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Human Resources

Better Days Ahead

Boosting employee morale and helping staff cope with stagnant or decreasing salaries.
University Business, Jan 2011

Steep budget cuts. Skyrocketing health care costs. Layoffs. Furlough programs. As if that wasn't enough to deal with, colleges and universities around the country are facing a new challenge: how to reduce the frustration, dissatisfaction, or even anger felt by employees who haven't received a pay raise in several years.

Some higher ed employees haven't received a salary bump for the past three years. Although the nation's unemployment rate is hovering close to 10 percent, not all employees find comfort in the fact that they still receive a steady paycheck. Sometimes it's difficult for individuals to see the big picture, especially if they've lost their home or can barely pay their bills. So some campus HR departments have gone all out to help faculty and staff better cope with their financial stress and focus on what lies ahead of the curve.

Alabama State University, for instance, supports more than 1,200 employees who haven't received a raise since the fall of 2008, says Carmen Douglas, VP of HR. The number of reclassification requests--where employees ask for a higher pay grade because their job duties expand or change--has almost tripled from a dozen to several dozen in that timeframe.

"I've had to go and send out information explaining that a reclassification is not something [that occurs] because of longevity or that you're a hard worker and deserve a pay increase," says Douglas. "We had to explain that we're not saying you're not a hard worker, but we're just not in a situation financially where we can give pay raises."

'We're taking control of what we can control here on campus.'
-Bob Foldesi, California State University, Northridge

To help keep employee spirits and productivity high, President William H. Harris conducts one or two campus convocations or meetings each year, sharing information about the school's financial status with employees and students. Preserving jobs has been his No. 1 message, Douglas says, adding that employees were also informed that the school absorbed a 14 percent increase in health care coverage instead of passing it on to them.

Meanwhile, at press time, officials planned to roll out a free stress management program developed by the university's health insurance company, encourage use of the employee assistance program (EAP), introduce a "Beat the Holiday Blues" seminar, and possibly offer Lunch 'N Learn financial planning sessions in the spring. While the programs are helpful, Douglas says the key is still communicating the university's status and future plans to all faculty and staff. "That's one of the things [schools] sometimes fail to do," she notes, explaining that fear of the unknown can be far worse than reality.

In its effort to control employee fears and tempers, California State University, Northridge recently posted a wide variety of tips and resources on its website and began offering free classes for employees.

One example is an online financial resource guide on "Surviving Tough Economic Times," introduced in 2009. Employees can take advantage of free yoga classes, join a meditation support group, learn tips for recognizing staff, participate in workshops covering personal finance and growth opportunities, watch a PowerPoint presentation that provides messages of inspiration and encouragement, or join a book club led by an associate dean that was also intended to create a sense of unity between all levels of employees.

"We have created a culture of caring," explains Bob Foldesi, associate vice president of HR at the school, which supports roughly 4,000 faculty and staff. This July will be the third cycle without employee raises. To make matters worse, employees were required to take off two days each month without pay during the last fiscal year, which was the equivalent of a 10 percent pay cut. Still, he says it's business as usual on campus. While concerned about the economy, university employees aren't consumed by their shrinking paycheck. There hasn't even been an uptick in employee grievances. If there is anger, he believes it's directed more toward the state of California, not the university. Collectively, he says all of these HR approaches have created a sense of "togetherness" on campus that has led to a collaborative working environment.

'Associates can handle good news and can handle bad news. What they can't handle is no news.'
-Kevin Eichner, Ottawa University

"We are trying to provide needed services to our faculty and staff during difficult times," says Foldesi, adding that HR has been focusing on ways to keep people engaged in the mission of the university. "We're taking control of what we can control here on campus. If we care for our faculty and staff, we think they'll return that favor and demonstrate care for us and our students."

The 2,000 faculty and staff at University of Northern Iowa skipped a pay raise in 2009. Not to mention, their participation in the school's furlough program--lasting three to nine days, depending upon the employee's salary--and a temporary reduction in retirement benefits. The employer's contribution dropped from 10 percent to 8 percent from December 2009 to June 2010. The president asked leaders of groups representing various types of university employees--including the Professional and Scientific Council and a group that represents clerical, security, and technical hourly workers--to come up with budget-saving ideas such as these, which officials then decided upon.

"Our president, Benjamin Allen, has done a very good job of heavily involving each employee group on campus to get their feedback," says Michelle Byers, interim HR services director. "The president had several one-on-one communications with different key group leaders. ... They would talk about how they appreciated the opportunity to discuss things with the president. ... They felt good about the process."

She says some employees who loudly complained about the lack of raises requested hardship loans from their retirement account. But they were refused, says Byers, citing the university's policy. Instead, they were referred to the school's EAP, which offers free financial counseling that helped employees identify alternative ideas and keep their retirement account intact.

Brainstorming also occurred between HR and other departments about inexpensive ways to boost employee morale, such as planning social functions or inviting school leaders to department meetings to keep employees appraised of budget challenges. The institution's marketing and public relations offices then invited each department to adopt a family from a local elementary school, providing them with necessities like blankets or clothing. Roughly 20 families were adopted.

"While we didn't get our raises, we were still very fortunate to have good jobs," Byers says, explaining that this charitable program possibly diffused employees' anger or frustration since it lent perspective to their own circumstances. But not all the financial news at the school is doom and gloom. This year, employees got their wish. On average, she says they received a 3 percent salary increase.

Business is also looking up at Kansas-based Ottawa University. Its 340 full-time employees also missed a salary raise in 2009 but received a small raise this fall, says President Kevin Eichner.

During his first year, he implemented a voluntary furlough program. All employees and 90 percent of faculty participated. But the recession also presented chances to make valuable changes in communication, staffing, and operations.

Since 2008, Eichner conducted three annual town halls for faculty and staff at each of the school's campuses in Arizona, Kansas, Indiana, and Wisconsin. He says pertinent financial and enrollment data was shared along with the school's progress and new initiatives.

"I've always had the philosophy that our associates are the key part of what we do and the more they know about our institution's situation, the more likely they are to understand it and contribute to it," he says. "I believe associates can handle good news and can handle bad news. What they can't handle is no news."

Some of the initiatives included using employee skills more effectively by shifting people into different jobs and hiring new talent, such as a CFO and VP of enrollment. All academic programs and activities now have measurable goals. A merit system and performance management process was implemented. Two new student advising programs were created that involved tutoring, coaching, and career assistance, adding 18 advisors to the school's payroll. The program has since driven the student retention rate from the low 80s to 94 percent.

Every department, activity, and process was scrutinized, he says.

Yet, the most critical element was developing a 12-year strategic plan called Vision 2020. Eichner says it gave employees a "picture of the possibilities," that helped elevate their aspirations and expectations. He explains that what really drives people in higher education is not getting rich, but making them feel a part of something special and doing important work.

"We haven't allowed this [recession] to be used as an excuse," says Eichner, adding that these combined programs and strategies helped the university grow overall by 13 percent. "I tell our people all the time, ‘Don't spend a lot of time looking backwards because we're not going there.' They have to trust that a new organization is coming out and that it's on a good path and that there are better days ahead."

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.