What Do You Say When…?

May 12, 1997

No doubt about it, all of us who are managers in an A/E/P or environmental firm have to face some tough situations from time to time. They aren’t usually “fun” decisions, or situations that give you great pride in being able to handle. Instead, these are the pain-in-the-rear events that drive us all crazy, yet are hard to avoid if you want to remain part of this great industry. I thought it might be fun and beneficial to take a look at some of these recurring situations and talk about what you can say when: Your founding partner thinks he deserves to get his full salary and bonus, even though he sold all of his stock back to the firm last year and now works an average of 20 hours a week. “Bill, I can appreciate where you’re coming from. You started this firm and sacrificed a lot to get it where you did. But it’s no longer your company. Other people own it and they are now making those sacrifices. And the fact is— and I know you understand this— there’s only so much money to go around. If we are going to be able to provide the rewards to the people who are working their backsides off today, it means we can’t keep paying you for what you did yesterday. I’m sure you can appreciate where I’m coming from.” Your client tells you your check is in the mail for the third time in 45 days. “Bob, you and I go way back. We’ve had a mutually beneficial relationship for years. But now I get the feeling you aren’t being straight with me. Are you unhappy with something we’ve done for you? Are you experiencing some sort of financial problems we need to know about? Because the fact is, Bob, we can’t afford to finance this project like we’re doing. Heck, we can barely afford to finance our own operation, much less someone else’s. What’s it going to take for us to get paid?” Your best employee comes in to tell you she’s going to work for your number one competitor. “Gee, Sally, I have to say I’m shocked. I don’t exactly know how to react. I’m hurt. I’m surprised you’d make a move like this— especially to Darth Vader & Associates— without first talking to me. I’m sure they’ve made you all kinds of promises and a really attractive offer, but have you considered what you’re giving up here in the way of a long-term opportunity? I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to counter-offer you. But I am going to ask you to reconsider your decision overnight, and then come back and talk to me tomorrow. Would you do that for me? And, please, don’t say anything to anyone else in the firm until you and I can talk again tomorrow, O.K.?” A generation-X employee complains about your firm’s sick leave policy. “Gee, Max, I’m sorry you’re not happy with the fact that sick leave can’t be used to take your cat to the vet. And I appreciate the fact that you haven’t abused sick leave and called in when you wanted to take a long weekend. But the policy is and always has been that sick leave is for when you are sick. And I really don’t care what the policy is at Mega Corporation across town— they aren’t in the same type of business we are. I’m sure if you see how our benefits stack up in terms of sick leave, and all other areas for that matter, compared to other firms like us, you’ll see that we fare pretty well. And the fact is, we want you to have the sick leave there in case you really need it.” Your mailroom attendant has pungent B.O. and the employees who work near his area are complaining about it to anyone who will listen. “Look, guys, I know this is a problem. I went back there yesterday and smelled for myself, and it’s sad. The guy has a personal hygiene problem. But you have to be sympathetic to my plight. It’s not an easy thing to tell someone that they stink. I’ll talk with John, and see if I can get through to him without devastating him, because it’s my job. But give me a little time to work with him, O.K.?” Your protégé, a junior partner, demands a $12,000 raise after finding out what you just offered a criminal justice facility project manager to come to work for the firm. “Susan, I understand why you are upset. You have been a loyal and faithful employee here for more than five years, and you do a super job. But you have to understand that right now, CJ people are darn near impossible to find. We have work pouring in, but no one to do it. And we had to buy (at a clear premium) Sharon’s talents in order to cash in on the market that exists right now, while it’s hot. Your area, on the other hand, is not as hot right now, and you know that’s true. Plus, you’ll participate in the bonus plan this year, and Sharon won’t, so we have some chance to make it up to you. Beyond that, you’re an owner here. You’ll benefit from the appreciation in your stock if this year is a good one, and Sharon won’t. So bear with me, and trust my judgment if you can. I haven’t done you wrong so far. Fair enough?” You find out that the $123,000 per year head of highway design has been cheating on his expense report for years. “Joe— I don’t know any other way to say this. I’m extremely upset right now. I just learned that you submitted five gallons of varnish for your Chris Craft on your expense report for a total cost of $334, and that you claimed it as ‘meals and entertainment.’ To top it off, we did a little research and found out this isn’t the first time— you’ve done this every year for five years. What do you have to say for yourself?” A prime-basis design-firm client calls you up to ream you out because you submitted your qualifications on three other teams for the same project you agreed to pursue with them, even though you never gave them an exclusive. “Jerry, I’m sorry you’re upset. But please understand, we never agreed to an exclusive relationship with your firm on this project or any other project for that matter. We have always been on multiple teams and we have to in order to survive. Now, if you want to talk about an exclusive on projects of this type from here on out, I’d be glad to discuss it with you, but we have to get all of your work in this area, not just the jobs you decide you need us on. When would be a good time to have breakfast or lunch and talk about this?” I know my answers to these thorny problems aren’t perfect. But I’ll tell you one thing: Every manager in an A/E/P or environmental firm can benefit from thinking about how they will react before they are faced with these issues. Originally published 5/12/1997

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