Guest Post: The HR Problem in Small MuseumsPosted: August 6, 2018
“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.