They’re Making their Lists

Jan 24, 2005

They’re making their lists. Nope— I am not talking about the Santa Clauses of the world. I am talking about your employees, and more specifically, your key employees. And the lists they are making don’t have a thing to do with who they want to get presents for. The lists are, instead, lists of grievances they have against you as their employers. As these lists build, first, the employee gets mad. Maybe their performances drop off— they don’t work quite as hard as they used to or go the extra yard to make sure clients are thrilled with their work. The next thing that happens is they start to talk to other employees to enlist their support for being angry and upset with the firm. And the last thing they do is quit— not necessarily to go somewhere better, but to go somewhere different. What kinds of things are employees at A/E and environmental firms putting on their lists? Here are a few examples: Bad bonuses. “Bad” is a relative term. It may mean “bad compared to last year,” or it could mean “bad compared to the person I went to school with who works in a firm across town.” Or, it could mean “bad compared to my spouse (who works in an entirely different kind of business).” The biggest “bad” is “bad compared to the other guy who does what I do in this firm.” The bottom line is that while most people in our business work for much more than the money, bonuses that are not perceived as fair or adequate will be added to the list of gripes the employee has with the firm. You need to think hard about how you are doling out the dollars. Bad raises. See my list above for all the variations on this theme. Bad bonus or bad raise— there’s not much difference in the demotivational effect of these two things. While pay may not motivate architects and engineers to do things differently, a perceived lack of it certainly will. If you have people working for you, you have to go the extra yard in terms of anticipating how individuals are likely going to react to their raises and be ready to explain them fully. Better yet, prepare people for what’s likely to occur (a tight budget, for example) long before the actual time comes to tell them what they got. Someone else got the job. One of my favorite all-time movies is “Lost in America,” starring Albert Brooks. It’s over 20 years old, but is based on the idea that a yuppie ad executive thinks he is going to get a promotion to senior vice president, but instead, the job is given to a guy named “Brad.” He flips out, verbally assaults both his boss and Brad, and gets fired. He then talks his wife into quitting her job, and they both head out across the country in their brand-new motor home. The point is that you must really consider how any promotion is likely to be perceived by those who are being passed up and have a darn good rationale for what you are doing. Signs of distrust. When you tell your top people that suddenly all expense reports have to be signed off on by their boss (I did this once!), or that the supply room is going to be kept locked, or that they no longer get to see how the firm is doing financially when they used to be able to, get ready for some unhappy campers. These kinds of demotivators are most certainly going to be added to the “lists” of your key people, unless there is plenty of preparation and a plausible explanation given for the changes in advance of them kicking in. Just doing it with no explanation, or sending out an e-mail mandate, will probably cause a problem in any company that employs smart people. Facilities issues that aren’t addressed. The urinal that always overflows, the toaster ovens that won’t toast, the 30-degree temperature swings throughout the day in one part of the office, the lack of parking— these things all get added to the “lists” of the employees who are keeping them. Dissed in public. Nothing will make key people more upset than believing that they somehow got put down publicly by their boss. This can happen in a project meeting, a company meeting, or even a board meeting. But in every case, it’s probably going to be a big deal. Not to say that it’s not sometimes merited, or that I have never done it myself— I have. But in the end, if the person’s plusses outweigh their minuses, it will be up to the person who did the dissing to make amends, or this one will be at the top of the list! I’m sure that there are other grievances employees are adding to their lists. The bottom line is unless you have no problems hiring all the qualified people you want, you’d better be thinking about how to keep these lists short. Your people don’t just check ‘em twice— they may check them a hundred or more times a day! Originally published 1/24/2005

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