The undervalued HR function

Jan 20, 2020

“Top management is largely responsible for HR’s ineffectiveness on many levels in the typical A/E firm.”

Over the last 30 years, I have often been critical of the human resources function in A/E firms. Keep in mind, I WAS an HR (and marketing) director in the two A/E firms I worked in before starting the company that is today called “Zweig Group,” so I haven’t been bashing out of ignorance of the difficulties associated with the job.

There are a wide variety of reasons for my dissatisfaction with the HR function. I would summarize it by saying that really, top management is largely responsible for HR’s ineffectiveness on many levels in the typical A/E firm.

Here are my thoughts:

  • HR needs to be part of top management. If you have an operations group or executive committee that regularly meets to talk about the business, HR should be part of that discussion. They may also need to be at BOD meetings. Cutting them out of these critical discussions, and only including marketing, finance, and line management in these discussions does not help HR’s ability to contribute to the business.
  • HR needs to be in the right place in the organization chart. That means it really should not report to whomever is in charge of finance in the firm and should instead be on equal footing with finance, marketing, and IT. This is critical for a number of reasons.
  • The HR role has to be properly defined. It should be wide-ranging. Human resources should include responsibility for recruitment, retention, development, AND employment-related liability reduction – not just employment-related liability reduction and benefits, as the job is too often narrowly cast in A/E firms. We are in the professional service business. We sell labor. That elevates HR beyond what it may be in a different type of business.
  • You have to have the right person in the job. It takes someone with a strong personality to do this job properly. It should be someone who can sell, because not only do they need to help sell new employees on joining the company, but they also need to help sell existing employees on staying there. They also need to be able to sell themselves and their ideas to top management. Someone who is too docile and too subservient, or has too low of an opinion about themselves and the HR job is not going to be able to fight for the resources and respect required to fill the role properly.
  • HR, like all functions in a firm, has associated metrics that should be regularly monitored and have goals set for them. There are so many numbers to track – the number of open positions, number of candidates for each opening, offer to acceptance rate, time to fill a job, cost per hire in terms of recruitment fees and signing bonuses, forced and voluntary turnover rates, as well as a wide variety of employee satisfaction measures. One could even argue that the productivity ratios typically tracked in an A/E firm are also influenced in part by the HR function and how good of a job they have done with helping assemble and maintain the design, production, and management team. It is a broad role and there is plenty of data that can be monitored to help determine their effectiveness.

It’s been said before that an A/E firm’s greatest assets go home each night. If you really believe that, maybe 2020 is the year you should take a hard look at the HR function in your firm, and actually make some changes to help it become more effective, don’t you think?

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

About Zweig Group

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.