Tuesday, October 09, 2012


Ask the Administrator: Discerning Culture from the Outside

I love this question.  A new correspondent writes

Do you (or any of your wise and worldly readers) have any advice about looking for or finding clues to a college's culture, before you actually work there?  For example, everyone says they are "family friendly", but the idea of work/life balance means different things to different people (and Gen X seems to be part of the turning of the tide- go Gen X!)  I am a mid/high level administrator, and just getting a chance to start my family (one little one, another on the way) and have already, in the past few weeks, encountered both direct and indirect comments about wanting balance (apparently not a good thing), how I will get my work done (which was just fine last time I was out), and even the idea that one must aways say yes at work- no matter the effect on any other aspect of your work or home life (this last one was said to a group of people- rather demoralizing).
My good friend is on the job market right now as well, and we struggle with how to identify a good, communal, family-oriented culture, and we are both all about cc's.  The closest we have come is taking into account the interactions with general staff.  My friend has called a number of HR offices asking questions about application procedures, and has received quite a variety of responses, both in terms of helpfulness as well as just general courtesy.  Any suggestions you might have would be appreciated!

First, congratulations on the impending little one!  

This is a great question, because it’s both important and difficult.  

I’d start by narrowing it down.  Within a single college or organization, there can be dozens of microclimates in various offices.  What you care about most is the microclimate where you’ll be working.  For example, it wouldn’t be at all weird to discover that the unwritten rules in, say, Admissions, are different from the unwritten rules in Biology.  Outside of really small colleges, you’ll often find very different climates in different corners of a single place.

That’s why I wouldn’t necessarily focus on HR as a source.  It can give you the official policies and forms, but it won’t often tell you that, say, the boss you’d work for has a habit of calling you at home at 9:00 p.m. and expecting you to drop everything.  Some places work by the book, and others vaguely recall that there’s a book somewhere.  

I’d start with focusing on what you can control, which is your self-awareness.  What aspects of “work-life balance” mean the most to you?  I mean that in the most concrete, banal sense possible.  Is it being home at the same time every day?  Is it being allowed to not answer the phone at home?  Is it the ability to work from home, as needed?  Job-sharing?  Unusual hours?  Avoiding travel?  Try to be as specific as you can in your own mind.  Some places that are perfectly fine with, say, having a consistent time to leave, may not be fine with working at home.  If you ask a general question about “family friendliness” thinking that it refers to flextime, but they hear it as referring to leaving by 5:00, you may get a truthful but misleading answer.

(For example, given the kids’ schedule, it’s fine for me to arrive at work at the crack of dawn, but I need to be home for dinner.  That means that I arrive before almost everybody, but I leave at a consistent time.  In my bachelor days, I preferred the polar opposite.  Parenthood has forced me to impersonate a morning person, of all things.)

Then I’d look at what is actually practiced, to the extent possible.  During interviews, ask the people at the table the questions that matter the most to you, in the most concrete terms possible.  If you care about leaving at a set time, ask the people there if they do.  If you care about not getting calls at home, ask the people there how often that happens.  People know the “right” answer to most abstractions, but often get more truthful when you get more specific.  If they recoil in horror or disbelief at your question, then you know what you need to know.

In my more optimistic moments, I like to believe that Gen X types, as they move into management, will be better about these things.  As the generation that watched its parents divorce and lived the reality of “joint custody” from a kid’s point of view, I hope that we’ll be more mindful of the three-dimensional realities of people’s lives.  Besides, from a management perspective, burning out employees is a stupid waste of resources; over time, you can get better performance from people who aren’t having work-induced personal crises.  

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, I hope and believe that some of you have found or figured out other ways to suss out the true family-friendliness of a workplace before joining it.  Is there a reliable indicator that an outsider could use?

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

I'll add support to your remark about microclimates. You would get very different answers about the work environment for faculty at my college depending on the Dean who supervises that area. Working from home is a perfect example. Be sure you ask who the person reports to, and how long that supervisor has been around.

I would imagine the issue is more complicated at higher levels of administration. (In my experience, Presidents change more often than Deans so the story for the last few years might only apply for a few more.) I agree that HR employees only signal how they like working for whomever runs the business side of the college, and HRs bureaucratic structure might only reflect regulations specific to that area and not how the college operates in other areas.
I agree with the comment about being very specific about what family-friendly means to you. For example, for some of my colleagues, family-friendly means they can bring their kids to meetings. For me, family-friendly means that I am not expected to be present at evening and weekend events (except on rare occasions when my department is directly involved) or to check my work email over the weekend. I like a very clear boundary between my work life and my home life. Other people prefer a more fluid situation. Thinking about what you specifically want will help you ask the right questions.
I’d say that the most important variable affecting your experience of your job was the work-persona of the campus president, followed closely by that of whichever vice president that you, as an administrator, would be reporting to. But it complicates matters that the people filling these positions can change every few years, and their subordinates’ experience of the workplace can change drastically as a result.
As one of them, you could conceivably spend five wonderful years working for Mr. Rogers, and watch in helpless shock as his replacement, a certifiable sociopath, drives his first-reports to self-medication. The only control over this process that any of them will have is over the gravity of their own reaction to it, and even then, it’s probably not as much as they might hope.
Even business professionals have a hard time predicting workplace dynamics. In fact, I’m not sure that the question has an effective answer, as even if you find that gem of a boss, there’s no consistently reliable way, that’s better than an even guess, to predict how long the gem will stay in its present setting.

I would encourage your correspondent to spend some time on the college's HR website . My public 4-year actively touts itself on "work-life" balance, and you can find the relevant policies, forms and FAQs very easily on the HR website. It is a useful starting point - if you were applying at my campus, you would know right away that the "family friendly" sell is part of the broader institutional culture. That counts for something. Managers who might be on the fence are often moved by institutional support. And the odds of finding a tolerant manager are better if you're applying to institutions who put this kind of stuff in easy reach.

That said, it's just a starting point. What really matters is departmental culture and the mindset of the person you report to. And there is only so much you can really do to gauge that from afar, unfortunately.

I second the comment by Billy Shears, too. I was hired by an incredibly flexible dean, who never blinked twice if I had to work at home or take one of the kids to the doctor or ignore my work email on the weekend. Then about 18 months in, he leaves, and I'm stuck reporting to someone who has absolutely no commitments of his own outside of the job, and who thinks ass-in-office-chair-time is the sole measure of employee productivity. Every single one of his direct hires was either someone directly out of college, or an empty nester - he so believed in this philosophy that he just didn't hire people who had kids at home.

Anyway, ultimately he left as well, and I'm back to a better sense of balance. It sounds lame, but go with your gut - if you interview with someone who feels like he/she would be a hardass about family commitments, don't take the job and hope you can talk him/her out of it. And don't expect that you can rely on HR to help you out - even if the institution supports flexibility, supervisors have discretion. But if the supervisor seems to be firmly part of the 21st century, you might be in luck. And whichever way it works out, remember that it can change.
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