Of Human Resources and Liabilities

I hope this posting finds you well and enjoying a wonderful Thanksgiving Holiday.

As I was heading into a night class this Wednesday, NPR's All Things Considered featured a short radio essay by Alain De Botton titled "The Legend Of The Human Resources Crypt," which might be an excerpt from his new book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. The essay is a reflection on the Human Resources Department and the roles they play in moderating and negotiating inter-office disputes and encourage team building. It starts off with the sentiment we might all agree on in regards to some aspects of our own Human Resources Dept.:
Everyone hates the HR department. This is the cavern from which your pink slip is sent, where your assessments are stored and, if you are especially unfortunate, where orders are sent out to ship you off you on a group exercise to a salmon-coloured conference center, where you will hold hands with your boss and sing inspirational songs.
This, of course, is not a dig at the personnel in our own wonderful Human Resources Department, which is staffed with wonderfully helpful people who remember my name even though I only see them once or twice a year. Indeed, De Botton continues by writing that HR is often the most misunderstood part of any place of employment. It can't be fun signing notices of non-renewal for all faculty, sending out countless reminders about proper attire, managing a constantly changing file of employees, and all the other tasks assigned to our small HR department is asked to complete. So, yes, we might hate HR Department (the entity, not the people) for the things they have to do at the bequest of the higher-ups.

The remainder of De Botton's essay focuses on the moderating, problem-solving, tension relieving, and team-building side of HR. This is enough to raise the question, one I've been wondering for a while: What is, and has been, HR's role the in what the Illuminator calls the Current Crisis?

I'll confess that I don't know much about the functions of Edison's HR. I'm not writing this to complain about the department or the people in it. But really, I don't know what they're required to do. I don't know what's out of their realm and what's in the hands of the faculty senate or union. I also don't know where anyone on staff would turn when someone is in a situation which needs moderating. I will assume Edison's HR steps in and does a wonderful job on behalf of the employee and the college. As for adjuncts, I can't help but feel that we're going it alone--and without our colleagues' support, we'd be getting an even rawer deal than now.

At a time when any employee (particularly, but not limited to, adjunct faculty) can be fired simply because he or she displeases certain higher level administrators, I would expect the HR department to step between the disputing parties and let things calm down. In a time of employee anxiety and tension between staff, faculty, and administration, I would expect HR to propose some team-building exercises De Botton describes in his essay. Instead, things remain the same. We have our usual meetings, social hours, and annual celebratory gatherings. Perhaps, as an adjunct, I am missing some of the announcements--who knows?

My biggest concern for our HR department is the director, who has the difficult, and unenviable, task of being both the Director of Human Resources AND the Secretary to President Yowell. For someone to be both the gate keeper and moderator must be confusing and conflicting at times. Mrs. Peltier has the been the focus of considerable ire in the pages of the Illuminator for what seem to me to be legitimate (qualifications, certifications) and petty (i.e. personal) reasons. It's no wonder: she has to be both the mouth of authority and the protector of the oppressed. While I have no doubt that she is capable of putting personal allegiance aside for most issues--as I'm sure she was able to do when meeting with Marlowe to discuss his firing/non-firing/2nd firing/rehiring this summer. Of course, in other matters she might need not dabble, such as with the "firing" of Quincy Essinger at the personal request of Dr. Yowell. Whether any moderation was attempted or even required when dealing with adjuncts is something beyond my knowledge. My point is mainly that this close relationship between the higher-ups and HR is something I'm not something with which I'm familiar or comfortable.

I realize that Edison is not a corporation, so I can't compare my corporate experiences to the goings on at a public institution. However, the Illuminator has pointed out more than once that the higher level administrators are trying to push the college to be run more like a business than an institute of education. When the board focuses primarily on accounting and not on quality of education (that is, profit over product), they are willing to reduce everything and everyone to a value of credit or debit (revenue or expense). This allows our employers to make cuts in personnel to meet the bottom line, to dabble in the idea of reducing hours for adjuncts so we can bring in cheaper new adjuncts rather than rewarding loyalty, to refrain from hiring deans, to restrict access to supplies, and to cut deserved annual pay increases (or not even give them to adjuncts in the top pay level) while passing out bonuses to a select few.

With this sort of treatment, we have to wonder if the board and the higher level administration consider us to be resources or liabilities.

I believe we all want to feel a sense of unity at Edison. Faculty, staff, administrators, and adjuncts should all be working toward the same goal: producing excellent students. This can't be done until a few things change: the board and the administrators need to change their attitudes toward the faculty and staff (putting together a social event doesn't count) and to allow employees with a system of grievance and moderation. No one can feel comfortable offering a complaint about the boss to the boss's secretary, nor should a person be in that position to hear such a complaint in the first place. It's already bad enough when employee paranoia is so great that we fear every squeak, groan, or grumble made in private will be carried up the chain of command. For employees to not seek out the intervention of HR out of fear that any issue spoken in confidence could easily be carried over to the president and misconstrued as ungratefulness, a personal attack, or dismissed as petty should be an issue of concern and not sign that everything is OK.

Again, I am not sure what the difference between HR in education and HR in a corporation. Nor am I sure what role HR has played in the events since March last year. As an adjunct, I'll probably never know. But as the fall semester winds down and the spring semester begins, we will be facing another series of financial crises, pay debacles, and staffing controversies. It'll be good to know who's in our corner.


No one of importance said...

Something I left out to keep the post shorter (didn't work):

Years ago, when I was fresh out of college and a year into working for Pearson Education's Custom Publishing division, I was offered a promotion and a new position. This promotion offered a much more generous salary than I was making at that time. I also got to move into a new department and a position I greatly desired.
There was one problem, my new pay grade was so much that my raise was subject to approval by the higher ups at Pearson. Despite my division's record breaking year, the rest of the company was tightening its budget. So, my new manager came up with a solution to pay me three raises in one month increments until I reached my new salary. Well, the first raise went fine, and so did the second one. But time for the third raise passed and my manager gave excuse after excuse as to why I wasn't being paid my agreed upon salary. So, I went to HR. After some speedy mediation between the HR rep, my boss, and I, I quickly had my raise.
HR stood up for a young and idealistically naive employee who wanted to do something he liked and to do it well. Of course, the older me wouldn't put up with such an arrangement, but I am forever grateful and appreciative of the Human Resources Dept., and that gratitude is something I carry with me to any job.

Editorial Junta said...

Thanks for the nice post, NOI. As a footnote, LP has found herself in our sights because the petty/personal and the professional are often braided at Edison; the weaker the CV's of the Usual Suspect, the more officiously he or she behaves. They're not separate issues. They're of a kind.