Wednesday, November 24, 2010


“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.