Radical thinking is required in today’s commercial environment, and what
better way than to completely challenge the terms under which we currently
employ our staff?
Naturally firms are looking at those parts of their organisation where work
has dried up and choosing to make staff redundant from those areas.
Following the last economic downturn back in the 1990s, however, many
practices have never actually got ‘back up to’ a full complement of staff, let
alone have fat in the teams. Staff and partners are already over stretched on
time and activity while there has been a relentless search to develop specialism
in practice areas, and by sector.
This in turn has placed a premium on those talented individuals who when
recruited, delivered against this ‘superman’ role. So salaries became overheated
and the bonus culture unparalleled in rewarding all the wrong activities and
behaviours and at what a price which is where we are now.
Demographic issues have not gone away, or the need for reasonable work-life
balances. Nor has the demanding client disappeared in fact they have become
even more so, and for lower fees.
Clearly there are a number of practical ways firms are managing to reduce
costs, not least by early retirements, closing offices, relocating to cheaper
premises (if you can agree the leases), axing services and, of course, attacking
the staff lists. The first round of redundancies has seen the under-performers
or people whose faces ‘didn’t fit’ being released.
The second and third rounds are cutting deeper into core teams and partners,
however, and if you get to the fourth round; this is amputation. By losing
staff, your practice is going to lose any capacity you might have had to attack
and build business. There has to be a better way of doing things.
Redundancy is not the only option
The danger with the press and media reporting on redundancies, is that apart
from this being depressing, it fails to report the alternatives firms are
considering. Redundancy should be absolutely the last resort because it:
- immediately impacts heavily on cash flow with no return;
- makes remaining staff have survivor guilt and feel jumpy, constantly looking
for the next round of hatchet-swinging and not focusing on servicing your
- knocks staff loyalty, especially Generation X +1, who may not have the
- gives out all the wrong signals to clients and the market when it might
not be necessary, and;
- loads up costs when the up-turn comes and you need to re-recruit, retrain
all at a premium.
Seize the chance for a Contractual Interregnum
‘Plans to axe new laws that would increase costs for businesses, including
enhanced maternity leave and tougher equality legislation’ are being sought by
business secretary Lord Mandelson (as reported in the Times).
In November last year, I suggested we should repeal or at least suspend some
of our employment legislation to enable organisations to be more agile,
innovative and creative, to keep staff in jobs, and to keep money moving through
the economy. What you need to achieve is a cost reduction, a redeployment of
some staff and a chance to retain clients, all without committing cultural
Now is the time for a contractual interregnum, or break from normal contract
terms, to cover a two to four year period. This temporarily overrides any
existing terms and conditions of employment, pay or benefits, and requires you
and your staff to agree to effectively waive elements of employment legislation.
It would be seen as an extra-ordinary agreement, reviewed on a regular basis.
It would have to have some key principles in place and typically these should
- a fixed period, eg 1, 2, or 3 years
- an agreement that includes all staff, including partners, directors, and
- a fixed review every six or 12 months, undertaken by both sides, using the
consultative mechanisms available
- cover flexibility of roles, pay, overtime, etc.,
- a revisit of all benefits and insurances
Items that would fall outside this would probably be pensions, or those due
to retire during this period. If you had to make redundancies they would be
under the old terms and conditions, but if you were dismissing someone, then it
could be under the temporary rules. Clearly each organisation needs to work out
what options could be open to them, and opening this up to your staff for ideas
is an enlightening experience.
Getting agreement, sharing control
Rather than destroying all the good efforts to be communicative with staff
over the past decade, this presents organisations with another opportunity to
demonstrate that the management board do genuinely respect and consider the
opinions of partners and staff.
Regardless of the need for speedy solutions or not, you need to agree
dramatic staff cuts or pay and benefit cuts. We are seeing that the choice when
offered to teams, results in staff taking the pay cuts.
KPMG asked staff to work four days a week or take a three to six month
sabbatical. One firm I know went to their staff and said: ‘I shall have to lose
ten of you or you need to agree to a pay cut of 20%’. By five o’clock the
managing partner had agreement from all in the team to take the pay cut.
However, the interregnum should be applied to the whole organisation not just
an ailing team, and be part of a deeper and thorough cost review.
Sharing the choices with staff will help:
- educate them to the sharp realities of 2009,
- offers them the chance to make choices about their futures (rather than
management doing this when maybe you do not know the personal circumstances of
- fosters a collegiate environment and a war-like team spirit
- keeps the talent and experience in the practice, building loyalty; and
- enables you to reward delivery/performance in a manner not seen so far.
Abusing this process to falsely get rid of staff will be seen through. We all
have a responsibility to educate our staff about the realities, but don’t treat
them as unthinking adults.
Action for the Spring 2009
And that is the trick, isn’t it? If each part of the economy can keep
operating, in some measure, without being greedy, then the house of cards will
not completely fall over. It should include an encouragement to get through this
economic tribulation, using it to shake out old habits, poor contributors,
review practices and so slide into 2010 in different and better shape.
Patricia Wheatley Burt, principal consultant,
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