Employer Due Diligence, Part 5: Treatment of Employees

How a prospective employer treats its employees is central to the employer due diligence investigation that is a must before you accept a job. You don’t want to work for an organization whose employees feel that they are mired in a plantation mentality or other type of toxic situation.

The following questions are part of such a due diligence inquiry:

What is the attorney turnover rate? Do lawyers stay for a while or do they move on quickly? You can certainly pose this question at your job interview. But you need to be careful that you interpret the responses correctly. If the employer has a low attorney turnover rate, you will likely be inclined to take that as a positive sign about organizational culture and employee satisfaction. And most of the time, that will be the correct interpretation. But not always.

You need to look “under the covers” and ask yourself if the attorneys are doing things the rest of society values. If not, then the reasons for low turnover may be because there is nowhere for them to go…they are not in high demand. If they want to remain gainfully employed, they have to stay where they are because there are few other options.

One of my counseling clients specialized in – are you ready for this – representation of Americans doing business in Mauretania, a West African country marked primarily by three things: sand; a barely functional subsistence economy; an impoverished population that gives new meaning to the term “underdeveloped;” and frequent military coups. The reason he became a counseling client was because he was so specialized and his specialty was a dead end.

We literally searched the globe for an employer that could use his background, talents, and expertise. When we struck out with the World Bank, the International Development Agency, the International Finance Corporation, the World Health Organization, the Multilateral Investment Guaranty Agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the few law firms that provided representation in or on behalf of other West African countries, he gave up, took a sabbatical from job-hunting and worked on a Mauritanian-English dictionary, a project for which there was also little demand. While this is an extreme example, it is hardly unique.

On the other hand, attorneys who move on with what appears at first glance to be disturbing frequency might do so because they are in very high demand by other employers. Again, you have to dig deeper in order to discern the true meaning of “move or stay.”

What is the support staff turnover rate? The answer to this question may be a better indicator of employer-employee relationships than the previous question limited to attorneys. For example, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office patent lawyers tend not to stick around very long because of huge demand from, and attractive compensation offered by, outside law firms. However, Patent Examiners, administrative and other employees do stay, lending stability and continuity to the organization. That’s a good sign.

What do employees in comparable positions earn? There is a lot of useful information online about what people earn in jobs comparable to the ones you might be seeking. If you are looking for public sector positions, you can usually pinpoint this information down to the penny. The U.S. Government, for example, publishes its salary scales at www.usajobs.gov and www.opm.gov. While the same is not true for every state and local government, this information is often contained in vacancy announcements advertising specific positions. If not, you can usually obtain it by contacting the relevant personnel office since government compensation information is a matter of public record.

While comparable private sector information is more difficult to uncover, it does exist in the form of compensation surveys undertaken, published by organizations such as Payscale.com. There are also outfits like Altman Weil that regularly conduct compensation surveys and sell this information. A number of trade and professional associations can also provide such data about member pay.

If you are seeking private sector employment with a small employer, this information is more difficult to obtain. Your research here may have to focus on individuals who have worked for these employers or local law school or university career services offices that might collect such information, either systematically or ad hoc.

How are employees treated?  You may not be able to discern very much about employee treatment during visits for job interviews. Your best source for this kind of information will be former employees, provided that you can locate them. A handful of large law firms actually publish alumni/ae directories. In addition, there are a number of databases – such as the Directory of Corporate Counsel – that are good sources of information about the employment histories of attorneys who now work for companies, but formerly worked for law firms.

How do the employees feel about their employer? A walk around the office might be indicative. Look for telling signs, such as how employees maintain their work spaces – neat, sloppily, chaotically? Do they appear busy and engaged in their work? If they are playing video games or online solitaire, they either do not have enough to keep them busy or they find their work less than stimulating, both signs of low morale. Similarly, if they are not dressed professionally (mindful of “dress-down” days), that may also be a sign of low morale.

Personal traits of potential colleagues. Your due diligence should not only be limited to finding out information about the firm. You should also attempt to apply the concept to individuals within the firm with whom you would be working day-to-day. This is not easy to do, since your only personal contact with them will likely be the brief time you spend at job interview(s) and perhaps during any telephone time. Google them and see what information you might be able to unearth. Be on the lookout for the following traits, while acknowledging that you are unlikely to be able to gather complete information:

  • Decisiveness
  • Risk-Taker (or Risk-Averse)
  • Persistence
  • Tough-Mindedness
  • Perception by employees
  • Perception by co-workers
  • Real world orientation
  • Common sense
  • Balanced in their personal lives
  • Money sensitive
  • Do they like what they do?
  • Do they take criticism and rejection well?
  • Are they interested in the ideas of their subordinates and colleagues?
  • Do they know their own strengths and weaknesses?
  • Do they know when they need help?
  • Are they ethical

Incorporating the treatment of employees is a key determinant of whether a prospective employer is worth your commitment.