Thursday, June 19, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Recognizing Staff

A returning correspondent writes:

The vice president who oversees the majority of support staff at my SLAC
is constructing a proposal for a year-long recognition of the
contributions of non-faculty employees to our university's operations.
Over the years, members of staff have noticed that faculty consistently
receive larger percentage raises (on top of higher starting salaries) than
support staff and that faculty enjoy significant benefits not afforded to
staff (tenure, sabbatical leave, employment for trailing spouses, etc.).
This coming fiscal year, for example, will see a 15% increase in faculty
salaries while staff raises will come from a pool capped at 4% of current
staff salary expenditures. The 2009 fiscal year will also see several new
tenure-track hires with a simultaneous freeze on the creation of new staff

Recognizing the substantial disparities in compensation, benefits and
overall treatment between faculty and staff employees, our vice president
would like to demonstrate in tangible ways that our university does, in
fact, value non-faculty employees. She has solicited proposals from her
subordinate directors and employees for programs that would benefit
support staff and improve morale.

So far, I have heard various suggestions, including:
• a one-time cash bonus awarded to each employee at her employment
anniversary or birthday
• a pool of services from which employees might choose (spa days, resort
weekends, etc.) in lieu of a cash payment
• an increase in paid vacation days allotted
• a peer-to-peer gift-card recognition program to tangibly recognize
service provided by staff to each other

Our university is located in a "right-to-work" state; faculty enter into
annual employment contracts while staff are employed "at will." No union
representation is recognized on campus.

What say your wise and worldly readers? How have their institutions
successfully addressed the gap between faculty and staff? What
compensation or recognition programs have they seen (or led or
implemented) that succeeded? What failures have they seen -- and what
have they learned from these failures?

I've never heard of 15 percent raises, period. So congratulations on that. And your VP is certainly right that good staffers are well worth recognizing. One of the lessons I learned very early in grad school was that the administrative assistants are remarkably powerful, and that you mistreat them at your peril. That has held true at an R1, a proprietary, and a community college.

Compared to a 15 percent raise, any of the possibilities you mentioned may well come across as unsatisfying consolation prizes. (Depending on local rules, though, there may be ways around that. For example, if your college 'buys out' unused vacation time upon retirement, some people would see picking up a few vacation days as a financial windfall.)

I would shy away from the peer-to-peer thing, since that pretty transparently shifts the cost onto the staffers themselves. Secret Santa is just not the same as a raise.

Some people respond to public praise more than to private reward. Public recognition in the right situation may count for more than a token gift, at least for some people.

One of the frustrations of administration is that doing a Good Thing – like finding money for faculty – inevitably results in blowback when others wonder why you didn't do the same for them. What you might see as “righting a longstanding wrong,” others will see as “favoritism” or “precedent.” No good deed goes unpunished.

I'll echo the call to my wise and worldly readers. What have you seen succeed or fail?

Good luck!

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

I don't have much to add to what you wrote DD - 15% across the board for all faculty? Seriously? I work at the wrong place - other than to chime in and say that the only suggestion offered that seems on par is the increase in paid vacation. Combine that with a yearly award for outstanding staff performance maybe, thus addressing people's private compensation as well as offering some public recognition? (That competitive award should come not only with public recognition but with a good cash prize.)
Where the hell do faculty get 15% raises?! Harvard? Yale? At my former institution, it was impossible to get more than about 1.5--1.8% without sucking up to the administrators and retaining as many students as possible--especially at the cost of rigor and standards.
Time might do it. Vacation time, closing up over Christmas to New Years for everyone. Also, I feel like DD's post assumes that support staff means admin assistants. It could also mean staff with the same credentials as faculty, just serving in a different role. I would advise to make sure that benefits to staff are similar as they are at other local institutions. As the OP notes, "at will" is very different than employee contracts, thus if the disparities are too obvious and other institutions reward support staff more, staffers can vote with their feet.
As a staff member at an SLAC whose husband is also faculty at said SLAC, I find this happens with us as well. I'm not so sure that faculty get obviously better benefits than us, but they sure are treated better. We all get the same percentage of a raise, but faculty know how to get a merit raise, whereas it's up to staff's supervisors to nominate staff for merit raises (and this is not at all encouraged by fact, until this year, my supervisor didn't even know that she could nominate any of us for merit raises, and she's been here almost ten years in a supervisory position). Merit raises for faculty often hover around 2-3%, but a staff coworker who demanded a merit raise this year (after getting excellent evaluations for 8 years in a row and never receiving a merit raise) will only receive a .5% raise because the money is pooled elsewhere.

I would shy away from competitive awards where only a couple of staff members receive recognition each year. Our SLAC has a recognition ceremony every year, and everyone always goes away depressed because only a handful of staffers every get recognized. My office of 4 staff members have a total of 27 years of work here, and none of us has ever been recognized. This sort of recognition often becomes a game of favorites or relies very heavily on which supervisor pushes harder. I think that staff is looking for more recognition throughout the year, not just at one point in the year where only 4 out of 200 are singled out.

I would say that extra vacation would be great or closing the college during the Christmas holidays (but be careful of what you wish for here...our school did this last year, which was great, but they took away our floating holidays in exchange, so technically, the closing was coming out of our pocket with no choice in the matter.) I would say here as a piece of matter what your school decides to do, DO NOT take something else away to offset it. This does not make staff feel appreciated. (You'd think this was obvious, but it isn't always.)

I've recently joined a small group of staff members who are trying to come up with ideas on how to improve staff morale. Much of what we've come up with takes commitment from the administration and money, and both of those can be very difficult to wrangle. We've suggested things like a Christmas bonus (even if it's only a small gift card or something); creating a "Staffer of the Month" where the awardee would get a prime parking space for the month and some small token (money, vacation day, etc.); and actually promoting staff members who deserve to be promoted. I think that our group decided that we don't need a huge amount of money; we just need for someone on campus to regularly recognize publicly all that staff members do at all levels of the university. It wouldn't hurt, either, if faculty decided to stand up for the staff that supports the campus as well.

Anonymous 5:36 hit the nail on the head when s/he said that DD is assuming that this is on a support staff level. I know many staff members here who are just as well educated as the faculty here who are treated with as much disparity as the President and his administrative assistant.

Another SLAC Staff Member
Yeah, I think this is pretty common. I'm also at a SLAC, and we have 3 tiers of COL and merit raise percents -- the highest is for faculty at about 5%, then for support staff typically at about 4%, and then for the professional staff the pool is about 1.5% cost of living and another .5 for merit (that is shared across divisions). End result -- a lot of grumpy professional staff since the amount the professional staff pay for health incurance increases each year, many of us actually have been taking home the same amount when all is said and done. But in the end, for so many people time is more valuable than money so some of the efforts the college has made to increase holiday time (like extra days at Christmas) have adctually gone along way to help with morale.
"I would shy away from competitive awards where only a couple of staff members receive recognition each year. ... This sort of recognition often becomes a game of favorites"

Agree, and it can breed bitterness over time. If "recognition" is the goal (and/or more fair employment standards are not an option), I would urge the administration in particular to write personal notes to staffers who have been performing well or done something great recently, and over time encourage faculty to get on board. Personal recognition for something you actually did goes a lot farther than random plaques handed out once a year to a handful of people chosen apparently at random.
I'd say the previous anon commenter hit a lot of the points I was going to. We have an annual award for staff who are nominated, and although it's a nice idea, so few people are ever recognized that it doesn't do much to raise the morale of those of us who might be great employees, but who are not "popular" enough to be nominated by our colleagues or whose supervisor may not think to nominate us.

Here's some personal wishes of mine:

-opportunities for promotion: these don't have to be huge. One could apply for a change in job title, for example, with or without compensation.
-opportunities for sabbatical-like leave: for those staff with faculty-like credentials, the opportunity to take a month off to do some academic-like work would be much appreciated. These could be competitive.
-regular recognition in campus publications of staff work: I often see announcements of faculty publications, conferences, etc. I've published and given more talks than some of our faculty and I've not once seen mention of this. Other staff have contributed to campus-wide efforts and are not recognized for it.
-real merit pay: this means having a comparable pool of money that faculty have and having a process that involves more than just an immediate supervisor (some of whom can't recognize excellence in anyone)

Frankly, I don't like any of the ideas your correspondent mentioned. Maybe staff at a certain pay level would, but I can buy my own services and we already get a ton of vacation time. I think what staff really want is to be acknowledged. We know we're know going to get our pictures into the admissions brochures, but surely the administration can regularly mention the contributions staff make. For example, the housekeeping staff works extra hard at the beginning of the school year getting the dorms ready for move-in. Couldn't the president send out an email to the campus mentioning this and thanking them for their efforts and for making the campus a welcoming place for the students? Or this could appear in the campus newspaper or weekly web publication. And how much money does that cost? Zero. And honestly, more of that would go a long way. It doesn't replace reasonable salaries and working conditions, but it definitely improves employees sense of mission and morale.
Speaking as a former R1 staffer, free T-shirts and hot dogs did not do much to make us feel appreciated. The faculty weren't feeling too appreciated either, but I don't remember what pathetic gesture the administration made to them at the time.
Some excellent comment so far. Let me add a few thoughts, based on my experience at a very small liberal arts college (VSLAC?). First, there's not really any substitute for raises. If faculty get a 15% raise and staff get a 4% raise, there's no getting around that. Pretending that some other benefits will make up for that disparity is unlikely to go over well.

However, I think there are some things that can be done that would help staff feel appreciated. The first is simply treating staff kindly and professionally on a consistent basis. Public recognition in a speech or publication or all-campus is nice. But it's more important, I think, to treat staff respectfully in daily interactions.

As someone else suggested above, professional development opportunities for staff are important for morale and staff effectiveness. Some opportunities for professional development should extend to all staff in the organization: grounds crew, kitchen staff, administrative workers, library staff, etc. Providing time off to go to conferences, take a course, learn some new skills, sends a clear message that the talents and expertise of staff is valued and is in institutional priority. At many small schools, there's no much opportunity for upward mobility; there just aren't that many different levels to move up to. One way to make up for this is to provide continued opportunites for professional growth.

I've seen a few other, smaller things that can have a positive effect. On a few occasions our President or one of the Deans has essentially closed the school and encourage staff to leave a few hours early on summer days when not much was going on and the weather was nice. We're small enough that we can occasionally get away with this. My sense is that staff really appreciated this, especially since it was done in a non-gimmick-ey way and so was interpreted as a genuine act. Staff also organize potlucks, occasionaly Friday afternoon get-togethers, hold birthday celebrations for each other on campus, etc. Supervisors should be supportive of these efforts, even if it means staff are out of the office for a little bit.

I have mixed feelings about competitive awards or singling out one or two staff for public recognition. This can be a good thing, I supppose, but only if there is a base level of support and respect for all staff.

Overall, I think that there are a lot of non-monetary things that go into making a college a place that staff (and faculty) will want to work. There are some ways these things can backfire if done clumsily, but this doen't have to be the case. These don't substitute for reasonable salaries, but I think are perhaps almost equally important.
The correspondent is on the faculty of that SLAC?

I think the faculty should stand up and speak out for the staff that make their jobs possible. A simple proposal would be to reduce the faculty pay raise from 15% to 11% and spread that pile of money (in equal dollar amounts) as an additional pay increase for the staff. Imagine the good will that would produce around your department?

Given that the faculty at a SLAC likely make a LOT more than the staff, you might even produce a big pile of money while giving the faculty "only" a 14% raise. Only the writer can know what the numbers look like at that particular college.

And since your staff are all employed "at will", the presumption should be that they all merit this across-the-board increase.
I think CC Physicist's proposal is the best I've heard. I was just thinking that faculty salaries are higher already than staff's so a higher increase translates into a significant pay gap over time. I'm not sure I understand the logic of increasing faculty salaries more than other employees' across the board. I could understand more merit opportunities or something like that, but a larger standard raise strikes me as completely unfair. With such a large gap, I'm surprised you haven't seen much outcry.
Anonymous 6:20 hits most of the things that I would want to say. I spent 6 years as exempt staff at a fairly large suburban CC, and the pay schedule was ludicrous. (I think I've commented here previously about the (lack of) system at my former employer.) Making the system of getting raises better AND more transparent goes a long way.

I also agree with CCPhysicist. If the faculty is willing to (voluntarily!) give up a bit of a raise, that will say VOLUMES to the staff about how they are appreciated.

Whether vacation time matters depends on how much is already given. I had the equivalent of about 6 weeks again, which was lovely, even though I never really used all of it. I did get to take some of it with me as cash when I left, which was nice. Adding onto that would've been silly, honestly.

But if staff are getting more like 2 weeks a year, some extra time off could be a real morale-booster.

A real professional development budget would've been nice. I always heard about faculty going to conferences, but our department had about enough money for one person (out of 10) to go to one conference once a year.

I managed to go to a couple: once by being invited to speak, which forced the dept's hand...and used up the whole budget...and a few other times by going to a REALLY cheap local conference. But my ability to wrangle those didn't win me any friends in the department. :( In our professional area, we really should've been able to attend plenty of training & conferences to stay fresh in our field(s).

Awards, IMHO, are LAME. We had an awards ceremony every year, and for me it was always just a waste of a half a day when I could have been doing some real work...since I was always over-worked. And all of the previous commenters observations about awards apply.
Hmmmm . . .

I guess all those surveys about the political leanings of college faculty are accurate!

How about this: Market Forces?*

[p.s. I wholeheartedly support all of the non-pay comments made so far. All employess should be treated with respect; all employees must be recongized and made to feel their contributions are valued. If you don't treat people fairly, your turnover rate will suffer, you will not have enough gruntlement, productivity will suffer, etc. A poor workplace climate sucks big time.]

My apol,ogies for providing "Diversity" [of thought]in this forum.

* Market Forces 101: If you are running low on qualified people to fill the various positions, raise the pay and benefits. If you have 10:1 qualified applicants for every position that opens, you are already paying them too much.
Just FYI to yet another confused prof--we are often *struggling* to get good people to fill our positions. I was on a search committee once where the search failed 3 times. Turnover in many areas is quite high--which says to me that those people are not being appropriately compensated and/or the pay is not enough to compensate for poor working conditions.
Dean Dad was kind enough to post my note to him as today's topic.

This year's large faculty pay raise is atypical and comes as part of a major restructuring of our university's curriculum. Most years, faculty pay increases are 1-2% higher than the staff raise pool. Both faculty and staff raises include a COL increase with additional merit increases based on evaluations conducted by department chairs/supervisors.

Vacation for staff is currently accrued based on length of service; up to one year's accrued vacation time is converted to cash upon separation. Annual accrual is 10 days for 0-5 years service, 12 days through ten years, 15 days through fifteen years, 17 days through twenty years and 20 days annually for 20+ years service; above a certain cap, additional unspent leave time is forfeited.

I love CCPhysicist's comment about faculty standing up to speak out for staff... as a member of staff, I don't see that often enough. A voluntary sacrifice of faculty pay increases to benefit us would do wonders for staff morale!

Thanks to all who have responded so far... I'll be checking back for more comments and will pass on a number of great ideas from you folks!
How would faculty--even if they agreed--give up part of a raise happen in a right-to-work state? There is no union representing faculty, so who has the authority to make such a decision? The Academic Senate?

What's clearly wrong at this SLAC is managment and the Board of Trustees. Real leaders would treat everyone equitably.

I don't know much about managing staff, but I can tell you, coming off a series of less-than-motivated staffers, that competent staffers are worth their weight in gold. Really excellent workers, even moreso.

I know our department chair (and some faculty?) takes the staff out to a nice lunch at least once a year, for the beginning of the year and during staff appreciation week.

And we're a big research campus, but I know that staff are always protesting the conversion of parking lots into new building areas, so discounted or free parking (or staff-only lots close to their buildings) would be much appreciated here.
A family member is on staff at a Snooty Fine Arts College (SFAC?) that, for a few years, offered little to no pay increases for staff. To compensate, the institution began closing the campus for several days over the holidays, and closing on Fridays during the summer. Security and facilities staff (who were still required to show up when campus was closed) were given additional vacation time, IIRC.
I think that moreover, everyone, staff and faculty alike, want appreciation. Money is always good, especially given our current economic state. My SLAC gives awards every year to a few people, but like someone else said, it's a popularity contest, not recognition for outstanding employees. I like the idea of printing stories in the college newspaper, or sending out broadcast messages from the President. A simple pat on the back can go a long way. I already get plenty vacation time, which I often find myself trying to use up by the end of the year. It would be nice to pay out vacation or a portion of unused sick time at the end of the year. To answer your question, I don't think anything we've tried has had much success. While you can't please everyone all the time, you should at least give a valiant try.
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