Land Surveying 911: Which Land Surveyors Should I Layoff And Which Should I Keep?

Land Surveying 911

Land Surveying 911

In this Land Surveying 911 series article, some names have been changed to protect the inquisitive. Submit your Land Surveying 911 request using the form at the end of this article.

Dan, the survey manager of a struggling professional land surveying and civil engineering firm, submitted the following Land Surveying 911 question.

Land Surveying 911: Which Land Surveyors Should I Layoff And Which Should I Keep?

Dan: I'm a survey manager for a mid-sized professional land surveying and civil engineering company. Before the recession hit we had several survey crews, but had to let most of our land surveying personnel go to adjust to the ever decreasing amount of jobs coming in.

Letting those guys go was very difficult, however, we knew it was a necessary decision in order to weather the storm. Times here didn't get as bad as elsewhere and we had been looking forward to an economic rebound, and possibly even calling some land surveyors back to work. Boy, were we wrong. Our company is now suffering more than at anytime in the past few years, so my boss has told me to layoff everyone except two employees. This way, he said, we can at least field one survey crew.

Unlike the first round of layoffs, I'm now tasked with choosing two out of four good employees with similar quality of skill-sets and seniority. Adding to my misery is the fact that one of these employees is the owner's son. Eric, which land surveyors should I layoff and which should I keep?

Land Surveying 911 Response

Eric: Thank you for your question, Dan. As you well know, being a manager is no walk in the park, sometimes. I firmly believe that the main reason small businesses aren't hiring - even where the economy IS improving - is because having had to let so many people go during the recession left painful scars. Besides, as you are finding out, recoveries are uneven, at best, and for every company that is showing signs of recovery, there are two that haven't hit rock bottom yet (unscientific guess on my part).

So, while you and your firm made the hard and necessary decisions to cut your payroll, you're now discovering that you need to do more. Reading between the lines, I think the earlier layoffs were a little less painful for you, and easier decisions, because those land surveyors might not have been the cream of the crop. Now, however, all four employees are about equal, and it's tough to select whom to layoff.

Enough talk, let's get to the Land Surveying 911!

What you really have are two distinct problems:

  1. You need to pick the two best out of four equal candidates. The good news is that you really can't go wrong, except for problem no. 2, below.
  2. You have to decide whether to layoff the owner's son.

Just so the readers know, I edited and condensed your Land Surveying 911 submission, leaving out your detailed explanations of just how stressful this "misery" of having to make this decision is for you. Business decisions are often not easy to make, even when you know the right thing to do.

Let's start with the second problem first, because deciding to layoff the owner's son is a potential landmine you'd rather not step on. And, once you make that decision, problem no. 1 is a little easier to decide, too.

Dan, laying off the business owner's son is probably a bad idea. By "probably", I mean do not do this unless you too look forward to soon being among the ranks of the unemployed. There might be (repeat, might be) one out of a hundred business owners that would understand and respect your decision to layoff their flesh and blood. But, to be clear, your boss is not that one percent.

Is There Room For Democracy & Fairness In Business?

I know, I know...I can hear you and others indignantly rising up in defense of democracy and  fairness! Step down from your soapbox, business is not democratic and is seldom fair. The owner is king, and regardless of his son's abilities, or lack thereof, the son is in line for succession. Regardless of how true or not that statement is, I can assure you that that's the King's and his Prince's perception.

Even if the owner would support your decision to layoff his son, I guarantee you that somewhere, even in the deep recesses of the owner's mind, the owner and son will resent your decision (even if you actually survive long enough to carry out that plan). Life, business, and management need relationship and political skills to survive and succeed. Besides, you admitted that the son and his co-workers were of equal skill sets. So, don't do it. Don't even consider it. Don't! Problem no. 2 solved, keep the owner's son.

Management Is Not "Set It And Forget It"!

Because you chose to keep the owner's son (I hope), problem no. 1 is a little easier to decide. You now only need to pick the best of the remaining three employees! Ugh, it's no fun being you. The solution is to make the best management decision based on facts. For any tough decision, I like to define a matrix of the choices and the most important factors to consider. Then grade each item for each employee, add up the results, and you've got your decision.

While that sounds simple, if you choose the wrong metrics for your business, or if you're not able to honestly "grade" your subordinates, then you're better off flipping a coin or pulling a name out of a hat (I do not recommend this, I'm kidding!). Because you're the Survey Manager, you should already have defined standards and metrics to evaluate your workers. Management is not a "set it and forget it" endeavor.

Management Is Not A Spectator Sport!

Management requires regular and active participation - It's not a spectator sport. What you just discovered is that you are much more comfortable managing the technical aspects of your job than you are managing people. As you grow as a manager, you'll learn to put more focus on managing your human resources, and then when needed, you'll be ready to make any decision, particularly the one's like you're now faced with.

Now, let's consider a few possible factors you might consider in evaluating your land surveyors:

  • Personality - This often overlooked in hiring candidates and managing staff. I don't care how technically competent any land surveyor is if that person's personality is dour, argumentative, uncooperative, negative, insubordinate.... I could go on and on, you get the point. Being technically correct is important, so I'm not suggesting that you keep a chronic mistake maker with a shining personality, but if any employee can't handle the basic social interactions between co-workers and clients, then rank that person low on personality.
  • Reliability - Does the employee show up on time and deliver on his/her promises? Even occasional tardiness is a business disruption and morale buster. A real negative for me is when an employee says they're going to learn something, and then they never do. Now, I'm not talking about any sort of expensive training or certification, rather, something as simple as reading a book (even when given the book), for example.
  • Effectiveness- Is the employee effective at getting his/her job done? Every project and field task is unique, so sometimes not completing a task on time, or even completely, is understandable. However, I can guarantee you that if you compare three employees side by side for effectiveness, it will be obvious to you which employee is most effective at getting the job done. This Premium Post discusses Project Metrics for Your Land Surveying Company.
  • Reach - Can the employee do a broad range of tasks and work functions? Clearly, a land surveyor who can both effectively work in the field as well as do office work, like working on project's AutoCAD Civil 3D drawings (one example), is an asset to your company. You can make a sub-list of the job functions within your land surveying company that it can reasonably be expected any worker can do. Then you can rate each worker for their dynamic work reach.
  • Pay - While this seems a simple metric, I recommend you do not look at pay alone. Later, I'll discuss using pay with some other metric (potential), but whatever you decide, it doesn't make sense, at all, to look at pay on its own. In fact, because what you pay an individual is largely based on a range of other factors, it's best to relate pay to those factors. For instance, if you pay well one or more employees for having unique skills, knowledge, or certifications, then it's unwise to compare all employees by their pay. It's an apple/orange thing.
  • Potential - Each employee is unique, and as such, brings their own unique goals and potential to the workforce. One of the best things you can do for your company as a manager is to cultivate and mine talent. Sure, that rookie crew member is wet behind the ears, but sets goals, looks forward to new challenges, and has a lot of potential in the future within your firm. This is also true with more experienced workers who just haven't been had opportunities to try new challenges and responsibilities, even though you know they can handle it.
  • Cost of Potential - As I said above, I wouldn't just look at pay alone when assessing employees. Instead, I recommend developing a ratio of Potential to Pay, or the Cost of Potential. Example: You rate one employee as having a Potential of 5 (out of 10) and paid $12/hr, equaling a Cost of Potential of $2.40/potential. Or, Example Two: You rate another employee as having a Potential of 9 (out of 10) and paid $15/hr, equaling a Cost of Potential of $1.67/potential. Looking at the big picture in this way shows you that even though you pay the second employee more, that employee cost less than the first employee as a cost of potential. No doubt, this is not a sure bet, but taken as one factor in assessing employees, I think it's useful.
  • Skills - I could have put this at the top of the list, because it's obviously very important, but I really didn't put this list together in any order of significance. You know which skills are important to your day-to-day operations and can easily rate each worker against those requirements. The only thing I would add is to think ahead for those skills you might need in the future, too.
  • Quasi-True Factors - If true, then do take into account qualities important to your land surveying company like, for example, loyalty. However, only do this if it's absolutely true and reciprocated between ownership and workers alike. If this is not the case, then please stop believing your own lies and do not use quasi-true factors to evaluate employees. I can think of many companies that blindly spew out statements on how important loyalty is to them. However, what I've found is that the louder they espouse the virtue, the less likely they are to follow through on that virtue when push comes to shove. The sad part, is that the owners (want to) believe their own lies.

These are but a few ideas. Once you've honestly evaluated each employee against your own matrix, one candidate should rise above the others. You might even surprised you who that is!

I hope Land Surveying 911 has helped you to manage your land surveyors, Dan. One last thought: Do consider a shared burden in your situation. Eventually, the economy's rebound will hit your area, and you might soon need these workers. Therefore, if everyone is in agreement, including employees, management, and owners, please consider reduced hours and/or rotating layoffs, instead of completely laying off the two.

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Eric D. Colburn, PLS, "The Geo-Business Innovator", helps geo-professionals improve through innovative solutions, mastery of marketing and business growth strategies, and coaching/training. Eric is a successful, serial entrepreneur, podcaster, industry writer, product development consultant, and RI licensed professional land surveyor.

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