This week, I experienced what happens when communication breaks down. In mid-January, I switched to a payroll processor to pay an independent contractor rather than running manual payments. I assumed the payments would run similarly to my employee payments. I was wrong and missed two payment dates. I didn’t know I’d missed the dates until the independent contractor stopped working, demanding to know about their overdue pay. After confirming with the payment processor, I immediately ran the payment and profusely apologized for my error. It was mortifying that I made such a mistake when I thought I was adding efficiency to my firm. By picking up the phone rather than writing an email, I helped smooth things over, clarify the miscommunication, and salvage an excellent working relationship.
Another time, I hired an employee. The candidate was terrific on paper and competent during the Zoom interview. I was so excited about hiring them that I agreed to push their start date back one month to end their current employment. The employee signed the job offer letter and picked up equipment to work from home. I was ecstatic!
Fast forward to the first day of work. The new hire doesn’t show. Where was the employee? Was there a communication breakdown in our process? We informed the employee of the start date, set up the new email and notices, and sent calendar invites. My team followed up via email, phone calls, and text messages on the start day — radio silence. The next day, we followed up again and heard nothing. I started to get scared because it was bizarre, and honestly, my mind went to worst-case scenarios. On the third day, I wondered who else to contact because I was so confused. We called a listed reference, who informed us that the new hire had just had a baby and was on maternity leave. We still hadn’t heard from the candidate at that point. The employee finally reached out on the fourth day to tell us they would not be able to accept the job after all but would return all equipment.
Both of my examples are about communication breakdowns. Merriam-Webster defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals or an exchange of information.” Miscommunication happens if one party doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Add a virtual working environment to the equation, and communication breakdowns can worsen exponentially.
Many law firms embraced remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant we had to learn new ways to communicate. It is an understatement to emphasize the importance of workplace communication. In my examples, I see many instances where the communication broke down:
- I didn’t adequately inform the independent contractor about the changes to payments.
- I didn’t confirm with the payment processor exactly how the process would work.
- I didn’t ask the payment processor whether I would receive notice when the independent contractor entered the time or confirm whether the payment would run automatically.
- The payment processor didn’t inform me about what to tell independent contractors about how payment and time work (I assumed they did, but I didn’t confirm).
- The independent contractor didn’t immediately inform me of a missing payment.
- With the pregnant employee, I could have confirmed the start date and requested a response, and I could have given instructions on what to do if the employee could not make the start date.
- I could also have stated that we would reach out to emergency contacts in our application form.
- If not, perhaps that is something you could have done differently. The new hire situation is different because the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids discrimination based on pregnancy regarding any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, and any other term or condition of employment. (This doesn’t apply to my small law firm because I have under 15 employees, but I strongly believe in the spirit of the law, and in the past, I accepted employment without disclosing a pregnancy. I am not sure what else I could’ve done differently here, and I am open to suggestions from employment lawyers.)
Good communication improves law firm efficiency, increases productivity, and retains staff. Prioritizing communication is a must for any law firm. Undoubtedly, breakdowns in communication will happen, but the key is to learn from them and make the necessary adjustments. Please share your war stories about communication breakdowns at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Iffy Ibekwe is the principal attorney and founder of Ibekwe Law, PLLC. She is an estate planning attorney evangelist for intergenerational wealth transfer with effective wills and trusts. Iffy is writing her first book on culturally competent estate planning, available in 2022 (prayers up!). She graduated from The University of Texas School of Law and has practiced law for over 14 years. Iffy can be reached by email at email@example.com, on her website, and on Instagram @thejustincaselawyer.