees will forego opportunities to ask for much-needed help for fear of appearing incompetent. It is great that your associates can count upon the guidance of more seasoned lawyers, but you need to take the extra step of ensuring that they are actually taking advantage of your support.

Finally, listen to the employees who have not worked out. If they are willing to provide you with feedback, ask them why they think that they did not succeed. Discuss what you both could have done differently and whether they see any way that the relationship could have thrived. They might tell you that they rue the day that they came to work for you, in which case you should ask why. Maybe they felt that you were not completely honest about what the job would entail; maybe they felt that they were left to sink or swim without adequate resources; maybe they just don't like the clients or the work. You will never know if you do not ask.

To answer your question, it is common to be fired when you are not doing your job. And, as a responsible employer, you should fire employees who are not contributing value to the organization in excess of their cost. Given the high price of turnover, however, and the moral hazard of running an organization in which two out of three new employees don't make it through the year, you owe it to yourself to more closely analyze what, exactly, is going wrong. Employers too often fail to take their share of responsibility for the failure of an employee, and I commend you for being among those who are more thoughtful.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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