New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Super Challenge

Angela Hirsch, president of a 100-unit Queens cooperative, likes her building’s superintendent. Really, she does. He’s a nice guy, very charming, and also very knowledgeable about building systems. But, she sighs, “He’s lazy. You know, what we’d really like to do is give him a boot up the backside and say, ‘Listen, get on with it, or else.’ But it doesn’t work like that. We’ve tried everything – pleas, threats, what have you. It’s just so frustrating. When you have certain expectations of your super, whether they are valid or not valid, it’s very hard when you get the rolling eyes and the shrugging shoulders, and his acting ignorant. And he’s not ignorant.”

But Hirsch, who says that the building went through the drawn-out termination of a super some years ago, is reluctant to take the final step and fire him. Besides, the super owns an apartment in the co-op, which he bought for his daughter. So termination would be, well, awkward.

Meanwhile, at another co-op, the board president, Craig Bowley, has nothing but praise for the building’s super, who doesn’t own his apartment but acts as though he does. “He has been here over ten years and does perform his duties as if he had a vested interest in the property,” notes Bowley. “He is very fussy about contractors’ behavior in public areas and [in] enforcing all house rules. I know he has a house up the river and plans to retire there in a few years. We will be seriously challenged to find such a conscientious replacement.”

Knowledgeable, conscientious, one of the family – if you have a great super you are blessed. For many boards, though, the situation is closer to Hirsch’s not Bowley’s: frustration rather than satisfaction, powerlessness not empowerment. For them, the challenge is how to improve the super and get the troika of super, manager, and board members working together as a team.

Praise and Perks

When it comes to improving your superintendent’s performance, the simplest method is the carrot not the stick: give him bonuses for work well done. “Most buildings give out year-end – and sometimes very generous year-end – bonuses, which should not be considered as an automatic [perk] of the job, but rather a reflection of the quality of the performance,” observes Donald H. Levy, senior account executive at Brown Harris Stevens. “And that doesn’t preclude a building from giving bonuses at other times during the year, or, in fact, giving the super raises and compensations.” You can also let him earn extra income by allowing him to perform side jobs for the residents on his own time.

In addition to money, you can offer something often valued as highly: praise for a job well done. “The tendency is [that] he may do 100 things right, but all he hears about is the one thing he did wrong,” notes Alvin Wasserman, director of Fairfield Property Services. “Praise from the board, praise from the owners – and then, occasionally perks, compensation perks – are the best way to motivate anybody.”

You also want to give your super a good place to live: if he’s residing in the building, try to provide him with a nice apartment. Anything above the ground floor is more desirable than the basement (and you can even modify basement apartments to make them attractive).

Make the super feel that he’s a member of a team. Part of doing that is finding out what he needs to do his job most effectively. “We look into what they need to perform their work better, in terms of either equipment or whatever other area they feel that they need help,” says Ayama DeCardemas, president of a 108-unit Westchester co-op.

To be able to function more efficiently and be proactive, your superintendent needs to be knowledgeable and up-to-date on building systems. With that in mind, some managers suggest getting the super involved in continuing education courses – which can also be seen as another reward. He will learn more, become a bigger asset – and will feel the board is investing in him because it wants him to be a savvy part of the community.

“I would include that in the category of perks,” Wasserman says, “because if you’re paying for the super’s continuing education, and his self-respect and his knowledge increase, he becomes a more valuable employee. And if he’s happy, he’ll stay. You’ll ultimately benefit from that.”

Many board members agree. For instance, DeCardemas’s co-op has encouraged the superintendent to go to union-sponsored classes, while Raphael Zeevi, president of a 34-unit Manhattan co-op, sent his building’s super to lead paint courses. “He was certified and able to do lead paint [remediation],” notes Zeevi. “When they passed that law, it looked very scary, and they said that you couldn’t do anything if you didn’t have this certification, and he does all kinds of jobs in the building, so I just wanted to be covered.”

Another way to motivate your super is to ask him to make a regular report at the monthly board meetings. At a 50-unit Queens co-op, for instance, board president Phyllis Wald has the superintendent make a presentation at the start of every board meeting. Wald has found that such a move enhances communication and also makes the super feel like the “team” respects him. “That gives him prestige,” she explains. “Everybody listens to him; he brings up his problems. It makes him feel like an executive, like he’s important. I was in the business world all my life, and if you don’t give someone prestige or standing, you don’t get the same diligence and response back from them.”

Dangerous Rewards

Still, you can take this idea too far. Beware the reward that makes a super part of the corporation itself. Some co-ops have let the superintendent buy a unit in the building, often for a family member or as an investment, sometimes even as an apartment for himself. While some board members say such a move is a way to increase the superintendent’s stake in the cooperative, most professionals argue that it is a terrible idea that can only lead to headaches.

First and foremost, there is a clear conflict of interest. The super is now both an employee and an owner. “What complicates it even further is, if he is an owner, he can run for the board,” Fairfield’s Wasserman notes. “So now you’ve got three tiers of status: you’ve got [him as] board member, owner, and employee. And in that, there is an inherent conflict of interest. If he doesn’t do his job properly, you are addressing an employee – and a fellow owner. It just becomes a bloody mess.”

Additionally, there is the question of firing him, which can become very awkward under such a scenario. “You have turned a discretionary residency into an ownership residency,” warns Levy, the manager. “One of the immediate dangers being that if something in this wonderful relationship goes sour, then you’ve got yourself a much more complicated situation, which is not only terminating the employee but doing it without the usual stick to hold over a super’s head, i.e., saying that if he delivers the apartment in ‘broom clean’ condition as of a certain date, you’d be willing to put additional dollars on the table. Since he owns the apartment, you can’t do that, and you’ve got to try and terminate ownership. That can take a great deal longer than the negotiated termination of employment.”

There is another bit of awkwardness, too: the interpersonal kind. When you remove a super, you want to cut ties; you don’t want that person lingering on in the building like yesterday’s bad news. But if he owns a unit, he will probably be there until he sells. “I had an account that we took over where the super did buy an apartment – he actually owned it – it was awful when they fired him. Awful,” recalls Michael Wolfe, president of Midboro Management.”

In addition, rather than giving him an incentive to stay and work harder, letting the super buy an expensive piece of real estate can have the opposite effect. It is actually a tremendous “bonus,” and he may feel like cashing it in. “It’s horrible,” says attorney James Samson, a partner at Samson Fink & Dubow, who recalls advising an Upper West Side co-op against just such a proposal. “They wanted to buy him an apartment and then to agree that if he ever quit, the co-op would pay him for the apartment at the current value. I warned them that they were giving away a corporate asset and getting nothing in return. They didn’t even get a promise from him to stay. As the market gets better, they have given him an incentive to move on.”

There is also the question of rejection. What if the board feels it has to turn down his application for financial reasons? That could create bitterness and serve as a disincentive for him to give the job his best. Observes Wolfe: “If the financials aren’t good enough, what are you going to do? Reject him? Then what kind of situation do you have on your hands? He’s going to be totally pissed off. He’ll hate you forever.”

Chains of Command

A better way to motivate him is to respect his decisions, and set up a clear chain of command so that, again, he will feel like he is part of the team. The staff should report to the super, the super should report to the managing agent, and the agent should report to the board. In this set-up, the superintendent must be able to make decisions regarding his staff that are not countermanded by the board. He needs to have control.

“If the board is happy with the superintendent, they should, within reason, always support him,” Midboro’s Wolfe notes. “They should never publicly take the side of an employee over the super. They should also encourage the super to be diplomatic, and [act as though he were part of] a team. It’s the managing agent, the board, and the super. That three-unit team must stay unified. There are always exceptions to the rule. But the board members should not be bleeding hearts for [staff members who are] complaining.”

“If the staff knows they can go to the board when they don’t like a decision, then the super has no power,” agrees Steve Greenbaum, director of management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate. “You have to follow the chain of command or he can’t properly administer his staff.”

In one co-op, for instance, a doorman was constantly falling asleep on the job. The super decided to remove the chair from the lobby. As a result, the sleeping doorman could sleep no more – but the other three doormen now complained to the board members that they were being penalized, too, because they were unable to sit down. It was unjust, they said, because they had not abused the “chair privilege.”

Experts say that breaking the chain of command like this is wrong, but inevitable. “You can’t keep that from happening,” says Levy of Brown Harris. “It happens in every building. The reality is that the staff members know the board members, and I’ve never once seen a building that, if there was an issue that the staff member wanted to discuss, they didn’t pigeonhole a board member in the laundry room or the elevator. The other side of that coin is that the board members have to constantly be reminded not to try to be good guys and allow that to happen because it undermines the super and the managing agent.”

“There’s a relationship that builds up [with the employees] where the shareholder, and sometimes the board people, want to hear from the employees,” says Gerard J. Picaso, president of Gerard J. Picaso Inc. “So there isn’t anything you can do about that. Now it works well if the super is not a good super. But if he’s a good super, it undermines him.”

Different buildings have different approaches in this regard. At Susan Odell’s 28-unit co-op in Manhattan’s West 90s, the small size of the property means that it is often easier for the board members to interface directly with the super (who has no staff) than to go through management. “If it’s something that involves outside vendors and scheduling, I will ask management to do it,” notes Odell, the president. “If it’s something like adjusting the heat, I’ll just leave him a note myself.”

Warren Schreiber, president of a 200-unit Queens cooperative, reports that oversight and interaction with the super “depend on the scope of the problem. There are some problems which he has the discretion to take care of on his own; you know, certain repair issues which just have to be done. Really large issues would probably be reported both to myself and to the property manager. Sometimes, I will go through my managing agent and ask him to speak to the super. Very rarely will I actually speak to the staff – that’ll always be done through the super.”

How Is He Doing?

Finally, you may want to set up an evaluation system. According to Peter Grech, president of the Superintendents’ Club and a full-time super himself, the union has no performance standards that its members must follow, so the setting of standards is left in the hands of the employer. And most co-ops and condos are very loose about doing this, in the view of many managing agents and other professionals.

In the corporate world, preparing written standards is the norm, not the exception, reports Arthur Davis, a consultant to corporations, as well as to co-ops and condos. “Performance standards and appraisals are important to get full service from your employees,” he notes. “Without setting standards, you can’t evaluate expectations. You can’t expect someone to do something they don’t know they’re supposed to be doing. You need to do that so that everyone knows what is expected and you all stand on equal footing. In corporations, job standards come with job descriptions: you’ll do this sort of analysis, will be responsible for this many reports, and so forth. That’s what the corporate world is about: standards of performances and the key in setting benchmarks as a basis of comparison and as a way to grow.”

In fact, few buildings have a formal schedule of duties for the super or even a written review. Some professionals think that a checklist of what the super should be doing might be counterproductive. The view of Brown Harris’s Levy is fairly typical: “I think [a schedule of duties is] more beneficial for the staff members than it is for the superintendent. Because the superintendent is considered to be in more of a managerial position, he should not have to meet the same kind of detailed ‘checklist’ guidelines. It’s really his responsibility to make sure that everybody else is doing their jobs.”

But, argues Davis, the super should indeed be given a schedule of duties. “He should be told to maintain the building at a certain level, and that level should be set by the board and the managing agent.” Nonetheless, most are like Schreiber’s co-op: informal. At the end of the year, the board examines the condition of the property, looks at “how we feel everything is being run – if everything is clean, if the snow is being removed promptly, how well he is able to motivate the staff. Basically, we’re just observing situations as they arise; we don’t have an actual evaluation form. We’re looking for the results, more than anything else.”

“Having experience with hundreds of superintendents over the years, you have a pretty good sense of who does what they need to do just to get by, and who goes above and beyond that,” adds Fairfield’s Wasserman. “And you want to support and reinforce those people, so that it doesn’t change.”

Saying Goodbye

If your super hasn’t improved even after you’ve followed all these steps, the next move is to begin the dismissal process – in unionized buildings, a drawn-out affair that most would rather avoid. But when the super isn’t performing, a responsible board has no choice. “If he doesn’t carry out his orders, then you write him up,” Midboro’s Wolfe says.

Writing him up should be done as a last resort because, once you start a formal procedure, you’re going to upset the super, which can be counterproductive. “You want to get his attention,” Levy notes. “The risk is that you’re also going to offend him and alienate him with respect to the building and the people.”

The formal “write-up” is the beginning of a long disciplinary process. At the very least, you have to create a multilevel trail of written reports – to the union, the super, and the Realty Advisory Board. The letter-writing has to continue with warnings, and, if there’s an issue that is very serious, that can possibly lead to a suspension.

There are ample reasons for termination: not doing the job, not being responsible, lack of control of the staff, drinking or drug problems, and/or stealing. But whatever the reason, you must carefully document it, or you could end up paying.

“What you shouldn’t do is be hasty, because the worst thing you could do is fire somebody and then have them reinstated with back pay because you didn’t follow procedures,” says Midboro’s Wolfe. “If you didn’t do progressive discipline – warnings, written disciplinary actions, a few minor suspensions – and all of a sudden just fire him, he will go to arbitration, and the arbitrator will say, ‘You didn’t handle this properly,’ and then reinstate him with back pay. Document, document, document. You should also encourage your shareholders to send letters to the board, so it doesn’t look like it’s the agent versus the super.”

Some professionals say that when dismissal is your only option, rather than firing him, you should begin negotiating with the super to leave voluntarily, and start looking for his replacement at the same time.

“The reality is that, when it comes time to terminate that kind of a position, it’s almost always done through negotiation rather than through an extended arbitration,” Levy says. “It doesn’t mean arbitration doesn’t take place when you’re terminating a superintendent, but the rule of thumb is that you usually sit down with the attorneys at the Realty Advisory Board and with the union. Since you want to get a general release (and the turnover of a broom-clean apartment), that’s done through a combination of negotiation and, in most cases, some kind of payment over and above whatever the contract would entitle him to.”

When you hunt for a new superintendent, you should look for key skills – both technical and interpersonal – but, above all else, you should look for a good attitude. Because motivation may come and go, but attitude is forever.

“I’ve always said that the successful completion of any job – success at any endeavor is 90 percent attitude and 10 percent skill and knowledge,” says Wasserman. “Anybody can acquire knowledge, but it is nearly impossible to change attitude. So, if you’ve got somebody who has a bad attitude and has had it for a long time, it’s very unlikely you’re going to turn that around. You’ve either got to make a change and cut your losses, or grin and bear it.”

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