What Would You Do?

By Colleen Conway 

For this feature, the Jer-Z-Journal will pose a scenario that could occur in a law firm. Members were surveyed and asked how they might respond if faced with the particular situation. All responses, whether serious, sarcastic or humorous, were encouraged. All responses are confidential, and some may have been edited. 

SCENARIO: A secretary is having difficulty keeping up with the new technology in the office, which is causing her to have a longer turnaround time. Her assigned attorneys have started giving some of their work out to other secretaries because “it is a rush” and they want it done quickly. This is causing animosity amongst the staff. Although you have explained to the attorneys that they need to give their secretary a chance, so that she can practice and improve, they continue to give work to others, as they don’t want to wait or may not be able to wait due to deadlines. WHAT WOULD YOU DO? 

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“The most important issue here is the fact that the secretary isn’t catching on quickly and isn’t holding up his/her end of the job. Clearly, additional training and support is needed! I would first provide that to the secretary. I would also assign a “buddy” to the secretary—another secretary who can mentor him/her on the new software. Hopefully, with training and support, the secretary will come up to speed and the need to farm out work to others would no longer be necessary. As a last resort, if it really appears that the secretary is not capable of handling the new software, I might consider disciplinary action with regard to the inadequate job performance (including termination, depending on the severity of the situation). But, I would give him/her the opportunity to catch on before taking that step.” 

“I would ask the attorneys to see me when their secretary cannot handle the assignment, so I can be the one to determine if the work needs to be assigned to another secretary. I would have to see whether the work is truly a rush, reorganize what the secretary has to do, etc. The secretary that is not producing would also need to receive a warning about his/her productivity and be given a time to improve (30 days). If the secretary does not improve, a permanent reassignment could be considered, if that is feasible.” 

“This situation actually happened at my firm. We put the secretary on a performance improvement plan. Not everything is a rush (yes, I know we’re dealing with attorneys), so there must be something on which the secretary can work. Alternatively, if the secretary is not getting any work, the administrator may have to find tasks to delegate, and assess his/her level of improvement. Simultaneously, you might want to consider keeping your ‘eyes open’ for a replacement.” 

“I have had that issue, and had general training sessions for groups led by staff. Sometimes you are surprised by how many others have the same issues as you. That person 

can’t feel like they are the only one, so encourage people to ask questions. I preach supporting one another and team building. If the ‘other’ secretaries don’t want the work, they should support, encourage and help the struggling person develop his/her skills. Then everyone wins, but you need a supportive environment to accomplish the same.” 

“It depends. If he/she is a long-time employee, I would send him/her for additional training or otherwise try to adjust his/her role. If he/she is fairly new, I would terminate the employee.” 

“I would have an honest conversation with the secretary. Let him/her know what is going on, offer additional training and possibly have another secretary work with him/her one-to-one to bring him/her up to speed. If this does not work, then it is a question of whether he/she should be employed.” 

“Some secretaries require a different teaching style. I would do a one-on-one training with the secretary on the new technology. I would then ask the secretary to reach out to me when he/she feels like he/she is struggling with something so that we can work on it together. Sometimes it just takes some encouragement and confidence to become more efficient.” 

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Colleen Conway is the Human Resources Manager of Genova Burns in Newark, New Jersey. To suggest a scenario for a future edition of “What Would You Do?”, please e-mail Colleen at [email protected].

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