Respect Departmental Staff

You need them more than they need you, writes Nate Kreuter.

June 13, 2011

As a graduate student I first became friends with the office staff in my department over food. Not eating food, just talking about it. One staffer was a vegetarian gourmand, another a barbecue and soul food aficionado, and the third a discriminating omnivore of my own particular stripe. One staffer and I always also talked baseball. I would rib her about her beloved Yankees, and she would try not to show too much pity for my pathetic Pittsburgh Pirates. What began as casual conversations became workplace friendships, and only later did I realize how valuable those friendships were to me, and also to my graduate career. I think that the relationships between staff and faculty/grad students have been unusually healthy ones in all of the departments and academic units within which I’ve worked.

However, some departments (or simply individual faculty members) are notorious for their poor rapport with office staffers. Often, such an unfortunate dynamic becomes a feedback loop when faculty take staff for granted, or worse, treat staff as servants. Then the offended staffers begin to harbor feelings of resentment. Things deteriorate from there. I’m particularly sensitive to the issue of faculty/staff relations because my father has been a staffer at a major research university for over 20 years. Hearing some of his stories about his own treatment at the hands of some faculty members while I was in grad school gave me strong feelings about what sort of professor I didn’t want to become.

At one of my jobs, there was a faculty member who would routinely come into the office, make conversation, and sit on the admin assistant’s side desk, which she kept impeccably clean (thus making it an inviting place to sit). She asked the faculty member to stop sitting on the desk, because she didn’t particularly appreciate having asses parked in that locale. The faculty member, for months, continued to sit on the desk when in the office. The admin assistant’s frustration increased, because now, not only was an ass regularly being parked on her desk, but her polite and quite reasonable request was not being obliged. Eventually the faculty member, whose offense had been absentmindedness and forgetfulness and not outright or intentional rudeness, stopped, and the admin assistant became considerably happier.

Probably the single most important thing you can do to begin building a positive relationship with departmental staff is to get to know them. Talk to them. Find out if there’s anything you can do to make their own lives easier.

By the same token, if you see that a staffer is working his or her tail off, don’t interrupt. Or, if you must, have the courtesy to apologize for interrupting. Unlike a faculty member, staffers often aren’t allowed the luxury of closing their office doors when they need to get serious work finished. If you assume (and carry yourself as if) your own needs are more important than what a staff member is working on — and hell, you may be interrupting them from processing your own pay sheet or travel reimbursement — then you’re on the fast track to poisoning the relationship.

Departmental staff often deal with an eclectic array of responsibilities, all of which keep your department functioning. In recent years, as university budgets have been slashed, the responsibilities of individual staffers have increased, while some of their colleagues have, even worse, been laid off. In short, right now the departmental staffers you work with are likely to be shouldering the biggest work loads of their careers. They’re feeling the pressure too — so don’t add to it.

Here are a couple of ideas for maintaining positive relationships with your department’s staff:

  • Get to know the staff: Take the time to get to know your department’s staff. I’m not suggesting that you feign interest in their lives, but that you find actual common interests. Drop in and say "hello" every now and again.
  • Meet deadlines: Respond promptly when a staffer e-mails you a question or asks you to file a piece of paperwork. When you don’t fulfill your obligations promptly, and a staffer has to harass you into doing your job, you're being unprofessional and you're creating additional work for someone who is already overworked.
  • Give lead time: Similarly, if you know you’re going to need help from staff for a special event or project, give them plenty of notice. Failing to give proper notice makes it harder for staffers to navigate university bureaucracy and creates avoidable stress for everyone.
  • Know individual staffers' responsibilities: Overworked staffers become irked, and reasonably so, when asked to do someone else's job, especially if you're asking them to do something that you should be doing yourself.
  • Express your appreciation: When a staffer helps you out, and they often will, in big ways, thank them. Gestures go a long way, both the gestures that you remember to express and the ones that you forget or neglect to express. Everyone likes to be appreciated for their hard work.
  • Own your mistakes: Despite your best efforts, eventually you will accidentally offend or forget. As soon as you realize your mistake, own up to it. Admitting your mistake, apologizing for it, and taking any corrective action in your power will help to ameliorate the offense. Doing all three as quickly as possible will hopefully prevent festering feelings and restore your positive relationship with the staffer.
  • Don’t misdirect your frustration: Frustrated with a colleague? Don’t take it out on a staffer.
  • Don’t be a flake: ‘nough said.

At the end of the spring semester about midway through my graduate career, a fellow graduate student and I got into an argument about the proper use of some lab space. A staffer with broad administrative responsibilities called me into her office to straighten the situation out. Still annoyed with my fellow student, I came across to the staffer as disrespectful. The following fall, at a mutual friend’s suggestion, I went back to the staffer and apologized for how I had come across. I’m not sure that the gesture was timely or large enough on my part, but I hope that it helped. At any rate, it made me reflect upon how invaluable office staff are, and how much students and faculty alike rely upon their frequently unheralded efforts. The mistake is not one that I have or ever will repeat.

Try to be conscientious actions about how your actions affect not only your own departmental staff, but all university staff. Leaving a huge mess for a custodian to clean up, or routinely breaking a water fountain by dumping coffee grounds down its drain (a weekly occurrence in one department I’ve worked in), or simply acting demanding — all of these are nonstarters.

I recently saw a Twitter update from a grad student indicating that a sign in his department’s grad student lounge reads "A friend in the office is worth two in the grad lounge." I agree with everything about that sign except the math. A friend in the office is probably worth about four in the grad lounge.

And Jamie, I finally, grudgingly, and publicly admit that Derek Jeter is one of the most clutch ballplayers in the playoffs of all time. But I’m also delighting in this miserable season he’s having.


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