Club-Admiralty

v6.2.1 - moving along, a point increase at a time

Loyalty a one way street?


[Warning: longer than usual post] Recently I came across an article on InsideHigherEd titled In Higher Ed, Loyalty Is a One-Way Street, and the tagline was "Loyalty of students and faculty is often demanded. Is it returned?"   The main thesis of the article is that in higher education the job you're in is the job you're in unless you apply for another job and get in, at which point you can either leave your old job or use your new offer as leverage for a better job (or better pay) at your current job.  The article is written from a faculty perspective, but it resonated with my own experiences at the university.  However, I wouldn't really call it an issue with loyalty, but rather it's an issue of organizational culture and lack of meaningful (to the individual) rewards for that loyalty.   Here are my observations as a staff member from the last (close to) 20 years at my institution, and a story from my first job on-campus.

When I first started working here, I worked as an assistant (no benefits, hourly employee) in media services while studying as an undergraduate. It was a fun job, I worked with, and for, interesting people and I can say that I learned a lot from the job and from the people I interacted with.  The job was always meant to be temporary since it was renewed on a semester-by-semester basis.  And in my second year of employment I got more responsibility by being given the reigns of the weekend operations (again hourly, non-benefited, but more responsibility).  After about 3 years of being non-benefited someone retired and his job posting opened up.

Having show progressive responsibility I was a prime candidate for the position. I applied, interviewed, and ultimately got the position.  I still worked in the same place as before, doing about the same things, but now I was benefited, full-time, with managerial responsibilities on top of everything else.  For five years I did my best to learn more about my job, and to try to be innovative to help the department.  I started an MBA, I joined a professional association (with my own money),  I learned, prepared, and passed the relevant entry level certification, I connected with IT folks from the university to keep my department in the loop, and I volunteered for AV projects with my colleagues during slow periods in the office. I didn't do this for recognition, but so that I can be better at my job.  Ultimately however, one does expect some sort of recognition (in some way, shape, or form). Our university does not award merit points for employees who continue to keep up with their professional development.   Everyone gets the same Cost of Living (COLA) increase as everyone else.  If you want a pay increase you need to show that your duties have significantly changed since you were hired.

In five years my duties had indeed changed in practice, but not on my job description (what governs your pay).  I was doing different work than my colleagues, but we were all paid the same; they actually were paid more as a result of compounding COLA increases, because they had been working here longer, which was fine.  Our supervisor was a nice guy, but he hated to differentiate (the kind of person who treats all his kids equally, no matter what).  This was problematic because everyone he managed "exceeded expectations", but this praise felt a little hollow after a few years.  Praise needs to be accompanied by something else to be useful (if you use it a lot), like a little more flexibility on vacation, or a pay increase, or some money to attend a PD event, or whatever. So, the only option for a little more money was to go through the official procedure (which was fine).  My boss at the time told me that he supported me, but privately he told others that he would never support it unless others got the same deal (regardless of their duties).  This was a natural extension of "treat everyone the same".  Since I ultimately did not get a promotion there, I looked elsewhere for work.  It was sad because I liked both the job and my colleagues, but you do what you have to do.  When I told my boss that I got another job, his boss attempted to retain me in the department asking if I would stay if they matched the salary. I would! But, I wouldn't wait around for it (two in the hand is worth more than two in the bush).  Since they couldn't make it happen, I left. I still kept in contact with my colleagues there, they were great people (and it's a small campus), but I left that department. And they were inconvenienced because they couldn't hire a replacement right away, and my area was the busiest on campus (based on department held statistics).

To bring it back to the IHE article, without knowing that this is the game to play in academia, I ended up playing this game.  I looked for other jobs, I interviewed for them, got an offer for them, and did respond in the affirmative that I would stay if they matched the salary (which would also mean that I would get another job description, which was originally turned down). But, given the steep bureaucracy of the university (at least mine), it wouldn't have been nimble enough to do it as quickly as accepting the new job offer, and the trust relationship was broken since my supervisor told me one thing and told others something else (those others eventually telling me), so there was no guarantee that the retention offer was any good.

This is one story.  I've experienced other things in my close-to-20-years here, and I've spoken to colleagues and have heard their stories too over the years.  My 2c on the matter are as follows (mileage at your college may vary, this is just based on my local colleagues around the Boston area):

There is a fundamental problem of organization culture.  Warner writes that  he has"witnessed genuine loyalty among colleagues at the department level, but this is a reaction and response to the lack of loyalty at the larger institution level. They have banded together as protection from above." I've seen this myself, and have heard it from colleagues at other institutions as well.  Some departments are better at self-supporting than other departments but this creates structural inequalities within the organization as a whole.  If your supervisor likes you, and you get all the perks in your department, but a colleague is not liked (or has an ineffective supervisor, or doesn't enjoy the group protection you do, etc.) they do not get any of the perks you get, an in some cases doing the same job! This type of unequal treatment isn't a hypothetical, it's happening. And in instances where merit payment are involved some employees may be eligible for a merit pool because their supervisor loves them and gives the "Exceeds expectations" all the time, while other employees might be working for someone who believes in the power of the bell curve, and everyone "meets expectations" with the exception of a few 'high performers' and a few 'low performers', so in essence these managers no only shoehorn people into the bell curve, they deny them an opportunity for merit/bonus pay that they would be entitled to if their supervisor were someone else.

Another issue I've seen is that everything is treated as a net-zero outcome.  Someone's gain is regularly someone else's loss.  So if you work for a big department (or a college/faculty within a university), if an employee has an opportunity to grow in their job, but that growth takes them out of their smaller sub-unit into another sub-unit of the organization, the organization is resistant to embrace this.  Even though the employee will still be connected to their previous sub-unit, and could help take care of work/issues within that sub-unit as well, that "transfer" would be most likely blocked because the originating sub-unit would not necessarily be able to get funding to replace that previous position.  There concern seems to be how many warm bodies each department has, and not necessarily what type of work needs to be done.  Just as an example from my first job on-campus.  It's been 12 years since I left that job. The number of warm bodies doing  the same work has remained the same even after having 2 retirements and (sadly) 1 death. Those positions have been replaced to do pretty much the same thing, regardless of where research into educational technology and learning have lead us since. That department is still a separate fiefdom and people get annoyed when they are asked to take care of something that another IT department "should" be doing (never-mind that they are all part of the same IT parent department).

Finally, it might seem that my position is higher salary (or other monetary perks) as a general acknowledgment of employees' good work and loyalty.  Or, associated with more money is moving up the ladder work-wise into a more managerial position.  While money and career development are nice, sometimes they are not the end-all be-all.  My former colleagues seemed to like what they did.  They didn't seem interested in changing jobs for higher pay.  Maybe pay for them wasn't even a top concern (bills paid, mortgage paid, savings at an OK level), but they may have wanted more flexibility for vacations in order to spend more time with their family. A flexible organization should be able to be able to give such perks (fairly, and across the organization) to people who earn it (good work, loyalty, and so on), and at the same time have the resilience to work around any issues that might arise from this individual flexibility provided.

At our institution I think that the institution does attempt to demonstrate appreciation of loyalty to its employees, and I do think that upper administrators care (to some extent at least); that is to say I don't believe them to be greedy monsters that just look at the bottom line.  One of the events we have each year is the "years of service" event where people are recognized for their service in 5 year increments.  Last year I was recognized for 15 years of (benefitted) service to the institution for example.

In the end I don't think it it's a matter of loyalty.  Loyalty (or lack of loyalty) is a conscious effort (or lack of effort).  I think the issue is systemic, and it's really an issue of management.

So... my question (to anyone who is reading this), is how to we make academia responsive, and at the same time equitable, and flexible so that it works both at the individual level and at the organizational level?  Thoughts?
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