Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Staff Infection

A correspondent who works in the Accounting area of a college writes:

I want to comment on your discussion of the lack of positive incentives (or
presence of perverse incentives) throughout academia and the futility of
trying to run a college like a business. It applies to staff, too.

You'd think that it would be easy to run the business office (controller,
cashier, student loans, etc.) of a college like a business, but it doesn't
seem to work in practice. The "corporate culture" of academia seems to
pervade even the business-like staff areas. In summary, good work product
is rewarded with more work assignments, while bad work product is rewarded
with fewer work assignments with no loss of pay or prestige. Tidy work
areas are stuffed with more people, files or stored items to the bursting
point while those who keep untidy work areas are rewarded with more space.
Efficient use of resources (people, equipment) causes fewer resources to be
allocated to the efficient employee, while profligately wasteful use of
resources causes more and more resources to be allocated to the wasteful
employee. All the while raises are a flat percent across the board and
there is no hope for advancement.

"Well," you think, "just get a job somewhere else. At least you have more
options than someone with a Ph.D. in history." Unfortunately, that's not
really the case. I'm an accountant and not-for-profit and governmental
accounting is a very small niche. If you work in the field long enough to
gain any expertise, you have resume stain. Skill at writing university
financial statements and completing IRS form 990 (for not-for-profit
corporations) does not translate to employment writing corporate financial
statements and completing IRS form 1120 (for for-profit corporations).

Since I come out of the academic side, I admit that I hadn’t thought of this, but it’s consistent with what I’ve seen. Generally speaking, nonprofits pay less than for-profits for comparable work. (The only exception to this that I’ve seen, annoyingly enough, is for-profit higher ed, which pays terribly. I received a substantial raise, with the same title, going from a for-profit college to a cc – possibly the only case in recorded history in which a cc was the more lucrative option!) Nonprofits attract qualified employees in other ways: agreement with the mission, certainly, but also a more relaxed and/or stable work environment. A high-stress nonprofit will have a terrible time keeping anybody who has other options, since if you’re going to be stressed out anyway, you might as well go to the corporate sector and at least be paid better.

At least in the U.S., a substantial percentage of the non-profit side of higher ed is public (either county or state – as far as I know, our only federal public colleges are the military academies). That means that employees of these colleges are, technically, government employees. Government work is famously lower-paying than private sector work, but the traditional offsetting benefits of more time off and greater job stability/security tend to keep people around despite the salaries.

The downside of enhanced job stability, of course, is decreased job mobility. Less churn means fewer openings, so folks disenchanted with East Podunk State College have a tough time finding similar openings at other colleges. (It also places an unhealthy premium on conflict aversion, since simmering resentments could simmer for an awfully long time.) What my correspondent noted, that I hadn’t fully appreciated, is that certain kinds of work are sufficiently different in the corporate world that refugees from academia aren’t taken seriously.

At my college, on the rare occasions when a staff member leaves (usually upon retiring), there’s always an exit interview. I’m told that the most frequent gripe at the exit interviews is the lack of room for advancement; since nobody ever leaves and the institution isn’t growing, most employees have no realistic prospect of moving up. Again, the contrast with the corporate world is striking. There, your job is never really secure, but advancement can happen fairly quickly in the right circumstances.

(It’s sort of like the children’s table at family Christmas dinners. Until a few years ago, the cutoff for leaving the children’s table in my family was 65. A single generation held on for a long, long time, and nobody could move up until it moved on.)

Locally, the mechanisms that have evolved for keeping staff happy in the face of relatively low salaries and very low ceilings are time off and evaluation inflation. Since we don’t have merit pay, managers routinely rate average performance as excellent in order to boost morale. Over time, ‘excellent’ becomes normal, and criticizing people becomes nearly impossible. Add a union to the mix, and meaningful supervision is pretty much only by the grace of the supervised.

Although tenure doesn’t usually exist in staff positions, I’ve seen the culture of tenure bleed over into them. I’d love to change that, but the initial investment of substantially increasing salaries is concrete, and the long-term payoff of increased efficiency is (mostly) hypothetical and hard to capture. It could be done, with extraordinary political leadership and loose purse strings, but I’m not holding my breath.

I actually got an increase in salary moving from a university to a community college (of course, mine is one of the largest in the country).

We don't have merit pay, per se, but promotions and tenure are based in part on teaching for faculty. I don't think there is anything like that for staff. Everyone in the college gets the same across-the-board pay raise when it comes (except the chancellor, who normally gets more). So there is no reward at all for staff to work harder and do a good job other than personal satisfaction. Thankfully, here we have staff who do, in fact, get pleasure out of doing a good job. That is not true at some other places that I have taught.
I'd wager that on the average college campus, the number of people who really understand where the dollars flow and how to make sense of all the budget mumbo-jumbo is very small. At my campus, I'm convinced the only one who really knows is the CBO.

Our union has a "financial expert" whom they bring to union meetings when contract negotiations are in progress, and she's gotta be making six figures, even though she doesn't seem to know sh*t from shinola.

Maybe the correspondent could parlay their experience into some kind of consultant-type gig, helping the dimwits from the teacher's unions and the contract negotiating teams to make sense of their employer's financial statements.

I would guess that a competent person could make this into a nice little niche business, but I could be totally full of it, too.
I'd have to agree that the tenure culture bleeds into the staff side. It can be a good thing if you're someone who wants to clock in, clock out and not work too hard. You'll never get fired. It can be a bad thing if you're someone who wants their department to improve or who wants to move up. I've seen lots of people quit at the lower levels. One upper level position was eliminated, but other than that, no one in the upper levels has left. There's no where for me to go unless a new position is created. In theory this could happen, but it likely won't for financial reasons. Merit pay would help for me, but some people have vindictive supervisors so they might not get a fair shake. I'm actually involved in discussions with the board of trustees about improvements for staff morale. They are, as one might imagine, with us in principle, but not practically speaking. Everything costs money and they don't want to spend money on us.

I wish our department were run more like a business. I used to work in a corporation. Incompetent people were fired. Staff had clear goals and they were evaluated based on those goals. People were rewarded for good work,through recognition, bonuses, and increased salaries. There is no tangible reward as a college staff person for doing good work. It's all internal motivation. Some people have a hard time keeping that up year after year.
Suggest you read "Abolishing Performance Appraisals" by two folks at Michigan State U. (whose names escape me; the man died a few years ago), a truly great book. Especially given the low mobility and opportunities for advancement, why not ask yourself why you're doing performance appraisals at all, given that they just wind up being inflated nonsense. You've already said that no one is getting promoted or fired, so why are you subjecting them (and yourself) to the demeaning exercise of "appraising" their performance?
>>It's all internal motivation. Some people have a hard time keeping that up year after year.<<

And how. As a 15-year staff veteran at a large private university (one that is currently undergoing alleged "corporatization" of culture - yah huh, right), I find myself nodding with each and every point. My favorite motto, which I have posted above my computer to remind me of the world outside is, "I've worked in the private sector - they expect results!" (from Ghostbusters) Many people here tend not to get the joke (as in, don't understand the expression)

I get pleasure out of doing a good job and innovating as a member of clerical staff. Unfortunately, I'm watching our college's new leadership talk on and on about making the culture more proactively corporate here, but I know darn well they're just going to fire a few top administrators and never go any deeper. I have worked in offices where there is not only any real management, but not any actual SUPERVISION. Performance reviews? Joke. Going to bat for good employees is virtually unknown; you would not believe the squalid conditions that some of a university's key staff are expected to work under - and it's not so much malicious callousness as, nobody at the top in the shiny new donor-funded academic buildings has ever SEEN where their people work.

For those who choose to make a career in academic staffing and not lose their self-respect or their minds, the only option is to know where the few good managers are and then stick to them like glue. There are always 3 or 4 people at any institution who have worked in the real world and who expect results.

Why do we stay? Because it's nice not to be sexually harrassed or have to put up with four-letter words in the workplace, and benefits are good.

Thanks for visiting this topic. Nobody EVER talks about this when it comes to staffing -- it's not just about flex time and child care. Some of us would actually appreciate some supervision and management and competition.
We have to do performance appraisals so there is a paper trail, in the exceedingly rare case that somebody goes so very far off the rails that termination becomes a live option. No paper trail, and any 'adverse employment action' is arbitrary, by definition.

I really think much of the short-sightedness comes down to a short-term/long-term calculation. In the short term, raising salaries enough to compete with the private sector would impose a measurable (and substantial!) cost. In the long term, it may pay off in increased productivity, or it may not. (Or, worse, it may just embolden employees to use the funding for their own development, then leave.)

It gets worse -- we can't raise starting salaries to market levels, since that would cause 'salary compression' relative to the folks who have been here a while. That puts us at a serious recruiting handicap. We compensate through benefits and a not-too-demanding work environment. Benefits, I'm all for. The second part, not so much.
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