Offering insight Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2010

Tim Thornton finds his employees’ motivation for their work makes his job pretty easy. But every once in awhile, the Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale PC president is confronted with a challenge.

The economy has caused most companies to make tough decisions, and the Greensfelder law firm is no different. For Thornton, part of the process has been calming employees’ anxieties and maintaining motivation.

“There is a natural tendency in troubled economic times to want to cut back, but it may not be the time to cut back; it may be the time to actually invest and seek out opportunities,” Thornton says. “With that kind of outlook, there may be some anxieties that may need to be calmed.”

You can ease minds by providing thorough information and recognizing employees for their contributions to the company. Those are two keys for Thornton who has 289 employees, 171 of which are attorneys.

Smart Business spoke with Thornton about how to keep employees calm and engaged during tough economic times.

Maintain employee morale. The starting point is open communication.

Telling folks within the organization where we are, where we’re headed, what we’re confronting and how we’re confronting it, I think, is essential. Within any environment, not being told anything is a lot worse than being told bad news.

If you say nothing, that rumor mill is going to fill the void, and typically, what the rumor mill fills in won’t be good.

You have to be open, explain where you are, what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If there is some piece of information, and there always are pieces of information that you can’t share for whatever reason, be open about that. Simply say there are certain things that you can’t share. Explain to them why that’s not information that is going to be released within the organization. Generally, I’ve found that people are satisfied with that. They simply want to be told, and they want to be treated like any of us would want to be treated. If you do that, that helps create a positive environment.

The second thing, I think, beyond open communication is recognition of employees, giving credit to them where credit is due, valuing their contribution. Those are all things that I think motivate employees. They make them want to do a good job for the organization.

If they understand where we are and what we’re doing and they’re being recognized for their efforts, I think that’s a pretty good combination.

Explain in person. One of the things we do — and have done since I’ve been president — is on an annual basis we have an open forum. I meet with the groups of employees within the organization. That might be one group is administrative staff, another group might be the paralegals, another group might be associate attorneys.

I meet with them, and I roll out for them whatever issues are on the table. It’s not completely formal, but it’s kind of a state of the firm discussion about: Here’s what we did last year, here’s what we hope to do this year, here’s how we’re going about doing things. As a part of that, I always try to open it up for discussion, questions and answers. There was some reluctance by some employees to actually engage in that dialogue early on, but I think as we do those every year the exchange increases and I think it’s a good back and forth.

I frankly love those days that we do that. It certainly gives me a chance to connect with everybody in the organization. It helps for me to communicate that, on behalf of the firm, I respect what they’re doing, I want them to know what we’re doing — that is kind of a broad way of communicating.

The other thing I try to do, I try to convey both in that meeting and every other time that I really do have an open-door policy, so please if you have any thoughts or ideas or questions or concerns, please come talk to me. A surprising number of people have become comfortable enough to do that, and that’s another way of communicating.

Engage in dialogue. It would depend on every organization and how they operate, but I think the smaller groups do lend themselves to more personal connection. They do lend themselves to more discussion.

If you’re sitting in a room and there’s 100 people in there, there may be some reluctance on the part of somebody to ask a question that they wouldn’t necessarily have if they were sitting around a table with five or 10 people.

To the extent you have the ability to have that dialogue in a smaller setting, it’s probably more conducive to back-and-forth communication. Can everybody do that, probably not? In an organization of our size we can do that, and it’s effective when we do.

One of the things I mentioned a moment ago is to recognize people. Say, ‘Thank you.’ When people do a good job, it’s nice for somebody to say, ‘Thank you; job well done,’ and to give them credit, to be positive and constructive as opposed to negative or destructive.

(Getting employees to participate in dialogue is) a kind of thing that really, truly I believe takes time. You need to be yourself and communicate who you are.

If you are the sort that is open and interested in having that kind of dialogue, over time that will begin to stick, and people will begin to accept that you really are what you say you are, and you’re open to that dialogue. It doesn’t happen overnight.

As long as the employees know what it is you’re doing and why and why you believe that this particular action that you’re engaging in will make the institution stronger, I think that that helps give everybody a sense that we have a purpose, we’re headed in a particular direction and an ability then to sign on with that purpose.

How to reach: Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale PC, (314) 241-9090 or