Money can—€™t buy commitment

October 2009 » Departments » COMMENT
Shanon Fauerbach, P.E.

This month, in our annual Best Firms To Work For lists, we honor the firms that achieved high levels of employee satisfaction and provided great workplace practices and programs for staff. Learn what makes these firms shine brighter than others in articles beginning on pages 28 and 42.

If I were a leader at one of these firms, such a victory would be a little sweeter than in other years. With a recession causing more challenges than a firm faces typically, maintaining a great work environment was tough — as I’m sure you know — but this elite group dealt with the same constraints as firms not included on the list: of the firms that participated in the civil engineering survey, about 47 percent laid off staff in 2008 because of the economy; approximately 15 percent had salary freezes; and 6 percent closed an office — dramatic reactions to harsh realities.

And employees around the nation are accepting of these difficult management decisions. According to the more than 14,000 employees who work for the civil, environmental, structural, architecture, and multidiscipline firms that took the employee survey this year (representing all of the Best Firm To Work For rankings we host), 87 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with his or her management’s decisions to mitigate the effects of the current economy. Furthermore, 85 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I believe my management is leading the firm well through this challenging economy.”

“Right sizing” probably helped minimize impact to other staff, since we found that only about 10 percent increased medical insurance deductibles and a mere 8 percent cut training budgets.

According to one of the civil engineering list judges, Carol Metzner, president of The Metzner Group, “Stress within this volatile marketplace has employees looking for a place where camaraderie is high. Top firms’ employees also have confidence in their company leaders to see them through to better economic times. Silence breeds fear and these top companies know that an open door policy and exchange of information relieves employee concerns.”

Metzner said, “Now more than in recent years, employees report job security as one of the best qualities a firm can exhibit. From this we see that a company’s financial stability is of utmost importance to staff. This, in some cases, overshadows career development, great benefits, and other characteristics that have played significant roles in the past.”

Metzner’s wise observations, along with the best practices of the top-notch firms presented in the results articles, might help guide you along the rocky road you may be facing. Remember that regardless of external forces, firm leaders can choose to focus inward and create a better workplace. Costly perks and benefits are not at the heart of success in this regard. When we asked employees to rate the importance of company practices when choosing a company to work for, “commitment to employees” topped the list” and “firm values excellent work” was a close second. Money can’t buy such attributes.

Good luck in your endeavors and please e-mail me your struggles and solutions for dealing with these issues at

Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of Best Firms To Work For program. I wonder what’s in store? Hopefully a year marked with happy employees and profitable firms!

Shanon Fauerbach, P.E.,

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