Top Ten Workplace Issues for Faculty Members and Higher Education Professionals

Keeping track of these issues, both for yourself and for the people you work with, helps the entire office space feel less alienating.
By Greta Petry

If you are a faculty member, you may think that professors and professionals are like apples and oranges. You may be surprised to hear that the AAUP-affiliated United University Professions—one of the largest academic unions in the nation, with more than 33,000 members across New York State—includes a growing number of academic professionals who are not faculty members.

Why should you care about this?

As the events in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this year revealed, there has never been a more critical time for unionized employees of all kinds to stick together. What do a firefighter, a nurse, a teacher, a state university college professor, and a student affairs employee all have in common? They serve the public.

Professionals at a public college or university range from the talented part-time graphic artist who designs the posters for your research conference to the perennially patient financial-aid staffer who makes sure the students get their loans and grants.

What do they have in common with faculty members?

As grievance chair for the University at Albany chapter of United University Professions for five years and a professional myself, I’ve learned about a number of ways in which faculty and staff workplace issues overlap. Here are the top ten problems that come up routinely for both faculty and staff.

1. Job security. Whether you are a contingent faculty member with a one-year term appointment or a professional reappointed year after year on a one-year term, be aware that you are vulnerable to job loss. You may have a great relationship with your supervisor today, but what happens if he or she leaves tomorrow? If you are not on a tenure-track line or in a permanent staff appointment, a new manager or a budget crisis can spell the end of your job.

2. Appointment letters. When you were hired, what promises of salary and title were made in your appointment letter? Many of us were so excited to get the new job that we quickly read that letter when it first arrived and tossed it aside. A good appointment letter should list your name, title, salary, and start and end date of appointment. Any special perks that were offered to entice you to take the job should be spelled out. Otherwise, when the chair who appointed you has moved on to better things and the new chair flatly refuses to pay for your lab equipment, it’s your word against management’s.

3. Workload creep. Whether it’s the administration pushing you to be a “team player” and teach additional courses or your supervisor doubling up your duties because a colleague left, if you allow new tasks to be assigned to you without asking for anything to be taken off your plate, you may end up exploited and burned out or, worse, risk your good health and family life.

4. Promises, promises. Promises are made all the time. The department chair thinks it would be a great experience for you to take over the task no one else wants to do? He or she has promised a raise if you are a “team player”? You have “great potential” to be promoted? These promises are gone the minute your supervisor or chair walks out the door. There is a difference between manipulating employees to get short-term results and offering real incentives that engender loyalty.

If the supervisor values you, he or she will put the promise—and the reward—in writing.

5. Harassment. For a faculty member, harassment can take the form of a colleague’s bad-mouthing you at a faculty meeting. Certain kinds of nitpicking and continual throwing of small snowballs can be ignored—to a point. But when those snowballs are coming at you in an avalanche, they can bury you. You may wind up with a desk in the basement like the hapless Milton Waddams in the classic movie Office Space. Harassment can also take the form of badgering a person through incessant e-mails or pointing out that every single thing the person does is wrong. The cumulative effect is that the person spends most of the day responding to these negative e-mails instead of focusing on work; this can lead to charges that he or she is unproductive.

6. Attending to Details. No one has your own best interests at heart as much as you do. Don’t assume that other people—no matter how benevolent they may seem to be—will make sure the right papers are put through. Read through the forms that you do see. Even a simple typographical error can have consequences.

7. Human resources. Most universities and colleges keep an official record of an employee’s work history. Your appointment letter is housed there, as are records of any pay raises, performance programs, and evaluations. What you don’t know can hurt you. As busy as you are, once a year, you should visit HR and look in that folder. This is the best place to discover innocuous paperwork errors, omissions, and pieces of paper that don’t belong in your folder. That way you can minimize unhappy surprises.

8. Delays in continuing or permanent appointment. Continuing appointments are for faculty members on the tenure system; permanent appointments are akin to tenure for professionals. Remember that you are either in or out once that decision is made. Don’t sit back passively and trust that others will advocate for you. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Find out from the human resources office, or from your union rep if you have one, what procedures and timelines there are for getting tenure on your campus. If the process is not moving along as it should, ask questions. You don’t want to be unceremoniously dumped the week before you thought you were getting tenure.

9. Office politics. Whether you are passed over for promotion to full professor and you see the title go to a close friend of the chair or you are a professional whose sterling reputation is trashed by one malicious rumor, the perception of whether you are a good professor or employee can be as powerful as how much work you actually do.

10. Bullying. Any person in a position of power can abuse that power by threatening your job or verbally shredding you in front of your colleagues. This can happen to a faculty member as easily as to a professional. What would you do if the dean or chair started yelling at you? Yell back? Walk out of the meeting into a hallway where there are witnesses? People who are bullies act as they do because they get away with it. (Find out if your campus has a workplace violence policy covering bullying. Ours does.)

Any of these issues can rob you and your colleagues of peace of mind. Faculty members and professionals cannot do their best and most creative work when they are burdened by worries about job security or are continually overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work they have to do. My favorite labor-relations specialist has a saying: “Prepare, don’t panic.” By being aware of your rights, and setting some boundaries around what is and what is not okay in the workplace, you can do more to protect yourself and your career.

Greta Petry is a writer and editor in the Office of Communications and Marketing at the University at Albany, State University of New York, where she has worked for nineteen years. She is grievance chair of the Albany chapter of United University Professions. Her e-mail address is greta.petry@gmail.com.

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