Support Staff

Sep 12, 1994

I hear from a lot of disgruntled people working in support roles in A/E and environmental consulting firms— (“support” meaning anyone whose primary job function does not create revenue for the firm). I know how they feel. I was one of them once. These people are in high-placed roles such as chief financial officer and director of marketing, down to positions such as file clerk or print room operator. The plight of the support person is a common morale problem in A/E and environmental firms, and it won’t go away just because we want it to. We have to confront it head-on. What’s the problem? A lot of people will say that those in support roles don’t earn as much as their technical counterparts. But the truth is, there are many who do. Some even make more. So what are they complaining about? I think you’ll find they have three real gripes—lack of prestige, lack of ownership opportunities, and lack of job security. Too many professional service firms treat support staff like second-class citizens. They give the support people the hand-me-down computers, when the technical staff get the latest equipment. Lower status administrative support staffers often sit in the worst office space— usually a cramped cubicle in a high traffic area with virtually no layout space and no windows. And higher status support people, such as the CFO, may not get a company vehicle or sit on the firm’s board of directors, whereas someone else at their level in the hierarchy would. It’s really demeaning when someone with the title of “marketing director” is excluded from the business planning process or retreat— something we see quite often. Ownership in a closely held firm is another sore point. Many privately held firms exclude support staff from consideration as owners or partners (outside of an ESOP). Most of us in the know have to admit that equates to a lack of clout in the typical professional service firm. Lack of job security comes about because whenever there’s a dip in workload or the financial picture doesn’t look quite as rosy as it should, the first place just about any firm looks to cut is the support staff. I understand why these things happen. In any organization— and A/E and environmental consulting firms are certainly no exception— those who produce the revenue are ostensibly more valuable to the firm than those who just figure out how to save or spend money. I know I never wanted to hear that when I worked in a support role— I always justified my keep by how much money the company saved from having me there— but saving money is not where the real action is. Practically anyone can figure out how to save money— the real key is figuring out how to make it. There is some truth to the old adage technical and professional people are fond of: “If we weren’t here, you wouldn’t have a job.” On the other hand, there are many arguments against that thinking: Many of those who are designated support actually are revenue generators. I have seen many secretaries, word processors and blueprint operators charging the bulk of their time to billable projects. I have also seen many marketing people filling the role of P.I.C. to make sure the client is happy. Good marketing, human resources, and finance and accounting directors are worth their weight in gold. On a number of occasions, I have seen the top finance or accounting person literally save the firm by increasing cash flow when the company needed it to stay in business. Yet, they rarely got the credit they deserved. I have seen similar instances with both marketing and human resources people— where their actions had a major impact on the firm’s ability to prosper far beyond the short term. The negative ramifications of treating support people like second-class citizens outweigh the costs of treating them like everybody else. Including someone in a meeting, getting them a new desk chair, or putting them in a window slot often doesn’t cost you much, yet it may pay big dividends in terms of morale and productivity. The bottom line is everyone is important. If your attitude is that support people are less important than your technical staff and are easy to replace, you’ll be spending plenty of time defusing morale problems, interviewing job candidates, and listening to the griping of your technical people who really need the help. If, on the other hand, you treat your support staff like you want to be treated, you’ll likely be rewarded with a well-oiled machine that functions as a super production and profit generator. Originally published 9/12/1994

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