Keeping your cultural resource management employees in the dark

In the last decade, I’ve worked for quite a few cultural resource management and historic preservation companies across the United States. Only one of these companies told their employees about the project goal and objectives for the next year. All the other ones rarely let their employees know what was coming down the line in the near- or long-term (and it wasn’t always due to project slippage). None of them asked any of us if there were any procedural or bureaucratic problems that were reducing efficiency. None of the mid-level supervisors or field technicians ever knew if we’d have a job next month, next week , or, sometimes, tomorrow. Hell, some of the principal investigators never seemed to know what was coming next.

Each of these companies suffered greatly for the policies of keeping their employees in the dark:

  1. Projects frequently ended up fubar. Things tend to get messed up when nobody knows how many hours were budgeted/estimated for write-up, PIs didn’t know where the project area was, people didn’t know who was the point of contact with the client (most places forbade us from having any contact with the client), and there was no clear hierarchy or organization for completing the project.
  2. Everybody sounded stupid. It’s pretty difficult for workers to work and supervisors to supervise when nobody knows what’s happening or who’s in charge. Small problems balloon into huge ones when the answer to every question is, “I don’t know. Go ask so-and-so.”
  3. Inefficiencies abounded. Companies where nobody knows nothing create and perpetuate inefficient systems. It’s a problem when the people that are forced to work within an organization aren’t allowed to make changes or provide input that could reduce redundancies because they have no idea what happens after they complete their small piece of the puzzle.
  4. Morale is pathetic. Who wants to work at a company where they don’t have any idea if they’re a valued employee or a tool that can be used and discarded.
  5. Overhead was big and kept getting bigger. With the lack of communication between workers and supervisors, there was little drive to make things better. Each employee was simply following the leader while the economy changed all around them. Inefficiencies and mushroom-employees (A.K.A. lifers) continued slurping down overhead and steadily asking for more money/benefits  while not researching growth opportunities or striving to make the company better.

It’s a sad state of affairs, but this seems to be the modus operandi for most cultural resource management companies. And, CRM isn’t the only industry that strives to hire the best applicants and promptly stagnates career growth and morale. It appears to be commonplace.

In his 2012 article in Contract Management magazine, “Growing Mushrooms: Keeping Your Employees in the Dark Can Keep Your Organization There, Too,” Al Muñoz describes the perfect system companies use to keep employees in the dark and creating places where only mushroom-employees thrive ( Here are a few of Muñoz’ characteristics that I’ve experienced in CRM companies:

— Ignore your employees most of the time.

— Do most of your communication by pronouncement. Don’t explain any long-term strategy. Just tell them what to do.

— If an employee does a good job and finishes ahead of schedule, sandbag their project until its two weeks late, then ask for it again. Keep the pressure on to finish quickly, so they’ll slop through the work for fear of getting fired. But make sure it doesn’t get done too quickly, which would make it more difficult to charge clients more money in the future. This also makes it almost impossible to give quality feedback that may help them become better at their job.

— Keep your employees from reaching their full potential. If they have aptitude or interest in a certain project, give it to somebody that doesn’t know what they’re doing and doesn’t care about that topic. This will also prevent any of your employees from doing things better than their supervisor and will keep them from becoming more skilled employees that could move to another company where they’re more respected.

Keeping employees in the dark really screws your company’s chances of becoming more efficient, creating quality products, and creating a well-respected brand. It creates places full of mushroom-employees– they do just what it takes to keep their jobs, they don’t really care about improving work situations, and they’re afraid to try innovation. Milquetoast mushroom-employees and the general lack of communication is a major reason the entire CRM industry specializes in making absolute-minimum, bare-bones compliance reports that don’t serve the public and barely serve clients.

The key to growing the CRM industry lies in harnessing the skills, interests, and creativity of our best and brightest. We need to find alternative streams of income that will ease the pain of fierce competition for scarce government contracts. There are already dozens of solutions to our industry-wide income problem. Those solutions will only be discovered by the people already working in cultural resource management and aspiring CRMers.

If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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