It's an office, not a servants' hall

May 11, 2007

Stop playing lord and master. Administrative staff are your colleagues who are employed to work, not to serve you. And, says Harriet Swain, they deserve your support and to be treated with respect

What's-her-name hasn't complained about her work in ten years - and she's always willing to take on extra - so there are certainly no problems between academic and administrative staff in your department.

But have you asked what's-her-name about her work? "First piece of advice to anyone dealing with administrative staff: talk to them (and listen carefully to what they have to say)," says former Times Higher columnist Valerie Atkinson, who recently retired as departmental administrator in the department of computer science at York University.

Mike Robinson, national officer for education at Amicus, the manufacturing technical and skilled persons' union, says departments need to be run through co-operation rather than orders from the boss. "Anything you can do that's inclusive and consultative is obviously going to get more support from staff than if they are just being told by an edict that this is the way things are done," he says. Nor is it enough just to appear to be consulting staff once a decision has already been made.

This isn't just to keep staff happy, Robinson says. The likelihood is they will have useful contributions to make, particularly in the way a department is organised. They will know from first-hand experience what the problems are and therefore may be able to identify solutions or highlight potential difficulties in any reorganisation.

You should also respect their opinions about other aspects of the department, Robinson says. He stresses that you should never assume your administrative staff don't know anything about the work that goes on in your department - even if it is a very specialist area - because they have often been dealing with the same issues on a day-to-day basis for some time. "In a technical sense they don't know as much as you," he says. "But they could probably find out as much as you. Don't assume because people aren't qualified in a particular field that they don't know a lot about it."

On the other hand, don't give them work that is above their grade, Atkinson says. "Many will try to take it on for a number of reasons, which include fear, a desire to please, a hope of promotion or a simple inability to say no," she says. "Disaster of all kinds may follow."

You also need to know what their grade is - and therefore how much they earn. Once academics understand how poorly paid some administrative staff are it makes it easier to understand why they can be resentful, Atkinson says.

Sue Holmes, vice-chair of the Association of University Administrators, says that everyone needs to keep up to date with university policies and procedures so that they know who the right person is for a particular query. Often both academics and administrators will think they can deal with a problem that would be much better solved by someone else.

She says it is important to establish a key point of contact in administration for particular issues, so that information is given out in a consistent way, and to give general feedback on difficult issues so that all administrative staff are aware of the university line.

Don't get too hung up on speed either, whatever the temptations offered by e-mailing. Administrative staff need to understand that it is more important to give the right answer to a query after taking the trouble to check it, rather than to give an answer immediately that they think is probably right, so you must give them time to do this.

And if they are going to send out an e-mail they need to ensure that they have sent it to everyone, she warns. A vital piece of information may be better placed on a website giving answers to frequently asked questions.

Robinson says that academics need to be aware of the variety of demands on administrative staff in a department and not land work on them to be done at the last minute. "You need to plan your administrative staff's work as much as you would plan your own," he says. "Don't assume that they are there to carry out your every whim at the drop of a hat."

Susan Bampton, senior secretary in the education workforce section of the union Unison, says you should avoid changing arrangements, should show respect and be grateful.

But while being pleasant and communicative will make for good relations, spending all day chatting will probably not, says Mary Evans, a sociologist and professor of women's studies at Kent University, who says she speaks from observation rather than research. "The poor staff want to work and quite rightly resent their time being taken up by people chatting to them when they want to get on with it," she says.

Evans says academics need to be aware that while they are free to come and go as they wish and to organise their time, administrative staff have fixed hours to spend in the office. Don't swan in and talk about what a lovely day it is, and how you intend to spend it sitting in the sun, when the people you are talking to are stuck inside between 9am and 5pm, she advises.

Nor should you complain about the increasing amount of boring administrative work you do to people whose entire working lives are taken up with such work, she says - nor should you blame them for it. "The discontent should be passed on to the places where the work originated, which is not the administrative staff you come into day-to-day contact with," she says.

In fact, you should work hard to show staff you are on their side, Atkinson says. Fight their corner if they need it. "Whether you have any success or not, it will have untold benefits in terms of their commitment and output," she says.

As will remembering their names.

 

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