How I made a difference: staff turnover

The law firm DLA was formed in 1996 by a merger between two medium-sized firms, Dibb Lupton Broomhead, and Alsop Wilkinson, and I joined soon afterwards as HR director.

We were bringing together two very different cultures, and two organisations which had come together for very different reasons, so tensions became apparent.

We began to experience worrying turnover levels – we were losing 32% of our staff each year, which is very high for a professional services firm. I was convinced that people were leaving because they had joined a medium-sized organisation and found themselves working for a very large one. We needed to get to the bottom of why they were going.

First, we decided to make the partners aware of the impact of the turnover. They thought that we could get by just by recruiting new people, but this wasn’t good for clients, who were dealing with a constantly changing team. We put together quite a conservative model of the impact of the turnover on the bottom line, and we calculated that it was costing the partners a minimum of £2m a year. That grabbed their attention.

We then surveyed everybody who’d left us within a two-year period. I don’t think many professional services have done that. People had no reason to get back to us, but we had a 24% response rate. We asked people why they’d left. Only 5% mentioned money. One of the most significant factors was career management – they had left us to get experience elsewhere.

That came as a big shock, as people were joining us for that. We obviously weren’t getting the message across that we were taking their career development seriously. Another was poor management. People didn’t feel they were being managed, or that senior employees were taking an interest in them.

This gave us a platform for a major HR strategy move. We put in place a series of interlocking programmes, and over three years we saw our turnover levels halve to 16%, and then drop further still. DLA went on to merge again, becoming DLA Piper – I don’t think that would have happened if we hadn’t addressed those initial cultural issues.

Why it worked…

  • We acknowledged the importance of company cultures
  • We worked hard to get management buy-in
  • We spoke to former staff

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