To Begin: An Interesting Perspective
A tough looking, burly custodian was standing outside a residence hall last summer, smoking a cigarette and just staring at the ground. I approached him and asked how things were going. He said, “Alright, I guess. But I miss the kids.” Now this fellow works in an area of campus that has a long history of less than model behavior from its residents so I became interested and said “I thought you might be relieved that they are gone.” He tossed his cigarette in the ashtray and said, “You’re kidding, this place is too quiet, there’s no one to talk to, I miss their questions, but most of all I miss their smiles.”
Understanding Your Custodial Staff Perspective About You and Learning From Them
There are hundreds of stories out there if we take the time to listen to our custodians and maintenance workers. We, the professional supervisory staff, are often seen as transients to the long-term employees at our colleges and universities because we are usually strangers to their area who come and go depending on our career paths. When I started dealing with these folks, the “permanent” residence hall employees, I was 24 years old, fresh out of graduate school with a Masters in Student Personnel Administration and feeling pretty good about my new job and myself. I was faced with the responsibility of supervising 40 unionized custodians. Most of them had been with the department for 15 or more years. They were firmly convinced that they knew how things worked and why they would not change. There were some that I trusted and I knew would help me understand why things worked the way they did, and others that were steadfast “Union” supporters. The helpers were instrumental in assisting me with contract language and in general guiding me through the process of working with a fair sized unionized workforce.
After several years of trial and error, I have learned a few things that might be useful. Some of the cases presented here might seem impossible in your environment but it is important to remember that it takes a lot of effort and years of give and take to get a workforce focused on student service–especially when dealing with unions.
Learning About Contracts & the Grievance Process
There is not a training program, seminar or workshop that can prepare a higher education professional for supervising union employees. Open, honest conversations with your staff will certainly lead to questions about contract language and servicing residents. But as difficult as it was for me, the only way to really start understanding a contract is to go to a grievance and sit across from the Union and argue your opinion. Not only does the process help you to understand the contract but win or lose, there is a relationship built between you and your staff, a relationship that defines who you are as a supervisor and what your staff can expect from you in every grievance case to come.
An established contract provides the rules, regulations and processes that guide you. The professional supervisor looks for the balance between those rules and the reality of the workplace. While the employee might see the contract language as black and white, the professional looks for opportunities to modify, stretch, and interpret the language in an attempt to manage fairly and consistently.
Contracts aside, if you approach your staff with the assumption that most permanent employees want to do the best job possible, you will be amazed at how quickly things can change. And, if you approach Union representatives with respect and prepare to offer something in exchange for what you are looking for, the results can be very effective for increasing service to student residents.
Helping Staff Advance Themselves
Our Department has two types of Unionized employees, custodial and maintenance. The custodians all think that the better job is working in maintenance but they are frustrated that they do not have the skills that qualify them for that classification. Most never acquired the skills and don’t know where to go to learn them. We knew that these were good, hardworking employees whose morale and commitment would grow if they were in a job that they felt proud of. What they needed was an opportunity to gain the appropriate skills within their workday and for those that had the time, after work. We began with a very simple premise… if you had extra time on your hands during the day and you wanted to paint or do minor repairs within limits, you could ask and training would occur and materials would be supplied. A few staff responded. Soon they were carrying around some tools and working on problems in their area. They were voluntarily working out of class. This did three things. First it gave them more pride in their work; second, it began to give them maintenance skills and lastly, students were seeing things getting repaired faster and since they had a positive relationship with their custodian they were careful not to break things in the future.
It’s not just enough to provide basic level skills. Becoming a tradesman takes training beyond anything that we had on campus. A program was developed at a local vocational school that provided classes at night to those that were interested. Many took advantage of the opportunity. Once the skills were developed and a position became available, staff could now apply for maintenance positions that were once out of reach.
On the Job Learning and Listening
So how do you learn to understand how to identify when seeing the nuance of balance in the contract is important? The first and most important way is through experience and learning from your mistakes. This learning process can be faster or slower depending on how many employees you supervise and the character of your staff and the support of your Human Resource department. The second way is to listen to your staff very carefully. They will tell you what they need which will give you more information to make the appropriate supervisory decision. The biggest lesson that will come from listening closely to what your staff has to say is that you will never, ever make everyone happy.
Taking a Calculated Risk: Pursuing A Balance Between the Union Contract and Sometimes Doing What You Think is the Right Thing
Recently the issue of job transferring came up and after it was all over a new and improved process developed. A job vacancy came up in our newly built resident hall and a custodian with 23 years experience wanted the position. She was most senior, had a good job history, already held the job classification and was a very nice person. She also had medical documentation that prevented her from shoveling snow. All other work responsibilities were not a problem just shoveling snow. My concern with allowing the lateral transfer was that this new residence hall had three times as many areas to shovel with four times fewer staff to remove it, and if I allowed the transfer it would be one less person. I knew that this would be controversial because the contract states that the most senior custodian with a good work record should get a lateral position, without question. I also knew that the hiring regulations allowed me to decide on an individual basis on the most qualified person for the job. Lastly, I knew that my decision would be subject to interpretation, and that I needed to be prepared to substantiate the reasons for my decision if it was to be upheld through the grievance process.
This situation started my staff talking among themselves. They could understand the Union’s position that the most senior person is the most qualified and that medical documentation can not be a determining factor. They could also feel the burden of shoveling all that extra snow each and every winter while this other person stays warm inside the building without risk of back pains and freezing outside. I listened and learned that some agreed with me and were thankful and although others disagreed with my position they understood my argument. Some were happy and some were not. Fortunately for me the arbitrator also agreed with my argument and for the first time in our Department’s history a most senior employee could not make a lateral transfer based only on seniority. What this did was send a message to all Union staff that all of their personnel history is factored in to job transfer decisions, along with years of service. Staff need to have the right qualifications in addition to time served.
A Few Final Thoughts
Supervising Union employees can be an extreme challenge. The best evidence of whether you are doing a good job isn’t if everyone likes you, that will never happen, but whether or not you can sit back and feel that you are being fair and consistent. If you can do that then your staff will respect you and that is the best you can hope for.
Submitted by Scott Gallo, Project Manager, University of Connecticut