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.

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.

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Top 10 List for Making Organizational Change

Spheres on threads concept

Change is a constant for today’s museum or heritage organization leader. It happens on a multitude of levels. One of our Leadership Matters interviewees summed it up when she quipped, “If you’re the kind of person that needs a structured environment to survive, I don’t think you can be a successful director.” Anyone who’s had their board president announce her resignation on the same day the pipes froze, which was also the same day an elderly volunteer slipped on the front walk and the NEH grant was due, knows that life in museum leadership can come at you fast.

There’s a personal element to accepting life as it comes that’s important. Our interviewee was right. There ought to be a sign hanging over the door to master’s programs in museum studies that says, “The Rigid Need Not Apply,” or better yet, “All Ye Who Are Nimble, Welcome Here.”

Today’s museum leaders know museums need to change to compete. The world moves too quickly for them not to respond. What does that mean?  Just like individuals, organizations need to be present, authentic members of their communities. Too many museums and heritage organizations confuse being open with being engaged. Opening the doors on weary exhibits or roped off period rooms barely captivates anyone on a first visit, much less a second or third. Healthy organizations adapt in order to move forward. Like creative individuals they experiment, reflect, and try again in a constant effort to connect. If you wrote it as an equation, it might look like this: objects (or substitute paintings, plants, etc.) + context +communication = connection.

Here is Leadership Matters’ Top-Ten Change Check List. Use it to think about change  in your organization, department or program.

  • Remember if you are the executive director, you’re not the only change agent.
  • Know how change–from small tweaks to capital improvements– happens in your museum. Make sure the change process is equitable.
  • Big changes need to happen with staff not to them. Make sure everybody’s involved in change and everybody has a voice. Innovation and engagement should happen museum-wide.
  • Once the organization commits to change, as a leader you do too. Save sarcasm or negative feelings for friends or run it off at the gym.
  • Don’t try to do everything yourself. Change, especially big change, requires an all-hands-on-deck attitude. However inviting, it’s not the time to retreat to your office and close the door. Collaborate.
  • You don’t know it all. Change is a learning opportunity. Listen. Listen. Listen.
  • Get out of the weeds. If you’re leading change, you have a responsibility to the big picture. If you get that right, the details will follow.
  • Change–especially big change–may require some uncomfortable conversations. Be prepared to confront, collaborate, and persuade the naysayers.
  • Stagnation is bad and boring, but change for its own sake is like a nervous tick. Make sure you understand why change is happening before your board, staff and volunteers become change weary.
  • Just like any big project–term paper, cleaning the garage, packing to move–change needs to be broken into smaller projects. Don’t micromanage. Let others lead and celebrate their success.

How does your organization make change?

Joan Baldwin

Image: LiquidPlanner


The Museum Workplace & the Weinstein Effect

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By Rosa Pineda – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55223488

Museums aren’t known for workplace self-examination, so it’s possible the title of this piece makes you cringe. But in the wake of all the press surrounding Harvey Weinstein’s debacle, maybe it’s time to focus on sexual harassment in museums and heritage organizations.

To begin, while museums are places of imagination, creativity, and discovery, they are first and foremost workplaces. In short, they possess all the wonderful characteristics we want them to, until they don’t. And when it comes to being workplaces, they are not dissimilar from many other job sectors where one in three women is sexually harassed. Just to be clear, this is what Title VII of the Civil Rights Act defines as workplace harassment: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

In researching our book, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace, we heard numerous stories of harassment. And when we spoke, along with interviewees from the book at the AAM and AASLH annual meetings, more than half the room raised their hands when we asked if they had experienced workplace sexual harassment. So much for the polite, deferential museum world. Not to mention that two of our four panelists were included in that number, one photographed inappropriately and repeatedly until she blew the whistle on her harasser, and another told her career advancement was dependent on her having sex with her boss.

These were not the only stories. There were many more. What was particularly disturbing is that a lot of women who shared their experiences were told to keep quiet. There are variations on this theme of if-you-know-what’s-good-for-you, you-won’t-talk. They range from: “You’ll damage your career,” to “We’re taking care of it,” to our particular favorite “Well, stuff like that happens.” Really?

All of these excuses play on the reasons women are afraid to reveal sexual harassment in the first place. Many fear retaliation. What makes these situations doubly sad is that women not only fear retaliation from the abuser, particularly if that person is in a position of power–a board member or a director–but many times they are also afraid their colleagues won’t support them. In fact, according to a 2016 Harvard Business Review survey 71-percent of women who experienced workplace harassment didn’t report it. And significantly, their colleagues who witnessed the behavior also failed to report it, something that’s known as the bystander effect, meaning individuals in a group are less likely to come to someone’s aid than if they were alone.

Clearly, the museum field needs to acknowledge that harassment happens and support women who are its victims. So what can the museum field do to change this behavior and compel museum boards and directors to protect women?

  • All museums and heritage organizations need to understand that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII applies to non-profits as well as for-profits and it applies whether your organization employs one person or 2,000. A civil rights violation is a civil rights violation no matter where it’s committed. 
  • All museums and heritage organizations need to have personnel policies that explain what employees should do in the event of sexual harassment. Check your policy today. These policies should spell out anti-retaliation provisions under state law, and more importantly, how victims file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or the equivalent state agency.
  • All museums and heritage organizations should understand that while the majority of sexual harassment claims are brought by women against men, Title VII protects everyone. 
  • All museums and heritage organizations should take sexual harassment claims seriously. Personnel policies should define sexual harassment, state that it will not be tolerated, and that wrongdoers will be disciplined or fired.
  • All museums and heritage organizations should offer sexual harassment training for employees annually. If your organization is too small, join forces with another museum or non-profit to pay for the trainer. And know that if you live in Connecticut, Maine or California and employ more than 50 people, there are state laws regarding sexual harassment training.

These are not difficult or expensive fixes. Be proactive. Protect your employees and your organization.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


The Museum Workplace & Standing Up for What’s Right

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There’s been a lot of attention paid to courageous museums and their leaders lately. Witness Puerto Rico where the Art Museum decided to open a week after the hurricane. Their idea? That despite the devastation around them, the museum was a place of safety, renewal, and happiness. Or how about Eastern State Penitentiary’s exhibit Prison’s Today, which knew it was tackling a volatile subject, and rather than ignore the elephant in the room, decided it would take a point of view, advocating from the opening panel that “Mass Incarceration Isn’t Working.” Or, curators like Rainy Tisdale after the Boston Marathon Bombing or Aaron Bryant at the African American History Museum who refuse to wait for history to “get old,” but document it as it happens? Or most recently the Queens Museum’s Director Laura Raicovich’s stance on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

While these individuals and organizations deserve our deepest respect and thanks, we need to talk about another aspect of courage. We need to talk about courage in the museum workplace as opposed to the museum itself. We need to talk about courage “backstage” as opposed to “on-stage.” Because decisions like the ones listed above affect an organization’s brand, donor base, and gate, they are rarely made alone. Instead there is a calculus involved, measuring mission and vision versus damaging PR, institutional values versus organizational gain. That doesn’t diminish the courage of these decisions, but they aren’t the same as those made in the museum workplace. There, it’s all about individuals. And it’s also about fearlessness.

This week we read a piece published on Incluseum called “LETTER TO YOUNG MUSEUM PROFESSIONALS OF COLOR OR WHAT TRANSPIRES ON A LONG-HAUL CAREER WHEN CONFRONTED WITH RACISM IN THE MUSEUM,”  by longtime museum consultant, Radiah Harper. If you haven’t read it, you should. Appearing less than a week after Alliance Lab’s piece on attrition from the field, Harper’s letter opens with the lines:

You know when someone or something has crossed the threshold of your sanity in the workplace. At that moment, you have to make decisions, even when in a senior position. Has there been an irrevocable offense? Is it racism or oppression and intolerable? We ask ourselves, can I afford to quit? 

I believe that most of us think that museum work is about doing good. We teach, we preserve, we research, we enlighten, we spark imagination, we provide beautiful spaces where families and friends gather. I suspect, when asked about our work, we think more about that public good then we do about our workplaces. And yet ours is a field where every day someone experiences racism or bias, gender stereotyping or sexual harassment.

Is it possible we spend way too much Facebook time decrying Charlottesville and whether or not monuments to the Confederacy should stay or go, and not enough thinking about what it’s like to be non-white in a museum workplace? Do most museum employees even know that one in three American women is sexually harassed at work? Do they understand that museums and heritage organizations aren’t exempt from sexual harassment? And what about employees who deal with multiple layers of bias and prejudice –women of color, lesbian or queer women, transgender women.

This is where we need personal courage. We need courage to stand beside and stand up for our colleagues; to interject when someone says something racist, unkind and biased. And if, for whatever reason,we are among the museum workers who are privileged, we need to use that privilege to make changes in workplace behavior. Maybe our small acts of conscience will change the museum field for the better.

Stop talking. Just act.

Joan Baldwin


Leadership Lessons from the Unlikeliest of Places

oval office

There is a trope in leadership literature that says you can learn from bad leaders just as you can from good ones . It’s cold comfort though when you are stuck in a soul-sucking job with a boss who doesn’t know how to lead. You find yourself raging or crying, lists full of things to do, but little authority to do them. You’re alternately placated or bullied so every workplace interaction is a walk over eggshells. In short, you’re so miserable it’s hard to learn anything until you’re safe in your next position where hindsight is a great teacher.

The vast majority of us watch events in Washington, D.C. from a distance, but it is possible to learn something about leadership just by observation. So, here Leadership Matters distills 10 lessons from the disruption and chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

  1. Planning really helps. Today’s museum leaders juggle an absurd number of plates. Having an agreed upon plan and policies is something board, staff and volunteers can support and depend on.
  2. It’s a given that museum leaders should surround themselves with the most talented team they can attract and afford. The lesson is listen to the talent. If they’re really so smart, if they really have particular areas of expertise, use it. Don’t make decisions without them.
  3. Check your biases at the door. If you secretly long for some stereotypical workplace where sparkling white women in tailored dresses laugh discreetly, while white men in expensive suits make weighty decisions, keep it to yourself. The world has changed. Join the 21st-century. Your organization needs a unifier, not a divider. Be the unifier.
  4. Deal with your anger somewhere else. We all get angry. As leaders, mostly we don’t show it, especially the personal, whiney variety.
  5. Respect social media. It’s a powerful thing. If you choose to ignore it, you’ll pay a price. If you choose to participate without a communications plan, you’ll pay a different price.
  6. Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re not a good speaker or writer, have staff help you craft your remarks. The more important the event, the more important your remarks. Ditto if spreadsheets drive you to distraction. Staff can’t get you off the hook, but they can and will support you. Again, use their expertise.
  7. Respect your office. Understand on whose shoulders you stand, literally and metaphorically. Know the history of your organization, know its subject matter. Believe in it.
  8. Don’t take it personally. Being a leader means a lot of anger, complaint and crankiness floats in your direction. Pay scales to parking, health benefits to number of exhibitions, exhibit content to stock in the shop, it all comes back to you. Or rather to you as the executive director. Separate your emotions from your job.
  9. Be ready to apologize. You’re not perfect. Leaders who can’t apologize breed staffs who can’t trust, and bad karma abounds.
  10. Be kind. Yes, as a museum leader your plate is full, but you model the behavior you want in others. A warm, kind leader tends to attract a warm, kind staff. Not so kind leaders tend to attract different folks. Ask yourself–am I the person I want to work for?

The President’s post-Charlottesville remarks are a slow-burning fuse. AAM, AASLH, and many state arts councils have written responses. And this week the Committee on the Arts and Humanities walked off the job in protest. Leadership is tough enough without steering the ship of state into an ocean littered with anger and racism, a place where everyone feels entitled and emboldened to utter the first thought that comes to mind. And it’s an especially strange world where it’s possible to learn leadership by doing the opposite of what the 45th president does.

Joan Baldwin


Low Salaries? The Museum Field? Really?

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Maybe it’s just Leadership Matters, but it seems as though the museum field might be pulling its head out of the sand about its salary problem–like it’s been sleeping but now it’s woke? The last few weeks we’ve seen blogs, online discussions, and press releases, all discussing the low salaries in the field.

The prompt may have been the press surrounding American Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD’s) 2017 salary survey released in June. Although it’s collected data for a century, this was the first time it made the results public. And yes, it’s a small survey–219 North American art museums–and, as the name implies, we’re talking art, not history. But the good news is it’s free. Of course there’s always AAM’s salary survey, which is a massive collaboration between 10 regional museum associations, and the most comprehensive of any museum salary survey. Of AAM’s 1,000 respondents many come from history museums, however, it also includes staff from zoos, botanical gardens, and science museums. There’s only one problem, and it’s not with the survey itself, but if Facebook posts from emerging professionals are any indication, its cost sometimes makes access prohibitive.

Just for fun we Googled “salaries museum jobs.” We got 548,000 hits and a surprising amount of information from outside the field, information that ought to put the fear of god in many graduate student hearts. Payscale.com which claims its data was updated in June 2017 offers not only salary information, but hourly pay, and pay by institution. Admittedly it’s a tiny group, and many of them are large urban or suburban organizations, but information is information. Clearly it’s better to work for the Smithsonian at $26/hour then just about anybody else on Payscale’s list. Not to mention, that despite the current administration’s best efforts, the Smithsonian is here to stay. And yes, there are more than a few organizations on Payscale’s list where choosing a career at Panera Bread or Target might offer a better starting salary, more predictable raises, and where there’s no need for a graduate degree.

So what should you do if you’re new in the field and clobbered by the fact that maybe your grandma was right and you should have learned a trade like plumbing or gone to medical school? Well, pulling the covers over your head is an option, but here are some other thoughts.

  • We do believe change starts from the bottom up so even though it’s a small thing, start talking about the salary issue. Talk with your colleagues. Talk with your boss. Practice ways to say what needs to be said that aren’t confrontational, but still get the point across. Your museum’s leadership won’t listen if they think they’re liable to see you with a picket sign on the front steps.
  • We are fierce advocates for higher wages, but it’s important to love what you do. It sounds dopey, but honestly, no matter what you do–in or out of the museum field–if you don’t love it, you’re going to feel like your soul’s being sucked out of your body a bit at a time. Change doesn’t happen overnight except in fairy tales, so if a big salary means more to you than a life in museums, you’ll never be happy. Try investment banking. Then you can be a museum board member. Just be honest with yourself.
  • If you’re in museum leadership, you need to be a fierce advocate for your staff. Your organization–and the field as a whole–is only as good as its staff. You want the best you can afford, and you want them to be happy, not covertly job hunting at their desks. Lobby your board for equitable salary and benefits. Take a page from academe and endow some of your key positions. If you lead a small organization, are there creative ways you can band together with local arts organizations and hire one person to do the same task at several places? Collaboration brings its own rewards, but that’s another post.
  • If you teach in a graduate program, we hope you make AAM’s salary survey available to your students.
  • Last, if you’re new to the field, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Yes, big city salaries are often higher, but are they higher for entry level employees? And will your expenses be higher too? Do you want to work two jobs and share an apartment? The bottom line: know where you will get the best deal for you. And negotiate your offer. Again, know what you need: Is it more personal time off? Health benefits? Opportunities to travel? Or just cold hard cash? Whatever you choose, it’s not a life sentence. Get as much experience as you can and move on.

This is an issue that shouldn’t go away. Let’s all do what we can to make museum salaries equitable and livable.

Joan Baldwin


Museum Leadership is Complex and That’s OK

Elaine Gurian MuseumNext

There are people thinking deep thoughts in almost every field around the globe. Some share with their colleagues. Others write books, give TED Talks or get interviewed by National Public Radio. The museum field is lucky to have its own thought leaders. Perhaps you read or follow Nina Simon, Frank Vagnone, the Incluseum or Maria Viachou. Principle among the museum field’s thought leaders is Elaine Heumann Gurian. If you don’t know Elaine, you have some reading ahead of you, but don’t worry. It’s good stuff.

Heumann Gurian is now retired. That just means she’s not collecting a regular pay check any more. She was, in fact, a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Museums at the Smithsonian, Deputy Director for Public Program Planning at the National Museum of the American Indian, and Deputy Director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now she thinks for a living. If her recent talk “The Importance of And,” delivered at MuseumNext’s conference in Australia is any indication, she remains committed to change. And so should you.

And don’t say I don’t read stuff like that. It’s like food you think you don’t like. Try it. And here’s why: Heumann Gurian asks us to think not so much about what we do, but why and how. She doesn’t care whether your visitors get tickets, stickers or buttons. She’s not necessarily interested in your board development policies, your admission pricing structure, your digitization program or your collections management software. In “The Importance of And,” she talks about applying complexity theory to museums to break the cycle of one object/one label/one point of view that dominates so many museum exhibits, leaving vast swaths of the public underwhelmed, bored or sometimes angry by narratives that are relentlessly mediocre and opaque. She wants exhibit narratives that leave visitors arguing, questioning, writing their own questions on sticky notes. She wants visitors to find the universal stories and add their own. She wants museums to be places where people understand that every story has multiple points of view: the artist, the creator/maker, the curator, the object’s cultural context, the viewer and his or her cultural context. She wants us to internalize that wherever we stand, our view is different.

And Leadership Matters would like you to try one more thing: After reading “The Importance of And,” think about applying complexity theory not just to exhibit and program development, but to what happens in the offices at your museum as well. The world we live in is endlessly complex. So is 21st-century leadership. Complexity theory as applied to leadership asks us to think about leadership as leadership of the many by the many, rather than of the many by the few. And by few, we mean you. Being the sage on the stage 24/7 is wearying. But what if you think of leadership as a team or an orchestra, where you are the quarterback, the conductor or maybe the first violin, whatever metaphor works for you? The point is if you can accept complexity, you widen your leadership circle, more voices are heard, and the result is a more nuanced response to just about everything.

Confused? Think of it this way: Say your institution is faced with a big question–to build, to renovate or leave your building as is. Traditional leadership would say that you, the director, possibly with your assistant directors, gather and hash out responses to each possibility. You take them to the board. It hashes them out and decides which way to go. Leadership that’s more complex might put together focus groups that involve everyone from your institution’s guards and grounds folks to its shop assistants, volunteers, education staff and community, mixing the groups so museum leadership and trustees hear from a variety of voices and experiences. Yes, both paths may lead to the same conclusion, but the information gathered, and the trust and buy-in generated in the complexity approach yields its own rewards: a staff who knows it’s respected; new ideas from individuals who museum leadership might never come in contact with; new pathways of communication that lead to change.

And change is what you’re after. Who wants an organization that stays the same year after year, decade after decade? Tell us how you tackle big decisions and whether your process is messy and iterative or hierarchical and direct. And tell us why.

It’s March, 52 days into the new administration: Lead well. It matters.

Joan Baldwin