Category Archives: employment

Mental Health Awareness Week and workplace kindness

This is Mental Health Awareness Week, and in line with an area of concern in recent times, the theme this year is kindness. In a workplace context this includes: avoiding mean-spiritedness; knowing you have a right to be listened to if something is bothering you; taking care with those whose mental health might be more fragile, for example at times of maternity leave or bereavement. Wise colleagues (and an organisation is fortunate if they are line managers or admin staff with ‘human resources’ responsibility) have never needed to be reminded of these things.

I wrote in an earlier post about how some of these skills were in short supply. Reading about this week’s initiative and the trend it represents, I have one question: why did it take so long for the penny to drop about this?

(Disclaimer: nothing in either of these posts relates to any issue in my current employment.)

communication with candidates

Almost every job I apply for requires ‘attention to detail’ and ‘communication skills’, often with an interest in the ‘user experience’. I feel these are often lacking in the recruitment process itself.

I helped to create a tutorial for support staff at Bristol University, now known as ‘InfoSafe’, which dealt with data curation and storage. Amongst other things, we explained how you could use file and directory names constructively for easy retrieval. Some employers could do with studying this advice. I’ve just downloaded further particulars of a job I’m interested in, and the file name is of the form ‘123456’ or simply ‘Job Description’. Would it be so hard to include the job title – in abbreviated form if necessary? Maybe the organisation’s name too, given that the file is likely to be downloaded by people outside it?

Another regrettable trend, which I put down to tidy-minded HR departments, is an absolutely formulaic invitation to interview. So much so that in two recent cases, instructions about a presentation to be given at interview were contained only in an attachment, with no reference to the presentation or the attachment in the body of the message. So easy to overlook, especially when many emails now come with a string of otiose attached files. It’s basic email etiquette that if there is important information in an attachment, the body of the message should indicate this.

No wonder the skills I referred to in my opening sentence are in such demand!

where did the casual work go?

One major change since I was on the job market at the end of the last millennium is the abolition of the way into employment in universities by doing casual work. This was in fact the way ILRT recruited a lot of its staff, and a lot of the best ones: someone was taken on for a few weeks, and if they proved to do the job well their employment was extended, in many cases being converted into a permanent job.

I contrast this with some posts recently advertised near here. First time round four candidates (disclaimer: I was one) were shortlisted for the two identical roles and went through a selection process, but no appointment resulted. The posts were re-advertised but again no one was appointed. They were advertised a third time, with vaguer indications of the salary, and the process seems to have been again unsuccessful.

In the past, this would have been much less likely to happen. Without a strict ‘point-scoring’ level that candidates had to reach, there would have been flexibility to offer the posts to any of the short-listed candidates, relying on the probation period in the job as a safety net if one proved inadequate in practice. The work was done as part of a closely-knit team, so there would be limited damage they could do.

Offering short-term contract work and seeing how people got on would have been another possibility, with the possibility of extending it; this is quite common in the commercial sector. Instead, an expensive recruitment process has been repeated over and over, and the backlog of work the appointees would have done has been piling up. It does provide employment, but in the Human Resources department!

a continuity is broken

My first job was at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population. The Group’s founder, Peter Laslett (still then an active presence), had the vision that everyone who worked there, including IT support and admin staff, would be doing some research into historical demography. I suspect this was an ideal that was never attained in practice, but there was nevertheless an expectation that if you worked there you would develop an understanding of what the Group’s research was about. I attended seminars and we had (frequently) learned discussions when we assembled over morning coffee and afternoon tea.

Something of this expectation was there when I worked at Manchester University’s computing centre, supporting the use of contemporary Census data. I was encouraged to do a bit of Census research of my own, on the way student populations affected migration statistics, in conjunction with the Census Microdata Unit, and I gave a talk at the Unit’s research seminar about my previous work at the Cambridge Group.

But in the years since then, the ethos of Universities and their IT departments has got more corporate. Every minute of time has to be accounted for and assigned to a project, and one’s value is only evaluated against a set number of attributes on a job description. ‘Academics’ are regarded almost as an alien species by support staff and if I was assigned to do IT development work on an academic project, I was assumed to take no interest in its subject matter. There was a brief flashback to former times just before I left Bristol University, when I worked on what is now the Historical Photographs of China site. I was able to contribute a blog post on a topic relating to some of the photographs, on which I happened to have some expertise.

What I saw at the Cambridge Group was a continuity between academic researchers and academic-related support staff, which has been broken. When I started out, you could find around Cambridge University people in academic-related posts who were not (or no longer) officially doing research, but whose wide interests, high level of general knowledge and ability to make interdisciplinary connexions made them valuable to those who were. They had been in contact with academics enough to have much of their mindset and were productive because they loved what they did. Their names might not have appeared on the spines of academic monographs, but they often featured in the acknowledgements. And yet I fear such people are an endangered species in Universities now. I expect a reader might protest ‘Oh I know of so-and-so who is just like that’, and I’d ask when they were appointed; most likely in the days when the continuity still existed. Its loss can only be to the detriment of University research.

References, people skills and the competence-based interview

This is not really technology-based, more some observations about trends in recruitment procedures (something which I’ve been exposed to a lot of in the last few years).

I’ve been told by people on the other side of the process that some recruiters only take up references for successful candidates, to check that they have not made false claims about themselves, and that this is because references were becoming too hyperbolic in praise of candidates and hence less useful. Along with this is a rise in the ‘competence-based interview’ where the shortlisted candidate is asked to give examples of how they’ve behaved in particular work situations in the past, and to explain how they might behave in a particular hypothetical situation. In my experience this approach is particularly aimed at assessing ‘people skills’. These two trends seem to me to be connected, with the competence-based questions designed to find out about personal qualities which a referee might have drawn attention to, although I’m not sure which trend might have driven the other.

This approach seems to me to miss some important things. Firstly, there are some useful skills which will simply be missed by it. For example, the possibly vital one of remembering a trivial-seeming piece of information and then being able to apply it some time later, e.g. to introduce two people with something significant in common to one another. This is the sort of thing a referee might comment on, but which is impossible to test in a job interview.

Secondly, even a question about the candidate’s experience of dealing with failure is not necessarily going to find their really weak points. What people say they would do and the way they actually behave are two different things. In fact many people are not necessarily aware of major blunders they have made in their job, especially in the area of people skills. If you were asked about managing a team, or dealing with a member of staff whose job title had changed, you’d probably go on about the importance of meetings, and about keeping that member of staff informed of the change. And yet things don’t always happen that way, as I’ve remarked before.

Actually this shows up a problem with references generally: that they are written by one’s superiors. I wonder if a better picture would be given for those applying for management posts if one reference came from someone who had been line-managed by the candidate. The referee would be chosen by someone in the department/group other than the candidate. I think if people knew that this would happen when they applied for another job, people skills all round might improve enormously!

Managerialism and people skills

I recently went for an interview at an university where I used to work. In recent years, a much more ‘managerial’ approach has overtaken some parts of this organisation, compared with others. In an recruitment context, this can mean questions tend to focus on the ‘big picture’ rather than the practicalities of the job. A couple of years ago I was asked in an interview there about such topics as the difference information technology had made to the higher education sector; the job actually involved hacking cascading style-sheets for three months, part-time.

When I started working there the culture was very different. Individuality and a certain amount of eccentricity flourished, and we had the same freedom about taking days of leave and working hours that academics enjoy. Towards the end of my time, micro-management started creeping in, with the elevation of the timesheet as the unit of productivity: ‘you spent a day and a half on this project last year; the client is only paying for four hours!’ At least we weren’t encouraged to use a stopwatch, as happened at another workplace I’ve had.

There was a downside to this more tolerant culture; a casualness about dealing with staff which (almost always inadvertently) could cause hurt and result in loss of morale, as well as direct damage to the workings of the department. For example, my own job title changed at least three times, without my ever being notified of the changes. Information about salaries wasn’t kept confidential. And for a year and a half I wasn’t even invited to meetings of my own team!

Is there a way to avoid this, without going down the route of a corporate managerial style which can seem impersonal? Surely the answer lies in ‘people skills’. From some of the interviews I’ve had recently, you would think that the only such skill which was valuable was that of being manipulative. I realise that my own people skills are pretty patchy, and true excellence in this area is rare. But it’s surely obvious, for example, that people don’t pretend to be upset, and that if they are upset it could poison working relationships for years to come. Nor is it being self-centred for a staff member to expect to be treated the same way as others in the same situation. When I look back on the things that went wrong in my case (and I did sometimes try to say they were bothering me), they would have been so simple to set right.

These are lessons of quite general applicability (I could write a similar article about running choirs, for example). I think perhaps the answer lies in valuing empathy rather more highly. Even a line manager or administrator who thinks of the organisation rather than of individuals ought to realise that unhappy, demoralised staff will affect the productivity of the whole. Are questions ever asked at interviews to find out whether candidates know this?

how long ago can your experience be?

A year or so back I was interviewed for a very short-term job which I didn’t get. The interview was most peculiar – I was asked several questions that appeared to have little to do with the job, and wasn’t asked about a number of things I’d expected to be questioned on, including at least one question it was essential for the interviewing panel to know the answer to.

Furthermore, at least one of the interviewers appeared not to have read my CV. At one point they addressed me in a bet-she-hasn’t-done-this manner, asking me whether I had any experience of X: X being a kind of work that is demanding and requires intelligence, energy, time management and people skills, although the job I was being interviewed for did not involve X on the scale I was being asked about. In fact, for several years I’d had a job doing X – it would have been hard to find a job that involved more of X than this one – and had been demonstrably good at it. As I explained this the interviewer’s face fell, and then brightened again when they asked me how long ago this had been and I had to admit it had been quite a few years previously. They showed no further interest in this part of my experience.

But should this have mattered? X did not involve a large amount of technical knowledge which would have gone out of date. It was not my fault that my subsequent work did not happen to use all of these particular skills; there was not much call for X in my place of work, part-time work and maternity leave limited my opportunities to do it, and I was using opportunities to develop other skills. But I haven’t unlearnt my people or time management skills and my mind is still sharp! What was the point of asking the question if they weren’t interested in the answer?

I consoled myself by reflecting that I’d wrong-footed the interviewer by saying an emphatic YES to a question to which they expected an embarrassed NO. But I’d rather have got the job, short-term though it was.