Guest Post: The HR Problem in Small Museums

HR-No“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.

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.

4 Comments on “Guest Post: The HR Problem in Small Museums”

  1. Anonymous says:

    In addition to these very good points, any HR policies also need to protect Executive Directors. EDs, particularly women, are, after all, often a target, whether it’s donors whispering “I bet you’d do ANYTHING for your museum,” to disgruntled employees who call up board members to complaint that the ED is “mean.” In the case described in this article, it was the ED who was the problem – but what about EDs who are the victim of harassment from donors or board members? When does an ED have the support of the board to say “I’m not going to go to that donor’s house or meet with him anymore because he’s creepy?” What about EDs who are told by their board that they can’t fire longtime staff members or volunteers, even after a pattern of documented misbehavior because it might upset the members or donors? (And yes, the ED is supposed to be able to make those decisions, but as many of us in smaller organizations know, that’s sometimes easier said than done – meaning they have to decide whether to put up with a hostile workplace or risk losing their job.) And while this is focusing on staff, what about the board? There should be a policy in place to give board members who behave inappropriately the boot, whether it’s having homophobic, xenophobic conversations in the main office or propositioning staff members — both things I have encountered in the museum world. For those of us at smaller places, the board is often an extension of the staff… and we should also be thinking through those implications when talking about HR policies and procedures.

  2. Anonymous no. 2 says:

    The first anon has said some of what I was intending to – what about when it’s the board that’s the issue, particularly the board president? There isn’t anyone “above” them who can call in an outside group to do HR training.

    I am in a very toxic situation right now where several board members see their remit as being to manage the museum staff on a day-to-day basis despite having little idea of what we actually do. We do have a personnel policy, but it is decided by a committee of the board and has itself been under some contention lately from said committee because of changes that give staff members slightly more freedom. There are broader issues – attendance problems, esp. with committees, and a misunderstanding of what a board’s role even is – but basically, there’s a culture of being suspicious and dismissive of the staff. How does one address this?

  3. Ray says:

    Having faced issues like this at a previous job (and leaving it because of said issues), you can urge the Director and the Board all you like to update the handbook or to follow the personnel guidelines outlined in the handbook but that doesn’t mean they will do it. They just ignored me. I asked for the Director to speak with or write up (per handbook guideline) the fellow employees that were blatantly sexually harassing me and bullying me and he refused. He told me it was “heresy”. So while it’s a great idea in theory to rely on a handbook – it doesn’t work.

    Secondly – if the small museum can’t afford a HR person, well they aren’t going to hire a consultant. I think it is a great idea but if the small museum already isn’t interested in HR, hiring a consultant probably won’t happen.

    I wish I had filed a formal complaint with the EEOC. That would’ve gotten their attention.

    • Samantha Cline says:

      I am so sorry that happened to you! I think that most of us, myself included, that have been in this situation should have been more outspoken. By keeping our mouths shut, we don’t just hurt ourselves, we likely hurt those who fill our positions when we leave and we perpetuate a harmful culture in our field. A few things worth noting. The EEOC and Title VII only applies for organizations of 15 or more people–a number that many small museums do not meet. Some states have laws that provide further protection and it is important to familiarize yourself with those laws if your state has them, but the burden often falls to the victim to prove harassment. Lots of small museums still don’t have written handbooks, and making sure the organization has one is an important step in establishing that an employer has been negligent in upholding policies meant to protect their employees. I would also recommend making complaints via email. A written complaint can easily go missing, especially if you cannot get your organization to agree to sign it in acknowledgement of receipt. It’s harder to completely erase electronic communications and courts have ruled and upheld the fact that email is a legal document.

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