A Twofer: AAM’s COVID Data and Job Descriptions As Road Maps

Archives New Zealand – https://ndhadeliver.natlib.govt.nz/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE25775092, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93276703

Two weeks ago I gave a shout out to AAM for its data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, but I encourage everyone to download the whole report. It’s free, and your staff, your board, your team, and your volunteers should see it. In a crisis–at least on the back side of a crisis–it’s important to understand what happened, and how your experience, organizationally and personally, fits into the larger picture. So maybe arrange some COVID chats to discuss the similarities and differences in your own situation to the larger picture. From students, to museum employees of color, to women, to consultants, there is little the report leaves out.

One nugget? Forty-eight percent of the respondents reported they had increased workload, while nine-percent saw their salaries decrease. And, no surprise, women are far more burned out and disillusioned than their male colleagues. Is it any wonder the museum field is in a bad place right now? One bright spot: it’s comforting to know that among the 2,666 respondents, their greatest concern was for their colleagues, this from a group with increased anxiety and depression. So, once again, kudos to AAM. Illness, fear, and the economics of COVID were and are isolating. In helping the museum community understand what COVID has done, a report like this brings the museum community closer by anchoring individual experiences in lived data.

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Each time Anne Ackerson and I teach Museum Leadership in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies program we’ve had students wonder why we’re seemingly obsessed with good, clear writing. They’ve told us other faculty don’t criticize their writing, suggesting that as soon-to-be museum folk they don’t plan on writing for a living. True to a point, but they want, after all, to be museum staff, and potentially museum leaders. Our response is that words matter. Not only in the way that phrase is currently used, meaning words can be weapons, but as tools to provide clarity and context. Think how many times museum leaders grow and nurture ideas, and how many words–both spoken and written–see ideas from conception to implementation?

One place it strikes me where words matter a whole heck of a lot, especially in the COVID-age of shifting and increased responsibilities, is job descriptions. Done well job descriptions can be wonderfully crafted road maps, the architecture where museum work rests. Done badly they are truly a waste of time, leading to confusion, meandering nowhere, mired in road blocks of self-doubt and gas lighting. Too frequently there’s more energy put into a job announcement than the subsequent job description. Often anemic in comparison to their sister job announcements, job descriptions are burdened by to-do lists ending with “and all other duties as required,” meaning the morning you shoveled snow, cleaned a sticky craft table or spent time at the reception desk. But in their lack of clarity, they aren’t helpful.

We’ve all heard how strategic plans are “living documents.” Well, so are job descriptions. A good one isn’t one and done, it’s something for leaders and staff members to return to particularly as they prepare for performance reviews, understand an increase–or a decrease–in responsibilities. It’s hard to imagine a museum workplace without job descriptions except to imagine a kind of anarchy. On any given day the educator could put her shoes on the desk and announce she needed to spend some time with advancement, while the communications person could say they were bored with Instagram and wanted to design an exhibit. Hyperbole, yes, but perhaps you’ve been in museum workplaces where job descriptions were mushy around the edges? Over time staff staff choose tasks they like rather than doing the job assigned. When that happens, things fall unacknowledged by the wayside, and ultimately, an organizational belief develops around a given job that may not have been true at conception.

So how do you get this right? First, don’t do it quickly, and don’t do it alone. Job descriptions, like strategic plans, are best written collaboratively. If you are revising an existing job description–perhaps because of COVID–speak with person who currently does the job, their direct report(s), and potentially their colleagues. If this is an existing job that has mutated because of COVID, you’ll want to find out what the position looked like before it absorbed tasks from other positions. If it’s now two positions now co-joined, it’s a good idea to be transparent if for no other reason than in stressful times employees performing two roles as one, need to know which takes precedent over the course of a week, and which role trumps the other in terms of responsibility. For example, pre-COVID you had both a collections manager and a curator. Now you have only a curator, someone whose heart doesn’t race at the thought of a perfectly catalogued collection, but rather at the creation of imaginative and thoughtful exhibits. An honest and transparent discussion will help your colleague identify how their job description and thus their performance goals fit into the organizational scope and sequence.

Once you’ve done your analysis, and potentially amended the title, come up with a pithy job summary. Here is where you want to summon your inner Hemingway, and write a clear, concise, yet intriguing description of what this person will do, not in the worst of times, but in the best of times. Next, draft their responsibilities. They should be broad enough so they’re not a to-do list, but specific enough to prevent anarchy. Last, add the job’s requirements. You don’t want someone applying for a job that requires daily lifting of 25 pounds and up, if there are health reasons that prevent them from lifting. If you have an HR department, they will work from your draft, making sure that the appropriate legal language is included–particularly as it involves HDA compliance — and that you have neither overstepped nor undersold what you expect this person to do.

If you do have an HR department at your museum or heritage organization, they may not look fondly on your revising job descriptions annually. In theory, when that happens HR scopes out how the position has changed state or region-wide in terms of salary and benefits. But jobs within a organization are like an extended game of telephone. They mutate and change to fit the individuals performing them. As leaders, whether it’s a team, a program, department or organization, our job is to watch out for performance drift. Like mission drift, it’s when an individual, perhaps because they are over-burdened, disaffected or simply selfish, begins to work outside the scope of their job description. It’s much easier to do this in organizations where once you’re hired no one ever refers to your job description again. If you don’t already, you may want to consider meeting with your direct reports quarterly to look at how their jobs have changed, and aligning them with your organization’s goals and objectives. Job descriptions connect to people, so it helps to really know your staff. Some may welcome more structure while others more autonomy. Hopefully, you will create the best job description not only for the organization, but also the individual.

Be well. Stay safe. Write clearly.

Joan Baldwin



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