Ten Things: Simple Ways to Reward and Retain Your People

As I mentioned in my last post (January 8), over the next few weeks I will dive deeper into some of the sample department “goals” I set out in that article.  Today I will focus on this goal: “Build and retain extraordinary team with exceptional people.”  I always put my “people goal” first because I truly believe that nothing gets done in legal unless you have top talent that is motivated and happy in their jobs.  How do you keep and reward people so they stick around?  The obvious answer is to pay them well, have a good performance bonus program in place, and let them share in equity plans.  The problem is, for many reasons, it usually is not fully in your control to make any of these three things happen.  For purposes of this article, I am going to assume that you are doing what you can for your team around salary, bonuses and equity and, instead, focus on some low-cost ways you can reward/recognize employees.

Fortunately, there are many ways to do this that don’t require you to “break the bank.”  The goal is to find simple ways to show your employees that you and the company appreciate them and their work, and that you want to encourage their growth (or just make their job more interesting and fun).  While money isn’t everything, it can be if there isn’t anything else keeping people happy working for you. If your employees have a job where they feel wanted and encouraged — and enjoy coming to work — they will be less likely to take a job offer for “more money.”  Below are some things you can do to reward your people and build retention and a better work environment.  These are all things that I did in my past jobs.  They won’t make everyone happy all of the time, but they do work!

  1. Remember birthdays and anniversaries.  I kept a list of everyone’s birthday and anniversary (of starting work with the company).  I would send a short personal note to people on their anniversary date thanking them for being with the company and for their hard work.  On birthdays I would send out an email to the entire department wishing the particular employee a happy birthday and letting everyone know it was a special day.  I also tried to include something fun in the email like a list of famous people born on the same day, or what were the Top 5 albums on this day, etc.  Not only do people appreciate you remembering their birthday, the emails usually got people writing back and forth either with good wishes or sometimes commenting on the “list” I put in the email.  This good-natured back-and-forth is important to team building, especially if you have an internationally-based team like mine was.  Finally, we always had a birthday card signed by the people in the department.  All this cost me was a little time and a couple of dollars for a card.
  2. Create quick awards. If someone was involved in a big litigation win or a big contract or deal, I liked to get a copy of the first page of the court’s order or the agreement (or whatever) and stick it in a plain black frame they could hang on their wall.  You can do more elaborate awards (custom framing or Lucite cases), but I found a simple inexpensive frame worked just fine to show someone you were paying attention to their accomplishments.  I would typically give the award to the person at the next department meeting and highlight for the full team what this person had accomplished.
  3. Pick a charity to support as a team. Our company had a great program where it encouraged employees to get involved in the community.  Every year, my team would pick a charity and spend half a day volunteering.  If we were lucky, we could manage the event so when people in the department from out of the headquarters region could visit and participate. Over the years we supported a botanical garden, a camp for disadvantaged children, an equestrian center for wounded soldiers, a food bank, and many others.  The important thing was the event brought most of the team together, attorneys and staff, in a casual setting to do some good.  Everyone got their hands dirty (painting, weeding, whatever) and everyone had a great time.  Afterward, we’d go out for a group lunch or have lunch delivered to us.  The charity got a bunch of free labor (and we always did way more than they ever expected a bunch of lawyers could ever accomplish!).  The only cost was lunch and making the time to get away for the event.
  4. Play “hooky”.  Sometimes you just need to sneak away for a while.  From time to time I would surprise the team and we’d go see a movie together (late afternoon matinee).  This type of sneak away was always a big hit.  You have to spend some time thinking about the movie you will see because folks are sensitive to different things and you don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable.  We also did a bowling sneak away, whirly ball, and Dave & Busters.  For my employees based internationally, I encouraged them to do their own version of the sneak away as it wasn’t possible for them to join ours here in the States.  I also asked that they share pictures and stories with me and I would later share those with the whole department.
  5. Tout your team.   Praise is free.  When big things happened in the department (or even little things that were nonetheless important for some reason, e.g., getting a new certification), I would always reach out the CEO or the head of the applicable business unit or staff group and let them know what happened, give credit to whomever on my team was involved, and note why the accomplishment was important.  And I would cc the employee(s) on the email.  Your team will greatly appreciate knowing that you are talking about them with senior management.  And always be ready to and be sure to say “thank you.”  Everyone appreciates hearing “thank you” and being told they did a good job.  All it costs is the time to write it down or say it.
  6. Listen.  When you are the boss, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to simply stop talking and listen to the opinions and ideas of your team.  Become a great listener.  Tell people upfront to feel free to let you know if they disagree or see a different way to do something.  And then be sure to walk the walk (if you tell someone to speak freely and then cut their knees off you will have done way more harm than good).  You may not ultimately agree with them or do what they suggest, but at least they know they were heard and were part of the discussion – part of the team.  That counts for a lot with most people.  And help others become good listeners as well.  For example, make sure everyone has equal time and feels equally comfortable speaking up at meetings.
  7. “Pick a book”.  I constantly asked my team if there were any resources they needed to make their jobs easier.  I love books and “old school” legal research, so I particularly liked to ask them if there was a hornbook, treatise, nutshell, or some other book that would be nice to have on their shelf for instant reference.  Yes, everything is online these days, but there is something special about having a book in your hands to look something up and something special that you got to pick it out and the company picked up the tab to help make your job easier.
  8. Create a department award.  When I was with Travelocity, our symbol was the Roaming Gnome.  I grabbed one of the gnome statues we had lying around in marketing, spray painted it gold, and created a monthly legal department award called the “Golden Gnome.”  Every month, I would award the Golden Gnome to one of the team members (it was a traveling trophy) along with a gift card for $25.  At our monthly meeting, I was sure to explain why the person won (usually tying it to one of the department’s goals or an outstanding accomplishment).  I encouraged my team to send me nominations as well (but I was always looking for things to recognize people for – and you can always find something if you make the effort).  The award and gift card could go to anyone, attorney, paralegal, admin, etc. (and often we had multiple winners in a month – which meant I had to paint more gnomes).   I gave the award to internationally-based employees as well.  Having the Golden Gnome statue on your desk for a month was a source of pride and no matter who you are, you can find a use for a gift card!
  9. Spot bonuses. If you have the budget, don’t forget about the possibility of small spot bonuses.  These can be $250, $500, $1,000, etc. bonuses paid out for something truly deserving of recognition.  Sometimes the business units will have a budget for these types of small bonuses and will, if you ask them, consider kicking in to give a bonus to a lawyer or paralegal who really helped them out with an important deal or dispute.  It doesn’t take a lot of money to make some feel special and appreciated through a spot bonus.
  10. Flexibility.  Giving your team members flexibility with their schedules can pay off handsomely as to retention and general happiness.  Being able to work from home occasionally (or regularly if that fits within what the company and your department need) can be almost as important as money for some of your team.  The same is true for flexibility of work hours, e.g., knowing they can catch their child’s third-grade play at 10:00 am in the morning, or make that special early evening family dinner.  Two things are important when you think about flexibility.  First, if you allow work from home (more than just occasionally) have a written policy on the expectations and the rules of the road, especially around the ability of you and clients being able to reach them.  It may be that they need to be signed into the company’s instant messenger program, or that their desk phone is forwarded to their mobile phone while WFH.   Work from home does not mean “unavailable” and everyone needs to understand that they need to be available and they may need to come into the office on short notice on a WFH day if that’s what’s required.  Second, you need to hire professionals and then trust them to do their jobs regardless of where they are sitting.  In my experience, people working from home are working – just like team members in remote offices — and, in fact, often get more done in a day when they do not have to spend time commuting.  However, if you do come across that rare instance of someone abusing the privilege then you need to take action quickly to correct it.  The important thing is to be consistent with everyone.  I will discuss working from home in more detail in a future post.

These are just a few of the things that worked well for me (believe me, there are a lot more but then it would be “Fifty Things”).  Be sure to ask others in your department or in your company for their thoughts.  They will likely have some great ideas (and will appreciate you asking for their input).  A simple online search will show you lots of resources with ideas about inexpensive ways to reward employees.  The key is to find things that will work well for your particular team and have some fun with it.  It doesn’t matter if you are the General Counsel or run a small group within the department, any steps you take to show appreciation to your team (no matter how inexpensive) will pay off ten times over in retention and a happy workplace.

Sterling Miller

(If you find this blog useful, please pass along to colleagues or friends. “Ten Things” is not legal advice or legal opinion.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers. You can find this blog and all past posts at http://www.TenThings.net or www.sterlingmiller2014.wordpress.com)

January 15, 2015



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