An Enjoyable and Touching Day at Work

AMy working life to date has had many highlights.  Some of them outline the nature of daily work in Human Resources and Talent Management.  Here’s the story of one of my most enjoyable days ever at work.  It gave cause for deep reflection on the ethics of work, which I will pick up on in another post.

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It’s a Summer evening in 2016 on the banks of Lake Constance (Bodensee) after the formal events at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and I was in a quaint timber-framed restaurant waiting to host a dinner on behalf of the Helmholtz Association. Eight of the most talented post-doctoral researchers from the Association’s 40,000+ staff had been invited to make conversation with a Nobel Laureate. All I had to do was check that the researchers turned up, oil the conversation with the Laureate and pay the bill.

I didn’t know which Laureate would be assigned to our event but I hoped that, like 2015, more than one Laureate would be attracted by a free gourmet meal.  In 2016, Wüthrich, Lehn and Cronin rolled up and chatted with the postdoctoral researchers about anything ranging from incomprehensible chemical phenomena to cute Mongolian ponies and maintaining modesty whilst being revered by others (sage advice from credible mentors) to sexism in research laboratories.

This year, my researchers were early and started guessing which Laureate might turn up.  A quiet man in his 90s soon appeared with his female companion. She piped up, ‘You must be Andrew, I’m Atholie and this is Roy.’  Roy remained subdued, maybe knackered from climbing the gnarled oak stairs.

Not knowing the list of Laureates, I asked Roy for his surname.  ‘Glauber. Physics. 2005.

After Atholie lowered him down onto the carved bench and sat snuggly next to him I poured them both a water.  He settled and I slowly lured him into conversation with the youngsters and withdrew.  A very pleasant and inspiring exchange flowed between ‘Glauber. Physics. 2005’ and the researchers.  Roy was normal. Like them he liked to discuss science.

I chatted with Atholie. She told me that he hoped his Nobel Prize winning work on the nature of light and perhaps some satire on academic culture (he was the Keeper of the Broom at the Ig Nobel Prize) dominated conversation and not his work as a teenager. She was fishing for me to ask, but I didn’t want to within his earshot.  So, I looked it up after.

He was recruited at the age of 18 to be part of the Manhattan Project calculating the critical mass for a nuclear explosion and one of the last people alive to have witnessed  the ‘Trinity Test’, the first ever nuclear detonation.  

I guess his feelings about being part of advancing humanity into a ‘new and awful’ (his words) era created a level of nervous hypervigilance for the question, ‘How does it feel?’  Mercifully, no one asked him.  They asked about how he felt about becoming a Laureate some 30 years after his discoveries on the nature of light in the 1960s. 

If there was anyone that I have met who has lived ‘under the shadow of the bomb’ it is Glauber, known for not only being a scientist but an intellectual who reflected deeply on research ethics and academic culture.  His knowledge not only helped in the race towards a nuclear device but his invention of Quantum Optics helps discoveries in fundamental physics which have applications in many industrial fields from medicine to computing.

I’m sure that he hoped until he died (2018) that his earlier mathematics would never be applied in the same way again and that it would only be use for peaceful, ethical purposes.

Want an Academic Promotion?

By definition, career academics have an interest in academic promotions processes. And, equally, Human Resources professionals have an interest in understanding academic performance standards to help make promotions efficient and effective.

Aiding HR efficiency Geiger-P software automates promotions and pay progression paperwork. But, HR Managers and early career academics should understand academic promotions standards.

Hint one for academics: keep a log of your achievements as measured against your university’s academic standards and/or the principles below.

Observation: less-experienced academics often think academia and research is all about having ‘great thoughts’. It ain’t. It is a job, a wonderful job where you are allowed to have great and challenging, evidenced thoughts, but a job, with performance measures which you should be aware of. So be a bit administrative with yourself and keep good records.

‘Panel’ and ‘Committee’ are used interchangeably here.

The Rest of the Hints

Policies and processes vary between universities but there are general principles, outlined in these hints;

  1. read the promotions policy before applying (or managing the process)!  Really! If you have recently moved read your new universities’ policy. They are not all the same.
  2. committee members for senior promotions (Reader, Associate Professor, Professor) probably don’t know nominees and their work. …
  3. therefore, applications should be very clear and contain context which allows the reader to gauge the standard of achievement, gauge the evidence on how standards have been met and maintained or, preferably, increased. Without evidence an application feels as if it comes from an ‘entitled’ character, not a competent academic.
  4. committees are dispassionate and evaluate cases based on demonstrable (not assumed) performance.  The purported rising star of Music Department won’t get promoted on the nod but on demonstrating fitness for ‘higher office’.  Remember: an application for a senior role must be good enough for a Dean to support it in a cross-disciplinary professorial committee where probing questions are asked.  Your application briefs your Dean on how to support you.
  5. be emotionally prepared for rejection, even those who applied ‘just to give it a go’, still manage to be hurt by rejection.  Helpful feedback should be given after not being promoted or not getting a pay rise.
  6. applicants should reflect honestly on their readiness and neither over-estimate nor under-estimate their current academic credentials.  Look at the criteria for your target grade.  If you meet them apply, even if you don’t feel confident. Promotions are about competent academics not confident people.
  7. ensure that supporting statements are extremely well worked up.  A shabby supporting statement doesn’t cry out ‘senior academic’ does it? Think, ‘Is this publishable quality?’
  8. If you have a Habilitation don’t forget to mention it, even if it isn’t asked for in the promotions policy. And, if you are in the Anglo-Saxon university system you might need to explain what it is!
  9. Be concise.

Elements of Academic Performance

Research

Key indicators for quality of research are:

  • Publications in appropriate venues (the journals) of high repute
  • Grant income
  • Research student PhD supervision and completions
  • Impact indicators (citations, impact factor of venues, favourable citations, uptake of work by others including industry, …)
  • Prestige indicators (fellowships, editorial boards, prizes etc).
  • Refereeing, committees, editorial work – although this could go under “Service”.

Perhaps start with a summary of:

  • Areas of research specialty
  • Standout achievements (papers in top venues, highly cited works, things that have made a demonstrable difference)
  • Current/recent/planned (there is nothing wrong with stating intentions) projects.

Publications

Indicate quality metrics – impact factor, acceptance rate. If you claim that you were a keynote speaker at the most renowned international conference in your subject area, prove it don’t just state it.  After all, how is the Dean of Engineering going to know that a conference in Cambridge on European Medieval Music is the best in the world?  It could be the one in Heidelberg or Tokyo.

Indicate impact (citations, others have used your outcomes). And convince on quality which is often weighted heavier than quantity (but don’t omit quantity).

Grants

External ‘Grant Capture’ is important. Applicants should state who awarded it, how much it was and its duration.   Also state which grant it was; some are more prestigious than others and harder to get.  If you know that there is only a 3% chance of getting a Marie-Skłowdowska-Curie Actions (MCSA) grant and you got one, then say so.

If the grant was an overseas grant state it – it is impressive to be part of an international research community. University or Faculty grants are less impressive but still relevant for Lecturer to Senior Lecturer moves, not just a foot note.

It should be clear who the Principal Investigator (PI) was for any grant and, if it was not the applicant the applicant should be clear about her or his contribution to the project.  Don’t exaggerate.

If an industry partner has allocated an applicant time on its infrastructure this is a ‘donation’ in kind and should be stated, e.g. time on supercomputer, use of a light source, other laboratory facilities or symphonic orchestral rehearsal time.  And, some thought should go into whether a donation is showing impact with an industry partner or government body who owns the facilities.

Consider putting consulting income under Service to Community.

Research Students

This isn’t just teaching because supervising PhD students might enrich the supervisor’s thinking, contribute to research outcomes and the overall impact of a research project.   Applicants should state;

  • The research questions they are supervising, what their project is and how the PhD’s fit in, when the project started/finished, publications that came out of project.
  • Quantity and quality matter, but all should be high quality research projects.

Teaching

Applicants should state their teaching portfolio and consider outlining their teaching philosophy, summarise key areas of specialty and experience and range of units taught.  If they have teaching publications, they should state them, especially if good quality, which can be impressive.

Careful though, if their research speciality is education, obviously their publication is research and not teaching.

Applicants should think about whether they have made any innovations (teaching approaches, new units, etc) and should be clear about what’s so special about their teaching.  If there is any evidence for teaching quality (perhaps student satisfaction scores and their trends) state it.   Applicants should think about what to say about weak student satisfaction scores, which the panel might already know about. 

Panels (which might include statisticians) don’t think that student satisfactions scores are solid measures, but they are indicators and account must be taken of them.

An applicant could think about getting a peer review of their teaching for learning purposes and evidencing their claims in an application, especially where teaching is weighted in a job profile.  And think about stating accreditor feedback for courses with professional qualifications attached.

Service, or Leadership or Administration (terms differ)

This is a broad area covering work in the university, faculty and department. Is the applicant involved in departmental administration? If so, state which committees, tasks completed in committee and outcomes. Sitting on a committee is not enough, we can all do that to pass time.

State service to discipline: refereeing, organising conferences, editorial boards, programme committees, running events, professional discipline body memberships etc., and evidence the quality of this work. If it is possible, the applicant should note down any prestige members of the committee. If you organised a committee on climatology with Professor Schellnhuber say so, but if it was with Andrew Tweedie, don’t.

State service to your broader subject field community, including industry, consulting work done, pro bono work, etc. and state why this is worthy work. What was its impact? 

For senior promotions, this section must be very strong. Think in terms of chairing a national government committee on x subject, or being the named chair of a key report on a subject area which will have impact.

Referees

Good references are essential.  When choosing referees applicants should:

  • choose people who are well-known in the discipline, preferably are “Professor XYZ” and work at a prestigious institution.  Let’s be honest, there is a hierarchy of institutions and that, perhaps sometimes unfairly, does matter. There are exceptions, for instance where national figures are professors at ‘minor’ universities or where a particular department stands out.  
  • choose someone able to provide in-depth comment on your work.
  • choose someone who will actually send in a referee report by the deadline.  The importance of this cannot be overstated.  Many delays in academic promotions are caused by waiting for references or external assessments (no, not the HR Department!).
  • choose someone who will write a good referee report and who will follow the template (if there is one).

Academics: good luck with your promotion.

HR Managers: enjoy reading some of the applications if you can – you will discover a lot about the achievements of the front-line staff that you are supporting and remind you about what institutional performance is: it is not the profit margin but the research, scholarship and educational outcomes of a key institution in a modern society.

HR Sceptics, Academic Promotions and Induction

Do you wince at ‘strategic’ Human Resources’ increasingly Huxleyan language?   Nudge, Engage, Align, Disrupt, Agile, and, classics from management gurus such as ‘thought partnership’ suggest that Human Resources could be renamed the Department for Behavioural Manipulation.  (More on the usefulness of fads in another blog.)

But, if you’re the kind of sceptic who feels like you’re sticking pins into your eyes when you read buzzwords but you still like practical Human Resources, do not despair.  There are major employers whose values you already share and whose front-line workers marshal evidence and logic to snuff out catchphrases used by ‘visionaries’. Universities! (OK, a minority of academics are bovine-ordure generators but they provide others with corrective work. Not all academics are equal.)

University HR is a great place to work if you love critical thinking, learning new stuff and being part of a community merrily divining the knowledge upon which modern civilisation is dependent.

Careful though, if you move into a university HR department from another sector you might find it hard to grasp what the front-line workers, academics, do every day in the pursuit of and propogation of that knowledge.

Lucky, though, there is an HR process which tells you exactly what they do, their value to the university and their immense value to society at large.

Academic Promotions Processes

Research-intensive universities run periodic academic promotions processes. And, if you work on promotions, you gain detailed insight into the workings of academia … if you have time to read the applications.

Reading an application from a Reader, say, to become a Professor is eye opening. The evidence in support of a promotion ranges across teaching duties and quality, research outcomes, publications, involvement in academic communities, ability to ‘capture’ grant income and more.  When you join a univeristy you might rarely see Dr Foster in her office and wonder why noone is bothered by her absence. But, after reading her application for a Professorship in Nuclear Physics you might realise that she’s a respected modeller of subatomic particle behaviour, working in a global team at gigantic particle accelerators with multi-billion Euro funding to gain knowledge aiding the development of nuclear medicine. Dr Foster is not in Gloucester but at Hamburg’s DESY, say.

Academic Promotions as Instant Induction

The academic promotions process is so informative that I would recommend all new operational HR staff get involved and read an application pack or read the criteria for promotions.  Caveat: before rolling your sleeves up to help, ensure that the transactional elements of the process are automated – obviously using Geiger-P – or you might spend more time chasing paper and collating it than learning about academic performance.

So, if you don’t like managerialism but do like HR action may I nudge you to apply for a job in a university, where blah blah is more likely dismissed as not and where you can get an quick, detailed induction by either:

  1. thumbing through an academic promotions committee pack to get a sense of what makes a university tick (good academics, obviously, but what is a ‘good academic’?)
  2. read my next blog, which provides advice on academic promotions
  3. read your university’s academic promotions policy and related documentation.

My Favourite Example to Date

My favourite promotions application came from a Senior Lecturer in Constitutional Law for a Readership. He had been quietly advising a national government on the modernisation of its constitution. It did not contain new knowledge (like proving the existence of a subatomic particle) but it was a masterful piece of scholarship which helped millions of people live in a modernised state.

Insecure manager or bully?

My LinkedIn post recalling a friend’s observation of executive bullying was viewed by more contacts than for my posts about calls for research proposals. And, an HR colleague used it for training. Here it is (below), the first in a series of observations from ‘a friend’.

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The volumes writing and investement in training on ‘leadership’ since the 1990s might lead us to expect that all board members must by now resemble an ideal. If you work in HR for very long you realise that this is not the case and perhaps cannot be the case and this story highlights a persistant – if not ubiquitous rift – between the idea of a ‘model leader’ and those often in leadership positions.

At 17:00 the Deputy CEO’s Executive Assistant, Justin, is conscientiously tying up loose ends at the end of an exhausting day. At 17:05 the CEO comes out of her office and asks Justin to find a copy of the 2014 Annual Report. He finds it, quietly enters the CEO’s office and lays it on her desk. She warmly thanks him. At 17:40, Sam, the Deputy CEO, comes out of his office and, quite strangely, reprimands Justin for breaking the management line, adding that Justin should have given him the report to take into the CEO. Justin feels humiliated and confused about why the Deputy CEO would want to be postman to the CEO.

From a friend of mine at a highly-respected brand’s HQ.

Whatever the cause, Sam, Deputy CEO, has penalised Justin for being helpful even though his extensive – and expensive – leadership training at a globally-renowned business school advised to reward ‘discretionary effort’.

This sets Justin off on a coarse of thinking about Sam’s personality, why he bothers doing extra and where he can get a new job. He had read about ‘corporate psychopaths’ and his resentment of Sam makes the label ‘psychopath’ (dropping the ‘corporate’) attractive. But, from an HR perspective, ‘psychopath’ is a problematic term.

Psychopathy: the evidence suggests that between 0.6%-1.2% of the non-prison population (Caponecchi et al., 2012) are psychopaths, so it is highly unlikely that Sam is one. And, the word ‘psychopath’ attached to ‘corporate’ sensationalises workplace bullying and harassment problems whilst trivialising the clinical condition. Sam is better labelled an ‘abusive supervisor’ (see Hurst below) because psychopathy requires a clinical diagnosis and he is highly unlikely to have the condition and those with the condition are not necessarily abusive. So, what could the cause of Sam’s unreasonable outburst be here. Insecurity?

Insecurity: Gallup’s State of the American Manager highlighted that 18% of managers show a ‘high degree’ of management talent. (Summarised here.) Unless Sam is amongst the 18% his management competencies will need continuous development and he will sometimes be less-than perfect, and probably aware of this which, for some, creates pressure to lash out. If he, and his peers, knew the 82% statistic he might feel confident enough to seek feedback and development before it is prescribed for him.

If we consider insecurity as a cause for Sam’s outburst, it is worth looking for what is causing the insecurity. Here, the CEO is renowned for being aloof, difficult to access, blocking board access to the non-Executive directors and a blame delegator. Yet she projects humanity and warmth in public and to junior staff. Senior colleagues feel ‘locked out’ and are always second guessing their boss’s views. When we understand the CEO’s behaviour we see that Sam nedded an excuse for contact with CEO to prospect for her views. Justin’s helpfulness had deprived Sam of an opportunity to get something he needed, access. Sam’s frustration was vented in the wrong direction but is Sam likely to regret this and apologise?

Birds of a feather: There is growing evidence that bullies beget bullies and “that abusive supervisors may empower [and facilitate promotion of] employees with characteristics that hold strong potential to damage the organization and its stakeholders.” This may be partly because abusive people are more likely to have the psychological strength to survive a bully and survive a stressful environment themselves (Hurst, et al.: 2017). This propogates and normalises abusive behaviour. It is unlikely that Sam is a psychopath, likely that he has development needs and likely to be someone who cascades the CEO’s abusive behaviour.

I have since heard that this behaviour is continuing and even increasing as the CEO recruits people in her image. The workforce of intellectually capable (including professors) front-line workers is not happy.

What can HR do in these situations? Marshall, et al. (Journal of Business Ethics, May 2015), suggest an almost military approach by using ‘Search & Destroy’ and ‘Hearts & Minds’ strategies to address abusive supervision. This is difficult without senior sponsorship. I have myself been instructed not to run an employee engagement surveys by a CEO fearful of the results – with good cause.

at my friend’s highly-visible, ‘national treasure’ workplace, it remains to be seen if the new HR Director can find a way or courage to address dysfunctional Executive behaviour which is fast cascading or be a medium, recruited by the CEO afterall, for enshrining an abusive culture.

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References

Hurst, C., Simon, L., Jung, Y. et al. Journal of Business Ethics: 2017

State of the American Manager (Gallup:2015)

Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 128, No. 3 (May 2015), pp. 495-504