Tips for Creating Equity in Museum HR

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First, an announcement: Leadership Matters will be on vacation for the weeks of Dec. 23 and Dec. 30. But, before we return January 6, 2020, we’d like to hear your wishes for the museum world for the coming year.¬†They can be personal–I want a new job–or organizational–I hope my museum completes its campaign successfully–or field wide–I’d like to see museums take a stand on the gender pay gap. Send them, and any other thoughts you have about the museum field’s future to us here in a comment or directly to our email or Facebook where this is posted as well. Full sentences and punctuation aren’t necessary, just your hopes and dreams for the field.


A lot of museums, indeed a lot of workplaces, struggle with team building and trust, and one of the work-arounds leaders employ is to try to accommodate workers’ various needs. When you have a weeping or furious team member in your office, and a to-do list a mile long, what you want is to solve their problems and get back to your own. So you say yes to leaving Thursdays at three to drive the soccer car pool or to working from home a day a week. Your colleague leaves happy (or at least mollified), and you turn your attention to other things. Except decisions made in the moment to accommodate one frequently come back to bite you. Why? Because work isn’t family.

If we work full time, we spend up to 2,000 hours per year with our colleagues, some weeks more than with families and friends, particularly since time away from work includes sleep. So while many people like to tout work as family, and thus, just as we set the thermostat to 75 when our great aunt visits and serve her martini with four olives, we also try to accommodate our co-workers. But accommodating family is different from colleagues. Say a member of your team tells you she lives a distance from work, and may not be able to arrive on time if it snows. She is part of your front-line staff. On the face of it, that seems like a rational request. But what happens if you say yes? Another person who lives closer may feel a huge sense of inequity. The questions going through her mind are: Why is she privileged over me? Am I not valued? Do I need to look for another job? Is everyone asking for special accommodations and I didn’t know?

If you work in a museum or heritage organization with an HR department, it’s harder to privilege one employee over another because the employee handbook already spells out numerous scenarios–weather, health, funerals, working from home, and jury duty to name a few–and how individuals are compensated. Flouting these can lead to an even more complex mess since you’ll have one individual operating outside the organization’s HR parameters, while others abide by the museum’s rules. That doesn’t mean leaders shouldn’t treat employees with respect, empathy and kindness, but everyone should be privileged equally–those with small children, those without, those with long commutes and those who live around the corner. The only ones who should be specially accommodated are those with temporary or permanent disabilities. These requests may include specialized equipment or modifications in work environment.

So…if you’re a leader with a team or a staff….

  • Even if your site has fewer than 15 employees and no HR department, create or review your organization’s employee handbook. Make sure it’s written in clear, understandable language. If you can’t understand it, it’s unlikely your employees will.
  • Make sure it addresses common HR issues and what your organization will do about them. Kicking the can down the road means you will make decisions as they come up, rather than addressing them organizationally from the beginning. It’s hard to be objective and impartial when you are making decisions in the moment based on a single staff member’s situation.
  • Create a personnel committee on the board. It may include the board leadership and/or those with interest and experience in HR.
  • Seek advice from your local Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau or HR firm.
  • When altering handbook rules, be open and transparent about rule changes.

If you’re a staff member …

  • Know your rights. EEOC’s Home Page is a good place to start.
  • Find out if there is any kind of HR document–even a Google doc–that governs day-to-day work. If there is, read it.
  • Before you approach the leadership, it’s helpful to know if you’re a trail blazer. For example, are you the first employee to ask for paternity leave, jury duty, or a parking accommodation?
  • Or conversely, are you one in a long line of staff asking about a particular issue? Knowing whether your organization has a history may help you strategize your request. (Example: your museum’s staff is under 10 FT people. Six have requested maternity/paternity leave in the last year. Nobody’s gotten the same deal.)

A lot of museums and heritage organizations, often small ones, hide behind size (We’re too small) and the non-profit shield (We’re not a business) when it comes to HR issues. Size isn’t an excuse to treat employees inequitably. Do the best you can given your resources. Create policy first–even if it’s a one-page document–so you’re not reacting to individual problems in the moment. Be kind, be a good listener, be empathetic, but most of all be fair.

Joan Baldwin



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