From where I sit - Measured withdrawal

October 6, 2011

"Exit stage left pursued by HR": is this an appropriate final direction for this retiring professor? In order to depart from the University of Western Australia, I had to download, fill in and dispatch the "staff member leaving UWA employment" form to the director of human resources.

That done, somewhere in my imagination of academic life in the old days remained thoughts of the collegial cup of tea or sip of whisky that an aged retiree might take with the vice-chancellor in his panelled room; a nostalgic reminiscence, a fond farewell and a lasting sense that the university eternally mattered to me - and I and my work to it.

However, I quickly learned about the fortress of human resources and its operatives, scarcely intellectuals but managers who matter. In response to my form, they sent me a "checklist for employee leaving university", rehearsing nine commandments.

The sixth commandment decreed that on my final day "I must return my vehicular permit to the Parking Office". It might take skills that I don't possess to scrape it from my car's windscreen. However, I soon learned, charitably 'Unipark' accepts permits in small pieces, even if totally illegible.

The seventh commandment demanded that I hand over my corporate MasterCard. Sadly, I've never acquired one. But if I had, I had to urgently notify my "faculty accounting controller" and then pass the card to my head of school.

The fourth commandment offered me a "certificate of service" as a record of my work. It is tempting to ask for one, but what would it record? My corporate MasterCard expenditure? My parking fines? My friendly chats with the vice-chancellor?

Before I could resolve these dilemmas, I faced another commandment (a 10th, after all): the staff exit survey, scientifically designed, I was assured, to "provide longitudinal quantitative information about the university as a work environment".

Gagging slightly at the idea that I was "exiting" rather than retiring, I thumbed its pages to find 30 ostensibly probing questions, asking in A13 (with somewhat ominous numbering) whether "I felt I really 'belonged' at UWA" and in B13 whether "my supervisor gave me adequate recognition for my work contribution".

As a practitioner of the humanities, I was about to write HR an essay on the pseudo-scientific basis of all questionnaires, roundly condemning the expectation that complex matters are best "measured" with numbers rather than words. "Viva the qualitative", I wanted to say.

Inevitably, however, I discovered that HR's processes had been freshly reviewed. There were, therefore, lots more wonderful statistics, lacking only an estimate of the cost of obtaining them and the accompanying loss to teaching and research funds.

On A13, I learned, of the 149 respondents in 2009-10 (a dismal response to the 790 questionnaires issued to those departing, suggesting that the whole activity had a minimal scientific basis), 17.9 per cent "always" belonged and 13.6 per cent "never" did. In B13, supervisors did better: 34.5 per cent "always" recognised work and only 11.7 per cent "never" did.

There were lots more "fascinating" details, yet I think that when I am fully "exited", I shall stick to Wisden statistics rather than UWA HR reports for my bedtime reading. I will also go on hoping that somewhere in the modern university, someone still seeking wisdom knows that in the beginning was the word and it was and is God.

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