Adventures in H.R. (in four parts)

One

In the early days, Cavendish Junior College was a big, happy family. Everyone was local, friendly, easygoing. Enthusiastic. Your basic Yoopers. At contract negotiation time, the leader of our little maintenance field group would be summoned into the Personnel Director’s office. (Yes, they used to call that department “Personnel” in those unenlightened days. Forgive them, they didn’t know any better. Now, in these more enlightened days, we call it Human Resources, to better distinguish the responsibilities from Energy Resources, Land Resources, Animal Resources, whatever. Apparently “personnel” was a vague word without meaning.)

Our group leader would sit down with the director and they’d shoot the bull for a while, talking about huntin’, da Bears, where the best fishin’ holes could be found, and at some point the director would slide a piece of paper across the desk, on which he’d written his contract offers. Our group leader would look at it, nod and say, “Yah, this looks good.” And it was. They shook hands and negotiations were concluded.

In later years, contract negotiations became a war. Weeks and months would be spent in battle. Tempers flared, vile language spewed, veiled (and a few naked) threats delivered. The Administration would spend tens of thousands of dollars on lawyers (hired guns expert in negotiation, confrontation, intimidation and humiliation) to beat down the employees. In those days the then-President motivated employees by urging that “You shall never reject any ideas by saying ‘we’ve never done it that way.’ Those words are forbidden!” Needless to say, one time a creative suggestion proposed by the employee group to streamline our health care was rejected by the Administration’s pitbull lawyer. Asked why, he said, “Because we’ve never done it this way.”

We sensed a disconnect there.

Two

We all know the guidelines for people applying for a job. Do your homework. Know the prospective employer. Have a list of things you can do for them. (Some good examples here.)

So we had an opening for a custodian. Basic skills and duties. Sweep, mop, straighten up the place, clean toilets, change light bulbs. Keep the buildings clean and safe. Applications were accepted and reviewed, interviews were scheduled. One guy came in and did it right. He’d spent two days walking around the Cavendish Junior College campus with a clipboard, making copious notes on any deficiencies he saw, and what he could suggest and would do to make it all better. He was sharp, qualified, on time, polite, dressed for success, literate. At the end of the interview, he was thanked and ushered out of the room. Everyone on the committee was impressed. Stunned. This guy had nailed it. He did everything right. (I’ve told this story to people who’ve been on hiring committees; their eyes would light up and they’d glow with delight just hearing this.) But the committee was chaired by our Maintenance Department boss, Ed Posen. Ed glared around the table, and said, “That guy’s gonna be trouble.” Needless to say, he did not get hired.

Three

Motivation is usually always a good thing. People work better when they’re motivated. Our employee reps would met with the President occasionally to discuss various issues. One time a big issue at CJC was rumors of early retirement buyouts. When the president was asked what were the chances of that, he replied, “Why should I pay people to go away when I can just fire them?” That was certainly motivating.

In contrast to the bad old days of the Personnel Department, the new Human Resources Department often doesn’t know what they’re doing, or who even anybody in their employ is.

After one round of firings (also called “personnel reductions,” “downsizing” (or “right-sizing”)) some top level positions were left vacant. Like Director of Public Safety. Things got tense and confused in the Public Safety office. Critical duties went undone. People who’d had no training were held responsible, of course. It got ugly. But the kicker was when H.R. called one of the survivors of the cutbacks some time later, demanding to know where the (former) director was, and why wasn’t he answering his phone or replying to their urgent emails? “Um,” the new director said cautiously, “you fired him six months ago.”

“Oh!” the H.R. person said, clearly surprised. “Um, well, nevermind, then.”

Four

When  I retired from CJC, I got no direction from H.R. I had to go ask questions, which got me incomplete answers. It was a long, frustrating process of chasing down people who knew anything at all about the process—how to apply, who to tell, what forms to fill out, where to file them, what to do with my keys, phone, computer, etc. Like no one had ever retired from there before. Long afterward, I talked with business friends who described things like “exit interviews.” Huh? I had to have this explained to me. I didn’t know what they were talking about. Apparently, someone from H.R. should, ideally, in a perfect world, sit down with you and discuss your experiences with the employer, the good, the bad, the work, the environment, the processes. I would have loved to share my experiences. But I certainly didn’t get an exit interview. What I got instead was a generic survey on a website. The first question was “Why did you decide to leave the college and seek employment elsewhere?” Um, I retired?  It was obvious that after 19 years, they didn’t know me, or care. I don’t remember if I finished the survey. I don’t know, and I don’t care.

 

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