Labor & Work-Life Issues

August 05, 2012

Fifth Annual Survey

Great Colleges To Work For 2012

At Great Colleges, Respect Is a Crucial Benefit

By Josh Fischman and Benjamin Pokross

Open channels of communication, along with concrete ways of appreciating employees and helping them balance work and home, are hallmarks of great academic workplaces. At colleges, such policies have become more important as a slow national economy delays or shrinks raises, according to The Chronicle's 2012 "Great Colleges to Work For" survey, which identifies 103 outstanding institutions across the country.

At the same time, the report reveals that academe still struggles to find ways to show respect for employees. In that category—one of 12 areas measured by the survey—even colleges that did well got lower ratings from their employees than did colleges recognized in other areas, such as providing a good teaching environment.

The 2012 survey had the largest number of responses in its five-year history—about 47,000 college employees completed questionnaires, up from 44,000 in 2011. About 20,000 of the questionnaires this year were filled out by faculty, 8,500 by administrators, and nearly 18,000 by exempt professional staff. In all, participants represented 294 institutions, including small, medium, and large two-year and four-year colleges. The survey was administered by ModernThink LLC, a human-resource consulting company, in partnership with The Chronicle.

At the heart of the survey, employees were asked to respond to a series of 60 statements—for example, "I am given the freedom and responsibility to do my job"—rating them on a five-point scale from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." The results are clustered into the 12 categories in which outstanding colleges are recognized. Colleges listed in the most categories make the Chronicle's Honor Roll.

Though employees rated financial befits, like retirement plans, as very desirable, other kinds of benefits were important to "Great Colleges" recognition. Work and life balance, career-development programs, satisfaction with the physical workspace, and flexible work arrangements turned out to be key.

"In the economy that we've been in, there's a greater understanding people have today that we can't expect the benefits that we used to," says Richard K. Boyer, principal and managing partner of ModernThink. But employees do expect their employers to find other ways to make jobs better, he says. For example, at the recognized colleges, 81 percent of employees agreed that their institution's policies made it easier for them to balance work and home life. At nonrecognized colleges, that number dropped to 72 percent.

Good communication makes a big difference. At Howard Community College, in Maryland, a weekly leadership program puts people like campus mechanics and professors in the same room with high officials and asks them to team up to solve problems. The process breaks down barriers. "We can operate very quickly and with fewer levels. We have openness," one professor told The Chronicle. Howard was recognized in nine "Great Colleges" categories and made the Honor Roll.

At two-year colleges like Howard, the ability of employees to communicate their concerns is increasingly a mark of a great place to work. Among the colleges on the Honor Roll, 76 percent of the employees agreed with the statement, "I can speak up or challenge a traditional way of doing something without fear of harming my career." That was an increase of nearly three percentage points over last year. At nonrecognized two-year colleges in the survey, 57 percent of employees responded positively.

The importance of feeling able to safely challenge authority was not important just for workplace satisfaction but is also key to avoiding crises, Mr. Boyer says. That was clearly demonstrated by the scandal at Pennsylvania State University. Although some people there knew about the continuing sexual abuse of young children by a coach using university facilities, they were reluctant to come forward, for fear of losing their jobs.

One feature that contributes to a culture of trust and respect at many of the recognized colleges was having an internal or external compliance hotline, with which employees can anonymously report any behavior that they feel might be in violation of ethics policies.

Good communication, of course, goes two ways. An influential factor for schools that made the "Great Colleges" list was that campus leaders were involved and openly appreciative of the work of their employees. At Honor Roll institutions, 78 percent of people agreed with the statement, "Senior administration show a genuine interest in the well-being of faculty, administration, and staff." At nonrecognized colleges, just 56 percent of employees agreed with that notion.

At Manchester University, one of the Honor Roll institutions, the president holds three or four meetings during the spring semester for faculty and staff, where they can bring up any concerns that they have. "People come and just ask or talk about any topic that came to mind," says Dale E. Carpenter, director of human resources. "There's no 'us and them'; it's just not part of the culture."

Still, even at institutions recognized in the "Great Colleges" report, just 57 percent of people agreed with the statement, "Our recognition and awards programs are meaningful to me." Nonrecognized institutions fared even worse, with only 44 percent agreeing. According to Mr. Boyer, institutions are missing an opportunity to improve their workplaces by offering intangible advantages and a collegial environment.

Janet Walker, work/life and communications coordinator at one of the recognized institutions, George Mason University, says those features are so important because employees like to know that their work counts.

"We have a tremendous reward and recognition program," she says. "It involves everything from service awards and outstanding achievement to an employee-of-the-month program, gift cards, Mason gear, recognition leave, and more—a myriad of ways to say thank you."

Beth Mole and Julia Love contributed to this article.