how can I keep my star performer, without being able to pay or promote him (while his less competent coworker earns double)?

A reader writes:

I am a partner in a small engineering firm. Six years ago when I was brought on, I was allowed one staffer. I hired a new grad, Fergus, who turned out to be great. He knew or could adapt to any design software out there, wasn’t lost in the world of theory, and turned in work that was actually able to be constructed. He’s almost never missed a deadline or has been over budget. He has been one of the main reasons my department has grown. I have compensated him with raises every year.

A year and a half ago we grew substantially, to the point that my staff engineer was overwhelmed. I needed to hire additional staff. I needed someone with the experience of another five-year engineer. It’s a really competitive industry, and all I could find was a 10-year engineer who was licensed, at almost double my five-year’s salary.

The 10-year, Cecil, is a competent enough engineer, but he’s slower, he often requires information that the client doesn’t have to start a project, he isn’t as capable with technology, and he lacks the personal skills to effectively coordinate with other departments.

Recently Fergus has achieved his professional license and has been named in a “30 under 30” publication. We are growing but not to the point where we can hire. I am not able to compensate the five-year adequately and still win bids for projects. His salary review wasn’t quite as amicable this year as normal. I know that he left disappointed.

To make matters worse, I am forced to have Cecil write all proposals, lead all major projects, and take some smaller projects from Fergus when we are slower in order to justify his cost to the other partners. I can’t let either one go because replacing them will a long and costly process.

I suspect that Fergus has to be receiving calls from our competitors on a regular basis. He’s quiet and respectful about it. However, I suspect that it’s a matter of time before he finds another company with a culture that he likes and can offer more.

I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t know what I can offer. I feel like assuring him that we will let Cecil go as soon as we can replace him with a quality replacement is unethical. A made-up title isn’t going to cut it, and I have little more responsibility to offer. Do you have any suggestions?

Be honest with him about what you can and can’t offer, and support him if/when he decides to leave.

Sometimes when you can’t pay great people more, you can keep them by offering other things — more responsibility, opportunities to have more impact, ways to grow, or a really great working environment.

In this case, you can’t offer those things, and to add insult to injury, he has to watch a less competent colleague getting all the benefits and recognition that rightfully should be his. Just hearing about this as a bystander is pretty infuriating, so imagine what it’s like for him.

What you’re saying here is that you know you hired someone who isn’t very good, but you’re going to give him a bunch of rewards that he hasn’t earned while denying them to the person whose performance does actually merit them … and you’re going to pay the less competent guy nearly double what the better performer is getting.

If you’re really committed to that path, then the most ethical thing you can do is to let Fergus know that this is how things are going to remain and that you understand if he chooses to look elsewhere because of it.

And really, even if there were some magical way to keep Fergus (without changing any of these fundamentally unfair conditions), it wouldn’t be right to do it. You shouldn’t try to dissuade him from leaving a situation that’s stacked against him.

For what it’s worth, though, you say that you can’t let either of them go because replacing them would be long and costly. But you’re going to lose Fergus at some point and will have to go through that long and costly process then anyway, so it might be worth factoring that into your thinking.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 331 comments… read them below }

  1. Bend & Snap*

    Can you seek out a 5 year person and can Cecil when you find someone?

    Because if Fergus leaves it’s just going to be you and Cecil. No superstar.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Well, she should also be fair to Cecil — not just look forward to the day when she can cheerfully fire him. He needs managing.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Right — it shouldn’t just be “Cecil, now you’re fired” — it should be the normal process you’d presumably take with any low performer — coaching and feedback, formal warning, and only then firing if the person hasn’t made the improvements you need.

        1. BRR*

          This makes me think of those situations where somebody keeps an employee because they’re worried about losing the headcount but that person is actually driving others away.

        2. animaniactoo*

          At the very least, I think letting go of Cecil should be a layoff at this point; not a firing. Because even if Cecil is underperforming, it really sounds like either which way they overhired for his position because they were in a bind. So if they’re looking to fix that, the right thing to do by Cecil is to lay him off, with a decent severance package. Because it’s also not his fault that they don’t have the budget to keep him and Fergus.

          1. she was a fast machine*

            If OP absolutely MUST get rid of Cecil, this is the way to go. It sounds a lot like OP is comparing an average or slightly below average employee to a true star. We all will look bad compared to Fergus, and that’s not Cecil’s fault. Managing him into a corner where you have to fire him just feels like the wrong move.

            1. pomme de terre*

              That is a great point about not comparing people to stars! In a former job, I was hired in a cohort with not one but TWO people who went on to be true stars in the field. At the I felt like a gigantic loser because I couldn’t keep up with them. In retrospect, I was probably OK at it, and would have gotten better if I’d gotten more management/coaching that wasn’t just, “Ugh, can’t you do it like Fergus?”

          2. M-C*

            Yes, laying off Cecil sounds totally rational to me. They can get a more junior person at half the price, and give a big raise to Fergus. More likely to get a lot more productivity out of that setup from what they will soon have otherwise, one overpriced dud.

    2. coffeeepoweeerrddddd*

      I think this comment and AAMs advice pretty much sums up this letter.

      Keep Fergus at any cost….. speaking of cost how can you hire a guy at twice his salary but can’t afford to give him raises now? There’s no money anywhere else in the budget?? Make it work.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Yeah to your last part. Cant she go to bat to get fergus another bump and maybe a bonus? Extra week vacation? And dont give cecil a raise “jus because”. If he needs to improve, he needs to improve. And he probably has no idea because he’s getting the plumb assignments.

        1. M-C*

          And the least they could do would be to give Fergus the plum assignments.. That might make him more patient while they detangle the financial part of things.

      2. Lalitah*

        I have to agree with coffeeepoweeerrddddd. The fact that OP stated that Cecil “he often requires information that the client doesn’t have to start a project, he isn’t as capable with technology, and he lacks the personal skills to effectively coordinate with other departments” sounds like he’s not hitting all of the job requirements, which should trigger at least a review and at least the start of a PIP to set the “we might need to let you go” scheme that might whip him into shape or just lead him to the door.

        It sounds like the job *requires* “capability with technology and the interpersonal skill to effectively coordinate with other departments.” It doesn’t sound optional, so the employee, despite, their “experience” (which may mean they knew someone that referred them to the job and not much else), isn’t giving the biggest bang for buck. Why tolerate an under-performer at almost twice the expense if he’s not a good performer?

        Start the PIP NOW….

  2. 42*

    >> You shouldn’t try to dissuade him from leaving a situation that’s stacked against him. <<

    That's a bingo, the crux right there OP. You've created this situation, he doesn't like it, you haven't taken steps to fix it, and he's looking around. What would you be doing if you were him?

    1. Chris*

      Exactly. Sorry, OP, but the ball is entirely in your court. You’ve got the option of dealing with your under-performer who is over-rewarded now, or being stuck with having them as your sole talent when your star performer leaves for the rewards they should be getting. Avoiding dealing with this because it will be a long and costly process to replace either of them simply means it will be the one you can’t do without who leaves and must then be replaced. Procrastination is bad for your star performer, bad for your team, bad for your customers, and from the sounds of things, potentially bad for your own position if your team can no longer perform to expectations that have been set by your star, once they leave.

    2. Annonymouse*

      I don’t think that’s entirely fair.

      OP sounds like their hands are tied by bosses expectations. If they want both people employed then they have to justify the jobs of both – at a cost to Fergus.

      If they can’t justify the costs you can bet it’s Fergus who gets waved off not Cecil.

      1. Megan Schafer*

        I’m not so sure about that – if they’re looking to cut costs, my logic would be get red of the guy making 2x, hire someone else at 1x, and still have 1x surplus.

  3. fposte*

    “You’re going to lose Fergus at some point and will have to go through that long and costly process then anyway, so it might be worth factoring that into your thinking.”

    To add to that, last time you were searching for personnel you discovered you couldn’t get anybody for cheaper than Cecil’s rate, so Fergus’s replacement will probably cost you the same–and you’ll end up losing Fergus while still having to pay the money he would have wanted. Seems simplest and cheapest just to raise his pay to the market and keep him.

    1. Dawn*


      Also “I am not able to compensate the five-year adequately and still win bids for projects.”
      Uh… yeah you are, you can cut Cecil’s pay and give it to Fergus. Cecil is NOT performing at a 10-year level, from what you say if a 5 year is running circles around him. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a Come to Jesus with Cecil and tell him if his performance doesn’t improve then you’re going to have to demote him- because it’s NOT about the amount of experience right now, it’s about Cecil’s actual factual job performance.

      Interesting job interview question that someone related to me once, which I think comes into play here: “When you say you have four years’ experience, do you mean four years of experience or one year of experience four times?” Seems like Fergus has five year’s experience and Cecil has three years experience 3.3 times, if he’s underperforming Fergus as badly as you say.

      1. Big10Professor*

        But there’s nothing that indicates Cecil is doing a bad job, or that he is overpaid. In fact, it sounds like he was brought in at the market rate. The fact that Fergus is a superstar should be totally independent of what Cecil is worth.

          1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

            Well — while I wouldn’t say it’s his “fault,” exactly, he doesn’t seem like a strong employee. It DOES sound like he’s doing a bad job — slow, not effective at coordinating with other teams, not good with technology, etc. Based on just that I wouldn’t want him on my team.

            1. fposte*

              I can see that, but I also think that an arrangement where Cecil’s pay gets cut to give Fergus a raise is wrongly pitting the two against each other. And you’d quite likely lose both of them in the process.

              1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

                Agreed. I’d skimmed over the demotion in the comment you were replying to.

                But it does sound like Cecil isn’t the right fit for what they need, and they may need to let him go. They (apparently) don’t need to be paying for a 10-year licensed engineer, especially one who isn’t a great employee.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It does sound like Cecil is under-performing: “he’s slower, he often requires information that the client doesn’t have to start a project, he isn’t as capable with technology, and he lacks the personal skills to effectively coordinate with other departments.”

          1. fposte*

            I agree that he doesn’t sound stunning–perhaps I should have been more specific than “this.” It’s not Cecil’s fault that Fergus is underpaid. I don’t like a view that tends to make it about the two employees in a zero-sum deathmatch, because that’s hardly ever the case.

            1. Newby*

              The OP specifically said that projects are taken away from Fergus to give to Cecil to justify his salary. It sounds like Fergus has no opportunity for advancement because of Cecil’s pay rate.

              1. Natalie*

                That’s still not Cecil’s *fault* though. He’s making what he could command in the market place and there’s nothing to suggest he has any hand in all of this work getting shuffled to him. The responsibility here lies with management and they need to shoulder the burden of fixing it.

              2. fposte*

                Right, but Cecil didn’t get handed a blank check that he inappropriately filled in. He’s not to blame for getting a decent salary.

          2. GlorifiedPlumber*

            In the engineering industry, this describes many experienced veterans. Some of those gripes are “relative to Fergus, Cecil is…” and some of them are not relative “he lacks the personal skills to effectively coordinate with other departments.”

            Sadly, the lack of coordination aspect is VERY common among the engineering contracting industry. Finding someone who is a superstar coordinator is the exception, not the rule.

            The OP’s gripes sound more relative vs. absolute, which lends me to believe that this is a case of a 10 year veteran paid at market rate, and a younger superstar who eclipses them but cannot be paid like a 10 year because he is only a 5 year person.

            The clients won’t support it, the management of the firm won’t support it.

            Having a few exceptional midlevel people in the 5 year range is EXTREMELY common and describes EVERY larger engineering firm I know right now. It describes my current office, it describes my old office, it describes my buddies office.

            Unless OP can change the partner attitude and accept less gross margin until they can grow and add staff (unlikely), convince the clients to accept paying a 5 year person like a 10 year person (unlikely), or replace Fergus with a unicorn who will work for less money and Cecil with a unicorn who will be like Fergus but at a 10 year salary (just imagine what a TOP 10 year performed costs…), then he is going to lose Fergus.

            OP, Fergus is going to jump to your competitor or potentially a client (unsure what industries you serve) for 10-15% more money. It’s not your fault.

            1. Bwmn*

              As someone not in the engineering field, this is very helpful to read and even in my field this makes a lot of sense.

              I started as a fundraiser in smaller organizations where average team size was one or two people. The reality of being in a team of one or two is that at some point if you wanted to be working with larger donors or make more money, you would have to leave. The nature of such jobs was that they needed a person who could bring X skills, and the reality was that any kind of traditional over achieving/exceptional performance just wasn’t going to correlate to more money. The overall nature of how organizations were designed to pay and promote – depending on what people want, you were just going to lose people.

              The only real way to address this as an organization would be to proactive discuss with people who looked to hit the end of their “term” to best try and coordinate a good exit, try to appeal to development opportunities, or have your head in the sand and be surprised.

              1. GlorifiedPlumber*

                Fantastic discussion! I couldn’t agree more with your perspective… particularly with small teams, there’s often a limit to how cool and sexy your projects could be. Often times, that translates to “Only mediocre performers are needed for the team to be successful.”

                Some teams just simply do NOT have the ability to transition to highly paid superstar teams, and if the performers want to grow salary wise, they have to seek out a team where that is possible. That team may or may not be with the same company!

              2. Kira*

                Also true of my experience in fundraising. There’s a lot of places with just 1 or 2 staff, so even if your junior staff person is awesome you just wait for them to get a job elsewhere then hire an inexperienced person and start the cycle again.

                1. megatha*

                  Same for me. I’m a fundraiser and LOVED my old organization – the mission, the culture, the employees., the clients. We were a small Development shop and I had so many diverse responsibilities that gave me great experience. But, after three years, I was getting bored and no one else on my team was leaving so I was stuck. I left to a much larger organization with opportunity to move up and around the office.

                2. chicken_flavored_deodorant*

                  I’m surprised to hear that since fundraising, like sales, would be expected to count as a revenue center and not as a cost center. In other words, a strong performer should be able to point out that they are bringing in x additional dollars that would be lost in the absence of that strong performance. Is there something else going on with pay negotiations in the fundraising world that I might be overlooking?

          3. Milla*

            Having worked with engineers for nearly a decade, I can say that finding one with personal skills at all, let alone ones at a level effective enough to coordinate with other departments without an in-between organizer is like finding a purple unicorn with star shaped spots.
            It just doesn’t happen once, let alone twice.
            Cecil is completely normal in that regard.
            The other things:
            They say that he is slowER, but not that he misses deadlines or is slow;
            He requires more information from clients, but that is pretty common, clients are notoriously bad at providing resources and knowing what they want. Would you rather he wing it without knowing the whole picture?
            And that he is not AS capable with technology, which means he’s capable, but not the wiz the other one is, who has five years of experience with their systems,
            -All point of these complaints point to him being a solid, if average, employee.
            Plus Cecil’s been handling both large and small accounts, nothing has crashed and burned, so he is a capable engineer who’s handling his responsibilities.
            Either pay Fergus more and find him new challenges, or lose him, but stop blaming Cecil for it.

        2. designbot*

          Well you can view “market rate” from two different sides. One is, what does it take to get this person in the door? The other side is, what are our clients willing to pay for the service this person can provide? From that perspective, it sounds like Fergus is outperforming the market and Cecil is getting paid more than market.

      2. Artemesia*

        I’d sure do this if it were the only way to keep Fergus. When Fergus leaves you will end up hiring someone for twice what you are paying him who isn’t as good. Bite the bullet, and either fire Cecil and replace him with someone with less experience or figure out how to compensate Fergus in a huge raise — perhaps not the double he is earning — and put him in charge of things he should be leading.

        I am reading that you are essentially having to hide that Cecil is less competent from your partners? Better to own up that he is a disappointment and give those rewards and a raise to Fergus.

        You have no choice. There is no winning play that continues to underpay Fergus. He may be gone already. I would be.

        1. INFJ*

          I agree. If OP has to shift a bunch of work to Cecil in order to justify the cost of his salary, maybe OP should actually shift the work to were it belongs (Fergus’s more capable hands) and let the higher ups realize that Cecil’s cost is not justified after all..

          1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

            Clearly the OP is trying to cover his/her own behind by shifting work to Cecil and justifying his salary. That’s squarely on OP not wanting to admit Cecil isn’t working out as hoped – at least that is the read I get from the letter

            1. Jaguar*

              As is mentioned elsewhere, engineering is an industry where the resumes of the team members are often sent with proposals. It can easily be the case that a newly minted P.Eng (or whatever the US-equivalent is) is not very attractive to potential clients. The letter writer doesn’t seem to need a 10-year engineer, so it might not be relevant, but this is not “clearly” the OP trying to cover their ass.

              1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

                They wanted a 5 yr eng when hiring and hired a 10 yr. Needed to increase salary to hire said 10 yr. OP said s/he was shifting work to Cecil that Fergus was more qualified for simply to justify the expense of having Cecil to the other partners.

                Based on what the OP wrote, the only reason to “justify” Cecil’s salary is if OP went on a limb to hire Cecil and wants to save face that they hired too quickly and should have kept looking for someone better suited for the department.

                We don’t have all the information, to be sure, but based on how the letter reads, it seems as though the OP is covering his/her butt with Cecil instead of saying “hey, this isn’t working, what can we do to correct it?”

                1. Jaguar*

                  I don’t think you’ve eliminated all possibilities to the point that you can begin accusing the OP of wrongdoing.

                2. Annonymouse*

                  They wanted a 5y but all that was available was a 10y.

                  They needed someone so they had to have him. If OP doesn’t justify costs then they have to lose one of the two people they need.

                  That sounds more like OP trying to protect their department than of any wrong doing or incompetence.

                  Also it sounds like engineering is a lot more political than we know as outsiders to the industry.

        2. Rmric0*

          I would be really interested to know what went on during Cecil’s hiring process, because OP made it sound like they were looking for someone with experience similar to Fergus (5 years versus 10) but they somehow wound up with Cecil. To me that says that something was bungled in the hiring process, and it’s likely to get bungled again if OP lets go of Cecil or Fergus.

    2. Joseph*

      +1. There’s a monster long-term problem for OP here:
      1.) You do not have any money for Fergus, beyond the typical raises. Let’s stipulate you are correct.
      2.) When you tried to get another Fergus, you had to pay literally double the salary. Cecil is, by your words, “the cheapest we could find” and he’s average at best.
      3.) Fergus is wildly underpaid, is absolutely getting calls from recruiters who read the “top 30” articles, and knows it.
      You’re going to be in deep trouble when (not if) Fergus leaves. Per #1 and #2, you can’t even come close to affording even another mediocre Cecil, much less an employee of Fergus’ quality.

      1. Daisy*

        Yeah, I think that Fergus’s talent and Cecil’s mediocrity are distractions from the basic problem: the OP can’t afford two employees at the level she wants. She’s either going to have to find more money for Fergus’s position, or resign herself to replacing less experienced engineers in that role.

        1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

          Well, I don’t think that’s exactly right. She apparently does have the salary available for the employees she wants (two 5-year engineers). The problem seems to be that she couldn’t find a 5-year engineer when she was hiring. Money wasn’t the problem — something else in her hiring process is the problem (supply, interest in her company, kinds of projects she can offer, a badly designed search, etc.)

          1. M-C*

            And now add to that list “treating good employees badly because of irrational attachment to seniority”..

      2. Turtle Candle*

        Yes, this is difficult math but something the LW needs to take a good long look at.

        I do wonder about the timeframe–it looks like Fergus was initially hired in 2010-ish, and Cecil was hired last year. I wonder if part of what’s going on here is simply that the economy is picking up, and it’s harder to hire cheaply than it was then. (In other words, it’s less of an employer’s market.) I don’t know about LW’s industry specifically, but in mine (software development) that’s definitely true; you just plain have to pay more for any position than you did five to nine years ago. Which means if you can’t afford to keep Fergus, you might not be able to replace him either–certainly not with another star, but maybe not even with another Cecil.

        If the answer is “well, if Fergus quit and we could only replace him for x1.5 or x2 the current rate we’re paying him, we’d find the money from somewhere,” then the answer is to go to the partners, lay out the situation, and find the money now, before you have to find the money for an unknown quantity who may not be nearly as excellent.

        If the answer is “the money is not there to be found; we’d muddle along with one engineer,” then consider which of the two current engineers you would want to have be that one engineer.

    3. Quinoa*

      I’m thinking that the OP needs to develop an internship program to build a pipeline for new grads and then hire one or look for a new grad to replace Cecil ASAP. Then you can promote Fergus.

      1. Katieinthemountains*

        That’s what I’m thinking – get a 2-3-year guy and give back the stuff taken from Fergus to make Cecil look okay. At this point, Fergus should be studying for his PE, and then you’re not losing anything when you lay off Cecil, which, yes, should be done kindly.

    4. Stranger than fiction*

      Yes, some companies will review salaries periodically to see if they need to bring some of them up to market.

  4. Jesmlet*

    I would be highly pissed if I were Fergus. You should be starting the search for Cecil’s replacement ASAP, focusing on someone with less experience and more competence. Cecil is clearly a waste of money and you’d be better served with someone more junior who will cost less and bring as much if not more to the table. Involving Fergus in the hiring process might help too by boosting his morale while acknowledging you know things are unfair the way they stand.

    1. Joseph*

      “You should be starting the search for Cecil’s replacement ASAP, focusing on someone with less experience and more competence.”
      I’m not sure this is actually reasonable. Let’s run some fake numbers: Fergus currently makes $50k, Cecil currently makes $80k (I’m assuming the “almost double” salary is somewhat exaggerating), so total budget of $130k. If they give Fergus a massive raise to, say, $70k to keep him, coupled with firing Cecil, they now only have $60k left for salary. Can they find someone competent with a bit of experience to do the job for $60k?
      Given that they already intended to hire someone with only ~5 years of experience at the price and ended up being forced to hire someone with much more experience at a far higher salary, it seems pretty iffy.

      1. Joseph*

        I will say though, that it’s possible (as others have mentioned) that they have just a major structural issue in their hiring process that led them to getting Cecil that they could get better options if the revised their process.

      2. Jesmlet*

        It’s really hard to say without understanding the actual responsibilities and workload. Do they really need someone with 5+ years of experience to take care of everything Fergus isn’t doing? I think the real problem is budget, but if they can’t work around that, then they need to find someone Fergus can team up with to get all this work done with the problems Cecil isn’t currently bringing in.

        I know OP says ‘I needed someone with the experience of another five-year engineer’ but too often employers look for years in the field rather than adaptability. 9 times out of 10 I’d rather hire someone slightly green with the soft skills and ability to learn that I can train to be excellent than someone who comes in just looking good on paper. Maybe that’s not applicable to the engineering field but without knowing more, that’s how I see it.

        1. Rmric0*

          Part of it comes from what you can bill out to clients and what their expectations are about payments. It’s really easy to say that “Engineer A has 10-years and a certification, so he is worth 10X”, it’s harder to say “Engineer B has 5-years but he’s got great soft skills, so he’s worth 7X.”

      3. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        The flaw in this is that Cecil was hired – and supported with reviews – at that salary.

        Did they denigrate Fergus in his reviews to keep his salary lower?

        Now – think of a manager approaching his directors, and saying “well, uh, umm, yeah, Fergus has been actually doing the work all along, and if we lose him the ***s gonna hit the fan!” — their reply will be “if he was so wonderful, why is this happening now? Why are you trying to fix years of what you say is gross underpayment in a turnkey move?”

        Is this manager going to lose face, or what?

        1. AD*

          I’m assuming the answer to that last question is yes. Hence, why OP has not been forthcoming about the situation with his/her partners.

      4. Dan*

        On the one hand, I know you posited your numbers are fake, but on the other, they’re sorta in the ballpark.

        The problem with your scenario is that newly graduated engineers command $60k, so if the goal is to get someone with more experience, then $60k won’t cut it.

        Right now, I can see Fergus at roughly $70k, and Cecil at about $120. Fergus won’t get much more than $100k with just a few years experience, so assume he’s worth $100k. Pay him that, and you have $90k left over. Yes, you can find someone on the junior side for $90k (or less).

        I do agree that there is a budget problem, and fair or not, Cecil part of the solution.

  5. NW Mossy*

    I think it’s probably also worth reevaluating the hiring process that lead to this outcome. Your letter frames the situation as “Cecil had to be hired at double the experience and twice the price,” as if Cecil is a meteorite that just happened to hit you. The presentation makes it sound as if you have no agency as the hiring manager, and that also comes through in your feeling that your hands are tied when it comes to Fergus. If you genuinely have no authority to make the right staffing decisions, it might be time to consider whether or not you still want your job, because it’s really difficult to manage well without being empowered to do it.

    1. Leatherwings*

      I tend to agree with this. There are obviously outstanding constraints here, and if that means you’re stuck with subpar employees to manage on a consistent basis it may be time to look for something else yourself.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Agreed. I wondered if this is coming from higher up than the OP. That has to be frustrating as hell for a manager.

        I think Fergus is better off leaving, especially if that’s the case–but I hope OP gives him the best reference of any reference in the history of the world.

        1. NW Mossy*

          I thought that too, but then re-read the letter and the LW is a partner in the firm and discusses justifying costs to the other partners. That feels to me like the LW and those who need convincing are peers, which makes the whole scenario that much more unsettling to me. It throws up all kinds of nasty possibilities, like a bad “some animals are more equal than others” power dynamic among the partners. The best-case scenario would be that the LW needs to develop stronger negotiation/advocacy skills to convince the other partners, but that’s a lengthy process that Fergus is unlikely to wait around for. Ooof.

          1. Bystander*

            This is how I read the situation, too. I’ve seen middle managers go to bat for employees. Why can’t a partner with a bigger stake in the company’s future?

            1. Bea W.*

              She’s already trying to justify what they pay Cecil to keep him. Seems like that energy would be better spent on justifying giving Fergus a promotion or fat raise, and if a second body is needed, to hire someone more junior for less money than Cecil is making. This means Cecil gets laid off, but the alternative is losing Fergus and nothing being able to find a replacement with the budget she has left or not being able to hire one at all. It’s also possible Fergus could leave and she loses the head count entirely. It happens at my office all the time.

              If I were Fergus, I’d be happily letting the door hit my arse on the my way out.

          2. Harriet*

            Very few partnerships are equal in professional consultancies. You can have a two-tier system with equity partners (who own the business) and fixed share partners (who are paid a salary). Very often equity partners will have varying stakes in the firm – one may own 40% of it, another 5%. And that is before you get to all the internal politics – the senior guy that 10 others will follow so you need to convince him, the rainmaker who has sway because he brings in the business, the one with the biggest clients who you need to keep happy because if walks the firm’s in trouble…most mid-sized professional partnerships are a hotbed of politics and falling out and fighting for position.

            I am not in engineering, but I can totally see a situation where OP needs to convince either a remuneration committee of the whole partnership of a huge pay rise for Fergus. And the partners who are in these positions will have their own superstars they will want to reward and keep, and may be in similar positions to the OP – so their view will be why is her need special?

            1. NW Mossy*

              Needing to convince can and certainly does happen to a lot of managers. In your scenario, it would be on the OP to marshal the best possible case for why Fergus is special and worth prioritizing over other competing demands. It sounds like he’s got a stellar list of objective accomplishments, so there’s plenty to draw from. The mere fact that others may have different priorities doesn’t mean that the OP’s priorities are a loser by default. It might be a hard-fought battle, but if Fergus is the rock star he’s presented to be here, it could easily be worth the OP spending a lot of political capital to keep him.

    2. AD*

      You hit the nail on the head.
      I have no idea what industry/field OP is in, but the letter makes it sound like Cecil is the *only* person who could be hired for the role by this organization. Surely, that can’t be right? And that’s an awfully passive approach to take in regards to hiring/managing.

      1. AD*

        In re-reading the letter, the OP’s stance seems even more questionable. OP needs to punt more important projects to Cecil, to *justify* his higher salary to the partners? And on top of that, he’s at best an average performer?
        Can’t you put your chips on the table, and have an honest and candid conversation with your partners? This situation will do no one any favors, especially when (not if) Fergus leaves for a better opportunity and you’re stuck paying an even higher salary to a new hire who may not be nearly as good.

        1. helloitsme*

          Yeah… It seems like one of those dumb things where “If you want $x, you have to have y years of experience because that’s the rule and we said so.” I’d feel pissed if I were Fergus, and it sounds like he’s handling it well. Honestly, I’d find a way to pay him AT LEAST double what he’s making. If you can’t do that, I’d have a discussion with him about it. Tell him to ask for the higher figure when he’s applying to new jobs, and offer to give him a great recommendation to back it up.

          But you gotta ask yourself, what’s more expensive: paying Fergus more, or not having him at all?

        2. GlorifiedPlumber*

          Partners will not get it, they’re probably of a different discipline… i.e. this is a structural firm and Fergus/Cecil are MEP engineers or something.

          In the industry… to management and to the clients… years of experience translates to how good you are and how much money you make.

          We all know that NOT to be true, but it’s the reality OP has to manage. I don’t think honest conversations are going to go the way OP wants.

          Sadly, average performers are what you are going to be 80% of the time… especially given how hard the original search was.

          Unless OP can grow enough to hire a junior engineer to alleviate the hit from giving Fergus a raise, or find a rockstar senior person who will work for Cecil’s rate (allowing cecil to be fired, note, this does NOT solve the fergus problem), then OP is going to lose Fergus and be stuck with Cecil and another employee hunt.

          1. AthenaC*

            Your read on this situation, as well as your knowledge of the industry, really makes the most sense here. I’m in public accounting myself, but the thought process I run into in my industry makes your description of engineering very intuitive from where I’m sitting.

          2. AnotherAlison*

            After some thought, I’d really just like to see the actual salaries. Here, a 5-year guy isn’t miles apart from a 10-year guy. A new hire would be around half of a 15-year person.

            I think they should be able to pay Fergus more, and “justify” it to clients. At 5 years, I was making 1.55x what I started at. We have 3 billable classifications, and the middle one seems to be around 4-8 year folks. Esp. to repeat clients who know he is good.

            Otherwise, keep Fergus where he is and find a better Cecil. They would be better to have a senior engineer who is more productive and costs a little more than Cecil. Then it won’t be so glaring to Fergus that he’s doing more work and getting paid a lot less.

            1. GlorifiedPlumber*

              I was wondering if you were going to have a strong opinion on this one. You are an actual supervisor who gets to set wages/hire/fire etc. right?

              I agree, actual salaries would be enlightening. Who knows if Fergus is paid a good median wage while being a super star, or maybe he is bottom 10% while being a superstar. Who knows…

              Otherwise, I agree with your advice. Hire a better Cecil, even if it costs more, and I would layer on small “keep him happy” bonus/raises to Fergus as allowed by the firm.

              Coupled with everyone else’s advice to educate management as much as is possible (assuming they want to hear it).

              1. AnotherAlison*

                I don’t get to fire anyone. I’m just a PM who has to make the budgets & staff work. I rarely get to pick my staff. When we bid smaller jobs, which I would expect is comparable to the OP’s work, the estimate should account for more MH at a low rate if the staff is inexperienced and fewer MH at a higher rate if they’re experienced. It sounds like they’re billing out Fergus at the low rate, but the clients are getting the benefit of fewer MH. If that’s what they have to do to be competitive, they may have a marketing problem (or market problem), rather than an engineer’s salary problem.

          3. J.B.*

            The partners may be from different disciplines, but they are managers of the work and billing as a whole. So possible adjustments including % billable and overall workload split is something they should all discuss. Also, if Fergus now has the same certification as Cecil, some of the legal/contractual reasons to give things specifically to Cecil have subsided. Which does not necessarily mean that Fergus has relationships, but I see junior just-PEs brought in all the time for face time and to do the work nominally under the principal.

            1. GlorifiedPlumber*

              Couldn’t agree more, the old “Here is our principal to glad hand, over here is the E3 who will be doing all the heavy lifting, and over there way in the back you can barely make them out is the E1 who will do all the things the principal and E3 do not want to!” schtick is pretty common.

              I kind of get the jist that OP tried to do what you suggest and got pushback from the principals. Cecil is NOT a principal at the firm, is probably a different discipline, and needs to “produce” in their eyes.

              OP’s issues stems around the junior engineer… who with their newfound leadness and PE certification, is suddenly very employable elsewhere.

              I think if something akin to your suggestion could be worked out, especially with monetary recompence to Fergus… it might allow the situation to go “satisfactorily” a while longer.

        3. Jesmlet*

          To me it sounds like OP pushed to hire Cecil because they didn’t want to keep looking and settled, and now feels like they have to defend their decision rather than admit they might’ve jumped the gun a bit and made a mistake.

          1. NW Mossy*

            In economics, this concept is called the sunk cost fallacy and it crops up in a lot of different environments. People tend to be loss-averse, so they’ll continue to chase a payoff even when any outside observer can see that the odds of recouping are abysmal and that the money-saving play is to stop the bleeding.

            It’s not necessarily a huge problem to miscalculate initially or to have a solution that made sense 2 years ago not age well. What is a problem, though, is getting mentally locked in and using that as a reason to remain inert. The partners and the LW seem stuck based on what’s in the letter, and it’d be worth their while to think about how the landscape would change if they recast what appear to be immovable obstacles as circumstances that could be changed with sufficient application of time/money/will. It might not be worth it to actually make any of those changes, but at least you’d be making that decision with a better understanding of the actual facts rather than basing it on “I feel like we can’t.”

          2. Rmric0*

            I just find it strange that they went for someone so overqualified and overpaid on paper, compared to the brief OP gave.

      2. Lora*

        In engineering, that isn’t uncommon – regulations require designs to be signed off by someone with a PE license and that’s not something a lot of 5-year people will necessarily have. And there’s a whole range of PE quality – it’s a very general exam best taken when you’re not too far out of college, because it asks all kinds of engineering questions, not just your specialty, and those of us who are not actual electrical engineers don’t really remember that stuff after 10 years of designing, say, chemical reactor piping. And you never have to re-certify, so someone may have gotten their PE license 30 years ago in a field that has significantly changed, and if they haven’t done a lot of work to keep up with new developments, they can in fact be downright BAD – but the clients still need those drawings to have a PE stamp, even if the chair of MIT’s School of Engineering says it’s kosher, in order to break ground.

        So yes, Cecil might be the very cheapest PE they could afford, and their competitors are throwing out lowball bids. Maybe their competitors already have an in-house PE and his cost is spread across several departments (how I’ve mostly seen it done). Maybe the competitors only do one project per year that actually requires a PE and they have the guy as a part-time contractor to sign off on drawings as needed, and the rest of their projects are done in cooperation with other firms who have their own PE. Maybe the competitors have the client’s in-house PE approve drawings. There’s a lot of ways to structure it.

        OP, I would kick this one up to your managers and frame it in terms of opportunity costs (not being able to bid on projects due to Cecil’s capacity) and the tradeoffs you could make in terms of “maybe we don’t take on these type of projects,” “maybe we have CRB / Jacobs / Parsons do the stamps” etc.

        But yeah, seen this happen quite a lot in my industry – some companies are just training grounds, for this very reason. And they mostly accept that they are going to be constantly hiring and call it a cost of doing business.

    3. Chris*

      This is also a reasonable comment – and one I firmly agree with. If hiring and termination isn’t in your control as the manager, it’s extremely hard to bring in the right people for what your team and customers need. If that’s a problem for OP, it needs to be addressed with their management so they understand what options they have.

  6. Leatherwings*

    I think it could help to look at this from a more positive perspective – it will stink to lose Fergus because he’s a superstar, but he’s put the time and work in to move somewhere else.It seems like it’s been a pretty great situation for five years, so when he moves onto something else, that actually means you’ve done your job as a manager – you’ve helped develop a superstar! That’s what every manager wants, so view it as a job well done rather than a failure.

    1. Leatherwings*

      I’d also recommend that in the conversation in which you’re upfront with him, you offer to be a stellar recommendation for him!

  7. Temperance*

    I’m honestly not sure what you can offer Fergus. You can’t pay him well, and all of the important work and recognition is going to his overpaid, inept colleague. I would be extremely angered in his situation, and the fact that he’s keeping it together says much about his character.

    What you can do is get rid of Cecil and offer Fergus more money to take on more responsibility, and just deal with being short-staffed for a period of time. You can’t just make Fergus stay around because you like him and his work is important to your company when there is seriously no benefit to him staying with your organization vs. one that will compensate him appropriately and give him the growth opportunities that he deserves and desires.

    1. Trout 'Waver*

      I don’t think it’s fair to call Cecil inept based on this letter. Clearly not a top performer, but I think it’s a stretch to call him inept.

  8. Mike C.*

    I really feel like you should go to your partners and see if there’s anything else that can be done. It’s clear that having this guy is great for the firm, so maybe the firm as a whole can find some money/interesting work/new responsibilities for him.

    Yeah, I get that this might be politically embarrassing or just not the normal way things are done, but given that this is for the good of the firm I think you might be able to find a way and your partners will respect you for it.

    1. J.B.*

      I would add to this – if Cecil is working on proposals, etc – that is time he’s not billable, yes? In the bad old days it was a really big deal to be billable and to balance things out. Cecil and Fergus probably have different percentages they are expected to be billable. But there’s no reason that can’t change, especially if the partners know why. And if Fergus has gotten his PE, why on earth won’t the partners promote him?

      Of course, it’s pretty common to move around at that just turned PE stage, as you can typically get the best bump by moving.

    2. Eddie Turr*

      I tend to agree. “Justifying Cecil’s salary” to the partners might protect OP politically, but it’s not the best choice for the business. It makes sense to give more responsibility to the higher performer, and then do what you can to correct the salary imbalance as quickly as possible. Stunting your best person and overloading an underachiever are two great ways to produce lower-quality work that does little to help the business grow.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        “Justifying Cecil’s salary” to the partners might protect OP politically, but it’s not the best choice for the business.

        I don’t know if the OP’s firm is a reasonably functional place or not (and this terrible situation is an anomaly perhaps?), but if it’s reasonable, then it makes sense that sometimes mistakes happen, and it’s better to own up to the mistakes for the long-term good of the firm than to hide the mistakes for fear of looking bad but ultimately screwing the whole business.

      2. Christopher Tracy*

        Stunting your best person and overloading an underachiever are two great ways to produce lower-quality work that does little to help the business grow.

        And it’s a good way to lose both people. Fergus will definitely leave for a company that can offer him more money and more responsibility, and Cecil will become frustrated doing work he’s not very good at and will eventually leave (or be fired) because Fergus won’t be there to help pick up the slack, so he’ll be doing both jobs poorly.

    3. Dynamic Beige*

      It’s clear that having this guy is great for the firm

      And that’s the thing: who is going to provide more value over the long-term? A rising star or someone who… isn’t? I don’t mean in dollars and cents, I mean in projects and reputation. Fergus sounds like someone who would bring prestige to the firm as he grows and gets better at his job.

      Seriously, OP, do you honestly think that if another firm comes along and offers Fergus a big salary bump and a bunch of seriously juicy projects that he’s going to stay out of loyalty? Because he knows you need him and “value” him? Hell, no. Anyone would jump at a chance like that, yourself included. Even if he does submit his notice tomorrow, I doubt your firm would be able to match or counter.

        1. Bystander*

          The crazy thing is that Fergus IS waiting right now. OP still has a chance to keep him and knows it.

          1. Dynamic Beige*

            Yeah. I hope there’s an update on this one with a “Fergus came to me with his notice and $MajorCompetitor was willing to pay him $X more. The partners wouldn’t agree to beat it and so he’s gone.”

            Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to. — Richard Branson

          2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

            And should appreciate and take advantage of the fact that he’s being patient. For now.

  9. Let Me Tell You About My Cats*

    I wonder what it will take for businesses to realize that blatant favoritism is just plain bad for the bottom line. My supervisor at my previous job played favorites mercilessly, so the point that people outside the department commented on it. Unless you were one of the Annointed Ones, you couldn’t wear grey or brown clothes (not sure where that came from) or work from home, and were blocked from any promotions, period. But there was no link between being favored and performance. In fact, the better you were, the LESS likely you were to be favored. It was bizarre. And they wonder why their turnover is crazy high. I don’t know how they haven’t figured it out, but my former coworkers say it’s gotten even worse since I left a year ago.

    1. Mike C.*

      *Pulls out Pantone swatches*

      I’m sorry Bill, your sales are just too low to be wearing that color!

      1. Let Me Tell You About My Cats*

        They pay pretty well for the job & our area. But pretty much everyone is looking for something else.

      2. Bea W.*

        I came from a workplace like this, and the people who were looking to escape just hadn’t been there long enough to have all hope and self esteem sucked out of them, and they were convinced “The hell you don’t know is worse than the hell you know.” My former workplace didn’t even pay well. It’s super sad.

      1. Let Me Tell You About My Cats*

        I never thought about it that way! The reason I was given was that brown and gray looked “too casual” and we hadn’t earned the right to look that casual. Even though many business casual clothes come in brown & gray. But even the Annointed Ones didn’t wear too much brown & gray. It was a really toxic environment.

          1. Let Me Tell You About My Cats*

            You would be overdressed and must be interviewing somewhere else. ;) At least that’s what my supervisor said to someone who wore a fancy skirt (think medieval-inspired). There was just no winning.

    2. Purest Green*

      Office sumptuary laws?! That would only encourage me to come to work dressed in purple robes and a lapis crown.

    3. Thing 1*

      I worked somewhere with a similar dynamic of the lowest performers being the favorites, and I think in that case it was because management let their friends slack off while the rest of us were expected to carry their workload. So you wound up with a situation where the favorites were doing half the work or less of the top performers, but getting perks and opportunities the top performers didn’t anyway. Needless to say the employees who stuck around aren’t really the ones any competent manager would want.

    4. The Strand*

      That is seriously weird. Weirder than the pantyhose with ankle socks the Disney Store used to force their women employees to wear.

  10. Trout 'Waver*

    I’m not addressing this to the writer, but rather I think this is an excellent anecdote to highlight the differences between training a new employee and hiring an experienced employee.

    It also is a great anecdote showing an example of a person that has to change jobs to get paid what he’s worth.

  11. Apollo Warbucks*

    I was in a similar situation where a coworker was paid something like £15,000 more than me it sucked when my technical skills were just as good if not better. My coworker did deserve a higher salary but not by that much.

    It’s sucks to me in that situation, I moved on as soon as I could and haven’t looked back.

    The job I was good at the time and I’ll always be greaful to my old boss for launching my career and being a great mentor, but it ran its course and I simply out grew the role and development opportunities at my old company.

    I was keen to attend some conference and profesional development courses and that kept me a bit happier and encouraged me to stay longer, maybe you can find something like that to offer Ferguson.

  12. B*

    I agree with much of what has been said in the response and comments. You should also ask Fergus what else he would like – more vacation time, perhaps some education opportunities, Friday’s off or working from home, and/or paying for him to attend conferences. These, and other benefits, are items you can offer that give him a benefit and show he is valued without considerably increasing your costs.

      1. Girasol*

        That’s what I was thinking. Maybe all he cares about is cash, maybe not. What if you offered the flexibility and work/life balance perks and talked to him about what the outlook is for catch-up raises in the future? It might not work but then again it might.

        Oh, and BTW I LOVE “Gazebo Slayer,” both the name and the story.

  13. Chickaletta*

    That’s a tough situation. If you truly can’t get anyone cheaper than Cecil then the bottom line is that you can’t afford the employees you need in order to run your business. I would start looking at your overall business model, not just your employee situation. If you’re truly growing then you should be able to compensate the employees you need.

    I hate to say it, but I’ve been the “cut” employee in a situation where the owner couldn’t “afford” me, yet his lifestyle demonstrated that what he really meant was that he’d rather keep the profits for himself. If this describes you, take a honest look at whether you should be running a business with employees. It may not be you at all, but I’ve seen it often enough. “Trickle down economics” is not the reality.

    But if you just want to rectify the employee situation you’ve got into, start looking into Cecil’s replacement and promote Fergus. Perhaps you can replace Cecil with a new grad who’s willing to work at Fergus’s low rate. At the end of the day though, you get what you pay for.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      It’s not necessarily true that they can’t afford the employees they need. They just made a bad hire. Apparently they can afford one 10-year licensed engineer and one 5-year unlicensed engineer. If they had a better 10-year engineer, they’d be fine. If they had two strong 5-year licensed engineers, they’d be fine.

      But it also sounds like a structural problem in this industry. I know nothing about engineering, but if engineers’ pay is constantly increasing with years of service (and additional licensure?) organizations are never going to be able to keep good employees (unless they have simultaneous growth that keeps necessitating and funding increasingly senior engineers).

      1. J.B.*

        Oh, it’s awful and cutthroat. Your best bet is to get a couple of years in somewhere and then get OUT. Cecil is long overdue.

      2. alter_ego*

        I don’t know their industry specifically, but I’m an electrical engineer in an industry that bills my time, and in which a PE will be very helpful. If it’s at all similar, he’s getting calls from headhunters every week. I’m a solid engineer, but not a superstar like this guy apparently is, and I get recruitment calls all the time. And all of our non-new grad hires have been headhunted away from other companies. It’s a good job market for my industry in my city, and it’s absolutely helped pay (my last raise was 13%).

        However, I’ve stayed. I’ve gotten offers for 10k more, but no guarantees of my current flexibility, and I really like my coworkers. I make enough that while 10k is great, it’s not life-changing either. But it does mean that if my company starts to treat me worse, take away benefits, or hire people I don’t particularly like to work with, I know I’m in a place where I can find something new easily enough.

      3. LD*

        And it’s not always about salary; it’s about what they can bill the clients for the engineers or other staff who are working on the project(s). More years of experience leads to a higher billed rate to the client.

    2. Manders*

      Yeah, that’s a great point. OP, you’ve already established that hiring a new employee with the skills you need means paying Cecil’s rate. When Fergus leaves, what are you going to do? Will you just be permanently down an employee? Will you lose work? Or is the money actually there, and you just don’t want to spend the political capitol to raise Fergus’s salary?

      If your business is relying this heavily on labor costs staying less than market rate, in a field where you know that it’s difficult to hire for under market rate, that’s a really bad sign for the long-term health of the business.

  14. Big10Professor*

    I feel like a lot of people are focusing on demoting/firing Cecil. It’s not at all clear that Cecil is underperforming compared to the job description, and it sounds like he was brought in at the going market rate. He’s not a superstar, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t doing his job just fine, or that he could be replaced for less money.

    1. fposte*

      Agreeing. It sounds like Cecil is a competent engineer who was hired at market rate. Fergus is a superstar who’s underpaid. The fact that there’s a disparity in both competence and pay doesn’t mean Cecil is incompetent or overpaid even if Fergus is an underpaid superstar.

    2. she was a fast machine*

      Yup. All the comments about firing Cecil and replacing him with another underpaid employee are way off. If they hired Cecil at his rate, it’s highly unlikely Cecil OR Fergus’s replacements will be any cheaper.

    3. Bluebell*

      “Cecil, is a competent enough engineer, but he’s slower, he often requires information that the client doesn’t have to start a project, he isn’t as capable with technology, and he lacks the personal skills to effectively coordinate with other departments.”

      It looks like Cecil is not a good employee though. I don’t think he needs to be fired but he needs to be coached by the manager on how to be faster and more effective and maybe be put on a performance improvement plan.

  15. LawCat*

    I’ve been Fergus. You can’t keep him under the circumstances you’ve described. The best you can do is be honest with him and be supportive of his need to move on. And hope he doesn’t write about the experience you’ve described on Glassdoor.

    1. Leatherwings*

      If OP offers to be a great recommendation, I can’t imagine this will have been a terrible experience for him (unless there are outstanding circumstances). Not getting a huge raise is hardly ground for scorching your first employer (who clearly thinks very highly of you) on Glassdoor. As long as OP is upfront and understanding with Fergus, there’s no reason to believe he’s had some miserable experience he’ll need to vent about.

      1. LawCat*

        It reflects on the organization, not the OP. What the OP does may be able to mitigate how Fergus sees the organization or it might not. The hope is that it will and he won’t write of the organization, to paraphrase AAM’s description, “Organization hired someone who isn’t very good, but gave him a bunch of rewards that he hasn’t earned while denying them to the person whose performance does actually merit them … and organization paid the less competent guy nearly double what the better performer is getting.”

        I used to be Fergus! My last supervisor was fantastic and supportive (and driven just about as crazy as I was by the organization’s behavior), but her support doesn’t fix the organization that does not reward merit and uses entrenched bureaucracy as an excuse. I have and will continue to warn people against the organization, but would still describe my supervisor there as great.

        1. Leatherwings*

          Sure. This is a less than ideal situation the company has put both the OP and Fergus in, but I also think that hitting the panic button over glassdoor reviews isn’t really necessary. As long as OP keeps the focus on being positive and supportive, that’s likely enough to have him leave on good terms.

    2. the_sci*

      I tend to agree with this. I feel like I was sort of a Fergus at a previous job- I was being paid well under market rate for the level and quality of work I was producing, however they couldn’t give me a raise due to strange collective bargaining rules and the fact that they didn’t have enough money in their salary budget lines. Part of the reason there wasn’t enough money was because they absolutely NEEDED a program manager, and the market rate for that position was high enough that there was no wiggle room to raise my salary. So I left for a job that was willing to pay me market rate and where I could grow my career.

      It sounds like Cecil is competent but not outstanding, and is being paid market rate for his experience level. It also sounds like a senior person is absolutely needed on this team so even if you fired Cecil, you wouldn’t be able to replace him for less. So honestly, unless you can increase your budget for a five-year engineer, you’re going to need to content yourself with hiring really good entry-level employees, training them up, and helping them leave once they’ve got their professional designation, like Fergus is probably going to do. Honestly, I think a lot of organizations (especially small ones?) run this way, so it’s not the worst thing in the world, as long as your hiring is done well. Plus, if this position turns over every five years, like clockwork, higher-ups might finally understand the issue.

      1. Stephanie*

        Yeah, I agree. I don’t think necessarily think training up entry-level engineers like that is a bad thing. I imagine a small firm can only do so much and market rate for a licensed senior engineer or project manager can only go so low. It sounds like you guys might be civil engineers; talking to my civil engineering friends who’ve gone the small firm route out of school (versus working for a MegaCorp), this is a pretty common occurrence. It just becomes a bigger issue when you’re replacing your amazing entry-level folks every one or two years and are constantly in a hiring-training-exit interview cycle.

        1. the_scientist*

          I’m not in engineering obviously, but this is so, so, so common in research organizations, particularly where there’s a separation between permanent organizational (hospital/university) funding and grant funding for specific projects. A big lab might have a lab manager who is a permanent employee on salary, but then be looking to hire research assistants (who of course need advanced degrees and experience) using grant funds….and because there’s never enough money, they’re not paying those people very well (plus the positions are contract, part-time, with no room to advance), so most research assistants stay for a year or two until they can leapfrog into something more stable that pays more, or they go back to school or something. Yes, the constant cycle of turnover/hiring is incredibly annoying, but this is the price you pay if you as an organization can’t offer monetary or other benefits that are attractive enough to keep people around.

          Just as an anecdote, my salary increased by over 20% when I left my job where I had a case of the Ferguses, plus I transitioned from contract (no benefits, no PTO) to permanent with vacation and benefits.

          1. coffeeepoweeerrddddd*

            I love the “case of the Ferguses” – reminds me of the “case of the Mondays” bit from Office Space.
            “What, no, man. I believe you get your *** kicked for saying something like that.”

  16. PeachTea*

    I’ve been in Fergus’ position before and it sucks. I was the highest performer and constantly praised for my work, but I earned over 10k less than my co-workers and whenever there was a big project, someone else would get it.

    My manager knew I’d started to look and kept trying to get me to stay. I told him straight up, I needed more money and more responsibility. They denied any more responsibility and could only come up with $2,000 more. I left for a job that paid me 13k more. It sucks because I actually liked my job, but I couldn’t be in an environment where I was so undervalued.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      This scenario plays out often – people like the OP end up painting themselves into a corner without realizing it, by failing to look at the “big picture”.

      If you work in IS/IT/computer work, this will happen to you, and the painful exit interview – “this ISN’T what I wanted”. …..

      Perhaps when the day comes when Fergus finds the job with the fair payday – the directors will be convinced that it’s time to counter-offer, or, play it stupid – celebrate the end of a long joyride.

      Fergus, should, on the other hand, be aware of his situation AND if the company is making money hand-over -fist, make THAT known.

    2. LawCat*

      Yep, me too. The most my former employer was willing to do was maybe match a competing offer. (So instead of paying me what I was asking, you want me to look for a new job? Get an offer and then stay? Ooooookay.) Needless to say, I got an offer for a lot more than the raise I had sought and I left for the new job.

      1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        LawCat – in the computer business, that’s standard procedure in many sites.

  17. AMG*

    I could go somewhere else that pays more but I choose to stay.

    I get management training and experience.
    I get to work from home 1 day a week, with the possibility of more later.
    I get lots of PTO to recharge when I need it.
    I am appreciated and valued.
    I usually get the pick of the projects, which ones I want to manage, which ones I want to allocate out.
    Within the projects, I get to choose which tasks to keep and which ones to delegate.
    My opinions are heard and factored into planning and decisions.
    I am getting my PMP paid for by the company
    I have the flexibility to take off work for medical appointments for my sick husband.
    I have medical, dental and optical insurance, 401(k), and other benefits.

    I see many things you can give Fergus–I think you need to restructure the work flow of your little team and then take look at this list.

    1. LQ*

      I’ll add to this.
      I’m really close to work. (This isn’t something they can change, but it does matter!)
      No one calls me or expects me to work when I’m not at work, vacations are vacations.
      My opinions are solicited from a wide range of people far up the line on interesting projects. (I know you mentioned this but it is a big one!)
      I get to work on things that go no where occasionally. (Think the pixar shorts, they aren’t making money, they aren’t doing anything, but the people who did them clearly loved doing them.)

      1. AnonEMoose*

        One thing about the Pixar shorts, though, is that Pixar at least used to use them as a development tool for people who wanted to move into directing feature films. They’d assign the person a short to see how they did and help them develop the skills. So, even if the shorts weren’t making money on their own, they were still a value for the company.

        1. LQ*

          Right (though I’ve heard somethings that say that they weren’t really as much value to that as other forms of doing it would be) but developing a person in a way like that can be incredibly valuable. Sometimes you learn that person isn’t good at that thing, but you’ve learned it on a lower value/budget project. Sometimes it takes off like crazy. (Another example, I believe is google’s letting people work on their own pet projects.) But they aren’t always super important high value/high pressure things, rather really high learning and doing the things you find interesting things.

    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*


      Depends on the situation. Yes, you can accept a lower pay because the job provides you with a greater quality of life.

      But if you’re being underpaid – because of a massive internal pay DISPARITY – you can’t sell the victim of it with ideas that “we’re great, we’re great, and we’re great”. A plea for mercy comes across as = “yes, we screwed you. And we’ve been doing it all these years, but, gee whiz, give us a break. And did I say how great we are? And how happy you can be if you don’t think about this?”

      In Fergus’ situation, Fergus’ response should be “horse manure’ to such an argument. It’s insulting. Trying to sell Fergus on the idea would likely not get far. In fact, it might close the door to negotiation.

      1. LQ*

        I don’t know. I do think it depends on the situation. But I think not even trying is more insulting than saying, “Hey, I know this isn’t ideal, what can I do that would work for you.” If money is the only thing (and it rarely is, but people aren’t always good at knowing what else to offer, like the op) then offer him a great reference and wish him well. But not trying seems way more like an insult.

        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

          I had to leave one job over money – and it was one of the saddest days of my career.

          I am reminded of the baseball/romantic movie “For Love of the Game” – where Billy Chapel (Costner) is a pitcher at the end of his career, and is angry that a teammate is leaving Detroit for the Yankees – and a lot more money. Billy says “what about the team?” – to which his friend points to his wife and kids and says “THAT’S MY TEAM.”

          I had a family – wife, pre-school daughter, mortgage, a car with four bald tires, and I was eating Spam Roast one night a week. The Jimmy Carter-induced inflation came close to wiping us out financially.

          My choice was to sell my house and move into a mobile-home park, tell my daughter, no more vacations, and college? Forget about it.

          Or take another job where I could support them. Goodbye, work “family”. I’m taking care of my real family and unless you come up with a counter-offer in the next 15 minutes, I’m going to take care of my family. When talk of “next year” or “something we can work toward” came up – I informed them YOU HAD YOUR CHANCE.

          We’ve been better off. I can pay my bills. I can eat well. My mortgage is paid, my daughter’s college is paid off, I have a robust 401k (actually two of them) and I am not driving rolling junk.

          Yes, there are regrets. But those went away when the first paycheck arrived in the mailbox.

      2. Bea W.*

        Yes, this is the situation I was in. I knew I could go off and make more money elsewhere but the non-monetary compensation outweighed that UNTIL I became the victim of a massive disparity. Then it wasn’t okay anymore, and nothing was going to make it okay other than addressing the disparity and making good on broken promises. I was totally heart broken about it too, but the overall message I was getting from my employer was too horrible to ignore, and didn’t bode well for future career progression. My field was super hot right now, and I was being head hunted everyday, and I knew how hard it would be to find a replacement, and how much more money that replacement would cost. There was no reason for me to accept the circumstance I found myself in.

        Luckily my manager decided to step up, and the people above her head decided to correct the disparity issue before I had the chance to hand in a resignation letter rather than continue to hand me a bunch of “horse manure”. Even if my manager had been unable to sway the people above her head, it made a difference to me that she was willing to step it up. That’s worth a lot.

        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

          “I knew I could go off and make more money elsewhere but the non-monetary compensation outweighed that UNTIL I became the victim of a massive disparity. Then it wasn’t okay anymore, and nothing was going to make it okay other than addressing the disparity and making good on broken promises. I was totally heart broken about it too, but the overall message I was getting from my employer was too horrible to ignore, and didn’t bode well for future career progression…”

          Exactly, Bea. “Love of the Game” can come back to bite you financially because managers will take advantage of you. Your manager was willing to go to bat for you – and fought for you – and didn’t make excuses. If she didn’t succeed, you would have moved on (likely) but she wouldn’t make excuses and try to sugar-coat the situation.

          1. AMG*

            I completely agree that priority number one would be to get Fergus a ginormous raise. But if the raise isn’t so ginormous, there are other things he can do to delay Fergus leaving / show him he’s valued. OP is in an unfortunate spot and I agree that it’s not the same one I’m in. It may help, so I’m offering it up. :)

            1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

              Everybody’s thinking this out (in print) from OP’s position.

              Few are viewing it from FERGUS’ position. Let’s go over what Fergus goes over every hour of every day =

              = I’m grossly underpaid.

              = I’m carrying the lunch for a guy who does half the work but gets paid much more than I do.

              = I’m generating a lot of the revenue here (assumed).

              = I have asked for a raise to settle things but have been stonewalled. Don’t know if it’s my boss doing the stonewalling or the higher-ups, but I’m being stonewalled here on this.

              = To make matters worse, they talk about “family”, a great place to work, often say how great of a job I’m doing but they sure as hell don’t appreciate it with a fair payday.

              = I get three headhunter calls a week.

              = I suspect that management is daring me to test my market value (note = always a mistake for management to do that!)

              = This is a HUGE distraction and it’s impossible for me to not have it affect the work I do.

              then finally, if Fergus’ wife doesn’t tell him, he wakes up at 3 am and realizes –
              = WHY AM I BOTHERING TO NEGOTIATE WITH THESE @$#%^s!???!!!

    3. Dan*

      Things bucketed into “quality of life” I consider non-monetary compensation, and are certainly reasons to forgo extra cash somewhere else.

      But… things like management training/experience, and a PMP? I’d get those from my current employer with the expectation that there will be increased compensation down the road, either here or elsewhere. I’m just asking what your ultimate motivations are with those — stay put, or move on? If you stay put, are you expecting more money? If not, why bother?

  18. jhhj*

    Why can you not discuss all this with your partners? If you are all working together for the company, they should be able to help troubleshoot this — there are lots of possible solutions, depending on what your actual constraints are. But you are likely very short on time to work on this, so you need to figure out what you want to do (other perks for Fergus, make no changes, talk to your partners, whatever) and tell Fergus what the plans are.

    If you can’t talk to your partners about this, then you have a much bigger problem than losing a superstar employee.

    1. AD*

      Agreed. I know Alison asked us not to pile on, but I just don’t understand OP’s approach here. And the whole “I need to give Cecil higher profile projects to justify his salary” seems both a roundabout and ineffective way to manage an average performers. Not to mention an avoidance of communicating the situation with his/her partners.

    2. Jennifer*

      Yeah, what this boils down to me is, how much power does the OP have over any of this situation to change it? This sounds more like the problem of a middle manager with no control over anything than a partner in a firm.

  19. animaniactoo*

    By what you’ve laid out here, you’re paying double what you actually need for someone in Cecil’s position. So you’re already spending money you don’t need to on his salary. That the work he’s doing is apparently not even worth Fergus’ salary, is an additional kicker on top of that.

    It is not fair to ask Fergus to be the one who pays the most for that mistake. To shoot *himself* in the foot by continuing to work for less recognition and pay than he deserves. Because you have chosen to spend (and continue to spend) your budget elsewhere. It’s just not. You can’t ask him to do that.

    If it’s going to be a long and costly process to replace either one, wouldn’t you rather at least have the best shot at *choosing* which one gets replaced? With the possibility of saving your overall budget some money and being able to give Fergus what he actually deserves on top of it?

    Which option gives you the best chance of success for your department and company going forward? Hanging on and hoping like mad that Fergus will somehow overlook his opportunities and stay with you under his current working conditions, or cutting Cecil loose and focusing on finding someone who is a better fit for your needs?

  20. she was a fast machine*

    Fergus, is, at this point, a saint. I’ve been in exactly his shoes, and just got offered a new job that will pay me what I’m worth and offers incredible benefits. I know my current(soon to be former) employer is pissed to be losing me, especially since I did double and triple the work I should have and had skills vital to the running of the organization, but they did what you’re doing; they said they loved me and valued me, but consistently refused to do anything to help me out or to show that appreciation. At a certain point actions outweigh words. And Fergus is seeing exactly what your actions prioritize.

    If I were you, I’d be expecting Fergus’s notice any day now, and the reality is, unless you do something to make it very clear how valuable he is to your business, you’re going to have to replace him, probably with another Cecil, sooner rather than later.

    1. Lia*

      Agreed 100%. I’ve also been in those shoes and 3 years later, they still haven’t learned, and are actually now faced with their second try at my replacement washing out, leading them to outsource the very projects I did for them (and that he was hired to do). It’s cost them way more money to do this than they thought.

      That employer was also shocked that most of what is out there is Cecils, and that Ferguses aren’t all that common — and we get a lot of people wanting us.

      1. she was a fast machine*

        Yeah, since I’ve been here they’ve had four other people come and go in my parallel position(there’s supposed to be two of me, but they can’t keep the second seat filled) for a whole myriad of reasons. But really it boils down to the fact that we do a tremendous amount of work for table scraps. I’ve been alone since January, so eight months doing the work of my position, my parallel position, and a good percentage of my new(still-learning-the-ropes) supervisor’s position. When my soon-to-be manager was interviewing me she was visibly shocked to learn everything I was doing in my current position, and once she heard the details from a former co-worker I’d used as a reference, I got the offer the very next day. So at least there’s one business out there that does appreciate us Ferguses!

    2. pomme de terre*

      Argh, that is so annoying when jobs tell you they value you and do not demonstrate it with compensation. What’s that Joe Biden quote? Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.

      1. she was a fast machine*

        In my case, I was okay with the compensation because I really enjoyed the work we were doing. They liked to harp on all the days off we got and how flexible the supervisors were, but when it came down to it they wouldn’t let me take any of the sick time I’d accrued AND when I asked to work a slightly altered schedule two days a week I was flat-out told it was never gonna happen. That’s when I really started looking for another job, because it was no longer a case of “we value you but can’t pay you”, it was “we don’t really value you at all”.

    3. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      “Fergus, is, at this point, a saint.”

      And if Fergus doesn’t act, he won’t be a saint, he’ll be a sucker.

  21. Tuckerman*

    If you’re absolutely sure you can’t pay him more, can you allow him to work from home a couple days per week? That was a huge incentive for staying at a job for me. Especially if you’re in an area where commutes are rough, working two days from home could save him significant travel time. It’s also one of those perks that is hard to give up once you have it, so he may be more likely to stay on longer until you are in a position to offer him something better.

  22. Retail HR Guy*

    Of course you can win bids while only paying 75% of the labor costs of your competitors. But how sustainable is a business model that relies on having a star engineer who is okay with being taken advantage of?

  23. Chaordic One*

    The OP should start developing a contingency plan to start looking for Fergus’ replacement and be gracious when Fergus leaves. Who knows? She (or he) might meet up with Fergus in the future.

  24. Stephanie*

    Oof. Yeah, you may lose Fergus. Are there other benefits you could offer him to at least keep him a bit longer? Can you offer education benefits, work from home arrangements, support for outside volunteer activities, conference travel, etc? Depending on what he’s looking for work-wise, that stuff can be pretty valuable.

    1. Stephanie*

      Oh, I’d also say if you do talk with him about leaving, offer to be a good reference or write him a recommendation letter if he applies for further schooling.

  25. I'm Not Phyllis*

    Can you consider letting Cecil go and hiring someone more junior to assist Fergus, and giving him the major projects? Without knowing your situation exactly, it’s hard to tell if that would work, but under the circumstances you’ve described I don’t think I could blame Fergus for looking elsewhere (or for at least entertaining the idea if recruiters call him). It sucks when your hands are tied though – you have my sympathy!

    1. I'm Not Phyllis*

      That’s IF Cecil is underperforming according to what’s on his job description and what you need from him … and if you’ve already been trying to manage his performance. It’s not very clear from your description if this is the case, or if he is performing at an appropriate level, but just not as high as Fergus.

  26. BRR*

    Everything I have to say is somewhat echoing others but you’re especially worried about having to replace Cecil but are you as worried about replacing Fergus? It sounds like you’re going to lose Fergus anyways* so you might need to think of it as is it easier to replace Fergus or Cecil? There’s always a panic of “we can’t lose so-and-so” but again I think you need to think of it as you are going to lose somebody. I think you’re wasting too much time worrying how you can’t lose somebody. It could happen at any time. Fergus and Cecil might both resign at the same time.

    Also it sounds like you’re trying to justify the wrong employee to the other partners. You’re doing things to justify Cecil but you should be focusing on justifying Fergus. What if you don’t justify Cecil? I’m not as familiar with partnership dynamics but you should all be trying to work together.

    *If you can’t reward Fergus at your company, the best thing you can do as his manager is help him advance his career overall. He’s given you plenty of time. You can’t (and shouldn’t) entice him to stay by saying you need him. It’s business, not personal. It sounds like you might be annoyed that he’s job hunting but you sound incredibly realistic about things. He’s a highly-skilled, under-paid employee in competitive field. I imagine turnover is common.

  27. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like Cecil was brought in to make the overall load more manageable, not necessarily because he had expertise or skill that Fergus lacked. It seems like that should be more conducive to shifting responsibility to Fergus. If you end up managing Cecil out — well, that’s better than managing Fergus out.

    One way or another, you will be replacing one of them. That’s out of your hands at this point, unless something majorly changes with the budget you’re given and/or how you work things out with the partners. I don’t think you have the luxury to pretend that you can hang onto them both for any medium- or long-term future. Your choice is whether to start the search now, or wait for Fergus to put in his two weeks. I don’t think you stand to gain much, if anything, by going down that route. I think if you look at the time and cost of replacing one person in your department as already slated for spending, things become a lot clearer. You want to keep Fergus. You don’t sound terribly attached to keeping Cecil. Isn’t it better to replace Cecil than Fergus?

    Too, I think you have a bit of a deeper dysfunction here: you say that you need to give Cecil, your lesser employee in performance terms, the best assignments in order to “justify his cost.” Yet, he was pretty much the only hire you could afford to make. That speaks of a problem balancing the budget you’re given and the results you’re asking for (or being asked for; it wasn’t clear in your letter how much of this is in your hands).

    1. Buffalo Engineer*

      I don’t think he was the only one they could afford, just the only one that they could attract and close. That’s not uncommon in this industry. Especially in smaller markets.

  28. Jessie*

    So, here’s my question. Are you certain Cecil actually underperforming or is Fergus simply out-of-this-world amazing?

    The issue might be that Fergus is a unicorn (pardon the metaphor) and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever find another Fergus-like Cecil to replace Cecil. And perhaps instead of having two positions for 5+ year engineers, get rid of one of those positions (Cecil’s) and replace it with another 0-2 year Engineer out of college.

    1. Blossom*

      Completely agree! Fergus is clearly a rare talent. Make him your lead, and involve him in the hiring process for a graduate trainee. A talented graduate might jump at the chance to work for a small company that invests in its staff, alongside rising stars of the industry. The lower salary due a graduate will free up retention money for Fergus.

    2. Jennifer*

      Yeah, it sounds like Fergus is a unicorn and Cecil is just the usual sort of horse, but Cecil is the only one “allowed” to have unicorn treatment.

  29. crazy8*

    This happens sometimes. You hire a newbie and then realize you hit the jackpot. . I think the opportunity has passed to sort this out without losing one or the other of these employees, my question is why does it have to be Fergus? if the other guy isn’t earning his keep, maybe he should get managed out the door . It might very well be that the job market has turned and you can find a better employee for less money–or at the very least, you can adjust Fergus’ pay before you hire the next person.

  30. JeJe*

    The OP says he can’t raise Fergus’s salary AND still win bids. How do this company’s bids compare to competitors? Are they underbidding to the point it impacts the company’s ability to operate?

  31. animaniactoo*

    There have been a number of comments saying that OP isn’t going to be able to replace Cecil with somebody more towards Fergus’ level/salary (which is what it appears they actually need), because it was tried and Cecil was the best they could come up with.

    However, there are 2 major factors that can change that. 1) Fergus now has his license, and can be the licensed engineer. He’s got 2 more years of experience, and what they might really need is somebody who can be Fergus 18 months ago, not Fergus now or even Cecil then. 2) Cecil was hired 18 months ago. Cecil may have been all that was (reasonably) out there then, but that’s not the same as Cecil is all that is ever out there. Sometimes, a competitive market is even dryer than usual at the exact moment you’re in a bind. I think it’s a mistake to take it for granted that another Cecil is all that could be out there by way of replacement.

    1. Kyrielle*

      Point! They wanted a five-year licensed engineer and couldn’t get one; they could only get Cecil. But now they *have* a five-year licensed engineer. If they can keep him.

  32. LisaLee*

    I am confused as to why Cecil is getting all the responsibility and leadership opportunities here. Why can’t you give Fergus, oh, 30% of the proposals and major projects? Can’t you sell it to your higher ups as wanting to give both employees experience in those areas so you have a backup if one person leaves? That still may not be adequate, but it would be a start.

    Are there other things you could give Fergus that he might consider worth staying for like flexible hours, WFH days, more vacation?

    1. Turtle Candle*

      That was the part that I genuinely didn’t understand. Only being able to find someone less talented for more money, okay, that sucks but I can see how a fluctuating job market might make that happen. But taking all proposals, and leadership of all major projects away from Fergus? I don’t understand the logic there. I get that the higher salary has to be justified with some degree of higher responsibility (although as Bluesboy notes, below, artificially inflating Cecil’s importance to justify his salary to the partners seems completely backwards to me), but even if that’s for some reason non-negotiably necessary I’d take a really long hard look at whether that means you have to give Cecil all the plum responsibilities.

  33. boop*

    Why justify cecil’s price tag to other workers at the expense of someone else? Why try to cover up the situation? I’m just really curious why any of these things “had” to happen? This reads a little like a sitcom. You know, main character makes mistake, lies like crazy to cover up the mistake, everything blows up and then fizzles, goes again every week! And from then on you’re yelling at the TV “No, why… just cut your losses and fix it!”

    But then by the time it gets to the wacky climax, you have no idea how the character is going to dig their way out of it. It usually requires writing in a convenient and unlikely plot device to end gracefully. Maybe that’s why coming up with advice on this one is so difficult.

  34. Bluesboy*

    “To make matters worse, I am forced to have Cecil write all proposals, lead all major projects, and take some smaller projects from Fergus when we are slower in order to justify his cost to the other partners.”

    I’m not sure I’m quite getting this. Basically, Fergus is better, and you are choosing to disadvantage your department, and lower the quality of work produced by assiging work to Cecil instead. Is that right? And you’re doing that in order to justify Cecil’s cost to your partners.

    I don’t think you’re fulfilling your obligations to your partners here in choosing to assign work in this way. Why are you doing it? Do you think otherwise the partners will want to get rid of Cecil (are you protecting him)? Or are you worried what they will think of you (that you made the wrong choice or are incapable of managing Cecil effectively)?

    It seems to me that the correct thing to do is change the way you assign work by giving Fergus the chance to do more interesting projects – at least he’ll feel he’s learning and growing (talk to him first though so he doesn’t just feel he’s getting more work to do for the same money).

    I don’t know if that will help overall. It might lead to Cecil leaving and you employing someone cheaper and being able to give the difference to Fergus. It might lead to both leaving. Or Fergus might leave anyway and you have an unhappy Cecil on your hands. But I think you DO need to assign work in the best way for your firm, and not assign it to the wrong person just to justify their presence.

    Whatever you do, good luck!

    1. AnonAnalyst*

      Totally agree with this whole comment. I had the same thought about the OP’s explanation of “having to justify [Cecil’s] cost to the other partners.” I think the OP needs to have an honest conversation with the other partners about what’s best for the firm at this juncture. And that conversation should include the issues that the OP has observed in Cecil’s work/process, because those issues might not be visible to the other partners at this point but could be important in how they decide to move forward.

    2. Turtle Candle*

      Yes, this is actually the part I stuck on the most, even more than the salary (although the salary is no small potatoes either). Is the issue that you are afraid that the partners will force you to get rid of Cecil if you give Fergus the level of work he is capable of and has earned (and thus it doesn’t look like Cecil is ‘earning his pay’)? Because what it looks like now is that you’re building a case for keeping Cecil–by giving him responsibilities and projects that justify his pay–while also, accidentally but very concretely, making a case against Fergus by not giving him the projects and responsibilities he’d need to justify a greater title or salary for him. Basically, it looks from the outside as if you are presenting an argument to the partners for retaining Cecil and getting rid of Fergus.

      And, at this point it looks like you’re going to lose one of them anyway, and it’s worth thinking about who you want to retain, and therefore what argument you want to present. Is propping up Cecil in the eyes of the partners, at the expense of being able to offer Fergus incentives to stay, worthwhile to the business? Because that’s the effect of giving him the prime roles to justify his salary is–you’re expanding his importance to justify his pay, and contracting Fergus’s importance.

      It seems to me that both the wisest and most ethical move is to lay out the actual situation. They might decide that you should lay off Cecil; they might decide that they can find the money to pay both adequately from somewhere; they might decide something else. But right now what you’re doing is de facto arguing to keep the lower performer and get rid of the higher performer, and I can’t imagine that that’s what you want to be doing–or, if the partners are reasonable, what they’d want you to do.

    3. Shannon*

      It sounds like the OP is protecting Cecil because they are afraid there will be a long delay between firing Cecil and hiring a replacement.

  35. Office Plant*

    What about hiring a very promising new grad and giving Fergus the option of managing or mentoring this person? Someone who will be able to do more advanced work, but for less than what you’re paying Cecil. If Fergus wants to manage or mentor, raise his title and salary accordingly. And of course fire Cecil (after going through the usual steps).

    Of course this would only work in an industry that allows it. I’m getting the impression this might be an industry where roles are very strictly defined based on years of experience and where they’re getting certain projects because they have a 10-year on the staff. And maybe this is a specialized firm, one where there wouldn’t be a lot of candidates to choose from. Meaning that the issues they’re facing might be more understandable to someone else in the same field. If that’s the case, could they broaden their focus or take on some non-traditional projects so that the scenario I suggested would be feasible?

  36. Cafe au Lait*

    OP, your letter focused on all the ways you *can’t* pay Fergus more, and why you must pay Cecil more. Have you discussed how much money Fergus has saved your company over his five years. I think that you need to look at all the ways Fergus has saved your company money by problem solving or teaching himself new skills. Assign costs to those tasks. Something like “Fergus re-calibrated Death Star trajectory: savings, $100,000.” “Taught himself seal training techniques for underwater post building: savings, $50,000.”

    Justify to your managers that losing Fergus due to low pay means that your company will pay more for training, etc, that Fergus would have otherwise solved on his own.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Yes!! Yes!! The crux here is really about potential future spending vs. current actual non-spending; I think contextualizing it properly is super important.

    2. AnonAnalyst*

      Yes, this. Plus, even if they are able to hire another junior employee with similar problem solving skills at a similar salary to Fergus’, there will still be costs associated with lost productivity and hiring and onboarding his replacement when he leaves.

      It’s not like they can swap out Fergus for another junior employee with no additional cost to the organization, unless they can find someone they can pay much, much less. That should be an important part of the discussion with the other partners.

  37. AnotherAlison*

    Fergus needs to be promoted and given a raise. Your proposals should reflect his new pay grade. Are you rate sheet billing or W2 billing? T&M or fixed fee? Your clients are now getting the benefit of his 5 years experience. Why aren’t you charging them for it?

    I don’t know what discipline you’re in, but I work in engineering consulting for a very large company. Our overhead expenses are very high, and I have to bid a lot of my projects with mid-level and senior engineers because the junior ones all work EPC (not in my same group). I have to think you could give Fergus a healthy raise and still be competitive. Even if you’re competing against other small firms, don’t they face the same market forces you do?

  38. Jaguar*

    Why is there so much treating Cecil like a villain here? The only information we have is that Cecil “is a competent enough engineer,” is not as talented as super-talented Fergus, struggles in a few areas, and the letter writer wants to fire him to keep Fergus happy (something it’s not clear Fergus even wants to happen). To make matters worse(?), Cecil negotiated market rate for his work.

    Fergus is absolutely being treated unfairly, but so is Cecil. His job is being threatened because he’s average. He is not the villain in this story, he’s a victim. Whoever is budgeting for salary is the villain.

    1. Leatherwings*

      I totally agree that he’s not a villain, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a victim. At this point, OP hasn’t said anything about considering firing him, that’s only a few commenters. And he really does sound like he needs to step up his performance by getting better at the tech stuff, interacting with colleagues and other departments better, etc.

      All this shouldn’t be tied to Fergus’ job, though so in that way I think you’re right about budgeting for salaries.

      1. GlorifiedPlumber*

        Is it wrong to be an average employee? I don’t believe Cecil needs to step up…

        Not everyone can hire rockstars… if OP needed a rock star, he needs to reopen Cecil’s job ASAP and hire a rockstar, how ever long that takes.

        None of that solves the Fergus issue…

        1. Leatherwings*

          Well that’s something that only OP can decide. Maybe he’s straddling the line between average or fine and Subpar. Who knows? I don’t know if it’s that useful for us to debate that point.

    2. animaniactoo*

      I think that it sounds like Cecil is barely average, and that’s possibly fine. But I also think that even if Cecil were a rockstar, it sounds like they overhired for his role within the company, because their choices seemed to be Cecil and a-lot-less-than-Fergus. They couldn’t find anybody in the middle at the time that they needed, and it sounds like they were in a major bind. So they took what they could get, even though it was more than what they needed. Due to that (I said this above somewhere), I think that even *if* Cecil is under-performing for his level, the focus should really be on the fact of the overhiring and that letting him go has to be a layoff with a decent severance, because yes – that’s not his fault.

      A number of people have suggested that perhaps their search and interview process was problematic and that those need to be fixed to get what they actually need, and that’s possible too. It is also really possible that the market was just particularly dry at that time and they didn’t have the time to wait for it to refresh and get someone who was a better fit for what they actually need.

      1. Jaguar*

        The only language we have from the letter writer is “a competent enough engineer.” The only negatives said about him that aren’t relative to Fergus are that he doesn’t communicate great with other departments and the hard-to-understand-without-context thing about requiring information from clients before starting projects. The letter writer also basically said they hired the cheapest 10-year engineer they could find. I don’t think we can say Cecil is under-performing. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the company is getting a bargain with Cecil as well.

        1. AD*

          Not really.

          This quote from the letter (and which Alison spotlighted in a comment upthread):
          “he’s slower, he often requires information that the client doesn’t have to start a project, he isn’t as capable with technology, and he lacks the personal skills to effectively coordinate with other departments.”

          I think you’re downplaying Cecil’s liabilities a little. These not *minor*, IMHO.

          1. Algae*

            I’m a little confused by the “often requires information that the client doesn’t have to start a project” part.

            Does Cecil need the information? If yes, that should be part of the design plan to get it so that Cecil can do his job. If no, then coaching him on where to find the information (city regulations, purchasing quotes, etc.) or by coaching him on work-arounds for not having that information (“we always do Y times two get the cost for proposal for that piece”) should be a part of OP’s job.

            1. Anonophone*

              Yeah, I think this is an engineering thing – I see it a lot. It’s maybe a bit hard to explain but it’s a bit more nuanced than this..

              An experienced engineer will know that what the client wants is x +/- 30% without the client saying so, will progress the design on that basis for now, and (most importantly) navigate the client through confirming that assumption and the trade-offs associated. But x isn’t city ordinance type stuff, it’s like ‘how many computers do you need to connect into this switchboard’. The OP can coach, but it’s often the type of thing you pay for when you hire an experienced engineer (and then you find some who have been burned before and will literally refuse to start on the basis of an assumption)

        2. animaniactoo*

          Also that he is not as “he isn’t as capable with technology” and is slower.

          I would expect that a 10 yr average engineer is at least up to a (then) 4-year rockstar engineer’s level. Or maybe slightly below it. Certainly not far enough apart that there’s a noticeable discrepancy.

          They might be getting a bargain on Cecil’s salary too, but it also doesn’t sound like they needed someone at the time who even required that much salary. If they had found a 6-year who only needed to be paid 75 or 80% of what they’re paying Cecil, it sounds like that would have fit their needs as well. So even if his salary is a bargain for a 10-year average and competent employee, that still doesn’t make it a worthwhile expense compared to their actual needs.

    3. designbot*

      But someone who performs like Cecil often simply can’t survive on a small team. I’ve worked with Cecils before, and they are generally much better suited to larger teams where their mediocrity can get lost in the shuffle.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I read it as “competent enough engineer,” but not great in other facets of what we need from him — speed, working with clients, working with other people, using technology.

          1. Bea W.*

            This is the problem we often encounter on my team when we are hiring. We need someone who is both a “competent enough” tea pot designer AND has also competent in other areas (speed, working with clients, working with other people, using technology). We end up rejecting a lot of Cecils, perfectly competent tea pot designers, but otherwise not a good fit for what we need our Tea Pot Designer to be.

        2. designbot*

          From the full description it sounds like he’s *minimally* competent. On that small of a team, I would say all members need to be not only competent, but strong.

      1. Electron Wisperer*

        One of the things we found, is that small teams (We have 4 engineers in the shop plus a couple of contractors used for specialist things) tend to need people who are prepared to own their projects to a far greater extent then is sometimes the case in larger teams.

        It is not so much a question of mediocrity necessarily as it is a case of willingness to deal with stuff that needs dealing with, however far outside the job spec (And comfort zone) that may be (I have found myself repairing a CNC mill before now, not in any way my job, but production was at a standstill, you suck it up skim read the service manuals and deal).

        Particularly in Engineering you tend to get a fairly clear division of personalities between the very process oriented folk (Who usually do well in bigger teams and in industries like aerospace, automotive and medical, and can do wonders in that environment) where process is really king because the paperwork is the bigger product then the notional product is, and the ‘sketch it on a white board, cad it up next week, and tell sales they can ship in a month, types. Both have value, and neither lasts well in the other sort of culture.

        We have also found that some people need a senior engineer/lead engineer/whatever standing over them telling them how it is going to be done, while others can churn out good product with nearly no supervision, and it bears nearly no correlation with seniority or experience. The first type again does poorly in small teams, the second has real problems with the adminstrivia and friction in large ones.

        Cultural fit and curiosity are maybe more important then absolute technical excellence.

    4. AD*

      No one is casting him as a villain. It’s just that many comments have *correctly* accentuated the fact, established by OP’s own words, that Cecil is an average performer. OP is certainly the one to be responsible for the situation, and for how it’s managed going forward.

      1. Jaguar*

        I don’t think it’s fair, ethical, or even advisable to fire Cecil for being average (the horror). That sentiment, which has shown up in many posts, is what I’m responding to.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I don’t think we really know if he’s just average or not. I read the OP’s description as being sub-par, but without more context we can’t really say.

          What we do know is that he’s probably overpaid for the performance he’s turning in, at least in the context of the OP’s firm’s salary structure.

        2. AD*

          Not sure what your beef is, but it’s a manager’s job to address and correct problematic employee behavior or lack of skills. And Cecil, in the words of the OP, is “slower, he often requires information that the client doesn’t have to start a project, he isn’t as capable with technology, and he lacks the personal skills to effectively coordinate with other departments.”
          The sum total of these are certainly enough to have a manager consider letting an employee go.

          1. Jaguar*

            Half of the complaints are about Cecil not being as good as Fergus. What you’re effectively talking about is a stack ranking system where everyone except the best performer is fired.

            1. Leatherwings*

              In a vacuum, maybe that’s what they’re talking about, but in context it’s about allocating resources most effectively on a two person team in this specific company with one specific boss.
              In this case it *might* make sense to fire him (I don’t necessarily think so, though), but it’s hardly a slippery slope that will create elaborate ranking systems that everyone will have to follow.

              1. Turtle Candle*

                Right–“everyone except the best engineer is fired” sounds awful, but if it’s a two-person team and they can only afford to pay market rate for one good engineer, then the context is very different.

        3. fposte*

          While I still don’t think this is Cecil’s fault, I think it’s fine to terminate somebody for being average–it happens all the time.

          1. jhhj*

            But they obviously can’t (or won’t) afford to pay for better than average, and a revolving door of looking for underpaid superstars is not going to work.

            1. Jaguar*

              I didn’t want to get into the finance side of it, since I think it’s besides the point (people shouldn’t be advising a firing because someone is “only” competent), but absolutely you get what you pay for. I remember someone in the comments a few weeks ago talked about how they’re not going to “throw away” salary if a candidate under-negotiates on salary. The poster was roundly criticized. Not to paint everyone with the same brush, but the overall tone here seems much different; this company apparently wants the best engineers possible and to underpay them. Um, tough?

    5. Temperance*

      Cecil isn’t a victim. He’s not a villain, but I think it’s a stretch to say that he’s being treated “unfairly”. He’s getting plum projects and high pay at the expense of another person. That sort of sucks.

      I think a lot of us here relate to Fergus and have had to deal with Cecils.

      1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

        Especially if the OP has been addressing his performance issues in other areas and he hasn’t improved.

      2. Jaguar*

        We don’t know at all that he’s getting high pay. We just know he’s getting more than someone who is critically underpaid.

        You agree Cecil isn’t a villain, but then you go and describe him as “having to deal with Cecils.” Having to deal with people who are competent but don’t do a few things well? We should all have such problems.

  39. WellRed*

    The money issue (which is huge) aside, I would be super demoralized if my boss started taking work away from me to give to someone else (especially to justify their salary!).

  40. #payfergusmore* I’ve found myself in Fergus’ situation quite often over the last few years. Higher ups with more ‘experience’ but much less technical knowledge and common business sense getting paid nearly double my salary. A question I like to as is, do you really have 20 years of experience? Or do you have 1 year of experience 20 times? (ie; doing the same thing for years without growing/learning/applying new things to your job/career)

  41. BBBizAnalyst*

    I think a good manager here would be honest with Fergus and encourage him to seek other opportunities. You’re doing a disservice to him by trying to keep him in a losing situation. One of my best managers and current life mentor did this and we’re still in touch. Great leaders know when to let their “star” players soar.

  42. Anna*

    As someone who doesn’t hire, manage, or work in HR, I guess I don’t fully understand why Cecil is entitled to more compensation and responsibility just because he’s been working for more years–especially because he hasn’t been working THERE for longer than Fergus, just longer in general.

    The only way you are going to keep Fergus is if you fire Cecil. No talented person in an industry where there is apparently a shortage of workers is going to stay in this situation unless there is some VERY good external reason. Not only are you underpaying him, you’re showing him that at your company, years in the industry are rewarded, not excellent work.

    It might be worth a conversation with Fergus where you say “I realize we are not treating you like an employee we want to retain. My hands are tied regarding your pay and your status regarding Cecil. Is there anything I can do besides those things that would allow us to show you how much we value you as an employee?” There may be things we can’t think of here, because we don’t know Fergus or his personal life, that would keep him.

    What if you let Cecil go, hired a new grad, and increased compensation for Fergus with the savings, not having to pay the 10 year engineer anymore? If Fergus is as talented as you say, he might be able to help train a new grad, therefore earning his promotion and hopefully passing on his good work habits to a second employee. A move like that would make me feel valued, if I were Fergus. You say that firing and hiring is too expensive, but it is also expensive to pay for mediocre work at a premium price. Plus, as others have pointed out, the need to hire someone is in the cards anyway, once Fergus leaves.

    1. designbot*

      +1 to this. OP sounds like he’s far too hung up on years of experience, at the cost of evaluating actual capabilities. Instead of thinking about this as “a 5-year engineer” and “a 10-year engineer” think about it as, “a staff engineer” and “a lead engineer.” I bet when you think in those terms, the roles reverse–Fergus is your lead engineer. Compensate according to roles, and you may indeed find that the role that Cecil is currently performing may be done by someone with less experience and lower salary requirements.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        This is a great way to think about it. At my office (software engineering, which I realize may be a somewhat different beast, depending) it’s certainly true that for most people status and responsibility fall roughly along lines of years-of-experience. But it ain’t always so. Our software architect is a good twenty years younger than the oldest “regular” developer; that’s the case because he’s a genuinely exceptional developer and the other developer is, while a good solid programmer, not especially exemplary or ambitious. And the guy who has just done okay for the past ten years is being rapidly outstripped by the woman five years younger than him who came in with drive and talent.

        Obviously if you have two people of comparable talent, work ethic, enthusiasm, etc., the ten-year engineer will probably be more senior/more capable/worth more than the five-year engineer, simply because they have an extra five years of experience and practice on top of the same amount of skill. But if the talent, work ethic, etc., etc., etc. aren’t the same, that difference in years may cease to matter a lot sooner than you would think.

      2. Anonymous Educator*

        So much this! I realize most of the time more experience means more knowledge and better competency, but the two are not always correlated, and so it doesn’t make sense to judge a person’s rank and salary solely on the number of years she’s worked.

      3. GlorifiedPlumber*

        I’d be surprised if clients would go for this.

        “You want to do what? You want to make the 5 year person your lead engineer, and the 10 year person his minion, but you charged me $Z for the 5 year person and 2x $Z for your 10 year person?”

        Sadly, clients who hire engineers often lack the ability to adequately measure competency among the engineers they hire. And they almost never get the ability to map said competencies to the price they’re going to pay.

        Thus, they get a sheet stating, “Hey, we’re going to put so and so on your project. Here are their bio’s.” Their bio’s say stuff like: “10 years experience! 4 as as a lead engineer!” “5 years experience!” “Has a PE in this state!”

        Thus, clients (and the companies management team) have learned to map competency to things like “years of experience”, “lead engineer”, and “has or doesn’t have a PE.” None of which are any actual measure of competency or value delivered to the client.

        1. designbot*

          Based on the comment and the name I’m guessing you’re a plumbing engineer, so I’m imagining resumes in RFPs as I reply to this. :)

          OP definitely can’t swap their duties and have their billing rates remain the same, we’re in agreement on that. I’m just offering him another way to frame his view of these employees, because I think he needs to stop being so stuck on years of experience. And yes they matter to clients, but you know what matters more? Results as measured through projects, licensure, and publications, which it sounds like Fergus probably has plenty of. It sounds like they could absoutely gin up a resume that presents Fergus as a viable lead engineer, and from there it’s just a matter of rounding out the staff, because Cecil isn’t pulling his weight.

        2. Turtle Candle*

          Yeah, if you’re in an industry where you will win or lose proposals based on resume bullet points, the truth is that the mediocre employee with a ten-year resume might be “worth” more than the stellar employee with a five-year resume. But at that point, you need to come to terms with the fact that you’re probably going to lose the stellar employee–because the truth of the matter is that you do value the mediocre employee more, and are compensating them (financially and with opportunities) accordingly. So Fergus is likely to leave because he really is, in concrete terms and at the end of the day, valued less.

          Which is fine; that’s ideally how business works–you set your priorities, you compensate accordingly, and if someone is of more value elsewhere, they can go. I think if that’s the case, what the LW needs to plan for is gracefully transitioning to not having Fergus anymore, rather than trying to convince him that he’s valued in some vague intangible way while the 10-year employee’s value is clearly compensated in pay and opportunities.

  43. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

    Maybe I’m oversimplifying this, but if I were Fergus I’d totally be on board with taking on extra work while Cecil is replaced. This assumes that Cecil is performing low enough to justifying letting go and assumes that you would raise Fergus’s salary to what he could command if he went elsewhere. Saying that you can’t let Cecil go when you know it will cause you to lose Fergus seems counter-intuitive to me.

  44. neverjaunty*

    LW, you mention Fergus maybe leavin for “a culture that he likes” and that you could not find anyone except Cecil to fill the additional role. You also tak about there being problems with communication and having to “justify” Cecil’s salary. Is there a problem with your firm’s culture, such that you can’t get candidates to want to work for you? Because even in a competitive industry it seems a little odd that you couldn’t get literally anyone even for the market salary you pay Cecil.

  45. ArtK*

    Fire Cecil. Now. Yes, you and Fergus are going to have to take on more work, but Cecil isn’t making things better and his presence is putting your real star at risk. Continuing to employ Cecil is an instance of the sunken-cost fallacy. I wouldn’t blame Fergus if he gave notice today.

    Then go back and fix your hiring and salary policies. I’m really not buying the “I can’t” here.

    1. Leatherwings*

      This is really harsh and unnecessary – to both the OP and Cecil. You can’t just fire someone because you might lose another person you like better. Firing needs to be done after coaching to improve his performance and giving him a real chance to improve. What if you fire someone out of the blue and then Fergus quits anyways? That’s a terrible calculation to make.

      “I can’t” may just be a realistic description of OPs workplace – people can’t move mountains just because there’s a solution that seems obvious to you.

      1. ArtK*

        Firing an under-performing and over-paid person happens all the time. It sucks to be Cecil in that situation, but he’s not bringing the value that he needs to.

        Ending up with keeping Cecil and losing Fergus is a very expensive position for the OP.

  46. CC*

    I think it’s probably important to note that you probably can’t replace Cecil with a new grad without losing significant work. Since this is billable engineering work, I’m assuming a lot of the contracts are work taking place as sub-consultants and such on projects, and many infrastructure projects and contracts have set requirements, including years of experience. A less competent engineer with 10 years experience may be more qualified for work than a superstar engineer with 3 years of experience, and this doesn’t even factor in how licensing can play into this.

    It can also be very difficult to find engineers on the market who are looking to jump. It’s a small community, and if the area and industry is competitive finding new employees can be challenging.

    All that said, yeah, if Fergus got licensed and didn’t see a pay jump, you’re probably in trouble, since he just greatly improved his profile. Outside of all of the side benefits you may be able to offer (I stuck around at my job because the hours are super favorable – I work 30 a week most weeks. I make a lot less than industry average, but the free time is very valuable and it’s a hard perk to top), if Fergus leaves you may be able to ask him if he can make some recommendations among his former classmates. Top performers tend to know top performers, and if you’ve treated Fergus well he may be inclined to recommend someone.

    1. Decimus*

      This sort of occurred to me, too, reading this, only with a different spin. Why not talk to Fergus, explain the whole situation, and ask for his help and/or advice? If it’s actually a problem finding a replacement for Cecil, Fergus might be able to find a classmate or other experienced person to fill the role. And being able to help select his co-workers might encourage him to stick around even if his pay won’t increase much, because you’re making the work environment more to his liking. And people might be willing to take otherwise less desirable jobs if it means working with a rising star.

      Which isn’t to say Cecil should be fired. But it might be necessary to lay Cecil off, if Fergus can help find you someone to take over the role for less money. That’s simply a change in business needs. And that’s how you need to explain it to your partners. Your business situation has changed since the last 18 months and you need to adapt.

      1. Leatherwings*

        Eh, I don’t think asking Fergus for advice on the role is a great idea. It’s going to put him in a horrible position. If OP ends up deciding to let Cecil go, she can reach out to Fergus at that point and ask if he knows of anyone who might apply to their team, but that’s different.
        OP can ask him for suggestions on extra perks he might like, but asking for suggestions on the current situation overall is just begging for him to sit there in silence because the only option he can see is the fire Cecil. This is a managers job to figure out, not Fergus’.

        1. Christopher Tracy*

          Eh, I don’t think asking Fergus for advice on the role is a great idea. It’s going to put him in a horrible position.

          Yeah, that would be very uncomfortable – OP should not abdicate her management duties like that.

    2. Office Plant*

      Ok, thinking about it that way, I think offering Fergus any perks that are available would be a good way to go.

  47. Jady*

    I’m curious what authority OP actually has. What are things you CAN do to make this guy happen?

    Additional vacation?
    Less hours?
    Flexible schedule?
    Remote work?

    In OP’s shoes I would do the following
    * Put Cecil on a PIP
    * Start looking for a new person
    * Talk to Fergus. Explain the situation. Explain what you can’t do and why. Explain what you’re going to do to resolve the issue and give a valid realistic time line.
    * Offer him anything you can – vacation, etc.
    * Ask him if there is anything else you could possibly do to make the job worth it to him. Maybe he’ll have some ideas.

    Benefits are always worth money. If I were in that situation and you could offer all those things and be honest about what was going on, I would stay! I would certainly be willing to take a smaller pay for such benefits.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      Maybe Fergus has ideas. Actually – ONE. “Pay me what I’m worth, or, as they say in the NBA, it’s gonna be ‘gametime’.”

    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      I might also add – if the directors/partners/grand poobahs/whatever, don’t see that they have created a nightmare for themselves – they must be pretty weak at managing. VERY weak. This situation shouldn’t have been allowed to fester for years. Because then, it may become un-resolveable.

      Another think Fergus might do — I did this once, where I was passed over for a job, which was a promotion – and I had been doing the work for 18 months because the incumbent couldn’t do it (I was doing two jobs).

      A meddlesome director stopped my transfer. The person I was passed over for was from a non-technical group – this was a technical analyst position. I did have the support of my manager.

      Two days later – I was asked to do another tech analyst task / report. I pushed back. “this is getting in the way of my doing my primary tasks.” He nodded but said “you know that (so-and-so) doesn’t know how to do this” — to which I replied “HE’S YOUR MAN. The director made the decisions.”

      He agreed. Oh, two things happened two weeks later. I quit. So did the manager that had to take the accountant on his staff.

  48. FD*

    Bear in mind, when you have adequate performers, and you pay them as well or better than star performers, you end up with two costs.

    First, you have the cost of the more expensive person, for which you are getting worse performance.

    And second, you have the cost of replacing star performers when they go on to other jobs.

    Think about whether keeping on a poor performer is really worth it.

  49. Rocky*

    I was in a position similar to Fergus, and after a few years my wonderful boss and mentor told me during a performance review that she would always fight to keep me there, but it was in my best interest to explore opportunities elsewhere. I really appreciated that.

    1. vpc*

      A former supervisor of mine did this. Her hands were truly tied as far as advancement and opportunities, as were the next two layers of management’s, and I knew they were fighting for me – but ultimately expected to fail. They were very open with me about what they wanted vs. what they though my best options would be, and gave me stellar references for the job I have now.

      Managers, help your best people continue to grow their careers, even if that means you can’t keep them! They will look back on you fondly for the rest of their days. In my case, I’ve just recommended a friend apply for a position on my old team, because I know they are great bosses and it would be a good opportunity for her.

  50. C Average*

    I see a lot of comments here from people who have been Fergus, but I’d like to speak for Cecil.

    A few years back, I stepped into a role for which I was perfect on paper. I had the right credentials and experience and I should have been a rock star but, for a lot of reasons, I wasn’t. (I had a lot going on personally that prevented me from consistently having my A game at work. Also, despite being perfect on paper, I discovered that the job required some hard and soft skills that I’d never developed.) I struggled from day one. I tried hard, especially at first, but I knew I was average at best. I wanted out, badly. I would’ve taken a lateral move or even a backward move to get out of that role. But it’s hard to find your way out of a role you’re not good at: you lack confidence, you’re not sure where you should aim, you’re not sure your manager will say the right things about you, and if you’re looking mainly at internal opportunities (as I was), you worry that you’ve developed a company-wide reputation for mediocrity and will never get another shot at doing something different. It sucks six ways from Sunday.

    And then my department hired a peer. She was straight out of school, and from her first day, she was better at the job than me. She knew it. I knew it. She knew I knew it. Our manager knew that we both were aware of the dynamic. But no one talked about it, and over time I lost what little confidence I already had and my peer came to feel martyred and resentful.

    I wish our manager had just been honest about the situation. I’m not sure what the right script for that would’ve looked like, but it would’ve been something acknowledging that the company basically wanted two of my peer, and if I couldn’t step up and be her equivalent, my manager would support me in finding another role elsewhere. It would’ve been such a relief to just have the matter out in the open. (Or, alternatively, if she had believed I was capable of performing at the same level as my peer, it would have helped for my manager to spell out to me what that would look like, and to help me identify and seek out resources for getting there.)

    This is tough all the way around. Tough for the manager, tough for Fergus, and probably tough for Cecil, too.

    1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      Thanks for that perspective – it’s a tricky dynamic at play here and having some consideration of all parties is important

      1. AD*

        Yes….but OP’s job is to consider the effect on the organization (staffing, resources, budget, skills). It’s not really her job to have “consideration of all parties”, as harsh as that may sound. She’s a manager, not a coach or referee.
        Sometimes a manager’s job is a tough one, and this is one of those instances.

        1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

          @AD – OP seems afraid to own up to mistakes, judging by her giving Cecil project leads simply because of his salary and not his performance. I was thinking consideration in the sense of this: if she is afraid to own up to mistakes with the partners, she might also be afraid of how to deal with Cecil. Knowing that he is probably aware of the dynamic should hopefully be a spur to get OP moving towards corrective action for the situation

        2. C Average*

          I agree, to a point, but there’s nothing in the letter to suggest that Cecil isn’t a reasonable person or is being willfully mediocre. He’s just not as awesome as Fergus. Why not explore some ways to improve his performance or manage him out kindly and gracefully, rather than jump straight to DTMFA?

          (Tangentially, I think you can tell a lot about a company by how they handle their average and below-average people. Do they keep them around indefinitely and keep on paying them and accept their inadequacies with a shrug, as though they’re cute but slightly daft house pets? Do they try to find another place in the organization for them where they might shine a little brighter? Do they offer to support them in a job search for a position elsewhere that’s a better fit? Do they stack-rank them out the door? Do they put them on a clear and actionable PIP? Do they pair them with a high-performing mentor to see whether some of the magic might rub off on them? There are actually a ton of ways to deal with mediocre employees. It’s a pretty interesting area to think about.)

          1. AD*

            That’s an excellent point, C Average.
            I’ll counter by saying OP is doing none of the things you outlined in the second part.

    2. AnonAnalyst*

      Thank you for posting this. I haven’t personally been in this situation, but as I was reading the letter and comments, I was just thinking that I feel bad for both Fergus and Cecil. I don’t think the OP is directly blaming Cecil for causing the issues she is now facing with Fergus, but I did pick up on some frustration there, and I would imagine that Cecil has picked up on it, too. I also can’t tell if the OP has addressed any of the concerns she has about Cecil’s performance with Cecil, which might be making the tension worse on all sides.

      It’s just a crappy situation for everyone involved.

    3. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

      Thank you. It’s refreshing to see someone on AAM admit to not being a high performer; I love this site and community but sometimes it feels like Lake Wobegon, where all of the children are above average. I’ve been only an average performer in my best jobs (and awful at a few); I’d like to be a star, but I sincerely doubt it’s within my mental capabilities, and the same is true for most people. Most people are by definition average, and I wish our culture recognized and allowed for this rather than telling people you’re worthless if you aren’t the best.

  51. Allie*

    LW, what are you going to do if Fergus comes to you with an offer from another firm and asks you to match it? I think you meed to research the market and act like you have received that letter already if you want to keep him. Are you going to wave him goodbye or would you go to the partners to fight for him? Someone on “30 under 30” lists who passed his PE in a competitive industry going to get scooped, and Fergus can just accept an offer and give you his notice. Either compensate him according to his talents, or it’s a question of when he bails, not if. If you want to keep him, you need to advocate for his position yesterday. If he’s a point guy with your contracts, you’ll end up losing a lot more money than his raise would be worth.

    1. Allie*

      I will add that my spouse was in Fergus’s position a few years ago, and after years of promises of raises not kept, he did walk to another company, and his old division was very much left in chaos without him because they had ended up putting so much on him and he had developed most of the personal relationships with clients and vendors. That stuff can be very hard to rebuild and, honestly, the company shouldn’t have set up that situation in the first place, especially with a guy who was getting offers for more money regularly.

  52. Merida May*

    I’m curious OP, how long did you expect to keep Fergus as an employee given the current issues with keeping him appropriately compensated? Was he ever going to have any sort of upward mobility? If you hadn’t considered it before, I think it’s time for you to begin preparing to lose Fergus. Things happen, life circumstances change, and this is especially true for people who are fairly young in their careers. What if Fergus got married and moved across the country, or decided he was finally ready to pursue his lifelong dream of owning an artisanal grilled cheese food truck and put in his notice tomorrow? I get the impression that imagining your department without Fergus is very uncomfortable for you, but be a little proactive here so you’re not panicking later.

  53. The IT Manager*

    Fire/lay-off Cecil. Promote Fergus and give him the same salary as Cecil had. Hire someone to replace Fergus at Fergus’s old salary. Yes, that will take time, but there’s no way not to lose your superstar if you pay him what he’s worth. Clearly he’s worth at least what you’re paying Cecil now.

    If you don’t, you’ll lose your superstar and be left with your average performer and have to hire an unknown who is very much unlikely to another star performer.

    1. GlorifiedPlumber*

      Clients have to pay that Cecil person’s salary, and I wonder if they will accept a 5 year person doing the 10 years job (on paper, even though he already does it in practice, they do not know that) at the same rate.

      There’s paradigm shifts required in the industry and by his firms partners (who are probably other disciplines than OP’s and do not understand).

  54. GlorifiedPlumber*

    OP I work for an engineering firm that is likely much larger than yours, we do work for clients who have many similar engineers to our own. Rest assured, your issues are common to EVERY firm/client I have knowledge of. It is common in my firm in my office, in my previous office, in my dad’s and bro’s office (different company, different industry, different client, same issues), in my 5 buddies’ offices (all different companies, 2 of which are clients, different industries, all use to work for the same company I do, now split), and with the specific very large recognizable client where I spend my days.

    It looks like this: 2006-2009 brought a bunch of junior hires to do the massive amount of work, downturn hit and only the strong junior folk survived while the senior folk stayed on, now companies have a series of mid-level leaders/performers who are coming to roost. Industry has changed, and clients are demanding more for less, but still demand senior people on their projects (though they do not want to pay the bills). Mid-level people have adapted to the new world order better than senior folk and are putting out deliverables above their experience bracket, they are smart and see that they are the ones providing the value to the client while senior folk continue down their previous paths, and are getting frustrated because they (right or wrong) perceive more opportunity elsewhere.

    The only thing in your story dissimilar to my firm is that your 10 year Cecil is more like our 15 yr/20yr engineers. Our Fergus’s are again a series of 5-6 year experienced jedi’s (due to a MASSIVE hiring binge 5-6 years ago, they are the cream of the crop that has survived) just like yours. I’m a Fergus (though I’m at 9 years experience).

    Your company needs to change, or you will lose Fergus to a competitor who did change or a client who can pay more. This is assuming there are alternatives Fergus can go to… are there other engineering firms/clients in the same area? If yes… then it’s a risk. If no… then honestly, Fergus might be blowing smoke (or uneducated about his actual options) about quitting. You have to have options to quit, and if competitors won’t pay 10-15% more and clients locally do not exist, then Fergus isn’t going anywhere.

    IMO, if you want a chance in hell of keeping Fergus, then you have to do the following:
    – 6-10% correction RIGHT now for Fergus ( don’t know why, but less than 5% for a market correction always feels like a slap in the face), this will buy you some time; this will have the immediate effect of 1) making Fergus feel loved and 2) making it immediately more expensive (i.e. Fergus can get a 0-10% raise to go to a competitor vs. a 10-15% raise) to steal him; changes the dynamics
    – Minimum yearly COL style raises for Cecil types, like 1%, unless they adapt and change… if you give this person anything above the minium your company gives out, you will alienate
    – Go comiserate your bill issues with other disciplines in the firm, I bet they have the same issue
    – Fergus, if he/she continues to be a rock star, gets 5-7% per year vs. 1-3% like engineering companies like to do
    – Look into a small bonus system that will allow you to throw money at Fergus periodically
    – Grow the business such that you can hire a junior engineer to offset bill rate costs, if you hire right, you can find tomorrow’s Jedi in a junior person
    – Open a req for a senior person and look for a replacement for Cecil if you MUST have a jedi in that role… if your companies hires industry average, then you have hired who you need… a jedi senior person is going to cost you a premium on Cecil and you have to be prepared for it
    – Make sure Fergus continues to get sexy projects that he cannot get elsewhere
    – Hope that other competitors suffer from the same inertia issues your company does and do not change (or you could always hire THEIR jedi’s for 10-15% bumps)
    – Hope that Fergus doesn’t MOVE elsewhere for more money or jump to a client who can afford him

    If you company won’t budge on monetary reward (over time) on Fergus… then you don’t have a prayer. Have you considered jumping ship yourself to another company, or going back to design work like Cecil? Probably easier to hire a new manager than rockstar 5 and 10 year engineers who are cheap.

    A data point to help you understand what Fergus could get if you have clients who hire your engineers: When I FIRST hired in to my firm, the specific engineering department grew from ~20 to 35 people by mostly E1 hires (~12 people, 0 experience) and a few E3 (~3 people, 5-10 year experience). Of those 15 people, 3 work for the company still (I am one, all three are in different offices). Of the 12 others, 6 left to competitors and clients, the other 6 were a combination of swapping industries (oil and gas to teaching, lol) or being laid off.

    Of the 6, I have salary datapoints for THREE and can make inferences on the other three (since they went similar clients). Anyways, Person 1: At 5 years XP, jump to competitor. Total comp went from ~90k to ~125k with ONE JUMP; they have had raises since then and are currently at ~10 years XP). Person 2 (best engineer I know): 8 years XP, jumped to client total comp went from ~100k to 140k approximately 4 years ago, and they tell me they’ve been promoted since then and been handed good raises. Person 3: At 6 years XP (after 6 months off too, unpaid sabbatical by choice), jumped ship to client, total comp went from ~90k to 130k, works 40 hour weeks except for turnarounds; has had raises since then, but I do not know how big.

    Of the remaining 3 people, 2 went to clients for I am sure raises… and 1 went to our main competitor (whose usually bump was 10-15%, note we would hire their people for 10-15% more also, so it went both ways).

    Anyways, that is what you are up against.

    1. AnotherWomanEngineer*

      I agree with a lot of what is said above. At my current company we lost a good bit of the 5 to 10-ish year engineers about 5-6 years ago when things were slowly picking up and I think they didn’t feel fairly compensated or rewarded with responsibility/path to leadership (and there were finally other opportunities to pursue). We started booming about 2 years ago and we had a major deficit of that 10-15 year experience, with the 4-5 year engineers not quite ready to be in front of the client or still needing someone to ‘supervise’ and seal their work. If you can’t raise Fergus’s rate, can you reward him with bonuses? That keeps him in his billing bracket, but rewards his effort. Most partners in engineering firms take home a lot of profit at the end of the year, and maybe it is time for some of that to be distributed down where it is needed to maintain your success. Another option would be having Cecil train an entry level person (so as not to burden Fergus) and by giving Cecil that responsibility you can give Fergus some of the more interesting projects. Hopefully you grow to where Fergus and Cecil are more like equals? It is hard in these industries where there is definitely a hierarchy based purely on # of years (which is outdated).

  55. Bystander*

    OP, it sounds like you are reluctant to bring up this discussion before the other partners. Even if they overrule/outvote you, it sounds like the best option is for you to step up and go to bat for him. At least give it a try, because then you can say that you’ve done your best for yourself, for Fergus, and the company. Right now Fergus is halfway out the door (for good reasons) and waiting for you to do this. He won’t wait much longer.

  56. Rex*

    OP — I’m a little confused by the power dynamics of this firm. You were “allowed” one staffer. Then your work grew rapidly and successfully, and you got another (and it’s not clear how involved you were in the hiring of Cecil). Fergus’s talents are clearly widely recognized, yet you’re still having to give work to Cecil to “justify” him? Have you really gone to bat for Fergus yet? Do the other partners know how high the risk is that you will lose him? You seem to be still operating from this position of weakness, about what you’re allowed, what you can justify. You’ve brought in a ton of business and you have an industry-recognized superstar on your team. Isn’t it time for you to start using the capital you’ve accumulated to go to bat for Fergus and do what you have to do to keep him?

    1. Bystander*

      Well said. This framed it better than I did. You do have the power, OP!

      (I would also love an update when the dust settles.)

      1. harryv*

        Often, this is determined at finance level and not operations or engineering to determine. Some companies flat out do not have a merit pay increase.

    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      That’s another thing that sets one of my alarms off. OP not only is painted into a corner; he painted HIMSELF (or herself) into the corner if OP was involved with bringing Cecil aboard.

      1. Leatherwings*

        This is part of what makes being a manager so tough, though, especially in a growing business. You have to make judgements that make sense at the time but don’t always make sense a year down the road. It’s really easy for us to sit back and say “Wow you shouldn’t have ever hired Cecil because he’s obviously not a great fit for what you need and now you’re going to lose Fergus because of it,” when at the time that was a logical choice because they desperately needed another person to cover the work.

        I guess what I’m saying is that I think we should go easy on the OP here, it’s obviously a tough situation and hindsight is 20/20.

        1. Rex*

          Yeah, I’m on the OP’s side here. I don’t blame them for the Cecil situation at all. I just am concerned that they’re not using all the tools they have to keep Fergus, maybe because they don’t realize the power they have in this situation.

        2. Turtle Candle*

          Yeah, this is absolutely true. It’s not very useful to say “well you should have”s. I think the unfortunate fact is that the LW is probably in a position where they’re going to lose one of Cecil or Fergus–and they may not be able to be the one to decide which, at this point–but it’s more useful to focus on what they can do going forward to mitigate the situation.

        3. animaniactoo*

          I don’t think they should never have hired Cecil, but I do think that they should recognize that it was a desperation move that made sense and maybe was even necessary at the time, but isn’t working out long-term, and they need to revisit it.

        4. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

          When you make a decision – you have to look back – and FORWARD.

          A month after a decision was made – you did the right thing, OK, fine, we’re getting along and ahead.

          Are you telling me NO ONE asked “what about Fergus?” – either at the time, or six months later?

          “Ah, let it fester. We’ll worry about that later, OK?”

        5. JanetInSC*

          Except that Fergus was a good and known quality…it would have made more sense to promote Fergus and hire an assistant for Fergus. Fergus should also be allowed to help choose and interview the assistant.

  57. Chris*

    Whelp, seems like you have 3 choices:

    1. Fire Cecil (which I don’t really support myself, given what little we know. Why should be be fired because you offered him too much? Unless he’s significantly under-performing, but he should be managed first)

    2. Find more money for Fergus elsewhere.

    3. Do nothing and inevitably lose Fergus

    That’s it. Pick one. Because you WILL lose Fergus. He’s in an (apparently) ultra-competitive industry, is underpaid, not given the best projects, and is probably getting head-hunted on a daily basis. He’s gone if you don’t find him more. That’s just the bottom line.

  58. Katie F*

    Your firm just needs to decide whether it would rather keep Fergus or the extra money it would take to compensate him effectively. If you are truly successful and growing, you probably DO have the money to give him the raise he deserves – you need to be honest with the partners and let them know that Fergus is a superstar, deserves every dime and then some, and you’ll be passionately pursuing a raise that will keep him commensurate with what his skills are worth. Then make note of the immense cost of replacing him when he inevitably leaves.

    You’re also shooting yourself in the foot by giving all the leadership opportunities to someone you don’t think is as able to handle/excel at them. I get that you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place here, or at least feel that way, but giving Cecil all the credit, rewards, and recognition AS WELL AS all of the money… if I were Fergus I’d have one foot out the door, too.

  59. Shayna*

    I think the lede got buried on that one. If what it comes down to is you’re going to have to search for an replace one or the other, why not start shopping for a replacement for your expensive underperformer?

  60. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

    It sounds as though one of the things OP needed when hiring Cecil was the licensing that Fergus didn’t then have. So I have to wonder if it would in fact be easier to hire a replacement for Cecil at a lower salary since Fergus now has that license so the replacement won’t need it?

    I agree with the sentiment above that this needs to be a lay-off situation for Cecil with a severance package – not a firing. It sounds to me like this was a poorly run hiring, and a case of trying to hide a mistake instead of owning up to it (ahhh Human Nature)

    It is not right to Fergus, Cecil, yourself, OR your partners that the situation is manifesting itself as it is. You need to really consider the long run – not just the cost of losing Fergus. The cost of losing Fergus, having Cecil as your lead without Fergus, hiring a new engineer to replace Fergus, PLUS the results all that will have on your customer relations, and your relationship with your partners. It seems a far better solution to lay off Cecil, retain Fergus, and revise the hiring process for a new staff member. The price of this is eating some crow regarding the hiring of Cecil and passing off projects he shouldn’t have been leading to him simply because of his salary, but in admitting the mistake, taking steps to correct them, and retaining your superstar, you should quickly be able to redeem yourself and have a better chance at growing your department by keeping the superstar and having a younger engineer more easy to groom into a fit.

  61. sstabeler*

    Frankly, the issue seems to be that you have a senior engineer (Cecil) and a normal engineer (Fergus) when you need a normal engineer ( Fergus) and an assistant engineer ( possible new hire) due to the workload you have. where you erred, I suspect, is in hiring a second engineer, when what you actually needed was an assistant to your existing engineer.

    Frankly, my suggestion would be to make Cecil redundant- since you don’t need two engineers- and hire an assistant engineer to assist Fergus. The assistant engineer could be a hire straight out of college, like Fergus was, so there would be no need to pay them the salary demanded by an experienced engineer.

    Either that, or you need to start bidding on contracts that actually need two engineers, rather than an engineer and an assistant engineer, so that you can afford to pay both a reasonable salary.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      In spite of Fergus’ rock-star-ness, one of the problems you encounter in consulting engineering is that your proposals to clients must include resumes. A 5-year resume won’t really indicate that Fergus can perform 1o-year level work. You may be able to win work off Cecil’s resume that you couldn’t of Fergus’. Although, in this particular case, it may not be true. They may win their work of firm/partner resumes and not even submit staff resumes, since Fergus was there first and they were doing fine.

      I had a proposal originally submitted and awarded with a 15 year engineer’s resume. That person only had 4 years of experience in our industry and was military before (so not design engineering in another parallel industry). I switched him for an 8-year person, whose total experience was in this industry at this company. The client complained and complained, even though they were really getting a better engineer. Some clients really only care about gray hair.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          That too. : |

          I have one female client right now. In 16 years, I’ve never worked with a female client PM (of course my early years, I wouldn’t have known who the client PM was, so maybe there was one I missed).

      1. sstabeler*

        which is fine, but what they have at the moment is that a 10-year is doing work that can be done by a 5-year, while the 5-year is doing work that can be done by a 0-year. That’s what my second point was- presumably, work that would need a 10-year and a 5-year would pay enough to be able to give both Cecil and Fergus a decent salary, instead of Fergus getting shafted. So either they need to get work based on what they actually have, or they need to correct their staffing.

      2. sstabeler*

        The problem is, they AREN’T winning work due to Cecil’s resume, because Cecil is doing work that only needs a 5-year engineer. That’s my point- either they need to start pitching for 10-year work for Cecil, and 5-year work for Fergus, or stop trying to justify having a highly-experienced engineer when the job only needs a moderately-experienced engineer.

  62. IT_Guy*

    I have been in these situations where it was decided that getting rid of a toxic employee was too difficult because it would take too long to replace them. After a year and a half of this, he exploded at an employee and almost got into a fight. He was walked out that day and it only took him a few months to replace him.

    Bottom line, decide which one you would rather keep because the cost of keeping him more than outweighs the cost of replacing him.

  63. Anon Always*

    If I were Fergus what would bother me the most wouldn’t be the money it would be the loss of the interesting assignments and projects. Is there any way that you can provide him with more of that?

    I’m not a rock star in my field, but one of the many reasons I’ve stayed with my current employer despite the fact I’ve been offered better paying jobs by our competitors, is that I’m continually funneled interesting work. And it’s clear to me that my input is highly valued by the most senior members of the organization. To me it makes it worth staying at the lower pay, because I’m learning new skills and gaining experience doing projects that in another organization I probably wouldn’t have a chance at leading.

    So even if you can’t get the money figured out right now, I would highly encourage to find out a way to provide more plum assignments to Fergus. And then let him know that while you don’t want to lose him, you will happily support him if and when he’s ready to move on. Feeling valued and important is almost as important as money. And, based on your post, it seems as though Fergus is underpaid and undervalued. At least one of those things needs to be addressed ASAP.

  64. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

    I think the thing that is blowing my mind the most here is, Fergus was featured in an article of 30 under 30 rock stars in your field. How are you not more actively looking to keep him happy and employed with your firm? Surely the embarrassment of going to the partners and saying “I made a mistake with Cecil, here are some steps to rectify it because we need to keep Fergus because X, Y, Z reasons” is MUCH better than the embarrassment of losing a top performer in the field? Or am I crazy to think that?

    I think as a customer, if I knew you had a rock star and let him get away, on top of which I know how to deal with someone with poor communication skills, I wouldn’t be so thrilled to continue being a client.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      No, you’re not crazy to think that way. Unfortunately, some managers don’t think that way.

  65. NicoleK*

    In my experience and field (so YMMV) Rockstars will always leave because 1. you’re not able to give them an increase or 2. you offer isn’t competitive compare to your competitors. So you might as well plan to lose someone or both of them.

  66. Sue Wilson*

    If Fergus has been in a 30 under 30, why don’t you leverage that to prove he’s overperforming in bids? Glorified Plumber and Anon Always suggests that client are picky and uninformed, but they should understand awards right?

    1. GlorifiedPlumber*

      >Glorified Plumber and Anon Always suggests that client are picky and uninformed, but they should understand awards right?

      Hah… yeah, I’ve sadly been going further down the “salty old cynical engineer” road faster than my age would suggest these days. Your comment made me think back to whether or not I’ve ever had a major client who WAS informed and on the ball, and you are right… I have. They do exist. Definite unicorn status though, at least in my short career. They’re also REALLY fun to work for, because it’s night and day about what they expect from you and how they treat you. I miss those days… :) Other coworkers of mine have had much more opportunity to work for informed and on the ball clients…

      So it is an interesting point on awards. I think every industry is different. I would in general say that, no, clients who solicit engineering services (new buildings, facilities, MEP work, new wastewater plants, roadways, bridges, brownfield work, etc.) are not impressed by awards that are not corporate wide “safety awards” or in rare cases “environmental stewardship awards” and are certainly not impressed by individual awards like 30 under 30.

      Our big client could drop a RFP for a 2 billion dollar facility in our lap tomorrow and ask us to turn it around by Friday. On the army of resumes we would give them for that proposal, if we put “30 under 30” on any persons resume, 1) the client would not know what that is, and 2) that person would get crap from their co-workers until there were no coworkers who remembered it happened because no-one cares.

      On a resume for a pretty project, the client wants to see:
      – That your company makes safety a priority
      – That your company will have no other gods before them
      – That you’ll put leadership that is experienced enough to get it done, but not experienced enough that it costs more than it should…
      – Words like “Licensed Engineer in your state”
      – Paragraphs that suggest “Years of experience with your exact brand of unicorn” but not so much experience that such technical leadership is overkill and it costs more than it should
      – That leadership outside the main project chain exists and can be escalated to in order to fix issues
      – Promises and demonstrated continuity; i.e. the gal who did FEED is the same gal who did detailed design and then stuck around for support during construction vs. being whisked away to different unicorn race

      They don’t care about: 30 under 30, some junior engineer being REALLY good at learning, some PE in a state they do no business in, some degree in an unrelated field (for instance, I have a biochem degree… It’s not even on my corporate resume, my clients don’t care, they want to see the “chemical engineering degree” on the resume, but if we bid an expansion to some biotech facility, it MIGHT make it on there).

      The 30 under 30 in particular I think is an interesting one. One of the associates at my wife’s clinic got put into a 30 under 30 publication in their field (veterinary medicine), and she attempted to make a HUGE deal about it. Turned out that clients didn’t care… the only people who cared were other vets, specifically younger ones in the exact same industry; and referrals from younger vets in the exact same industry accounted for like 0% of the business. I mean, it was fantastic name recognition for her, it’s good it happened, it is good exposure for the clinic… it just didn’t translate into more business. Perhaps that’s a miss on their part… who knows.

  67. harryv*

    I had a similar situation where I brought in a “Cecil”. On paper, he was great and seemed like everything we wanted. After 6 short months, clearly it wasn’t working out. Did a PIP and still no improvement. Called head of HR and got agreement to fire him. Hired a young engineer 2 years out of college for lower pay and had a much better output. I think OP is afraid of getting into another Cecil situation. Just need to bite the bullet and admit you made a mistake.

  68. Jeanne*

    You mentioned partners and having to assign work based on the partners’ perception. I think you need to go to the partners and explain the situation exactly as you did here. Ask them if they’re ok with losing the great performer. It’s the only way to get the change you want. They could blame you for certain aspects of the situation but at least you’ll know you tried.

  69. AcademiaNut*

    One thing I haven’t seen discussed…

    Even if you could wave a magic wand and promote Fergus to Cecil’s position, and replace Cecil with a competent new grad, you’ll probably lose Fergus a few years down the line anyways.

    You hired Fergus as a superstar entry level employee. Now he’s a superstar 5-year PE engineer, and is still in an entry level role. Cecil’s role was intended to be for a 5-year PE, and you over hired with a 10-year PE. So Fergus is at about the point in his career where he’d be well suited to Cecil’s role. In a few years, when he’s a superstar 10-year PE, he’ll have outgrown Cecil’s role, and be ready to move on to something more, but he’s as high up as he can go at the company.

    1. sstabeler*

      while true, it is STILL better for the company to replace Cecil, for a couple of reasons. one is that while Cecil might be a perfectly good 10-year engineer, in a few years he will be a 15-year engineer, and you have the same problem- Cecil will be looking for 15-year work, while the company probably won’t be able to give him it. Hence, you would lose BOTH Fergus and Cecil. Second is that, to be blunt, Cecil earns twice what Fergus does, and so even if you end up keeping the new grads for 10 years ( their path being hire(entry level)->work for 5 years->become 5-year engineer->work for 5 years->quit for a job as 10-year engineer elsewhere) you’re still better off since your wage bill is lower. If you keep cecil, you will have a 10-year engineer that is stretching your budget, and a new grad, rather than an affordable 5-year engineer, and a new grad.

      In other words, maybe the partners- that are apparently questioning if Cecil’s salary is actually justified- have a point that you can’t actually afford Cecil. ( or, to put it bluntly- is there a reason why the LW is determined to prove that Cecil- who was significantly overqualified when hired- is actually necessary, when it is causing an issue with Fergus?)

      That, and frankly, the LW comes off as “how can I trick my star performer into staying when they are undervalued, underpaid, and not given tasks in line with their ability”

  70. LuckyStars*

    Can you bring Fergus nearer to market rate?
    Can you provide him with other benefits: conferences? schooling? Certifications? More vacation? Work remotely? I was lucky enough to get as a bonus 2 RT airline tickets and some cash for a vacation. Still had to use my regular vacation allotment, but the company had the extra earned tickets and was only out the cash – nice bonus for me.

    1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

      “Can you bring Fergus nearer to market rate?”

      OP answered that – even if they can, they’re unlikely to. They like their current profit margins, and if OP can’t get a commitment from the partners to give Fergus the money he’s deserved, they’re apparently willing to roll the dice as to whether he’ll stay or go.

      “Can you provide him with other benefits: conferences? schooling? Certifications? More vacation? Work remotely? I was lucky enough to get as a bonus 2 RT airline tickets and some cash for a vacation. Still had to use my regular vacation allotment, but the company had the extra earned tickets and was only out the cash – nice bonus for me.”

      Fergus may counter = “I don’t need schooling. I need MONEY.” If you had money for conferences, schooling, more time off, airplane tickets – you might have the money to pay Fergus.

      Everyone is advising OP – do what you can to pay Fergus. If you lose Fergus, you lose your ability to make money. OH – yeah – Fergus will be competing AGAINST you if he jumps ship, if he goes to a competitor.

      Butt-kissing only goes so far. OP and his partners may have to show him the money.

  71. paul*

    If you can’t change anything, what makes you think you can keep him?

    You may just have to suck it up and watch him leave. Either find a way to improve his pay or start getting ready for a job search.

  72. AFRC*

    As someone who is a Fergus in my current job, I’m glad that you (OP) at least understands what’s going on (some managers are clueless). But Alison is completely right, and I especially love her advice on this one. Fergus deserves better. The 30 under 30 recognition is really cool – and isn’t that free publicity for your company? I’m wondering if the partners wouldn’t mind if you raise his salary because he brings so much to the table, and is getting noticed for it. Wouldn’t they feel really terrible if they allowed you to let go of a superstar?

  73. Ron Skurat*

    Though it probably would mean a period of crazy overwork, doesn’t it seem as if replacing Cecil with Fergus, and hiring a new graduate, would be the best long-term solution? It sounds like the hardship of replacing someone is going to happen anyway, so arranging the better outcome would make sense.

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