“Human Resources” comic strip by Matt Rasmussen, The Space Toast Page.
This week’s guest blogger is using a pseudonym, which will become evident when you read her story.
THE HR PROBLEM IN SMALL MUSEUMS: A PERSONNEL PROBLEM
By Kay Smith
The Museum Director repeatedly pressured me to visit a donor’s home, with the full knowledge that every time I went the donor would paw at me while saying how much he “liked pretty girls.” The Director’s behavior was the tip of an iceberg that frequently cleaved racist and sexist comments, grant fraud, and the use of work time to carry on extramarital affairs. The Director even admitted to hiring me over a more qualified candidate because the candidate was gay. I tried to go to the Board of Directors, but they always cut me off, telling me what a blessing the Director was to the museum. With no human resources department to turn to, I left.
In the following months, I spoke with friends and family who work in museums and found that my experience was not the least bit unique. It opened my eyes to the human resources problem faced by many small museums. Simply put, small museums often do not have HR departments because they cannot afford one. The Executive Director oversees all the responsibilities typically handled by trained HR professionals in larger institutions, leaving little recourse for staff should a workplace conflict arise between them and the Director. Museum Board members can play a role in creating a healthy workplace, but often lack professional human resources training. While I do not have all the answers for fixing this problem, I do have some suggestions.
First and foremost, museum professionals without access to HR departments should make sure that their institution has a written personnel policy and that it is updated regularly. Insist that the policy contains clearly-defined procedures for addressing workplace conflicts, and includes a point of contact separate from the Executive Director. Board members who lack HR experience do not have to go through this process alone, which leads me to my second suggestion.
Numerous human resources firms exist across the United States that provide training, consultation, and HR services to small organizations that have no human resources department. Offerings vary from firm to firm, but often include customized Board training and workshops, help crafting personnel policies and handbooks, ongoing HR guidance for handling workplace conflicts, and the option to offer employee benefits through group plans (but the lack of benefits in small museums is a blog post by itself).
Outsourcing human resources comes with myriad benefits for small museums. Many firms provide flexibility in their offerings so that organizations can get the support they need within their budget. Partnering with an HR firm sends a message to staff that the organization cares about providing a safe and equitable work environment, which can help attract and retain higher caliber employees. Additionally, firms provide services that help directors streamline human resources tasks, leaving them more time for the museum’s mission. Ultimately, outsourcing human resources costs much less than employing a full time HR professional, and costs significantly less than a lawsuit arising from issues such as a hostile work environment or a labor dispute.
Finally, steps must be taken to improve the culture of the museum industry. With a surplus of emerging museum professional saturating the field, there are not enough jobs to satisfy demand. This results in employers and employees alike conflating getting a job in the industry with job satisfaction. Organizations need to understand that caring for their employees goes beyond the job offer, just as staff need to cease their willingness to sacrifice their financial, physical, and mental well-being just for the honor of working in a museum.
A collaborative team of small museums and HR professionals can work together to create guidelines that address human resources needs and provide reporting structures for workplace conflicts. Organizations like the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) can help by including and disseminating these guidelines through their excellence programs, such as the Museum Assessment Program (MAP), the Standards and Excellence Program (StEPs), and AAM Accreditation. As an industry it is up to all of us to influence our own culture, and an important first step is deciding that people matter just as much as the objects in our care.
If museum salaries are not what they should be–and in far too many cases they’re not–then the dark underbelly of museum and heritage organization employment must be internships. Rarely defined, at least in any universal sense, they are sometimes discussed as if they were the pupa stage of a museum career–somewhere between a national history project prize and a first job.
Long ago in museum history, trustees used to look happily around the board table and say some variation of “We can get a grant for that.” That was code for we know there is public money available, we just need to find it. Those sentiments were frequently followed by “Maybe we can get an intern!” or another more recent variation, “Maybe we can get a high school student.” The latter is often in reference to projects involving IT, video creation, social media or coding, the assumption being that students facile with their cell phones might become students who create beautiful web pages for free or at least for less than full price. Sadly, at some institutions interns are the go-to for thankless, repetitive work, marketed to make it look resume-building. In fact to paraphrase the inimitable Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a museum in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of an intern.”
Let’s be blunt: Here at Leadership Matters, we’re not fans of indentured servitude of students. They need to be paid. And they need the same respect you offer any employee. Being young or inexperienced doesn’t mean you don’t have good ideas. It just means that the context for those ideas may be a little ill-defined.
An internship is a complicated proposition. First, an excellent internship is some brilliant combination of teaching, mentoring, and learning by doing. It weaves together equal amounts of respect, experimentation, failure and independence. And in the end it’s a gift to museums as a whole. Why? Because you and your organization, serve as that person’s introductory chapter to museum work. If you are dithering, disorganized, unimaginative or demanding in the tradition of Cruella de Vil, your intern may u-turn right into another field.
Second, if you are going to manage an internship, you need to be a good teacher. And you need the time to teach otherwise your failure to explain clearly will mean extra work for all involved. When you write your internship job description, create a week-to-week syllabus to help you and your potential intern see what they will learn and how. If you need help writing internship announcements, we recommend the New England Museum Association which offers sample templates and job descriptions.
Last, pay your intern. Internships usually take place over a finite period of time–a semester, a summer, a winter term. If your organization can’t afford $200-$250 a week which is not even close to minimum wage in many states, or housing (which is often necessary for out-of-town/state interns, perhaps you should reconsider. Is it possible that in your organizational heart-of-hearts, you want cheap labor more than you want the responsibility of an internship?
The museum field is increasingly hard to break into. It doesn’t necessarily pay well, but it requires a graduate degree as an entrance ticket. The other entrance requirement is a string of seemingly endless internships and volunteer projects. Don’t be the organization that offers mindless work capped with a hollow recommendation letter. Be the place where work is interesting and really matters. Be the place that teaches. An internship is a choice, for both individual and organization. Choose wisely.
Full disclosure: We’re white. In addition, we’re straight, and we’ve been in this field a long time. That means for some of you, we’re old enough to be your grandmas. We’re putting that out there because a) knowledge is power and b) in the age of Facebook, you may want to measure your response to issues of gender (and race) based on who’s doing the talking. So here are a few thoughts about women and the museum world in response to recent happenings.
- First, kudos to AASLH for insisting that museums and heritage organizations advertising on its Career Center page must now post salary ranges. Leadership Matters has long lobbied for wage increases in museum salaries, but understanding salary is tricky when organizations aren’t transparent about what they pay. And what does this have to do with women? A lot. Women are not paid equitably in this field or any other. Before you eye roll, and say that’s not true, it is. If you don’t believe us, Google it. Everyone from Pew Charitable Trusts to The New York Times has written about it many times over. And it’s important here because that $1/85-cent gap isn’t only about white women versus white men, it’s about white men and Latina women, for example, where Latina women make 53.8-cents for every white man’s dollar.
By posting salary ranges AASLH provides a framework and a mutual understanding about what’s on the table ahead of the hiring process. That helps applicants, but particularly women, negotiate. The Wage Gap didn’t happen overnight, and according to some agencies, it will take centuries to fix. While we wait, a big thank you to AASLH.
- Our friend and colleague Bob Beatty put our recent post on social media. Having Bob post something is meaningful because he reaches a lot of people. Not surprisingly, one of his readers responded. He asked whether graduate programs in museum studies were as overwhelmingly female as they appear, and whether AASLH or anyone had figures to prove that? He also said that his own museum is 77-percent female. He thinks someday soon his institution (and many others) might be majority female, thus (he said) ending the gender equity problem. He remarked that “demographics is destiny,” meaning that a lot of women or maybe just a homogeneous workplace equals an equitable one. Last, he suggested that for Leadership Matters to imply that there are still boatloads of bias in the museum field was hyperbole.
Here’s our answer:
- An all-female field is not something anyone should wish for. It’s professional suicide. Traditionally female fields like nursing and libraries are known as pink collar fields. These jobs are traditionally devalued in the economy. (I know–eye roll here–who doesn’t value a nurse, but it’s true.) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the museum field is 46.7-percent female, meaning it’s at a tipping point, but not entirely pink yet.
- Statistics from graduate schools are hard to come by. We don’t know any service organization who’s tried to count the number of students in the pipeline much less their gender. Given that more women than men go to college and graduate school, it wouldn’t surprise us if museum studies programs are disproportionately female, but, again, that’s not healthy. Healthy and creative fields are equitably balanced for gender, race, and age.
- Don’t conflate demographics with equity. We could have a 77-percent female field and men would still be paid more, and hold the highest paying positions. See our comment above on the gender wage gap. Nor does a majority female field eliminate bias.
- Channel your empathy. “A boatload of bias” may seem harsh from where a (white?) male writer sits. And he may be kind, empathetic, and humble, but until he (or anyone of privilege) tries to understand the way the museum field’s unconscious bias ambushes people of color, and LGBTQIA+ employees, the boatload of bias will remain an impenetrable mystery to him. Although getting woke can be uncomfortable, we recommend “I Am the Person Sitting Next to You,” from the blog Incluseum as a place to start.
Last, a month or so, we posted the infographic above. We also sent it to service organizations and numerous media outlets because we’d just finished a survey of more than 700-plus museum workers. The results were disturbing. Yet, it prompted no response from AAM, AASLH or AAMD. What does that say about the field? Does the fact that 62-percent of our respondents have experienced or witnessed gender discrimination not matter? And if 62-percent of museum workers experience gender discrimination, how are those problems compounded for persons of color, native/indigenous women, LGBTQIA+, and non-binary, non-conforming persons? How should we interpret that silence?
We began writing this blog in 2013. We’d just sent Leadership Matters off to the publisher and wanted a way to keep the discussion going. The book is a collection of 36 interviews with museum and heritage organization leaders, speaking frankly about the thrills and challenges of doing their jobs. Not all were directors since we believe leadership happens throughout an organization.
Now, five years later, we’re revising the original. Five years doesn’t seem that long, but the first interviews took place early in 2012, and a number of our interviewees have retired, changed jobs or left the field. So, we’ve begun to write and interview again, and, if all goes well, the revision will be available in fall 2019. But most importantly we are thinking deeply about how (and why) museum leadership today is different.
In some ways the museum world is the trailing indicator, slow to change and late to the party, perhaps not so much at the front of the house, but in staff rooms, offices and around the coffee machine. Six years ago we approached this project with real concern about the field’s understanding of leadership, and the need for boards to grapple with it. Today, leadership as a concept, seems more universally accepted for individuals and organizations who want to move the needle from mediocre to extraordinary. However, toward the book’s end, there’s a chapter called “There Be Dragons Here.” There we ask how 21st-century museums and heritage organizations navigate their communities while remaining truly and authentically themselves. To be honest, this is a place where there are still dragons. Too many organizations find themselves landlocked, unable to intersect with the communities they serve because of lackluster leadership.
Over the next six months we will try to pinpoint change. So, in the tradition of our book and our blog, here’s a preliminary list of places where leadership intersects with the lives of individuals, directors, organizations and boards.
- The job market remains highly competitive and graduate school is still the admission ticket.
- This is still a field where too often one is asked to work for no money in the form of volunteering or internships before actually making too little money.
- This is a field that too often fails to train for leadership, but asks for independent, creative forward-thinking employees.
- This is still a field where race, class and gender are barriers: Race because too often young POC are hired for the wrong reasons and asked to represent a race/culture rather than being treated with equity; class because poor salaries continue to make it easier for wealthy individuals to enter the field; and gender, because for women, particularly women of color and most especially trans women, even the most casual Facebook survey points to a boatload of bias.
- The back of the house is as important as the front of the house. Museum workers who have a long tradition of not retaliating when mistreated have started to react individually and collectively.
- Museum workers and museum audiences expect (and want) organizations to be values driven. Sorting out what that means for a given museum or heritage organization is one of the tasks for today’s leader.
- Leading an organization means engagement not just presentation.
- Leaders need to understand how and where personal and organizational leadership intersect and mirror one another. A self-aware leader means a self-aware organization.
- 21st-century museum leaders need the courage to tackle the hard stuff.
- Organizations need an HR department or its equivalent and an understanding of employment law.
- Organizations need an active, current personnel policy that addresses all human and family needs.
- Organizations need to engage not just present; they need to be real community partners.
- They need courage to tackle the hard stuff.
For Boards of Trustees:
- They need to understand the meaning of service.
- They need to understand the museum world, its ethics and values, its standards and expectations.
- They should want a values-driven organization keenly, if not more so, than their staff leaders.
- They should know the value of human capital and what it takes to advocate for, support, and celebrate a creative, engaged staff.
- They should understand their communities, whether local, regional, national or international.
Tell us how you think leadership has changed or is changing.
Image: Museum Insider
How many of us have found ourselves the new person on a museum staff? We join a program or department in a historic site, museum, garden or zoo. We’re new. Everyone else isn’t. In contrast to our Skype conversation and our subsequent day-long, in-person interview our colleagues seem a tad cranky. We chalk it up to stress, and move forward, but we begin to hear chatter about the boss. The very boss who offered us a job. We’re uncomfortable. It took a long time to find what seems to be the perfect position. We’re doing what we love, the salary is good, and weirdly, the benefits are great. We want this to be our happy place, but it’s not because two people, in particular, are very, very angry. At the boss. The seemingly calm, equitable leader who just offered us this brilliant opportunity.
What do you do? Well, you can always chalk it up to the cranky quotient, the equation that says a certain percentage of all colleagues will be out of sorts at any given time. You can smile and leave the pair alone. Should you be a witness to their ranting while waiting for the coffee machine, you can definitely not participate. Or you can always confront them and tell them why they’re wrong.
But before you do that, here’s something to contemplate: Your experience is not theirs. You don’t have to change your mind (or theirs), but you need to respect their experience. That is what museums ask of you, over and over, when dealing with the public and collections. You’re asked to understand the frustrated mother who yells at the admission staff because she’s shepherding four kids under 10. You’re asked to empathize with the middle schoolers who can’t connect to the current exhibit. You’re asked to court the elderly donor whose political views you don’t share and who’s a teensy bit patronizing. Or you’re asked to find ways to make your largely white, old-school, site appealing to a community that is no longer white and definitely not old-school. All these instances demand empathy rather than judgment.
Is it possible that the person who hired you, who has been nothing but kind and encouraging, is not always that way? Yes. Is it possible she may have treated your colleagues shabbily? Yes. It’s also possible you will learn something about dealing with her by setting your own bias aside and talking with your colleagues. (Of course, you may learn you were right all along and that your colleagues are whiney, judgmental individuals who love seeing themselves as victims.) But you may also discover your director was less than understanding when your colleague’s child was in ICU or perhaps your angry colleague was harassed by another staff member and feels the incident wasn’t taken seriously? You may learn your colleague is the primary support for her family and can’t quit her job even if she wanted to.
Sometimes being part of a staff is like those moments where you sit with family and remember a childhood incident. Half your cousins and siblings recall a side-splittingly funny moment. The other half? Shock and embarrassment. It’s as if you witnessed two different events, and in a way you did. Everybody’s experience is real to them. If the colleagues in question are people you deal with daily, you may want to hear their stories. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t patronize or gaslight them. About all you can say truthfully is that your experience isn’t theirs. But what you learn may help you understand them, your dream boss, and others. If it were an equation, it would look like this:
Listen + no judgment = knowledge
Knowledge (applied) = experience = #beabetterhuman
Tell us how you get along with the folks in your workplace.
Maybe it’s the summer. Maybe it’s the heat, but among museum news-sharing folk the question of pay reared its head again last week. On AAM’s Museum Junction there was a question and several responses regarding pay for front line staff. One of the responses was from Michael Holland who posted a lengthy article on low pay on AAM’s Diversity and Inclusion page in February. In addition, blogger Paul Orselli, asked us all to take notice (again) of the need to post salaries with job announcements. You can read his full post here.
The initial Museum Junction question came from Mark Osterman at the Vizcaya Museum in Miami, FLA who asked about pay for “frontline staff,” and whether other museums use merit pay, bonuses or some other vehicle to increase wages for admission staff or part-time greeters. The two organizations who responded said they offer annual wage increases of between .01 and .03 percent on base salaries of $10.75 and $12.50. Another question that Osterman and the two responders might ask themselves is whether their frontline pay is equitable?
We like to think Leadership Matters remains a stalwart voice for both better salaries and pay equity in the museum field. If these issues are new to you, consider for the moment that increasing salaries simply perpetuates whatever pay inequity already exists. Let’s say you work at a museum with a staff of 50, and a Latina woman and a Caucasian woman both work in the education department. Imagine the museum board arrives for its quarterly meeting and decides, based on industry trends and the fact that the organization had a very good year, to raise salaries across the board by 10-percent. Sadly, after the backslapping and texts to friends, the Caucasian woman and her Latina colleague would still likely have a salary gap of almost 13-percent because white women make a lot more than Latina women. And by the way, those percentages, which come from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, are compared to white men doing the same job. (We realize that’s an unlikely scenario because museum education departments are usually bastions of underpaid women.)
Michael Holland’s comment suggested, among other things, that museum salaries should reflect museum values, and that 21st-century salaries should permit staff to live in the communities in which they work. Which brings us to Paul Orselli’s piece which points out that organizations like AAM and AASLH need to require organizations to list salary ranges when posting job announcements. Orselli pleads with his readers to contact AAM and AASLH and ask that they change their policies. We agree, and we’ve said as much over and over since the start of this blog. In keeping with our tradition of suggestions for museum folk at all levels, here are some possible recommendations depending on where you find yourself in the field.
For Museum Service Organizations:
- Change your policies to require job announcements include salaries or salary ranges and be explicit in explaining why. You have an opportunity to educate and advocate.
- Museums and heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens are important institutions for a host of reasons, but they are not always workplace nirvana. Start publicly acknowledging organizations who are good employers and tell the field why.
For Museum Board Members:
- Know where your museum’s salaries fit in the annual AAM salary survey and, if appropriate, the AAMD salary survey, but remember that survey is but one data point to investigate. Look broadly across the nonprofit sector in your community/region/state at salaries for comparable job titles. Benchmark museums specific to yours in terms of budget size and discipline.
- Know how much it costs to live in your community. Use the MIT Living Wage Calculator to figure out if your staff can actually afford to live and work in the same place. If your organization can’t afford to offer the salaries it should, as a board member you should be fully aware how well your staff performs despite being underpaid.
- How often does your board discuss the human cost of running a museum?
- Do your museum’s salaries reflect your museum’s value statement?
For Museum Leaders:
- Know what’s going on. Use the AAM and AAMD salary surveys, and other survey data from across the nonprofit sector. Make sure you’re not underpaying. If you are, know why.
- Do your salaries reflect your museum values statement?
- Are your salaries equitable? If not, what is your role? Don’t let unconscious bias fester.
- Make sure salary is a part of all annual reviews.
For Museum Staff and Those in the Job Hunt:
- If you’re applying for a new job, do your due diligence. Know what it costs to live where you’re applying. Be prepared to say no if you can’t actually live on the salary offered.
- When you receive an offer, don’t say yes right away. Think it through. Negotiate. Know what you need.
- If you’ve done great work, say so in your annual review. Explain what your great work means. Ask for a raise.
- If there are opportunities to learn more about how your organization functions, take them. Serve on internal committees. Make an effort to understand your organization.
- If you would like to see salary information with job announcements, follow Paul Orselli’s lead and contact Laura Lott (AAM President and CEO) and John Dichtl (AASLH President and CEO) and tell them how you feel about salary transparency in job announcements.
Then tell us what you think.