Post-Recession Workplace Dynamics
Allison Vaillancourt is vice president for human resources at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and teaches in UA’s School of Government and Public Policy. A former chair of CUPA-HR’s national board, she currently serves as chair of TIAA-CREF’s advisory council and is a co-principal investigator of a National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant designed to increase the number of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Vaillancourt consults and presents nationally on issues of leadership, strategic planning, change, organizational culture, and communication. In this interview, she discusses the higher education workplace and worker dynamics she sees in play following a prolonged economic downturn. E-mail: email@example.com.
In the face of many months of dismal economic news and its impact on staffing, what strategies have you discovered that institutions can employ to give faculty and staff a sense that there are better days ahead?
I believe we are in a very pivotal time. Our people have experienced enormous stress during the past two years. Unfortunately, too many leaders and managers haven’t felt the need to focus on retention, compensation, or career growth, because employees have had few other employment options, given the tight labor market. However, we are starting to see the marketplace loosen up and employees begin to look for new opportunities. Institutions that haven’t paid attention to employee needs during the interim may now find themselves in an undesirable situation with regard to turnover, including the departure of their best talent.
I repeatedly remind supervisors and managers that the way we treat employees during a crisis shapes the future of our employee relationships—for good or bad. If we communicate and are honest about what is going on, and if we ask how employees are doing and what they need to keep focused and engaged, they’ll remember that when they find they have additional options. Whenever good employees leave, you want it to be because of an offer elsewhere that they can’t refuse, not because they are frustrated by current work conditions, organizational culture, or relationships.
In fact, research on employee engagement has revealed that emotional engagement is what often matters most to an employee. Many people will forego a small bump in salary or slightly shorter work hours if they believe in the mission of their organization, respect the leadership, and truly like whom they are working with—to the point that they feel it would be emotionally wrenching to leave their current situation.
What are you doing at your institution to keep employees emotionally engaged?
One thing we are doing is communicating a lot more about our fiscal situation. This is not new for us. Since our institution historically has not had a wealth of resources we’ve always been in the practice of trying to manage employee expectations. However, within the past couple of years we have ramped up our communication efforts quite a bit to inform employees about key challenges and our plans for addressing them, as well as to invite their suggestions. The payoff for the institution has been a wealth of remarkable ideas for how to save resources, generate new revenue, and reorganize processes and departments.
Another communication effort we’ve made has focused on celebrating our successes. Several years ago the university’s external relations office launched UA Now, a daily e-mail to all employees that features four to five news stories each day. This is designed as a quick read and highlights the gamut of exciting things taking place around the university that employees can feel proud about. Stories might feature a new research program, a new community partnership, or an employee’s promotion. Separately, our HR department partners with one of UA’s internal news publications to provide reminders of all the reasons the university is a wonderful place to work—from our child-care program to access to our campus recreation facility.
And yet, you’ve also had to convey some difficult news to employees with regard to budget and staffing changes. What has been the impact of that on staff morale?
Something more employees are expressing in our exit surveys that we haven’t heard in the past is that they are worried about the organizational stability of the institution and that this is one reason that pushed them to leave. The past two years have been quite volatile for our university. In addition to a 25-percent state budget cut last year, we’ve merged five colleges into one, compressed a number of departments, and eliminated 40 degree programs. In total, our institution lost 600 employees as a result of position eliminations during this recession. We’ve also reduced our annual operating budget by $100 million.
Obviously all this has been quite unsettling and difficult for most of us to talk about, since people in higher education typically are not practiced at change. One dynamic of communication that I have found fascinating during this crisis is the balance between communicating honestly about a dire situation without being depressing, or providing comfort to people without making them think everything is going to be fine. This is really hard stuff, but part of our responsibility as leaders is to respond to employees’ fears about change and to help them find their place within new organizational structures—and in some cases, within a new organizational culture.
In our case, employees have been deeply involved in the changes that have taken place, so I do think there has been more of a sense of shared ownership. The majority of our cost-cutting decisions were localized. Rather than broad-based reductions in staffing from the top, each department had to manage its own cuts. While I can’t say anyone loved the idea of being forced to make cuts, this did give faculty in particular an opportunity to shape their own destiny. In addition to identifying budget cuts, each academic department could submit white papers proposing how to merge with others. As a result of this brainstorming initiative, we actually created 10 new schools by bringing together several departments with like features to benefit all groups—whether through the ability to enhance their fundraising capability, better partner in their interdisciplinary research, or eliminate redundant administrative work.
Given UA’s significant program and staffing losses, how were you able to soften the blow for employees whose positions were terminated?
In addition to developing a series of workshops for those affected, including job-search strategies and networking tips, we also created a new program to allow employees who had lost jobs or who decided to retire but were still interested in employment an opportunity to advertise their skills. Our UA Talent Network is an online database of individuals with detailed descriptions of their experience and skills. As needs emerge for help with temporary projects, university departments have been able to tap individuals within the network instead of an externally managed service. This tool was inexpensive for HR to develop and allows individuals one more avenue to seek work. In fact, a number of former UA employees have been rehired by the university as a result of remaining active in this network.
Would you say that faculty have experienced this downturn differently than administrative staff?
This recession has obviously made us all question our job security, and I think it has tested our organizational commitment. Even faculty, who in the past were likely to feel safe in their tenured positions, have seen colleagues across the country released from tenure, or whole academic departments and degree programs dropped. I think that has made many feel at least somewhat uneasy about their futures. One silver lining in this crisis may be that more faculty are showing greater interest in the financial strength of the institution and want to better understand revenue streams and help discover efficiencies. With new economic realities for many institutions, I think this will continue to be the case going forward, leading to new practices that may have received little support in the past. In one example, at UA we’ve undergone a budget redesign similar to what other institutions have done in tying department budget allocations directly to student credit hours, thereby encouraging academic departments to become more efficient with scheduling.
In truth, this has been such a hard time not only for faculty or for frontline staff but also for leaders in higher education. Like everyone else, they have had to balance any number of concerns at home, such as the impact of dwindling retirement portfolios or hoping that their kids can land a job once they graduate. But then they must go to work and come up with a plan to keep the place afloat while also providing comfort to employees who are fearful of losing their jobs. This takes an enormous amount of psychic energy. In many respects, I think HR staff have endured an especially difficult share of the bad news. Across the institution, it’s difficult for employees to witness the loss of a colleague from their departments or divisions. Yet, that feeling of loss is compounded for HR staff who know about every single employee who is losing a job and are often asked to provide emotional and career support to them. Day after day the magnitude of those losses is extremely stressful.
For faculty and staff who remain, how have you been able to maintain a sense of enthusiasm and hope about new opportunities ahead?
One significant career development initiative to occur this year is the announcement of our new Academic Leadership Institute through which we are partnering with the Center for Creative Leadership. The program, made possible with a donor gift, will launch this August. We’ve limited our first cohort to 24, which includes a mix of individuals in current or emerging leadership roles—from an associate dean to academic department heads to student affairs leaders and even a police commander.
This is one attempt to really begin to grow internal leaders, with our primary focus on developing academic department heads and deans. Especially at a time when university resources are tight, this has sent a positive message that UA is committed to looking within for new talent and is giving many hope for the future that there is a continuing role for them at UA. While part of this is the result of economic constraints, our provost has made this a priority focus in her hiring efforts, recognizing the huge benefit of retaining faculty who understand the culture of the university and who have strong connections to the people with whom they will work.
Our plan is to offer the program on an annual basis. While there is no guarantee to those participating in the leadership institute that a new role or higher pay awaits them once they graduate, we are making plans now for how to keep these employees engaged and motivated. One avenue will be through greater participation in university decision making. At UA we have numerous committees and project teams. While it is easy to involve the usual suspects in these groups, through this new leadership program we now have identified a cohort of people who are invested in this organization whom we can invite to participate on these project teams, search teams, budget committees, and other working groups. In turn, these groups and committees will benefit from new thinking, and these individuals will continue to strengthen their commitment to the university and build new connections within the UA community.
Have you noticed a difference in terms of employee morale as a result of these new programs and communication efforts?
It can be hard to measure morale. Currently, I think many employees have moved from panic to fatigue. Many who have weathered the cuts simply feel tired, because each of us can handle only so much change before we get a bit exhausted. Having said that, I do think many employees have begun feeling a sense of optimism again. As an institution, our student enrollment numbers are strong, we are increasing the diversity of our student body, and we’ve been successful in securing federal stimulus dollars with which we are doing good work.
Another jolt of optimism that has helped employees feel a bit more secure is that with a two-to-one margin, Arizona voters approved a three-year, one-cent sales tax to fund education. This will result in $1 billion statewide that should buffer UA from the draconian cuts that were planned had the bill not passed.
Internally, I think employees are often bolstered by subtle and small assurances that leaders are committed to living up to institutional values. In our case, we’ve recently received a lot of fan mail from employees who are proud that UA has demonstrated its commitment to equitable health insurance coverage. As a public institution, our employees are covered by a state health-insurance plan. Our current governor recently signed a bill set to take effect this fall that would eliminate domestic partner benefits. In talks with our president and provost, we moved forward to put together our own insurance plan for domestic partners that we announced this past May. Although this will carry a greater cost for the university, this is a huge benefit to our employee population and it underscores our commitment to all of our employees.
What do you see as the two or three biggest challenges facing the higher education HR profession?
I think this recession has presented a wake-up call for higher education, which as an industry has often been entrenched in traditions and protocols. In order for us to be successful long term we have to think differently, and to think differently, we have to bring new ideas to our organizations. At UA, at the same time that we want to do a better job of growing leadership from within, we know we also need to bring in new people to disrupt some of that group think that tends to occur when everyone is comfortable with each other and with the university culture. So a primary challenge is to force ourselves to remain open to new ideas and practices, some of which can be hard to imagine in the midst of simply trying to survive.
Secondly, while it may be boring to talk about, containing costs is always going to be on the agenda. A third priority is attending to high-potential employees. Retaining your very best faculty and staff is always an issue, but even more so now. There can be a real sense of frustration among employees if they feel there is nowhere to go. As institutions eliminate management positions, and as more individuals delay retirement, the career ladder is suddenly compressed. To keep faculty and staff excited about their roles, employers have to think in terms of helping employees grow out if they can’t immediately grow up within the organization.
One problem with exit surveys is that at that point, it’s too late to retain a good employee. I would love to see our institution’s leaders and supervisors conduct more pulse interviews. Bring in your best employees and ask what they like or don’t like about the organization and what it would take for them to stay. I recently spoke with one of our newer department heads who met with each of her faculty members to ask what she could do for them to make their work easier or more pleasant. She was stunned by how small the requests were, which included a new printer and help making copies of course syllabi. She was able to grant almost everything her faculty requested, and that has gone a long way toward helping them stay content—first, because she asked, and second, because she acted on their input.
If we all could remove those micro annoyances that frustrate employees, I believe this would go a long way toward making people feel better about coming to work. Oftentimes employees may not express their frustrations for fear of being labeled as a complainer or because they assume—especially these days—that there is no budget for even small expenditures. Allocating $100 so that an employee can attend a workshop may be exactly the kind of motivator an employee needs to feel good about his or her contribution to the organization. Others might be motivated simply by being kept in the loop about important information so that they feel they have the inside scoop.
In comparison to even five years ago, what is the new message for HR leadership going forward?
In days past, the HR perspective I shared with the students I teach may have been more about how you design a compensation plan and how to recruit employees. Now it’s more about how to keep people excited to be part of your organization and helping employees find meaning in their work. For starters, I think we have to do a much better job of showing a direct line from every employee’s work to the mission of the institution. One of the best examples I can think of is when a custodian in our residence life program was asked to talk about his job, and he commented that he helps put kids through college. His rationale is that he keeps residence halls clean so that students can focus on their studies and get their degrees. He didn’t see his work as meaningless, but rather, as transformational in its impact on scores of students every year. As leaders, we have to be more intentional about making those connections for every employee.
I also think that within this larger national conversation about employee stress levels—where many organizations are seeing increased disability claims, absenteeism, and workplace violence—we need to be proactive in giving employees the space and tools they need to relieve stress, whether through flexible hours, workplace wellness programs, or encouraging managers to ensure that their direct reports take their vacation time, enjoy a lunch break, and attend to their personal health.
Finally, I think a new normal in HR leadership is to consider how to get the very best from your employees for as long as you can hold onto them. Employees who once felt safe in a job may no longer feel secure about their future with an organization, even if they are performing well. On the one hand this may translate into an overall decrease in employee investment in the organization and its mission. On the other hand, if we recognize that today’s workers—especially younger employees—are motivated less by a lifetime commitment and more by what they will learn and the skills they can acquire, higher education employers might begin doing a better job of creating the kinds of opportunities for professional development that will keep their best and brightest engaged and performing at peak levels.
Karla Hignite, principal of KH Communication, is editor of NACUBO's HR Horizons. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.