Urge New Hires To Be Active In Their Own Integration Into A Firm

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Retention only works when employees participate in the process, says Christine Hollis, chief talent and diversity officer at Marshall Gerstein.

How can HR leaders best help new hires integrate into their organization’s culture? By encouraging employees “to bring their crayons,” and help leaders “color in the blanks.”

So says Christine E. Hollis, chief talent and diversity officer at Marshall Gerstein law firm in Chicago. She spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about how to retain employees in a hybrid work environment, why DEI commitment has to start at the top and what her own struggles with a parent’s health taught her about how to best support employees.

Given your experience with integrating recruits into multi-office environments, what advice can you offer to employers whose staff is more spread out than ever due to remote working and other hybrid arrangements?

I’ve helped various law firms integrate their attorneys and staff across multiple locations both before and since the Covid-19 pandemic. I also switched jobs during the pandemic—including three weeks before the shutdown! One universal takeaway has stood out to me: Employers need to have conversations with new hires about how they must play an active role in their own integration at the firm.

While we as leaders and HR managers are here to provide a platform for that integration, it’s only really achievable if the employee takes full advantage—asking for advice when necessary and highlighting any extra offerings that would be helpful to them based on their individual needs and circumstances. Templates for integration are helpful for sketching a guide map, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach for any company. Employees need to bring their crayons, and help us color in the blanks.

This was necessary before the pandemic—back when so much integration happened organically because employees were on site more often. But now that the consistency of proximity has, in many cases, been removed from the equation, we should all be encouraging employees to consider, “If I want to be successful at this firm, what does that look like for me? How do I actively participate in achieving that?”

My advice to employees is, when you’re not in the office, attend every virtual meeting you can. Make sure people see your face and that you contribute something to the discussion. When I was a new employee working remotely, I made sure to join meetings early—you know, for the small talk that everybody hates—so my colleagues could get to know me better. And when you make the effort to commute to the office, don’t just sit there in your office in solitude. Keep your door open to signal your willingness to engage with people. Walk around the firm to see who else showed up that day and grab a coffee with them. 

What do leaders and staff have the hardest time understanding about implementing diversity programs, and how can they overcome those obstacles?

The key thing to remember is that diversity, equity and inclusion is more than just a buzz word or hot-button issue—something to make sure you touch on because it’s in vogue, if you will. DEI is always an important topic and always something we should incorporate into every aspect of our business.

To really make active and salient changes, leaders must be at the forefront of their company’s DEI efforts. It’s not sufficient to hire a chief DEI officer and then say, “OK, we’re behind you. Do what you want.” Demonstrating leadership’s support of DEI means firm leaders must also take up the charge and actively push the message forward. For example, the managing partner at my firm regularly shows up to DEI events and actively participates in meetings and mentoring programs, which sets an example for everyone else. 

With the right kind of leadership, firms can ensure their DEI initiatives aren’t just checking a box, but actually having an effect. This can be challenging, especially for a legal profession that’s naturally slow to change. But we’re now three years out from the summer when George Floyd was killed and we all said, “We’re going to do better this time.” The needle hasn’t moved that much. We can do better.

You’ve experienced the struggle of caring for an elderly parent. What can employers do to help employees deal with these kinds of challenges while maintaining stability in their organizations?

When my father had a stroke, it was unexpected and turned both our worlds upside down. One day he was going to work as a physician, and the next he had an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and was dependent upon receiving care from me, his only relative in Chicago.

This was a challenge I was utterly unprepared for, and I’d started a new job where I was concerned about being present and making a good impression.

I share this because I learned how important it is to be transparent about any hardship you’re experiencing as an employee. I also learned that HR managers must create an environment where employees feel comfortable enough to discuss those hardships and use the support systems available. One thing that helped me cope was my company’s employee assistance program, as it connected me with a counselor who helped me process the cognitive dissonance of seeing my father deteriorate in that way.

Employers should also consider that Baby Boomers are now aging out of the workforce, and in many cases that will involve Gen X and Millennial employees taking care of them. Many firms are now offering eldercare or other resources for employees with elderly parents. It would behoove employers to start preparing now.

How has the pandemic changed the way companies think about and respond to employee mental health issues?

The collective trauma we all experienced during the pandemic has reduced some of the stigma around mental health and wellness, and that means many employees are more willing to engage in discussions about it with their employer. That’s a wonderful thing, as it’s created a platform for transparent and productive conversations about the hurdles employees face and what employers can do to help. After all, when an employer decides to invest in an employee, they want to do everything they can to ensure that the hire is successful. 

This brings me back to remote work. Because, yes, it’s convenient to work from home—that flexibility certainly makes it easier to care for an elderly parent, for example. But many of us don’t realize how isolating and detrimental it can be to our mental health. One reason some employers have pushed for a return to the office is because we want to see our employees, to make sure they’re OK and feel included and valued. It’s much harder to do that through a screen.

This is especially crucial for attorneys because the legal profession, after all, is an apprenticeship. We all have something to learn from each other, and we do that by watching. A major part of that is showing up, so you can shadow the partner whose book of business you want to work on, or so you can serve as a mentor to the next generation.

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