Clerical and support staff must be better supported to improve

In Sri Lanka, an increase in the number of clerical staff has been accompanied by a downturn in quality, says Chani Imbulgoda

April 17, 2022
A clerk sits at his desk
Source: iStock

“In the good old days, we used to give them instructions [and] they came up with well-written reports. But not any more…We cannot depend on them…They make lots of errors…We feel like doing everything by ourselves. In fact, that’s what most of us do...We prepare reports, and they just file them.”

This was one Sri Lankan academic’s comment to me about her clerical staff, and her experience is far from uncommon. This is a major concern because universities sit on four legs: students, academics, administrators, and clerical and support staff. Unless all four are equally strong, they are liable to fall over.

The ideal clerical worker is highly organised and detail-oriented. They are expected to have a sense of responsibility and ownership of the specialist roles they fulfil. In the days when Sri Lanka was a British colony, occupying a clerical job carried prestige. Parents sought men with government clerical jobs to marry their daughters. I recall a former University Grant Commission chairman saying: “In those days, at universities, clerks were of high quality. We depended on them to learn the administrative system, and their reports were flawless.”

What seems to have happened is that Sri Lankan public institutions, including universities, have switched their emphasis from the quality to the quantity of clerical staff they employ. We have clerical staff for each function, and as the number and complexity of functions increases, so does the number of positions. Everyone is happy: the bosses merrily signal their importance via the added number of clerical staff working under them, and there is no shortage of applicants for these new positions. The trouble is that once they are in position, modern clerical staff seem to focus less on serving the country and more on serving themselves, constantly agitating for improved pay and conditions but doing little to justify such rewards.

I am not a behavioural scientist but I am a long-time close observer of the behaviour and attitudes of clerical staff. I am well acquainted with all those middle-aged clerks glued to methodical, paper-bound routines, with no experience of using a computer and no desire to learn, focused only on retaining their salaries. Many are mothers of school-aged children; they have to wake up at 4am, cook for everyone and then travel to the office by train. No wonder, you might say, that they fall asleep at their desk several times a day. No wonder they have no dreams for the job – only dreams on the job. But such attitudes still do universities a grave disservice.

Then there are the experienced clerical staff who revel in the petty trappings of authority. You would hope that they would share their knowledge and experience with others – but that would diminish the pleasure they derive from demoralising newcomers.

As for those newcomers, the younger ones are often busy bees, running around answering phone calls, rifling through files, carrying messages between divisions. But all this activity is to little avail. They are not organised. They are not troubleshooters. They are restless, reckless, instinctively ducking as the troubles shoot back from the pile of never-to-be-finished files on their desks.

As the number of clerical staff increases, you might expect mechanisms to assess their performance to be enhanced. In fact, the opposite has happened. Setting up effective performance management systems is admittedly on many public sector reform agendas, but these are rarely acted upon. Moreover, the proposals often overlook clerical staff entirely because the contribution they make is seen as trivial.

It should not be trivial. In the case of universities, we forget how much time academics spend on routine work that could have been done by competent clerical staff. I heard one professor say that the data entry work he has to do for his research project – because his clerical staff are not well trained in handling the virtual platform – was particularly unbearable during the pandemic. All of that time he spends on relatively mundane tasks is time taken away from teaching, advising and doing substantive research.

When asked what he looked for in a solider, Confucius said: “I would not employ one who fights a tiger with his bare hands or crosses a river with broken legs and dies without regret or remorse. I would employ one considerate when confronted with difficulties and deliberate when accomplishing a task.” We need to foster such staff in universities, too. We need to reform the thought patterns of our clerks and support workers, build their competencies and enhance their commitment.

We need leadership to inject vigour, not through fear but by bringing more pleasure into the workplace and celebrating success. We need playful organisations, not to play traditional clerical games such as passing the buck and pulling strings, but to reach our organisational goals, together.

Everyone in the university must play their role. But that requires no one to be forgotten in the corporate consciousness. Clerical staff should be included in reforms, discussions, development agendas and performance reviews.

That way, the fourth leg of the university chair will be able to bear the weight of society’s expectations.

Chani Imbulgoda holds a senior position in a state university in Sir Lanka. She has an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management, Sri Lanka, where she is currently reading for her PhD in quality assurance in the higher education sector.

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Reader's comments (1)

I found the tone of this article really offensive, particularly the first paragraph which sounds like a quote bemoaning the end of slavery. If you want to help improve clerical staff maybe you could begin by asking the academic you quote to not refer to your valued colleagues as 'them' as if they were some kind of subspecies. The points you make are such sweeping generalisations and is seriously lacking in any real evidence to support your arguments.