Keep on Zelda's Good Side

Brian Taylor

April 10, 2011

A senior colleague in a small liberal-arts college recalled how one of the first pieces of advice he got when he started on the tenure track was, "Keep on Zelda's good side."

Zelda was the 30-year veteran and chief staff member of the department, a formidable Dowager Empress who knew all the procedures cold and did not take any guff from anyone, including the dean, and certainly not a tenderfoot probationary faculty member. Zelda also, crucially, had official responsibility for collating, copying, and mailing out tenure packets for outside evaluation. By legend, if she liked you, the packets were pristine and organized. If she didn't, "mistakes were made." In addition, she had the ear of the senior professors, and could darken their estimate of a misbehaving young scholar.

For good or ill, all-powerful Zeldas are a declining species in academic departments, what with greater mobility among staff administrators, early retirements, new automated processes, and stricter HR rules. Nonetheless, it's still a strategic mistake for junior faculty members, in their quest for tenure, to overlook the importance of the staff.

In thinking about ways we can get along with the hardworking people who make things flow smoothly in our departments, let me start with a broad principle: Overwhelmingly, university staff members see it as their mission to be helpful to students, faculty members, administrators, and the public. They are "service people" in the best sense of the term.

Time and again, I have seen that attitude assist the mission of higher education—but I have also seen it misread by faculty members, especially novices on the tenure track.

Staff personnel are there to help you, yes, but not just you, not perhaps on the task you may want help with, and maybe not in the way, or within the time frame, that you expect.

When you present your great idea to staff members on something they should be doing, their first instinct is often to say yes, even when what they are really thinking is: "Whoa, that isn't my job, and I have tons of other stuff to do." You may not find out that you insulted, scared, or bewildered them until later, when you get a chastising note from the dean or earn the ire of senior faculty members who are protective of longtime staff members.

Don't ever confuse silence, or even tentative assent, from a staff member as enthusiastic consent.

Know their job profiles. The worlds of the staff member and the university professor overlap but are mapped very differently. Trouble ensues when faculty members perceive that staff administrators are as autonomous as professors. Staff members usually have job profiles that specify their duties. Be sensitive to those duties, especially since many staff employees, in a spirit of wanting to help, may give you mixed signals or even agree to your unreasonable request.

Such an incursion on their time and responsibilities is the single greatest complaint I've heard from staff members about professors.

A dean related how a new assistant professor, without asking anyone, told the department's secretary that she should use a different software package for a university project than the one she had been working with. She agreed but was in tears later with her supervisor, the dean, at the prospect of new training in the middle of a project and of violating a universitywide policy about which software was officially approved. The assistant professor was not being intentionally highhanded, just a bit clueless about the effect his suggestion would have on someone who operated within a much more circumscribed universe than he did.

You are not their supervisor. Staff employees work to support you, but they are not, in most cases, assigned to work for you.

The language of academic employment reveals much about our job roles. A newly appointed department head noted, "It struck me that officially I supervised the staff but served the faculty." That is an important distinction. Staff people always have a designated supervisor, typically the chief administrator of a department or a higher-level staff member. In more-centralized schools and colleges within a university, staff employees may even report to upper-level administrators.

It can be a minor, or even a major, violation of protocol and human-resources rules to circumvent the chain of command. If you have an idea or a request for staff workers to do something beyond what are obviously their normal functions, always approach their supervisor first.

Respect their privacy. When I started in my current position as head of a communications school, I decided to upgrade our online image, including the faculty and staff profiles. I thought it would be nice to increase the friendliness factor for parents and students and to give each faculty and staff member his or her own Web page.

When I announced the idea at our first staff meeting, I was met with friendly smiles and silence. Later, however, a veteran staff member kindly advised me that some people were upset and viewed the whole idea as an invasion of their privacy. As professors, our contracts stipulate that we're supposed to be public scholars and teachers to some extent. Staff members don't have the same obligation.

Another, more modern concern is the privacy of social networking. A staff employee at another institution told me once that she felt "weirded out" that a newly hired assistant professor had tried to "friend" her on Facebook. The gesture was very likely innocent, but there was a confusion of roles and preferences.

Respect their work habits. Learning to read a room is a basic human-relations skill, whether you are a new academic or work at a manufacturing plant. It is always good to get a sense of the ways and mores of those around you.

Many staff employees have routine work patterns through the day. Or there may be times of the week or year when one type of work dominates, say during budget season or student registration. Note the patterns and try to work within them. A departmental accountant related that even though she tended to reconcile receipts toward the end of the week, an assistant professor always brought in his, no matter when they were generated, very late on Friday afternoons. At first she joked with him about it, then hinted more heavily, then asked the dean to intervene.

Another staff worker related the tale of Dr. Crisis. A nervous assistant professor, he would rush to departmental staff members with a peremptory demand—for copying, for a student record, for help with a form. It was always a last-minute emergency. The staff members wanted to help, but they could not just forgo their other labors instantly when he rushed in. The senior professors also noted his poor time management and cited it in the young scholar's annual review.

Don't use staff members as surrogates. Staff employees are a wonderful resource for the academic willing to take the time to listen to them and get their advice. I have found over the years, for example, that some staff employees are much more attuned to student thinking about the curriculum than are many faculty members. A shrewd, experienced staffer can save you time and preserve your sanity in navigating university procedures and protocols.

But don't cross the line and try to exploit the staff for help in office politics or to gain unfair advantages. A university secretary tells the story of an assistant professor who, impressed by her knowledge of course scheduling, asked her to make sure he got his preferred time slots over the requests of other faculty members. Another staff person told of the tenure candidate who asked her to gauge how senior professors would vote on his case.

Then there was the disgruntled doctoral student who asked staff people in his department to join him in a formal complaint to the administration about his adviser, despite the fact that they were unaware of, and unconnected to, the conflict.

Any effort to use staff members as spies or proxies in internal battles is unethical as well as just plain dumb. All you generate by such behavior is irritation with you.

Be grateful in word and deed. Today's young assistant professors come from a generation that is satisfied with a "thanks" text message or a Facebook "like." But staff employees of all ages welcome a show of gratitude, especially when they truly have helped you out of an emergency or performed some major task on your behalf. A card of written thanks is always nice.

When I was an assistant professor, my department had a tradition of junior faculty members' taking the office staff out to lunch at the end of every semester. Do something to underscore that you don't take staff support for granted.

Ultimately, getting along with staff employees is an exercise in sensing and respecting their duties, and acknowledging their expertise and wisdom. The result of such amiable dealings may not be as dramatic as the tale of Zelda's effect on tenure and promotion, but effective staff members can help you overcome small and large obstacles on the tenure track.

That said, you should try your hardest to treat staff members decently, not just for tactical reasons—getting them mad at you might impede your teaching, research, or service; make you look bad in the eyes of the senior faculty; or take up a lot of your precious time—but simply because it's the right thing to do.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the "P&T Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was just published by Harvard University Press.