Advocacy and the Middle Manager

So we’ve been talking a lot about professional and workplace issues that disproportionately affect women the last week or so.  Meghan’s last two posts in particular are pretty stark reminders that there are repository-specific, institutional, professional, and federal policy levels that work against equitable workplaces.  Meaning it is time for those of us in any kind of management roles to be asking ourselves what our responsibilities as supervisors are and how we can address some of these issues for ourselves and for our staffs.    

I supervise a unit that includes about 7 full-time professional archivists (give or take depending on the ebb and flow of project gigs) in a large special collections library housed within a massive university library system.  Large, structured, hierarchical organizations are designed to make most workers invisible to upper management.  The sort of middle-management type role that I fill in my organization functions, both intentionally and unintentionally, to depersonalize a lot of the work that goes on in my unit and to create buffers between types of staff in the library.  In many ways this is a good thing– I don’t need an Associate University Librarian weighing in on something like how to structure external links in finding aids– we can handle that, thank you very much.  

The flipside of that is that the more human needs of staff are generally not seen by the policy makers at an institution.  Obviously most of us, even those of us who are in management positions, are not the deciders on HR policy.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t instigate any change in our own offices or institutions.  I’ve always approached my job as a manager with the understanding that I am an advocate first and foremost.  I get people what they need so they can do their job right and try to take away any barriers that prevent getting the job done.  This advocacy role is especially key when thinking about work-life balance and workplace accommodations.  And since us low and middle management types are, as direct supervisors, the ones most likely to be aware of issues and concerns that impact our staffs we are the ones who have the responsibility to make some noise and, hopefully, make some changes.

But what can we do?  What are some concrete steps we can take?

  • Be an advocate!  Take employee concerns to managers, directors, and HR officers and make it really clear that you support your staff and demand that an institution make reasonable efforts to be supportive as well.
  • Be sensitive.  If someone who reports to you is coming to you with a medical, family, or other personal issue looking for some kind of an accommodation that person is likely in a position where he or she is already feeling vulnerable.  Respect that this person may not be comfortable or able to go to higher level decision makers.  Also be aware that someone may need to share news about health or family issues with a supervisor before they are really ready to make that news public.  Show some discretion.
  • Think about options and alternatives and try to be flexible in order to meet employees’ needs.  Is there anything mission-centric that an employee can do from home one day a week? Are there ways to adjust schedules, negotiate lunch breaks, or otherwise figure out ways to work with schedule requirements?  Do you have staff around who can assist with heavy lifting if an employee is unable to manage that for whatever reason, or find other alternatives?
  • Be aware that sometimes there are outside factors that will hamstring you.  You probably have less flexibility and fewer options with hourly support staff than with professional employees.  Your institution may not have bereavement days and may force an employee to use vacation time.  You can’t change everything. It sucks, but it’s true that there are things you can’t do, but recognize what those are and focus on what you can change.
  • Ask.  Our institution recently changed the way that we accumulate personal days, resulting in a staff member having bought plane tickets for a vacation she no longer had the PTO to cover; HR worked with her.  When our management team was unwilling to adjust a staff member’s security level to allow her to enter the library early (to leave early to care for a family member) we located office space outside the security perimeter so she had more flexibility.  It never hurts to ask for what you want or what your staff needs.
  • Listen.  People have a sense of what an ideal solution would look like most of the time, respect that and hear them out, try to work with it.  Don’t be a pushover or give in to suggestions or demands that would negatively impact other parts of your work or harms other staff members, but be open.  

Most of all remember that with slight power comes great responsibility.

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One thought on “Advocacy and the Middle Manager

  1. Pingback: Chaos —> Order | Bossy, abrasive, and emotional

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