Working with administrative staff

Encouraging fellow academics to remember that administrative staff are colleagues worthy of support and respect

March 6, 2008

“The 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 given an edict,” he says.

This isn’t just to keep staff happy, he says. They will likely 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 may be able to identify solutions or highlight potential difficulties in any reorganisation.

Never assume your administrative staff don’t know anything about the work that goes on in your department. “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 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.

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.

Administrative staff need to understand that it is more important to give the right answer to a query, rather than to give an answer immediately that they think is probably right, so you must give them time to check.

Robinson says that academics need to be aware of the variety of demands on administrative staff and not land work on them at the last minute. “Don’t assume 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.

She says academics need to be aware that while they are free to come and go as they wish, administrative staff have fixed hours to spend in the office. 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. “The discontent should be passed on to the places where the work originated – not the administrative staff you come into day-to-day contact with,” she says.

You should 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.

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