By Lori Johnson • April 02, 2008•Balancing Private and Professional Life
Ms. JD & PAR essay contest winner Lori Johnson (1L, U. Mississippi) recounts the work/life revolution in her previous field, accounting. "Over time, the firm’s partners did recognize the importance of promoting work-life balance in the workplace. For years they had listened to clients complain about high turnover, which often resulted in client service teams comprised of entirely new faces each year. It is not hard to argue that clients are better served by continuity." --Ed.
“The problem with your generation is that you don’t have any work ethic.”
A single line from my favorite movie, Reality Bites, effectively sums up what baby-boomer managers perceive to be the problem with Millennial employees. While I agree that my generation’s work ethic is different, I do not believe that it is non-existent. I believe that the baby-boomer’s negative perception of my generation has more to do with differences in the way that we view our careers.
My baby-boomer parents, who know that I am a dedicated, driven person, could not help but scoff when I told them about the generous vacation package at my first job out of college. Three weeks of vacation for a recent college graduate seemed ludicrous to them. However, my parents were also unsympathetic when I called home to tell them that I had just completed an 80-hour workweek. My parents, like many baby-boomers, believed that a job was a job. You worked hard each week, collected a paycheck, and supported a family. Your job was not supposed to be fulfilling, and your employer certainly was not expected to accommodate your schedule or worry about your level of job satisfaction.
Millennials do not share their parents’ view of work. We do not believe that a job is just a job. We expect a career that leaves us fulfilled and gives us a sense of pride in the work we do. Therefore, I do not believe that our work ethic is inferior to that of our parents. We simply have different views and expectations of work, and as the baby-boomers begin to retire, employers are left with a younger generation of employees with a new set of job expectations. This means that employers must begin to consider the needs and desires of a new breed of employee, or run the risk of losing top talent.
Prior to returning to school to pursue a career in law, I spent four years working for a large multi-national public accounting firm.
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During my time with the firm, I worked hard to meet arduous deadlines and exceed my client’s expectations, but I refused to sacrifice the things in my personal life that were important to me. Luckily, my firm promoted a culture of work-life balance that allowed me to pursue both my professional and personal goals. Work-life balance did not mean working less or failing to meet client needs but working in a way that allowed you to accommodate a meaningful life outside of work.
By the time I joined the firm, the accounting profession had already begun a transformation. Accounting firms realized that while the demands of the profession would never change, personnel policies could. In fact, the firms realized that without an overhaul of the public accounting image, firms would continue to lose top talent, particularly women who had tired of long, inflexible hours that prevented them from fulfilling their commitments to their family. However, for change to be effective it had to be accepted and promoted by management. Therefore, change had to come from the group most resistant to it, the baby-boomer partners.
Over time, the firm’s partners did recognize the importance of promoting work-life balance in the workplace. For years they had listened to clients complain about high turnover, which often resulted in client service teams comprised of entirely new faces each year. It is not hard to argue that clients are better served by continuity. A vital part of any service industry is forming professional relationships with clients. Rampant turnover makes the formation of meaningful client relationships impossible and results in client dissatisfaction. Additionally, employees with high levels of job satisfaction are undeniably happier, and happy employees serve clients better.
Once management realized that the goals of work-life balance programs closely aligned with the goals of the client service industry, it became difficult for them to argue against implementation. My firm experimented with many different programs including compressed workweeks during the summer months that permitted employees to work four ten-hour days in exchange for Fridays off and flexible work arrangements that permitted employees to work outside of the traditional eight-to-five time frame by telecommuting. In addition, the firm took steps to change the culture of public accounting by rewarding employees for working efficiently and not for unproductive “face-time.” The firm also incentivized the promotion of work-life balance by rating managers on their ability to make work-life balance options available and factoring those ratings into performance reviews and bonuses. Most importantly, partner participation in work-life balance programs clearly indicated a change in the tone at the top and signaled widespread acceptance of the new culture.
While not all baby-boomers will adopt the Millennials’ views and expectations of work, they must all realize that the workforce has changed, and the workplace must change with it. Ultimately, changes in the workplace that promote work-life balance benefit all employees, both young and old, and most importantly they benefit our clients. Incorporation of work-life balance into the legal profession will not happen overnight, but it will not happen at all without the support of its biggest opponent, the baby-boomer.