The Staffer Who Was Too Smart

Businessman writing on paperWhy I fired him.

By Ed Mendlowitz
Call Me Before You Do Anything: The Art of Accounting

One time I got a client who was on the verge of going out of business and he asked if there was anything we could do to stop it from happening.

MORE: Why a Break-Even Analysis Matters | Becoming an Expert in IRS Collections | High CPA Fees Should Be a Client’s Goal | How Hidden Bias Taints Results | When to Keep Some Plans to Yourself
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After my usual tour of looking around, I sent in a staff person to get some numbers for me. I didn’t want the numbers in the financial statements, but the numbers that would show me how the business was really doing, what the trends were, how much business he did with his top five or 10 clients and vendors, the largest-selling items, his pricing methods, who his higher-paid employees were and maybe whether there was hidden value in the business. My staff guy was told what to do, that he had three days, and this was a very high priority.

I called him at the end of the first day to check on his progress, and he told me it was too early to give any conclusions but would have something for me the next day.

I called around 2:00 the next day and was told that he spent a good day with the client working on a break-even analysis and methods to better price his products.

At that point, I got a little upset. In those days I did not hide my anger too much. I told him I would be coming over there, at which time I then fired him after hearing his explanation about why he did not follow my instructions. He explained that the client had no understanding of his costs and he priced willy-nilly.

I explained that I was trying to save a dying business, and the pricing, while important, at that point would make no difference in the business surviving or not; at a later point it would. I also explained that he did not follow my instructions, and after his almost two days of work, I still did not have any information I could use to analyze and apply my skills.

This staff person was a very smart, if not brilliant person – from a book-learning or pedagogical standpoint – but seemed to lack a practical understanding of our role and how to apply his (and our collective) knowledge to the situation at hand. He also did not follow my instructions – a cardinal sin! I had to start all over and did most of the work myself with assistance from a lower-level accountant on my staff.

Takeaway: Besides explaining what to do and making sure your staff person knows how to do it, you need to make sure they understand that is their job, and that if they want to digress, they need to call to get agreement on the diversion.

It also never hurts to over-supervise when a job gets started and to have definite benchmarks in the form of a deliverable at reasonable intervals over which the work will be done. This is a recurring theme and is part of overall project management.

A secondary takeaway is that once you are sure you have a staff person who does not listen, you have to let them go – and the sooner the better.

One Response to “The Staffer Who Was Too Smart”

  1. Thomas Blair

    I was fired by a CPA that I worked for precisely for the same issues your column stated.

    He had brought in a new CPA that had just recently married his daughter and placed that person into the office manager position I had held in this satellite office.

    The son-in-law CPA came in every other day at 11:00 and then “went to lunch” and didn’t come back and repeated that same behavior for over a year.

    I was hired originally as an independent “back room Charlie” back then in 1982 and had learned in college courses on my own how to not only complete manual bookkeeping chores and tax work, but also how to complete corporations, trusts, partnerships by following the prior years’ work manually and with a DOS-based computer program created by the owner and by reading the current year IRS instructions and taking tax-related courses on my own.

    When the CPA son-in-law divorced my boss’s daughter, my boss fired him, but I and the small staff there continued handling the work in that small office until one day the boss walked in and demanded to know who was still producing tax returns in the office, up to and including complex business returns of a quality unwarranted by my lack of credentials.

    He was shocked that his ex-son-in-law rarely came into this branch office and that he had signed the work I finished.

    My boss fired the secretary because she never told him about his ex-son-in-law and then he fired me saying, “I am not ever going to train anyone that might become my competitor… you are fired… clean out your desk.”

    I took my personal possessions out of that desk and walked to my car, then I drove down to the local newspaper, had them take a picture of me and placed an ad showing my picture and my announcement “I MAKE HOUSECALLS!”

    Two years later, once I had hired his former branch office secretary to then work for me and continued my newsprint ads, almost all his clientele (that is, over 90%) left his firm and were became clients of my firm.

    Since that day I have trained 19 of my own replacements and made a decent living in taxation, taxpayer representation and training others to deal with state and federal tax chores for others.

    And all I have as a credential is an A/A in Banking & Finance.

    All in all I have worked in tax preparation for 38 years and still appreciate that the CPA I had respected as my boss back then “threw me away” and thereby “launched” me to start my own business while he later learned to regret his decision.

    He enjoyed firing his various staff members, one of whom was even his own daughter, and when he did that, I hired them, including his daughter, and then his business soon died, then his wife left him, and after the property settlement he soon became a pauper, and he died alone in a rest home in Western Michigan.


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