Friday, November 16, 2007

Hell Hath No Fury

A new correspondent writes:

I am a Department Head for a large urban CC in a very small vocational program.
Seven years ago I hired a friend who was well qualified for the
Instructional Aide position (part of our FT faculty bargaining unit).
She came to me this week to let me know she is leaving at the
beginning of the Spring semester (January 11th).

As FT faculty we sign a contract that extends until August 31st. I am
also part of the FT unit and I work closely with the Administration.
My Dean is going over with the college's legal counsel if there is
any way we can stop her.

This is a busy time for our department. We are under review for our
national accreditation and since we are so small, losing her will be a
huge hit for our program.

But she is my friend, it is difficult for me to keep this from her but
my Dean has asked me to keep it quiet. She is also under the
impression that she will be able to teach for the college part time,
but again the administration along with myself are so upset with her
decision to leave it is unlikely she would be brought back as an
adjunct even if we need her. I feel an obligation to tell her but
again I am upset with her short notice decision.

What can a college do to someone who breaks their contract?

Any other thoughts would be appreciated.

I don't mean this to be flippant, but my knee-jerk response is "nothing." (That said, I'm neither a lawyer nor an HR person. I've actually put in a call to Evil HR Lady to see if she has something to say on this.) You can stop paying her when she stops working, and you can refuse to rehire her if you so desire -- though I personally think it makes you look petty -- but I don't think you can force her to work for you if she doesn't want to.

(As a manager of people, I can tell you that the last thing you want is an employee who doesn't want to be there. Even if it appears to solve an immediate crisis, the environment will become toxic quickly. She'll take every sick day, every vacation day, every personal day, every holiday, and every opportunity to exploit every little grievance and blind spot in the contract. She'll make your life miserable. After all, what are you going to do -- fire her? Then she gets what she wanted in the first place! Even if you 'win,' you lose.)

You mention 'short notice,' but I can't help but notice that she has given you at least two months. In any other industry, that would be considered generous.

My cc, like yours and like most others I've seen, issues annual contracts for employees (including tenured faculty, since their salaries change each year). The contracts typically renew sometime in the summer, to reflect the academic (as opposed to calendar) year. But it's not at all unusual for people in non-faculty roles to leave at any time of year. (When faculty leave, which is rare, it's usually in the summer.) This is true at all tiers of administration, right up to the top. If that weren't the case, there wouldn't be any administrative job ads in the Chronicle until about April.

In my neck of the academic woods -- and I'll admit, this may be different in the elite, monied tiers -- 'noncompete' clauses don't exist. If anything, shopping around for other offers is tacitly rewarded, to the extent that the only way to get a job 'reclassed' is to come in with a better offer.

It seems to me -- and I'm basing this only on what you've written -- that you and your administration are acting out of hurt, fear, and spite. You're upset that your friend is leaving just when your program needs her, and you're looking for legal ways to lash out at her to punish her.

Spite is a vice of the weak. As a manager, you have to be able to put it aside. She has found another path. You just have to accept that and find another way to fill your program's needs. This may be an opportunity to look at the definition or payscale of the job. Has it fallen too far behind the market? Have the program's needs changed such that a slightly different definition of the job would be more helpful? If so, now's the time to address that, when it doesn't involve changing the terms and conditions of employment of an incumbent employee. This is a chance to redefine the position to more closely match current and/or projected needs, and then to recruit some new talent.

My advice? Swallow your hurt, call off the lawyers, wish her well, and start thinking about the future. You'll save time and money, a friendship, and your program.

Wise and worldly readers -- your thoughts?

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