Authenticity Comes First in Equitable Museum Workplaces

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How many of you are museum leaders? Are you lonely? If you’re nodding, you’re not the only one. By some estimates, 42-percent of for-profit leaders confess to feeling lonely all or part of the time. Leadership is isolating. You’re happy in your job; it’s challenging, but there are things that can’t be shared. Some days are stressful. You know things you can’t un-know, and the decisions you make often feel like they’re yours alone.

There are ways to make the top spot less isolating. You can allow yourself to be vulnerable with your leadership team. By learning to express feelings–as opposed to parsing problems–you model vulnerability and build trust. You can create a peer group or ‘kitchen cabinet’ that you meet with regularly to share frustrations, ideas, and to problem solve. You may also have close friends, unconnected with your museum, who listen well or a few well-placed mentors. Those outlets are yours and yours alone. And they don’t put you in the position of treating any of your staff or leadership team differently.

There are families, governments, and workplaces where power masquerades as friendship, love or connection. It is, to quote a Latin phrase we’ve all heard too much recently, a quid pro quo. Grandparents pay for college tuition, but only if they select the school. A town official looks the other way when a local non-profit needs a variance, but then asks the non-profit to support something else in exchange. A museum leader wants her staff to like her so she adjusts their schedules to accommodate their personal circumstances. These are all ways to create connection and make an individual feel liked. The only problem is they aren’t sustainable because they’re based not in authenticity and equity, but on transaction.

These days when we say the words workplace equity, what comes to mind is race, gender, access, and the way we treat one another in the museum workplace. But far from values statements and HR policies there’s day-to-day life where equity happens, and the ongoing question of who gets what. Who gets noticed? Who is hourly and who is salaried? Who gets to work on plum assignments? Who gets to travel on the museum’s dime? Who never met a deadline that wasn’t moveable? Who leaves early for soccer practice? Who is chronically late, but excused? Who is plucked from the group to meet with a trustees? Whose work is nominated for a prize? We could go on, but you get the picture.

Part of leadership’s isolation is leaders can’t have favorites. As a leader, you need to understand and tame your own biases, and you can’t use your power to grant favors for those you like. Creating an equitable workplace means….

  • Starting with your employee handbook: Looking at the language. Might it affect one demographic differently than another? Can you fix it?
  • Does your museum have a values statement? If so, how do you use it to guide daily practice? If not, why not?
  • Do your rules about personal leave apply to everyone equitably? For example, are family leave — human leave — available equitably, because life comes at us all fast? And do you permit personal time that recognizes not all of us celebrate the same holidays at the same time? A small thing, but a nod that your organization embraces and supports difference.
  • Are rules about promotion and professional development transparent?
  • How are new ideas heard? How hard is it for an idea to make its way from the hourly staff to the salaried staff? If it’s challenging does that reinforce the idea that salaried staff are the idea makers? Where is the inequity in that?

Museum workplaces are microcosms of the wider world. As a leader you and your board have the opportunity to create and shape an organizational culture that is human-centered and fair. In many ways the workplace you create has a profound impact on the way your organization appears in the world. (If you need an example of what an organization looks like that neglects values and does not keep its staff safe, seen and supported, look no further than the Philadelphia Museum of Art, fast becoming the poster child for an unethical work environment.)

You can’t control each and every staff person’s behavior, but you can create a place where staff feel respected and nurtured. So build human-centered policies, and don’t let them languish. Apply them and watch your staff flourish.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Museum of Happiness


Make Employee Performance Reviews Intentional Opportunities, Not Tests

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It’s February. In the academic world, where I work, spring break looms in the distance like Oz. But before it arrives, there are annual performance reviews. Like much in life, performance reviews deliver more when you invest more. Sadly, though, in the imperfect world of the museum workplace the whole experience has all the appeal of a root canal. An overburdened leader with too little time on her hands needs to press pause long enough to meet with her staff or team individually, while cramming their jobs and personalities into a form designed in HR for one-size-fits-all. That’s the leader’s side. From the staff point of view, it may be a once-a-year conversation with a boss they don’t know very well that’s eerily reminiscent of their job interview, except there’s always the hint that the whole conversation is like a principal’s office visit, and whatever happens is GOING IN YOUR PERMANENT RECORD. The result is an experience, visited on us annually like a virus, potentially fraught with tension and the desire to have it over, where the highlight is often checking the box.

Apologies if that sounds hugely negative. Maybe you work in a museum or heritage site where annual performance reviews are one in a series of ongoing conversations with your director or team leader. Maybe they’re full of laughter, encouragement, and questions like, “What was your best moment at work this year?” Sadly, that has not been my experience. For seven years I had an increasingly toxic relationship with my then-leader. He failed to treat me equitably in a 36-month period of bullying by a colleague, leaving me at best cautious and at worst mistrusting. Over time, we whittled the required annual review down to the briefest exchange. It was totally pro-forma and completely unhelpful.

That said, I remain hopeful. I still believe performance reviews are opportunities not tests, and, like much in leadership, they should be intentional acts. But maybe you lead an organization that doesn’t have performance reviews. Maybe after decades of not meeting with staff on an annual basis you’re not sure what the fuss is about. You get along fine. And you may. It’s likely, though, even without the review’s structure and forms, you must make decisions regarding promotions, title changes, and pay. An annual performance review process, when done well, takes the sting of subjectivity and randomness out of the process by asking for employee participation.

Successful reviews start by touching base with mission and clarifying goals with your departments, teams or, in the case of a small organization, the whole staff. Measure team performance overall. Were their 2019 goals met? If not, why not? Once group reviews are complete, individual reviews make more sense. If you’re the overall leader, ask your leadership team about their departments. Who were the standouts? What does good, better, best look like on their teams?

From your leadership meetings, you can move on to individual reviews. You are neither a psychologist nor a wizard, so focus on the work. Ask them to describe a great day at your museum. Ask them if they could have a do-over, what experience comes to mind? Ask what they’d like to do more of? Less of? Ask how often they collaborate and with whom? Ask whether they feel safe, seen and supported, and if not, why not? Point the conversation back toward mission. How can their good work and great skills, continue to push the museum forward?

Ideally, were we not all overworked and struggling with too little time in the day, performance reviews wouldn’t be a one-time meeting akin to our annual physical. They would, instead, be a capstone to a series of ongoing conversations. I can feel the eye rolling here. Who has time for that? Likely you could, though, and if it improves communication, builds trust, and creates a better more transparent museum workplace, what’s not to like?

Remember:

  • Annual reviews are not productive if they are used to catalogue an employee’s failings. Start positive and move forward.
  • Our memories are fallible and subjective. If you supervise a leadership team, ask them to keep a journal with a few key performance episodes for team members.
  • Make sure each staff understand their connection to the overall museum operation and mission.
  • Ask questions that get at the heart of what they’re doing. What works well? What doesn’t?
  • Check your bias–both implicit or explicit–at the door. Imagine how you’d feel if you started your museum day cleaning the restrooms or dealing with toddlers from the local pre-school. Be respectful because your entire staff is important.

Performance reviews are something that seem to matter more in the for-profit world where achievement results in bonuses, raises and advancement. In the museum/heritage organization world, where jobs are tight and pay often abysmal, reviews sometimes feel as though they don’t have a larger purpose either for employee or employer. Yet we blather on about the importance of mentoring, of networking, of having a career plan, of speaking at conferences. And yet what are performance reviews but the 2.0 of mentoring? They are the opportunity to support staff, to point them in the direction of colleagues and opportunities, to invest in them. And, as we’ve said so many times in this space, your staff is the heart of your organization. Pay it forward. Hopefully, your gifts will come back tenfold.

Joan Baldwin

 

 


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