Around 70 percent of your firm’s staff are either coasting or are actively disengaged from their jobs, according to staffing issues expert Sandra Wiley -- and some of that may be your fault.

In a session on employee engagement at Thomson Reuters’ annual user conference, Synergy 2015, Wiley -- COO and shareholder of Boomer Consulting Inc. -- touched on a number of management behaviors that are driving staff away both literally and figuratively.

Among the worst:

1. Limiting them. Many managers and partners recall the days when entry-level staff spent a few years learning the ropes before doing anything beyond grunt work -- but that’s killing engagement levels right away.

“It’s true that people right out of college need to get used to the work firms do,” Wiley acknowledged. “But if they do nothing else, that’s boring. They’ve come out of school where they networked and were active -- and you put them in their awesome cubicle with a computer that’s not as good as the one they have at home, and you put them in a little box and say, ‘You do that for a couple of years and then we’ll talk.’”

She suggested putting them on a task force or committee early on -- or holding a contest soliciting suggestions on how the firm can do things faster, easier, cheaper or better, and then empowering the winner to implement their idea. Getting them in front of clients quickly, even in a note-taking, non-speaking capacity, is another way to avoid stultifying them.

2. Not dealing with difficult people. When you have people no one likes who aren’t good at their jobs, it’s easy to fire them. It’s the people who are great at their jobs -- the rainmakers, the genius technicians -- who are also terrible people who present a problem, because firms can be afraid of the consequences if they fire them.

“It’s tempting to keep them, but you need to let them go,” Wiley said, because they are driving away your best people by berating them in public, or micro-managing them, or whatever other awful behavior they’re displaying. She cited a firm where the terrible person who needed to go was actually the managing partner, and a powerful rainmaker -- but the firm ended up growing 20 percent in the year it fired him, because the staff and partners were so relieved and excited to be free of him. She added they also lost fewer of the ousted MP’s clients than they expected -- because even some of them didn’t like him.

3. Making exceptions. Standardizing your firms engagements and processes can help staff feel more engaged, Wiley said -- and letting them participate in setting the standards can engage them even more. But the best thing you can do is make sure everyone follows the rules.

“When we come up with this amazing workflow and we all learn it, and then one of the partners says, ‘When you do mine, do it differently’ -- people start to get disengaged,” Wiley warned. “They take a little step back. ‘OK, I’ll do it, but I don’t know that I want to be here. And I don’t know that I want to be a partner.’ It’s a common complaint to say, ‘I have to do this differently for each partner I work for.’”

She recommended having a diverse team to build your firm’s standardized processes -- including entry-level staff, admin staff, technology people, managers and partners -- and then making sure everyone, without exception, follows the same rules.

4. Modeling misery. At too many firms, the partners make partnership look like a grind. “Nowadays, you rarely hear, ‘How long until I make partner?’” Wiley explained. “They’re not asking about that anymore. The No. 1 reason: They see the current partners and say, ‘I don’t want to be them.’”

“The next-generation leader doesn’t want anything to do with what they perceive as the current partner’s life -- nothing but work, no vacations, nothing outside the office, no family,” she continued, before noting that this may be a one-sided perception: Partners do have to work hard, but often staff simply don’t see the “life” side of partners’ work-life integration.

Firm events that include family can be one way to show that partners are people, too -- but so can simply talking about life outside of work. Talk about your family vacation, your children, your hobbies -- anything that shows you know how to talk about something other than work. (Be careful, though -- see No. 5.)

5. Being crass. The symbols of success vary from generation to generation, just as tastes and preferences vary from person to person. “Be aware that not everything may impress younger accountants,” Wiley warned. “When you show them your new Rolex or roll up in your Beamer, don’t be surprised if they don’t care.”

“They’re more likely to be saving their money for a year-long trip around the world,” she said -- and the things you value may actually strike them as not worth the trouble, and that may make them think you’re not worth the trouble, either.

You don’t need to change your values, though -- just learn what theirs are, and try to avoid the subjects that turn them off.

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