Spring Cleaning

Apr 15, 1996

If you’re anything like me, you hate to fire people. It’s at the top of my “least desirable activities” list, above even performance appraisals, collection calls, cold calls, and dental extractions. Most halfway-decent folks feel this way. But every firm, at some point in its evolution, will inevitably see profits (and future prospects) dip, and decide that costs must be cut. Since labor is the biggest single line item in an A/E/P or environmental firm’s budget, somebody often loses his or her job. Spring is a good time to do a little housecleaning. Our companies are kind of like our homes. The longer you’ve lived in the same place (or been in business), the more junk you’ve probably accumulated that you could do without and not even miss (dead-weight employees). Likewise, the bigger your house (or firm), the easier it is to accumulate this “stuff” (unnecessary employees) and to avoid thinking about what good it does you— you don’t see it (each of your employees) every day. I know this analogy sounds cold and callous, but any honest principal or manager in this business knows it’s true. There are many hassles associated with trimming the deadwood. The human resources people try to scare us half to death with reasons why we can’t ever fire anyone— they’re afraid that cleaning house will raise unemployment compensation rates; or that someone will try to sue the company for one reason or another; or that a crazed former employee will go ballistic and come back with a .45 automatic to settle the score; or that someone who was fired will report us to the software Gestapo; or that the morale of the remaining staff will go down the toilet. Admittedly, each of these possibilities could come true— I’ve seen most of them in my career working in or for A/E and environmental firms. The HR people may have good reasons for their advice. But just because something bad can happen doesn’t mean it will. And it doesn’t change the fact that a little blood-letting is sometimes healthy. Ask yourself these questions: Have you ever considered that it might be good for morale to cut staff? How do you think it makes productive employees feel to carry dead weight on their backs? They don’t like it. Yet, so many firms have employees who work fewer hours than the others, who do the least necessary so they can just get by, who show up late or take longer lunches than allowed, who put in a half-assed effort, or who just plain don’t know the job they are supposed to be doing. Too often, these people are tolerated, and in some cases, even protected. The result is that the productive folks resent the unproductive ones tremendously. And in these situations, getting rid of deadwood becomes a cause for celebration, not despair. As management, can you allow yourself to be held hostage and still command your staff’s respect? I think not. There’s too much paranoia about what-if scenarios related to some “crazy” or “depressed” person who needs to be let go, and it’s keeping many managers from doing what they know in their gut has to be done. When good employees see someone taking advantage of management’s good nature, it upsets them. First they get mad at the bad employee. Then they get mad at the firm leaders for tolerating it. They should— they care about the firm and know that the deadwood is hurting its success and affecting the rewards the good employees are (or could be) getting. What do you think eventually happens to the good folks who are let go due to a lack of work in your firm? Let’s be honest. When cuts are necessary, we start with the least critical staff. We don’t throw darts at a board. But occasionally, things get so bad, good employees lose their jobs, too. Sure, it hurts their psyche and creates stress for them. On the other hand, these “good” employees usually land on their feet somewhere else, often in a better job. They were good employees and good employees are hard to find. A few years later, many of these people will point to the time they were fired as a painful, but positive life experience, because it forced them to find a better company or career. The bottom line is that it may be time to do a little housecleaning, even if making money is coming easily for your company. Have you thought about your “cut” list lately? If there’s anyone who has been on it for a year or two (or heaven forbid, even longer), what’s holding you back? Originally published 4/15/1996

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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.