Friday, February 01, 2008

Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Haunting Husband

A new chair writes:

I am a first year chair of a medium sized department at a community college (college population 12-18,000 FTEs).

My department has experienced a baby boom retirement wave; we have replaced four retirees in the past six years, and there are more retirements pending.

We have assembled a strong faculty of talented people in our field, as the department makes this personnel transition. Our new folks are good, solid instructors, as well as good human beings - we all are dedicated instructors and get along well.

Last year we hired an outstanding faculty member. Her husband also has a terminal degree in our field. We hired him as an adjunct.

The situation: something just feels a little odd. We are not getting to know our tenure track faculty member as an individual. It's "MaryandBob" instead of "Mary."

Any advice or cautions for us? This is the first time this department has dealt with a husband and wife combination.

I'll admit being jealous of your hiring boom. It's much easier to build a culture when you get to choose the people who comprise it. It sounds like you've been choosing pretty well.

In fact, I wonder if things have come so easy that you've started to expect a little too much.

I'm not sure what it means to say that “we are not getting to know our tenure track faculty member as an individual.” Surely she teaches her own classes, advises her own students, and tends to her own professional development and college service. (If not, then you have a much larger problem.) Surely, too, she expresses her opinions in department meetings. So what, exactly, is the problem?

Is “Bob” showing up where he shouldn't? If so, you probably need to talk to him. Is “Mary” blowing off her obligations? If so, then you need to talk to her. I wouldn't advise talking to them together, since that would probably become two (them) against one (you) pretty quickly. Besides, if the problem is indistinct identities, then talking to them together, as opposed to separately, reinforces the problem.

I wonder if “Bob” considers himself 'next in line' for the next hire. I've seen that before, and it's not pretty. He may not be entirely clear on the boundaries of his role in the department.

Or you may have been spoiled by success, and have come to expect friction-free interaction with everybody 'just knowing' what they're supposed to do. Good hiring can make it possible to get away with that; heaven knows I have a strong bias in favor of self-directed people. (I'll go farther, and say that someone who needs a lot of direction is a high risk for 'retiring on the job' upon receiving tenure.)

But it may be that MaryandBob don't quite 'get' your expectations, and you haven't yet been in a position where you actually had to spell them out. So they're doing something that rubs you the wrong way, but you haven't entirely formulated what or why that is, and they have no idea.

Unwritten rules are hard to follow. They're hard to enforce, too, to the extent that 'unwritten' means 'not really thought out.' From your note, it sounds like there's an unwritten expectation – an unconsious assumption, really -- that people will hang out together, be friends outside of work, and form a happy departmental family. There's nothing wrong with that when it happens naturally; certainly, real friendships are wonderful things. But it's not part of the job description, and it can't be forced without doing violence to the employment relationship, the friendships, or both.

I've never been a fan of the “we're like a family” school of management. It leads to invalid expectations, role confusions, and lots of misplaced conflict. (Among other things, some people's family lives could be described as 'deeply messed up.' You really don't want them playing out those psychodramas at work.) Workplaces aren't families. Children don't strive for tenure. (If anything, they strive for escape!) Certain kinds of intimacies that are entirely appropriate at home are out-of-bounds at work.

My guess is that your unspoken expectations, whatever they might be, don't match MaryandBob's. So the first thing to do – before you even approach MaryandBob – is to figure out what your expectations of them actually are. Are they reasonable? Do they make sense? If you write them down, and look at them as if someone handed them to you, do they pass the 'gimme a break' test?

If they don't, then you have some work to do on your own.

If they do, then you need to have a discussion with Mary – sans Bob – about your expectations and where she isn't meeting them. She may not know that there's a problem, or, more likely, she may sense it but not know quite what it is. Putting the cards on the table makes it more likely that you'll reach some sort of constructive resolution, whether that involves behavior change, expectation change, or job change.

Good luck! You've got some tough work to do.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.