Art of Accounting: You are as good as your worst staff person

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I always wanted my own practice, and my father told me that I wouldn’t be able to grow it unless I had people working for me. He was right, but he never told me they would always listen to me or do what I wanted them to do. I’ve had many missteps and it took me quite a while to figure out that I was only going to be as good as my worst staff person.

I’ve written a lot about my hiring and training practices so I won’t be covering them here. What I want to talk about today is the quality of the staff and how I got them to not hold me back. Bad people drive out good people. I always thought that keeping someone in place, no matter how bad, was much better than not having anyone at all. That was wrong and is a terrible strategy. It just makes things worse.

Two examples are thinking that keeping a bad staff person to go to a client is better than not having anyone show up at the client; and having a bad person around during tax season is much better than not having them. These are bad strategies, if you can call them strategies. Not only have I been there and done that, but I stopped when I realized I was making it worse for myself. You are much better off with no one.

I know all the arguments, at least most of them, and it just doesn’t make you “richer” or let you have more fun or less stress with a bad person on staff. Note that I am not talking about personality; I am referring to quality of work. Staff with bad personalities are a separate issue and I am not covering that here. But staff who continuously repeat errors, or who don’t listen to or remember instructions, or who don’t follow up where they have open items or don’t pass on questions clients ask them to pass on to me, or who show up late or miss appointments, or who don’t keep you apprised of what they are doing and the status of their work, or who don’t follow their schedule, or who don’t apply what they have been taught either by you, other staff or CPE programs they have attended, or who don’t remember technical issues they previously worked on or were told at CPE programs, simply do not deserve to continue to work for you. (Note: this has the makings of another checklist.)

I reached the situation where my choice was to let go of a bad person rather than have the “body” show up at the client. I was always better off letting the person go. Now, don’t think I am treating this lightly. Either way it was terrible. Either way I worked harder. I worked a little less hard when I kept the person, but that benefit was lost when I had to fix what they did and catch up on what wasn’t done or wasn’t done right. In the long run, any momentary benefit was dissipated and since I was always busy (we all are) it always created discomfort and a crisis of some sort.

The difference was that without the person I knew how bad the situation was and I could always do some triage to get through it, including working longer hours and pushing some important but not urgent work forward. With the person, I never really knew the extent of the situation and deluded myself that things were under control. I’ve also come to a realization that being out of control is an unnerving feeling. No matter how bad things were, if I felt I was in control I had less pressure and anxiety. Working extra hard causes less of the type of pressure than feeling out of control presents.

There is a reality and two takeaways here: The reality is that eventually all of your staff people will leave you, so try to keep the good ones as long as possible and get rid of the bad ones as soon as possible. Takeaway 1: You are always better off without a really bad staff person. Takeaway 2: The earlier you extricate yourself from a bad situation, the earlier you can get it fixed.

P..S.: I did not mention the salary saved by getting rid of the bad person. This is not a money issue – it is a practice management issue and a personal stress accumulator or reliever.

Do not hesitate to contact me at emendlowitz@withum.com with your practice management issues or questions.

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition.” Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at www.partners-network.com along with the Pay-Less-Tax Man blog for Bottom Line. Ed is an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University teaching end user applications of financial statements. Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 743-4582 or emendlowitz@withum.com.

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