In Higher Learning Institutes, The Non-Academic Staff Get Short Shrift; Time To Change That

In Higher Learning Institutes, The Non-Academic Staff Get Short Shrift; Time To Change That

by Jai Mohan Pandit - Thursday, January 19, 2017 07:00 PM IST
In Higher Learning Institutes,  The Non-Academic Staff Get Short Shrift; Time To Change ThatIIM-B
  • Every institution believes in improving its rating and quality of research. Non-academic staff or support staff are indispensable in enabling this performance.

    Therefore, it is worth looking at motivating them so that the institute reaches greater heights.

It is said that the reputation of an academic institution of higher learning comes from the quality of its research and teaching programmes. Though there are many stakeholders in all such endeavours, it is only the faculty and researchers who get noticed. The contributions of non-academic and other technical staff go unnoticed. But it is equally important for an academic institute to have a committed, motivated and dynamic team of non-academic or support staff to keep its flag flying high. Good faculty and research staff, when supported by an efficient and dynamic support team, can excel in their pursuit for academic excellence. In this context, it would be appropriate to highlight some of the core concerns and issues of the administrative support functions and how these can be improved for the ultimate benefit of all stakeholders of an institution.

Identity crisis and remedy: Staff members who are not directly involved in research and teaching activities are likely to suffer from an identity crisis. This sometimes makes them defensive and prone to proving their worth by becoming academic bureaucrats, including by the adoption of inappropriate official procedures to justify their existence. This might be interpreted as unproductive behaviour by others. To make the support team less bureaucratic and more productive, the management needs to adopt certain policies to mentor and train them.

The following are some key components of such policies:

1) Recruitment Policy: While qualifications, skills and experience are important, evaluating candidates for recruitment should include certain additional parameters such as their past performance, soft-skills, inter-personal abilities and so on. Confidential reference checks from earlier employers would play a very important role in new recruitments.

While framing the terms and conditions for such new recruitments, the institute may consider offering a position to the best short-listed candidate(s), initially on a term contract basis but with regular benefits at par with the permanent staff with an appropriate probation period. After satisfactory performance, the contract staff’s stint could be extended for another term of three to five years’ duration before they are offered a regular position on satisfactory performance.

2) Appropriate Induction And Orientation Programmes: It is very common to see new staff being recruited when older staff retire or when vacancies arise due to attrition. At some points, there will be a sudden spurt in recruitments due to an institute’s expansion or when huge projects are undertaken. The role of a human resource (HR) manager is crucial in the first few of months of new recruitments, when the foremost task is to conduct a proper induction/orientation programme for new support staff recruits. Currently, this is missing in many institutes. Such programmes, if formalised and properly structured, would enable the new staff members to comprehend the organisational structure, its goals, vision and mission. Such programmes also enable new entrants to aptly understand their role in achieving the overall objectives of an institution, but make them feel they are part of the system.

In addition, during the induction programme, there is a need to provide copies of the HR manual, bylaws and job profile to the staff so that they get a clear understanding of their roles, duties and responsibilities. Such formal and official documents provided during the induction programme will be crucial to communicate their entitlements and guide them suitably while doing their jobs. Such manuals should also delineate protocols to ensure good inter-departmental and intra-departmental cooperation.

Participation in these programmes needs to be made mandatory. Since each institute will have its own specific rules and practices, it is highly desirable to introduce a short training module of 15-30 days’ duration.

3a) Training Programmes For Skill Development: Regular training is a must for support staff in any institution as it helps them expand their knowledge base. All staff members might not have the relevant skills, and hence the need for regular training, given that job attrition, retirement and vacations are par for the course. It is important to design certain training programmes, and this requires adequate funding in the regular budgets. Such training programmes could be conducted in-house or staff may be deputed for programmes conducted by external institutions. These programmes can also be selected based on feedback received from the support staff.

The administrator’s challenge is to motivate staff to take these training programmes seriously and explain how they could help with career development. Certain incentives, both monetary and non-monetary, would also encourage them to willingly agree to attend such training programmes.

Secondly, the training programmes need to be appropriately structured to ensure that all skill development issues and institute-specific requirements get incorporated. Good communication skills and mastery over the drafting of notes are important skills for support staff to have.

Staff members who are potential candidates for promotions are expected to have very good knowledge of rules and regulations such as labour laws, general financial rules, etc. Therefore, a suitable module to cover these issues in their training programme will be a value-add.

3b) Enhancement Of Professional Qualifications: Staff members need to be encouraged to further enhance their professional qualifications from time to time. In this initiative, it will be appropriate to reimburse the course fee, fully or partially, with the sanction of study leave for this purpose, as per the rules of the institution. Further, staff members, who acquire higher qualifications may be offered some monetary incentives.

4) Continuous Motivation And Recognition Tools: Motivational tools play a very important role in increasing the productivity of support staff. In this context, it may be emphasised that a variety of regular incentives such as promotions, cash awards, merit certificates, additional annual increments, job enrichment, upgradation of designations and so on would go a long way. Such incentives need to be linked with the annual performance evaluation system. A proper recognition mechanism for support functions would be a great motivating tool. Having such provisions in an organisation would definitely give a great boost to staff motivation.

5) Performance Evaluation System: Every institution needs to have a regular and systematic performance evaluation system. Feedback received from various stakeholders, including faculty members, supervisors, peers, etc., would be vital components in this evaluation system. In this context, it may be argued that annual increments and time-bound promotions are taken for granted by the staff and these are not strictly linked to performance. It is strongly felt that promotions need not be time-based but performance-driven. Incentive for good work and punishment for underperformance are usually practiced in private corporations. Performance evaluation at all levels – Individual, departmental and overall organisational performance – can help create healthy competition among staff.

There has to be a policy for shuffling the portfolios of non-academic staff in line with the strengths and capabilities of each individual. It should certainly be the part of evaluation. Such a policy of reshuffling will ensure multi-tasking abilities and flexibility at all levels, especially at junior levels. At the same time, corrective measures for underperforming staff also need to be considered proactively in consultation with individual staff members and their respective team leaders.

6) Career Development Plans: It is imperative for any institution to provide a well-defined career path for administrative staff. This is one of the most neglected areas in academic institutes. In government institutions, the time-frame for promotion is defined in such a way that there will be no motivation to upgrade skills and plotting career growth. A well-defined path helps the staff to evaluate themselves and focus on areas of improvement.

7) Social Security Measures And Welfare Schemes: In the absence of pension plans, social security measures such as group health insurance, group term/life insurance, accident insurance and other family welfare schemes are highly desirable. Considering modern lifestyles, there is a need for regular health checks. Additionally, an institution should also provide gyms, sports and other recreational facilities to the staff on campus. Family welfare schemes, such as awards to meritorious children for outstanding academic or extra-curricular performance, help boost staff morale and commitment to the institution.

8) Need For A Proper Feedback/Exit Interview: In most academic and autonomous institutions, exit interviews and feedback are not taken when a staff member leaves after resignation or at the time of retirement. Such a formal system of seeking feedback would enable the institution to understand and analyse the reasons for attrition and take corrective steps.

Every institution believes in improving its rating and quality of research. Non-academic staff or support staff are indispensable in enabling this performance. Therefore, it is worth looking at motivating them so that the institute reaches greater heights.

The author is registrar at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal.

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