Monday, October 8, 2012

Five Ways to Enhance the Effectiveness of HR Design

This fall marks my ninth academic year at UW–Madison. During my time here I’ve experienced our human resources system in many ways—as a new mother seeking a maternity leave (twice), as a temporarily disabled employee in need of a leave, as a frustrated faculty member seeking a raise, and multiple times as the director of a large research project trying to hire and retain qualified classified and academic staff. I know firsthand that the system needs to change in order to realize our campus goals of equity, efficiency, and effectiveness.

That is why I have taken seriously the HR Design team’s request for input from shared governance units, spending significant time studying the plan, and commenting on it in multiple venues. I think further adjustments to the current plan are required, because my own knowledge of higher education reform efforts and the scholarly literature on work and organizations suggests that as currently formulated it will have significant unintended consequences, eroding some of what we value most about our university. Therefore, I am providing five recommendations for revising the plan so that UW–Madison’s approach to the management of human resources continues to reflect an ethos that prioritizes egalitarianism over ego, and recognizes that our greatest resource is our communal passion for and commitment to our work, rather than the competitive yet aimless striving for prestige that has overcome many of our peer institutions.

Recommendation 1:Expand the plan’s current living wage provisions to include workers at businesses receiving university contracts of $5,000 or more and student hourly employees.

The current plan calls for the implementation of a living wage policy that omits two groups: student hourly workers and contracted employees. Including contracted employees would bring the policy in line with the City of Madison’s living wage provisions. Their exclusion creates an incentive for the university to outsource more functions, which may increase efficiency but will also erode job security. In addition, providing a living wage to contractors and students helps ensure at least a modicum of equity among all people working in our community.
Recommendation 2: Revise the compensation philosophy guiding the plan to make internal equity and collective performance the primary, rather than secondary, compensation drivers.

The current plan repeatedly emphasizes enhancing “individual potential, opportunity, and achievement,” which, while important, overlooks the critical role played by teamwork in providing high-quality learning experiences and producing innovative research. The 21st century research university increasingly requires collaboration across disciplines and units, creating work environments where people trained in different disciplines (and who are thus part of different labor markets) work alongside each other. The plan briefly acknowledges this, but the compensation strategies it outlines focus first on the role of market competitiveness (noting that it will be a factor in establishing compensation) and only secondly (and far less frequently) on internal equity. The roles of these factors should be reversed in each section. After all, the compensation work team (which, as an aside, did not include any non-administrator faculty members) recommended that market value be considered in setting wages but said nothing about de-valuing or de-emphasizing equity (although it appears the committee did not consider alternative, equity-focused models of compensation at all). It is reasonable that the committee wanted to add market-based pay to the mix of compensation drivers. However, the extent to which this driver should be emphasized, and how to assess cross-departmental collaborations taking into account diverse disciplinary “markets,” are very complex questions deserving a more careful work.

Recommendation 3: Require mandatory training for all managers tasked with setting employee compensation and/or benefits.

Given the highly decentralized nature of the plan, managers will almost always be faculty members, and yet most would acknowledge that they are not trained for or comfortable with performing human resources functions. The compensation work group noted this among its concerns, stating, “Another concern is that not all faculty and staff supervisors will assume responsibility to fairly, objectively and consistently implement formal performance evaluation processes.” This is too important a role to be left to the untrained, but the efficacy of this plan relies exclusively on their responsible participation in the training. It is especially important to give managers guidance about how to conduct and utilize market analyses in departments and units where scholars from different disciplines work side by side (thus creating much potential for internal inequity), and also to train them in assessing the comparable worth of similar yet unequal tasks. The current plan notes that a lack of training for managers was named as a problem in the listening sessions and mentions the training of hiring managers, but says nothing about rigorously training those who set compensation.

Recommendation 4: Alter the recommendation in the plan associated with shared governance to focus on joint decision making rather than advice and input.

The recommendations on shared governance, particularly with respect to development of the compensation pay plan and changes in benefits (leave, insurances, etc.) stress that the shared governance institutions, specifically that of the newly created University Staff, provide advice and input to the administration afterthe plan is developed. This is not indicative of a collaborative or shared governance model. While at many institutions shared governance merely requires the involvement of faculty, staff, and students as listeners and occasional speakers, this is not the historic practice at Madison and shared decision-making responsibilities should not be eroded through changes to language in specific plans like these.

Recommendation 5: Require mandatory performance reporting and accountability metrics for the new HR System.

At minimum, the plan should explain which reports should be produced and what consequences will be associated with performance. For example, public annual reports should assess changes in internal equity (between faculty and staff, among groups with regard to gender and race), faculty and staff turnover, and the absolute and relative number of positions that are university employees versus contractors. These reports should be presented to both the Faculty Senate and the Academic Staff Assembly (and the shared governance body of the University Staff), and the senior leadership council should describe what responses to the plan will take place should inequity, turnover, outsourcing, or other negative unintended consequences of the new HR design emerge or worsen.