Giving Thanks: In Employee Relations, Small Gestures Go a Long Way—An Interview With Law Firm Founder Jimmie Stewart

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J. Hamilton (Jimmie) Stewart, III is one of the founders of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. He has practiced labor and employment law for nearly five decades. In this interview, he shares his observations about how small, positive steps can make a big difference in employee relations.

JATHAN JANOVE: You’ve spent many years representing employers in labor and employment matters. What distinguishes employers that have positive employee relations from those that don’t?

JIMMIE STEWART: It’s not necessarily providing the highest wages or benefits. Often, that just isn’t true. Rather, the best employers make employees feel like they are part of a team.

JJ: Tell us about your list of “100 Positive Employee Relations Considerations.”

JS: This is a list of concepts that I’ve collected in over 40 years of observing things employers have done that cost little or no money, but make a real difference in employees’ loyalty to and connection with their employers. The ideas range from holiday gifts (something to be thinking about now as Thanksgiving approaches) to group activities, such as softball and fishing tournaments—events that create a sense of camaraderie. I continue to be impressed with how small things make big differences.

JJ: You’ve represented employers in numerous union election campaigns. How does your list apply in that arena?

JS: I encourage employers to take the approach that they aren’t “fighting” unions and aren’t “anti-union”; rather, that they’re committed to positive employee relations, which make unions unnecessary. This is a much more effective strategy.

JJ: What should employers be considering?

JS: Although as I said, wages and benefits don’t have to be the most generous, workplaces should promote general fairness, both internally and externally. In addition, employees need to feel like they are heard and recognized for the contributions that they make. When union campaigns arise, typically trust and communication have already broken down at some level between management and employees. If you can identify where and how to fix it, employees will often say that that’s all they really needed.

JJ: Are there practices you recommend to build trust early in the employment relationship?

JS: Here are two. The first is the “10 Golden Minutes” Practice. During the first week, the supervisor sits down with the new employee for 10 minutes and explains why he or she was hired, that the supervisor feels happy to have been part of the hiring decision, and that the supervisor looks forward to the development of their new relationship.

The second is a buddy system. Employers should assign new employees to mentors. These mentors should be senior employees who have distinguished themselves with their positive attitudes and work ethic and who have volunteered to serve in this capacity. The mentors can help new employees get acclimated and act as a sounding board as well a source of guidance and encouragement over time.

JJ: What about practices that can be implemented at later points in one’s employment?

JS: I have observed three practices that my clients have implemented to good effect:

(1)   Some companies encourage supervisorssend birthday cards to to their employees’ homes.

(2)   Supervisors can hold a very brief meeting every morning with his or her employees to share a piece of information that they might want to know or that would make the employees feel included.

(3)   The general manager of an organization may also send letters to employees’ homes—signed personally if it is reasonable—on holidays such as Independence Day, wishing the employee a safe and wonderful time with his or her family and encouraging the giving of thanks for our blessings.

These activities don’t cost a great deal of time or money, but they’re a great investment in employee relations.

JJ: These activities do sound great, but how do you move from theory to practice?

JS: Treat employee relations just as you would sales, marketing, finance and other business units where written strategic and development plans are commonplace. Identify specific targets, actions, dates, and objectives. Track results, calendar events, and make adjustments as needed. Apply “The Four A’s” to this purpose:

  • Activity (What will be done?);
  • Assignment (Who will do it?);
  • Audit (What will be measured?);
  • Accountability (Who will take ownership of the results?).

JJ: Why is developing such a plan important?

JS: Because small things easily fall into cracks, if they’re not truly attended to and given priority.

JJ: Your list of 100 Positive Employee Relations Considerations includes giving holiday gifts. In that spirit, may we share your list with our readers?

JS: My pleasure! Here it is.

November 2013 Interview with Jimmie Stewart Janove 100 Positive Employee Relations Considerations