Leading through Change

Richard Coates, P.E.
Assistant Director of Public Works, Transportation
Fulton County, Georgia
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

In April 2006, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Menu." This was the second series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's current series—entitled "The Baker's Potluck"—touches on a variety of leadership and management topics, many of which have been suggested by members. Included in this issue is the sixth in the series recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or

The past two years of my career I have been challenged with motivating employees while facing future downsizing. Fulton County, Georgia has been going through some major incorporation moves over the last two years and it may not be over yet. Fulton County's population is about 900,000 people, half of which reside within the city limits of Atlanta. Prior to 2005, another 225,000 people lived in one of the other nine cities sprinkled throughout the county. That left the remaining 225,000 people living in the unincorporated portion of the county.

In 2005, the City of Sandy Springs was born which incorporated 85,000 people. In 2006, two more cities were born: the City of Johns Creek which incorporated 70,000 and the City of Milton which incorporated 20,000. So that currently leaves about 50,000 people in unincorporated Fulton County. That is a 78% downsizing of the permanent population going from unincorporated to incorporated service areas. Later this year, the remaining 50,000 people will vote on incorporation.

Fulton County's Public Works Department is divided into two major divisions: the Water Services Division (a water and sewer utility in the county) and the Transportation Division. The service areas of the two divisions are not the same. The Water Services Division's service area is not based on political boundaries. Their customer base is 96,000 accounts and is unaffected by these incorporation changes.

The Transportation Division, however, serves the shrinking unincorporated portion of the county. Prior to 2005, the Transportation Division maintained about 1,700 centerline miles of right-of-way. Today our total is 800 miles. That is a 53% reduction in pavement, signals, sidewalks and grass to maintain.

Prior to 2005, we had about 450 total positions in the department. Half of these positions supported the Transportation Division. Since then, 120 of the 225 transportation positions have been eliminated, corresponding to the 53% service area reduction.

My challenge has been and still is:

  1. To keep the staff morale from totally bottoming out.
  2. To maintain some level of employee loyalty.
  3. To continue to maintain a strong level of service deserved by the public.

To meet these challenges, I first had to get a clear understanding of the parameters that I had to work within. In order to successfully understand these parameters I needed to bone up in an area that I really don't enjoy—the County's personnel policies and procedures. I had to particularly hone in on the Reduction in Force (RIF) Section. There were some key parameters that were important for me to realize:

  • RIF is based on seniority. The total number of years of service with the County is king...but it isn't that simple.

  • You only compete with the employees with the same title as yours when it comes to who gets RIF'ed. For example, if you have a Maintenance Worker that is deserving of a promotion to Heavy Equipment Operator (HEO), you need to think about how he/she competes in their current position title compared to their potential new position title. If their current position title has a lot of employees in it with less years of County service, they would be better off not being promoted into a position title where many of the employees have more County years of service than they have. The County does not allow for a RIF'ed employee to go back to a previous position title where they might not be RIF'ed (the "bumping" system). For example, an Engineer II cannot go back to and compete with the Engineer I titles. Based on seniority, they simply lose their employment with the County.

  • The RIF does not cross department or fund lines. Therefore if an HEO is subject to being RIF'ed in Public Works, they will not bump a less senior HEO in another department. They simply lose their employment with the County. Also, the RIF only affected the General Fund. You can see where this may further complicate things in a department like ours where there are general fund positions (Transportation Division) and enterprise fund positions (Water Services Division) of the same title. We had employees of the same title within our department in which the more senior employee was RIF'ed due to the fund that they were paid from. We had instances where a staff member with over ten years of service was RIF'ed over a person with less than a year of service.

As you can imagine, maintaining my three goals of morale, loyalty and service with these parameters was quite a challenge. Here are some of the things we did to help meet these goals:

  • Self-imposed hiring freeze - This is a tricky one. On one hand we are telling employees that help in the form of additional resources is NOT on the way. We did not want to hire folks and then have to lay them off within a year. On the other hand, we knew that the more vacancies we had at the end of the year the fewer layoffs there would be. This meant that the employees were asked to work overtime more, be flexible and to do a little extra at times. This was important because we wanted to maintain the same level of service to all of our current 225,000 citizens while at the same time plan for the future of only 50,000 citizens. For the most part employees appreciated the fact that their leadership was thinking about their future employment. Also, this was an opportunity for me to lead by example. There was a period where I personally had to where multiple hats. At one time I had two direct report positions (Engineering Administrator) and a first-line supervisor position (Traffic Operations Manager) vacant at the same time. I wore these hats as long as I possibly could. The first-line supervisor was the most challenging. I did that for about three months before I had to give in and hire someone. One of the Engineering Administrator positions ultimately was eliminated and the other one is still vacant.

  • Self-imposed freeze on promotions - I really like this one. We got particularly good results from this decision, which was implemented because we do not have a "bumping" policy as explained above. I would place an employee in an acting role as a reward for doing a little extra. It let the employee know that we were not just trying to take advantage of him/her because he/she was a good team player. This is where I built loyalty with key employees.

  • More training opportunities - Employees were allowed and encouraged to take advantage of more training opportunities than usual. This served two purposes. For one, it gave the employee a chance to get away from the workplace. As you might imagine, our workplace was a bit more stressful than usual. It also gave the employees an opportunity to make themselves more marketable which is especially important when a job change may be necessary. Most employees viewed this opportunity as positive. Whenever a move is viewed positively it is a morale booster.

  • Maintain visibility - I took every opportunity I could to look an employee in the eye and sincerely ask, "How are you doing?" This is much easier today than two years ago. At one time the Transportation Division had employees spread out over nine different locations and across 50 miles. Today we are down to just four locations. I think it is important that employees know that their leadership really does care. The best way to show that is through one's actions.

During my many visits with the employees I would always encourage them to keep a good work ethic. I expressed to them that although we were downsizing, there was growth all around us. The Atlanta metro area is experiencing growth in both the private and public sectors. I explained to employees that it was not unusual for me to get inquiries about fellow employees...that is, the really good employees. The best thing employees can do while facing downsizing is to keep up their work effort and protect their reputation. Employees with the best reputations will be employed somewhere. I network frequently with my counterparts in the area. Everyone is always looking for good workers; they are always in high demand. Now I'm not surprised when I go to APWA meetings and someone asks me confidentially about one of my employees.

Having an open and honest dialogue with the employees about the situation and providing information when it becomes available will help employees understand the process and not view you as being unfair. Most people realize that life is not always fair. Typically when employees cry out for fairness they are really just asking you not to treat them unfairly. They know that you cannot control all the unfair situations in life. However, when employees may be facing an unfair situation, a leader should immediately and accurately inform them of the situation and how it may affect them. This is easier said than done. It was extremely difficult to stay out in front of media reports. I was always amazed when I would show up at a work site first thing in the morning and hear reports from the employees prior to being informed myself. I would simply respond that I had not been made aware of the specific issue but would inform them immediately once I was informed.

So what happened to the 120 people that occupied those eliminated positions? They went in a lot of different directions. Of the 120 positions, about 100 had become vacant through retirements and job changes. Because we gave considerable advance notice of potential layoffs, many took this opportunity to test the market for a better opportunity—and many of them found one. A number of employees went to work for the new cities via their private service provider, CH2M Hill, or one of their subcontractors. My colleagues at neighboring counties and cities hired some. And some went to the private sector. Throughout their job searches it was important to support the employees in their endeavors.

There were some employees that needed some encouragement to move on, who would have been very satisfied to hang around until they were simply laid off. The problem with this is I would have had to lay off a less senior person that may have really wanted to stay. So, well before the deadline to lay off employees, I moved employees into the positions that they would ultimately end up working in after incorporation was over. As anticipated, many of these employees went ahead and retired or moved on, thereby creating more vacancies. These are the employees that recognized the importance of Stephen Covey's Quad II Activities (Preventive Maintenance, Relationship Building, Recognizing New Opportunities, Planning and Recreation). They are probably Who Moved My Cheese experts, too.

Due to some of these proactive measures, only three permanent employees were laid off of 120 positions eliminated. The other employees that did not move on to outside employment found positions in the Water Services Division or other County departments.

In June 2007, the remainder of the citizens in the unincorporated portion of the County will vote on cityhood. If they elect to become a city, that will eliminate the need for the current Transportation Division of Fulton County. This relatively successful transition to date has made what is going to be a major vote in June, a "much to do about nothing" amongst many of the remaining transportation employees. Simply put, they now know that they have options. The contrast between employee anxiety in 2005 when Sandy Springs became a city and 2007 when the entire County could become incorporated is remarkable.

In 2005 when Sandy Springs incorporated it represented a loss of about 20% of the Transportation Division's service area. The employees were very worried about their future with the County and morale was extremely low. The reality of the situation was a very manageable one. Without much effort, we were able to absorb the employees that were affected by this into other positions in the division.

Now, two years later, we are looking at potentially eliminating the entire division. The employees now recognize and hopefully have confidence that they will not be treated unfairly regardless of what happens with the vote in June. The contrast in employee morale and attitudes is remarkably high in the face of potential job eliminations as compared to two years ago when no jobs were at stake, just job relocations.

Employees recognize that the leadership is willing to help them through these times whatever their desires are. Some want to stay, some want to retire, some want to go to another government, some want to go private. Whatever their desire is, the leadership needs to be supportive in helping them reach their goals. This culture allows the employee to maintain a level of loyalty to the very last day. And that is a win-win situation for all.

Richard Coates can be reached at (404) 730-7468 or

The Baker's Potluck Topics

  • Oral Presentation Skills
  • Coexisting with the Unions
  • Interviewing for the Right Skills
  • Performance Evaluations
  • Focus on Your Strengths
  • A Leader's Legacy
  • Identifying the Skills Needed for Crew Leaders and First-Time Supervisors
  • Mentoring for the Future
  • Leading through Change
  • Determining Your Level of Service
  • Connecting with Your Community
  • Creative Problem Solving
  • Creative Recruitment