Wednesday, November 24, 2010

 

Microbenefits

“Why them and not us?”

Managing the different impacts of microbenefits is a surprisingly large part of my job. I’m still getting used to it, and still shaking off disbelief at some of the issues people will choose to fight about. This week brought that home to me yet again.

Like many colleges, mine sometimes closes a little early on the last day before a holiday break, such as the day before Thanksgiving. It’s a goodwill gesture to the staff, many of whom will be traveling, and an acknowledgement that the last few hours before a long break are typically unproductive anyway. I think of it as a civilized gesture.

For the office staff folk who work 9-to-5-ish hours, that’s precisely what it is. They can get a jump on travel or other holiday preparation without burning personal time. It’s a small thing, but it it makes a palpable difference in attitude and loyalty. For most faculty, you either hold class or you don’t. Labs can be awkward -- when closing time happens in the middle of an extended lab period, you have to make a judgment call -- but they’re generally manageable.

But it isn’t that simple.

Some staff people work nontraditional hours -- for the sake of example, take evening librarians. (I prefer that to “librarians of the evening,” which suggests something entirely different.) When the college closes early, the day librarians have grounds to argue that the evening librarians are getting more paid vacation than they are. The same holds for building maintainers, lab technicians, etc; if the evening shift gets a microbenefit that the day shift doesn’t, or vice versa, you can expect grievances from those who don’t. (Everybody here is unionized, so the term ‘grievance’ is used literally.)

This isn’t a major issue with planned holidays, precisely because they’re planned. The college is closed for Thanksgiving day all day, and we all knew that when we put together work schedules. It’s the semi-spontaneous generous gestures that cause angst and wailing. The objections of “why them and not us?” start flying, even though the ‘special’ benefit costs them absolutely nothing. The fact that someone else is getting something they aren’t -- even if it makes no material difference to them -- is offensive in itself.

In a large and complex organization that encompasses all manner of job functions, it’s a safe bet that nearly anything will have unintended consequences. One of my more gratifying moments recently occurred in a meeting with faculty from several different disciplines in which we were trying to set next year’s academic calendar. Someone from a social science took umbrage at one proposal, only to have someone from a lab science respond by explaining why that proposal worked so well for lab sciences. If I had said it, it would have been discounted immediately as a ruse of The Administration for its nefarious blah blah blah. But coming from a faculty colleague, there really wasn’t much to say. He apparently hadn’t thought of that objection, and the tirade that I could see was coming was short-circuited. I enjoyed that more than I probably should have, but it so cleanly encapsulated the rush to judgment that seeing it stopped in its tracks was glorious.

I understand that much of the umbrage taken at microbenefits derives from a sense of fairness violated. But when the umbrage is strong and repetitive, the result is a gradual fading away of all those civilized gestures that make the world a little less Dilbert-ish. If letting people get a head start on Thanksgiving brings a flurry of grievances, then it’s easy to default to keeping everybody to the bitter end. In the name of fairness, everybody gets just a little bit worse.

We’re not there yet. We probably will be, but not quite yet. So for now, at least, there’s still a little bit of humanity in the machine. I’m thankful for that.

Happy Thanksgiving. The next post will be on Monday.

Comments:
Happy Thanksgiving, Dean Dad, to you and yours!
 
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Seems to me (as a manager of a very small team) that the answer is pretty straightforward for your example. These folks work the evening shift. Would you like to work the evening shift? In exchange for working an inconvenient set of hours all the time for the same pay as the day shift, you get a couple of extra holidays to even things out.

It's the same argument I made to my management in favor of supplying a university-paid smartphone with full data access to my subordinates who are on call 24/7/365 to maintain the learning management systems, since the job requires such. Well, I lost the argument on precisely these grounds--if we tried it, other people in the department would ask "why them and not me?" I thought the answer was pretty simple, do you want to be called whenever there are any minor problems with these systems on Thanksgiving and Christmas and 3am on Sunday morning and are you willing to then drop everything and address the problem in the next fifteen minutes? Then you can also have a paid smartphone. Otherwise, what are you complaining about really?
 
Yet more evidence to support my not-very-tentative conclusion that people are no smarter than dogs or monkeys.

Remember that research story that came out in 2008 that dogs got upset and refused to do a task that they had previously happily done, if they saw another dog get rewarded for it, and they weren't?
 
Enjoy your time this weekend with your family - the beginning of the end is near....
 
my wife's office has a lot of alternative schedules, flexible hours, etc. Instead of saying 'everybody gets off at 2" they say "you can leave 3 hours early." If you came in at 7 you can leave at 1, if you came in at 9 you can leave at 3, etc. That also prevents traffic jams in the parking lot.
 
I like this post a lot. Not only does it encapsulate an interesting management problem, it explains a lot of American politics these days, especially the stuff around health care, education, and social welfare spending more generally.

Happy Thanksgiving!
 
i'm in this situation all of the time. as a contractor, i work next to federal workers. the federal workers get extra time off around holidays, get better benefits, and they get more sick leave & vacation.

we all do the exact same job, but some just have it better.

guess what. that's life.

there are people out there who make $100k+, and they are absolute morons. there are people who have it so much easier & better, yet they deserve much less. i'd love to stay at home with my kids, but my wife isn't smart enough to make enough money to support us all. so i'm the one who will spend 75% of his available time away from his kids. in the end, it's not fair.

but we suck it up, or we move on. you don't like the position you're in, work hard to change it.

i'd tell people to be happy with what you got, and just to enjoy life. worrying about what everyone else does only causes misery, because there's always someone out there who has it better than you.
 
this is so indicative of today's society.

it's all about me.

it's about subsidizing those who are in less than ideal situations, paid for by those who have worked hard to achieve good thing.

instead of trying to work hard to become one of the ones who gets the time off by working up through the ladder, people complain and whine their way into getting benefits they shouldn't have.
 
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