Business Q & A

December 2004 » Business
"At wit's end" and "Pay when paid"
David M. Wahby

At wit's end

Dear Dave,

I work in a 50-plus-person firm with just one owner. Over the years, the principal has promised to implement a number of initiatives, including a new operating structure designed to share more responsibilities. However, not much has changed. There's a general feeling among the staff that our owner is not at all sincere about making changes; he does just enough to string people along to keep them from leaving.

I have been here since 1999. I feel I have been passed over because I see younger people, some with no degrees, getting opportunities to do interesting work that I never get a chance to do. I am told that I don't have enough experience, which isn't logical because I have more than 25 years of experience in construction related trades and I have passed my exams.

What I don't know for sure is if I am being discriminated against because of my age (I'm 50 this year.), or if the firm is just blind to the fact that I can do more for the client than just draft. I would like to stay here, but cannot continue to sit idle while people with less experience are given promotions and more responsibility.

I will be fully vested in our 401K plan next fall and could leave then and take it with me. I'm nearing my end, am having trouble sleeping at night, and receiving professional therapy. What should I do?

N.G., Kan.

Dear N.G.,

A fresh start somewhere else may be in order. It seems your principal has you pegged at a certain level and, after five years, it might be hard to change his perception of you. But before you do decide to pack it in and move along, you should take the time between now and when you vest next fall and use it productively to see if there is some way for you to stay.

In a non-threatening manner, try to elicit objective input from some of your peers at the office. Ask some people who know you and your capabilities for a frank assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. See if their understanding is in line with your own perception.

Assuming your co-workers agree that you do have the skills and abilities to do the type of work you'd like to do, come up with some specific examples of real work in your office done by others that you feel you too could have done. Schedule a meeting with your principal to discuss the issue. Don't just walk into his office and start talking. Arrange an appointment; you want to make sure you have his full attention.

When you do meet, objectively and dispassionately explain your concerns about the gap between the work you are doing and the work you feel you could be doing. Share the specific examples you've collected. If the principal agrees that you could do more and is willing to make that happen, then seek out a timetable and measurable steps that will make you feel comfortable that real change is coming.

If the principal does not see you as being able to do the work, try to find out if there are some specific initiatives you and the principal could agree upon to eventually change these shortcomings. Create a schedule and milestones to chart progress against whatever these initiatives turn out to be. The key and the trick, either way, given the possible propensity of your principal to tell people what they wish to hear in the interest of peace and tranquility, is to come away with something objectively measurable against which you can track your progress.

If the principal is unwilling to commit to a program of improvement, or feels nothing will change his assessment of your abilities, you'll have at least made a good-faith effort to correct your existing situation, and you can then look for a suitable position elsewhere. With the degree of personal and professional frustration you're experiencing, there is no reason to remain unless a change appears possible.

Pay when paid

Dear Dave,

My firm does mostly private, civil site development work. Our clients are primarily architects.

Their policy is to pay us when their client pays them. Is this a common practice in the profession or something unique to our particular area? This really hurts us. We know for a fact that our invoices can sometimes sit in an architect's office for several months before he or she even gets around to sending an invoice to their clients. Our cash flow is killing us.

J.S., Ohio

Dear J.S.,

Believe it or not, there are a number of architects who pay their consultants right away. But "pay-when-paid" is a fairly common practice nationwide, and you certainly are not alone in dealing with the problems this presents.

A few standard ways firms try to cope is to be sure that they time their invoicing to make sure the bills reach the architects in time to be included with the architects' schedules of billing to their clients. Some firms will offer a fee discount (or some enhanced or additional services) to architects in exchange for immediate payment. Other firms, with stout backlogs, will raise their fees to drive away their worst clients or as an offset to the added expense of a lag in payment times. Having a strong marketing program (and a choice of clients from which to pick and choose) is by far the best, long-term solution.

David Wahby is president of Wahby & Associates (www.wahby.com), a management consulting firm serving A/E clients. He can be reached at 1-616-977-9756 or via e-mail at wahby@wahby.com.


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