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Employment Contracts Part 1: Discovering The Obstacles to a Contract

Greg Wojick, CGCS


Guest Post by Greg Wojick

f94189f791ef7f68b3b9abbc3023508d-.jpgI've been in the industry more than 35 years as both a golf course superintendent and now a principal in Playbooks for Golf, and in that time, I've seen many changes -- in equipment, technology, management techniques, and in the education and agronomic expertise required to do an increasingly demanding job. Despite these advances, few superintendents throughout the country are acknowledged as professionals worthy of an employment contract.
According to the GCSAA Compensation & Benefits Report completed by superintendent members in recent years, only 20 percent of the over 3,000 who responded have a written employment contract. That statistic doesn't seem very encouraging. 
So why are employment contracts still more the exception than the rule among golf course superintendents?
The most apparent, long-standing problem I see is that laypeople, i.e., green committee and board members, still don't fully understand what it is that superintendents do, much less comprehend the level of skill and the breadth and depth of knowledge required to manage a golf course operation.
We all have read or heard about the fantastic new contracts that pro athletes/managers/coaches obtain (most always through the negotiation by their agents and/or lawyers). Why? Because in professional sports, owners and boards almost always "get" what the coaches and athletes actually do. Many were former coaches or athletes themselves. What's more, the quality of the work of these new hires can be easily judged by wins and losses and statistics. In other words, there is little mystery to what people in the sports arena do. You can say the same about the golf facility's general manager. Members pretty much understand what's involved. General managers are considered key players in the golf facility's profitability, while the superintendent's essential role in the club's viability often goes unrecognized.

General managers are considered key players in the golf facility's profitability, while the superintendent's essential role in the club's viability often goes unrecognized...

Confirming this great divide in understanding, one industry executive noted, "The club member's general viewpoint about superintendents is that they are analogous to a head engineer. The GM is regarded as more of a CEO. Although these characterizations are changing," he said, "its still the 'CEOs' who get the written employment agreements." In fact, about 75 percent of general managers countrywide are awarded employment contracts according to many in that industry segment.
In the modern-day golf world, many green committee and board members will attempt to grasp what a superintendent does -- and often erroneously believe they know the job better than the superintendent -- as they Google everything from "effectiveness of calcium nitrate" to "growing Bermuda grass in my region."
Unfortunately, even with this drilling for knowledge, a true understanding of the concerns, challenges, and constraints of the job eludes even the most well-intentioned committee member. We have studied this subject thoroughly at Playbooks, and have begun a new software platform that should create a much better environment to combat this critical issue by combining the best features of Twitter, blogs and native apps to let the superintendent control their message from one central location and ensure golfers actually receive it. Its called Conditions App and is fully launching this spring. 
Expanding this problem: Then, when it comes to hiring, those entrusted with the super's hire typically just use their intuition or thoughts from grillroom friends to rate and reward or terminate. More and more superintendents find themselves being told the club has decided to go in a different direction. There are no assurances of employment beyond today particularly when no contract is in place.
I spoke several years ago with Peter McCormick, TurfNet founder, about this very issue and he pointed to "employment instability" as the single biggest threat to the golf course superintendent as a career -- and as an industry.
"Underlying 'employment instability' is the flux of personnel over time on the employer side, particularly at private clubs," McCormick explained. "The people who hire a superintendent and are privy to the conversations at the interviews and resultant agreements and expectations -- whether they are a general manager, club official, committee, or board member -- very often aren't around five or ten years down the road. Unless those discussions and agreements are memorialized in a document agreed to by all parties -- in effect, a contract -- it all becomes hearsay over time. And hearsay can lead to potential misunderstanding, disagreement and rancor," he cautioned.

Unless those discussions and agreements are memorialized in a document agreed to by all parties -- in effect, a contract -- it all becomes hearsay over time.

I found that many supers don't have a contract simply because they don't ask for one. Some fear a club's rejection. Others told me they're happy to operate without a contract. One superintendent who spoke to me anonymously, like the others I surveyed, was among the many who just didn't think to ask for an employment agreement: "The members who hired me are smart. If they really wanted me to have a contract, they would have offered it to me before I agreed to take the position," he said.
Unfortunately, in today's highly competitive job market, many newly hired superintendents are so pleased that theyve been selected from the throngs of other applicants, that lobbying for a contract barely crosses their minds.
It's understandable, then, that most new hires will quickly agree to a reasonable offer without any negotiation, but many are also overly optimistic about their future with their club. They assume they will always be held in high esteem because, of course, they will always keep the course in top condition and will never make a mistake worthy of their dismissal.

...many newly hired superintendents are so pleased that they've been selected from the throngs of other applicants, that lobbying for a contract barely crosses their minds.

"Everyone loved me at the interviews," said the same super, believing his honeymoon period would never end. Equally optimistic, another superintendent told me: "I feel if I continue to work hard and communicate effectively, I will be able to overcome any tenuous situations that may arise. In other words," he added, "if I get dismissed, it will be my fault."
Despite the club's seeming upper hand during the interview process, there's actually no better time to ask for a contract than at the time of hiring. It shouldn't jeopardize your situation, but rather enhance it by establishing you as a competent professional who, like other industry professionals, expects more than just a handshake when agreeing to accept the job.
A contract offers superintendents what I call "failure avoidance". It spells out exactly what the employer expects of you and what you can expect of the employer. It basically stipulates the employment agreement and terms of employment. It also protects the superintendent from termination at the whim of an employer, indicating the process in which separation or termination could occur.
Unfortunately, some employers will perceive this as a reason to steer clear of contracts. As one club member admitted, "Employment contracts bring with them an obligation to deal fairly with the employee. In legal terms, this is called the 'covenant of good faith and fair dealing'. If the club ends up treating an employee in a way that a judge or jury finds unfair," he continued, "the club may be legally responsible not only for violating the contract, but also for breaching their duty to act in good faith." 
In my opinion, this is all the more reason to lobby for a contract. It can protect both superintendent and employer, which offers an overall talking point for superintendents planning to approach their club about securing an employment contract.
So just how do you go about selling the idea of an employment contract to your green committee and board? As the other industry experts and superintendents I spoke to will agree: It's all in how you market yourself and the mutually beneficial rewards of having a contract.
In Part 2 of this exploration (check back next month), we will lay out a detailed road-map for a well-written and attainable employment contract.
Sections of this blog were originally created by Greg in a survey for the MetGCSA. That content is courtesy of the MetGCSA.



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