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?