Feeling curiously cramped lately? (2)

November 18, 2005

Valerie Atkinson imagines the response among the British top brass to calls for more support staff

To: The President, Higher Education Funding Council for England

From: Colonel Truemony, Vice-President, Dasholme University PFI

CONFIDENTIAL/EYES ONLY

Sir

I read with interest your estimate of the need for an extra 30,000 professional and support staff in universities over the next five years to meet targets for expansion. Honestly, this Government! I take it that professional means academic and related (all well and good, though they are getting a bit expensive) and that support means, well - between the two of us - it usually means anything but professional, doesn't it? Or supportive come to that (just my little joke). We in the private sector are well aware of the sort of people to whom you refer (uppity secretaries, surly technicians), and the remains of the state-supported sector would do well to take a leaf out of our books. Especially since their public-sector days appear to be numbered. Might as well accept the inevitable and prepare for the real world. You need to have a proper approach to HR. Modernise.

Rationalise. Pare the beggars down to the bone. They can't be choosers - you know that maxim.

So. Get your strategy right. It is clearly preposterous to consider taking on huge numbers of extra support staff. The place will be overrun with them moaning on about equity and transparency. Got to keep the academic-support balance under control. Too many pitfalls, otherwise. They might start organising themselves into large and effective groups. The support staff, that is. The idea of academics forming large and effective groups is, of course, ludicrous. We each have our own individual genius to contribute, don't we? Can't afford to mess about with that by becoming collaborative. Unless you're a sociologist.

But I digress. Back to the workers. Divide and rule, I say. If they persist in bitching behind each others' backs and trying to outdo one another in small cliques, you (by which I mean The Management) will reap rewards.

Support staff tend to form isolated factions, I find. Not really collaborative; more a way of exchanging make-up tips and beefing about their rivals. But you must make sure they don't turn to more serious matters. Avoid leaving newspapers lying around. Runs the risk of putting ideas in their heads. And you need to keep your ears to the grindstone to spot anyone getting political. There are key phrases to listen out for: tribunal, harassment, equal opportunities. If that happens, you've got to split them up. Nip in sharpish looking at your watch and tell them to track a finance code.

You may have noticed some gender-specific references creeping in. (Almost sound like a sociologist myself!) Thing is, I have a tendency to think of all support staff as women. Well, who wouldn't? Gorgeous creatures - we think of them all the time, don't we?

Anyway. This is where I come to my second important point: Value-Added Service. One of our most emphatic slogans. At Dasholme and associated spin-off companies, we find it advantageous to appoint part-time women. They love it. They actually thank you for your flexible working practices, because they're always worrying about getting home for the hubby and the kids. Flexibility is a real winner. You see, most women will do a full day's work for half a day's pay, and if you give them extra duties in a brisk, businesslike manner, they take them on as well. Multitasking. It's a woman thing. Something to do with primal guilt? They're impenetrable, those lovely mysteries, aren't they? If you'll excuse the unfortunate use of the lingo. (Or is that just my age?) You can also rely on them to do their darnedest to prove that they're just as good as men. As if. (This latter propensity can cause legal problems but I'll come back to that.) Thing is, it's always a good idea to appoint some men to the more senior support posts. Just a few (they're getting a bit expensive, too). Then you don't have to do that delegating stuff yourself; you've got some deputy to face the music. And pretty cacophonous music it can be what with people apparently becoming more aware of their dues. Especially women in clerical posts. That's the trouble with everyone getting degrees. Makes them expect too much, not only in the way of salaries, but in terms of what they like to think of as respect. Cheek! Mind you, we can't complain about everyone getting degrees. Lots of lolly for us in the A team, and the neocons in the Government are eternally grateful to us for fixing those unemployment statistics.

Which brings me to point number three. You will probably have to appoint a few men to the more complicated support jobs: technical stuff and anything that requires logical thinking. Now, I've found a growing number of youngsters have some fancy "new man" ideas. Expecting flexible hours just like the women - and sometimes even paternity leave. Avoid anything but the statutory minimum. And on no account let them go part time. Men will take you literally and do just the percentage. My advice is to stick with the traditional type: the more mature sort. Recruit the suit. (Might suggest that as a slogan to my mates in the marketing department.)

Now. Remember I said you had to be aware of women raising legal problems? Well, you have to make it as difficult as possible for them to get to an industrial tribunal by means of labyrinthine grievance procedures. That way, the troublemakers are worn down before they get to the tribunal how d'ye do. No staying power, usually. But it's best to avoid getting to that stage. Believe me, if there's a big enough gap in perceived status between the men and the women, it cuts down on the incidence of equal-pay claims. If male colleagues look important, women believe they do something complex, as well as passing on all the boring bits. Perception is everything. We might even open a Smoke and Mirrors Research Unit (especially if we have to go on doing this wretched quality assessment business). Sorry. I know it's your brief, but couldn't you sustain an interest some other way?

Well, there we are. Hope that helps. Don't forget to remind the troops that a strong work ethic is good for everyone. High leverage. 24/7 focus. (Apart from the non-executive directors, of course: contradiction in terms, eh?) But everyone else benefits from sharpening the saw (never been quite sure what that means, but it sounds splendid). Which reminds me - don't forget you need a convincing HR statement. Something that tells everyone how much you appreciate them. Here, at Dasholme and Associates, we "maintain an investing-in-people environment where all employees are integral components of our success formula". Except at the military spin-offs, of course, where we use a bit more gusto: "Configured and Ready. Any mission any time!" But you could just use "a commitment to equity, dignity and respect for all staff". Surprising how many people believe it.

Kindest

Grenville Truemony

PS: My secretary has read this through (she's a splendid woman) and do you know what the saucy minx said to me, her tongue full of acid? "You've overlooked the cleaners, porters and catering staff. Again." Whoops.


Valerie Atkinson is retiring as departmental administrator at York University in December.

 

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