It’s Time for a Little Spring Cleanup (of Your Staff)

Mar 31, 2008

Now that we are fully working ourselves into a recession frenzy (whether we needed one or not), many A/E firms will be facing some tough choices IF they want to remain as profitable as they have been in prior years. One of those choices could very likely involve doing some selective pruning of the staff. “Time for a little spring cleanup,” one might say. Now before you shudder and tell me that every one of your people is great, and you wouldn’t want to do without any of ‘em, let me say “I don’t believe you.” I do believe you may think that. But I don’t believe ALL of your staff members are great. I believe some are great, some are OK, and some are not so great. I also believe that you have probably worked very hard to assemble your team as it presently exists and have been programmed by your HR folks to think all turnover is bad and should be avoided. Where did this idea come from? Sure, we invest a lot in training people— even those who may be fully-trained professionals when we hire them have to learn our unique firm systems, our cultures, and how we do things. This takes time and money. But a sunk cost is a sunk cost. If you had a racehorse that won’t come out of the gate, sooner or later, you sell it or put it out to pasture. You cannot be the best at what you do (and how many firm missions proclaim that?) while at the same time stuffing every seat with people who aren’t the best at what they do. It just cannot happen. Recessionary times are never fun. Fortunes are lost by many. Most suffer some sort of diminished wealth and, if not, suffer a reduced sense of opportunity. But recessions can be good for you if they force you to look within and make things better. And the first place you need to look (after looking at yourselves, as owners, and what you take out vs. what you contribute) is your staff. Sports teams do it. Law firms do it. Accounting firms do it. The best companies in nearly every industry do it. They ALL take a hard look at their teams at least once a year and cut. The cutting process is essential if you want to clear some slots to put new team members in. It is also essential to morale— as unproductive co-workers is always up there at or near the top of the list of demotivators. And one final thought. Trying to get people to select themselves for departure and quit is not a good way to operate. Some managers do this by ignoring people, refusing to pay them more, etc. The best people will leave— they will have other options. The worst people will stay. They don’t have other options. You need to make the call. If you do decide to make some cuts, do it humanely. Treat people decently. Provide a proper severance and any help you can reasonably give them with finding a new job. Though there are differing opinions on the subject, I still believe that cuts are best made on Friday afternoons. It gives everyone a chance to cool off and gossip over the weekend. It also helps those let go recover just a little before facing their new situation on Monday. And make all of your cuts at once. Don’t drag it out for weeks or months. After making the cuts, inform the remaining staff why they were necessary. Spread a few dollars around if you are asking folks to pick up the slack for those no longer there. Get back to recruiting a few new key people to re-energize the place and remind everyone you aren’t going out of business any time soon. Originally published 3/31/2008

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.