If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” a commencement speech delivered at Kenyon College, May 2005
Over the past month, we’ve spoken to several people who are more than miserable in their jobs. We’ve also read tales of workplace misery on Facebook where individuals question how they should move forward in the wake of situations that redefine the phrase, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Some of these situations are truly horrific, some frustrating, and some just examples of a museum worker’s really, really bad day. But one thing seems to be universal: Everybody tells the complainer to quit, to leave, to find the nirvana job. These comments come in a chorus. Some are couched in concern for the worker’s mental health as in “this can’t be healthy for you.” Some are little red flags demonstrating the listeners have heard enough as in, “I can give you some phone numbers if you think you’re ready to move on.” And some respond only to the technical details of whatever workplace horror the story outlines.
Maybe there’s another way though. Maybe since most of us aren’t social workers, psychologists, or HR people, maybe, in Post-Weinstein America, we ought to respond a little differently. First, remember you’re the listener or, in the case of Facebook, the reader. That’s your job. Just listen. Next, establish if the person feels safe at work. If they do not, are they experiencing sexual harassment, workplace bullying or simply horrific leadership? If they are not safe, if they are bullied or harassed online or in the workplace, a site like AAUW or the EEOC (and there are many more) can help with filing a harassment claim.
Part of listening–regardless of the nature of the individual narrative–is that leaving one job and getting another isn’t as simple as ordering on Amazon. Leave aside the competitive nature of today’s museum job search, there are also questions of partners, partner’s jobs, real estate, children, extended family, and love of place that tie us all to our positions. While walking out may be a healthy choice, it’s not always possible, and brings with it its own set of stresses, not least of which is no pay. So remember, advocating quitting is not always helpful.
And don’t let the person narrating a workplace complaint believe that because they work for the Who-Knows-Where-Historical-Society that this is business as usual, that non-profits aren’t subject to employment law. They are. Yes, it may require more courage or at least a special brand of courage to take on the big wigs in a small community as opposed to walking into HR at a big museum, but the law still applies.
Last, remember that sometimes humans just need to be heard. They need to know they’re valued. Channel your inner grandma: Smile and look people in the eye. If you can’t say anything nice, be quiet. Be kind. Be respectful. Say thank you. Model the place you want to work in, and build a better museum work culture.
OK, so I admit it: Some Thursdays I find myself watching Gray’s Anatomy. I know, I know. Try not to judge. But this week one of the show’s 8-million sub-plots had to do with Meredith Gray failing to negotiate the salary for her new position. When her boss is called out for not giving Meredith an equitable raise, she responds by saying she’s taught her everything she can and now it’s the moment for Meredith to rise and ask for what she needs. Don’t worry, Meredith eventually asks for and receives the raise that’s due her. A little lame when we’re talking about well-paid surgeons, but the point remains. How many of the country’s 340,000 or so museum employees failed to negotiate when they were offered a job? Even if we leave aside the group that stepped into federal, state or municipal positions where salary bands are more rigid or in some positions unionized, we believe too many simply (and joyfully) accepted their new job. And if we believe the field’s statistics, 45-percent of those saying yes–“Hire me!”–are women. To be clear, a new job should make you joyful and happier still if–like Meredith– you negotiated.
We’ve run up against this scenario anecdotally, and in interviews and focus groups. Last May at AAM one of our colleagues made a job offer over the phone. The woman accepted, but didn’t negotiate. The person offering the position was surprised, but as director needed to watch the bottom line, and reported that if the new hire wasn’t complaining, there was no reason to offer more money.
And negotiation isn’t always about salary and benefits. One of our Leadership Matters interviewees referenced her failure to negotiate her first job offer. This wasn’t an issue of salary but of the job description. Rebecca Slaughter took a curator’s position at a Connecticut museum. When she arrived, she found her position also included being the curator of exhibitions, technology support and registrar. She burned out after 12 months. Reflecting on the experience in her Leadership Matters interview, she said, “What can I say? I was young and dumb, but if I hadn’t been so excited about taking a job, I might have asked some more pointed questions.”
Before we started writing Women+Museums I think I would have told you that failing to negotiate was a gender thing. After all there are piles of books and blogs about how women either don’t negotiate or do it so badly they might as well have stayed silent. And maybe all those writers are onto something, but I also wonder if there isn’t something about museums, their non-profit status, the place they hold in our hearts, that makes us almost feel sorry for them in a way that we wouldn’t were we interviewing at a for-profit business? Do we emerge from graduate school in some masochistic cloud and allow ourselves to work for less because “after all it’s a non-profit?” Is there something about a culture of I’m-in-it-because-I-love-it, particularly at smaller museums, that smacks of volunteerism rather than a career?
Not every museum has great visitation and a fabulous endowment, but by permitting a culture of poor or low pay, either because boards allow it or new hires don’t demand change, haven’t we created a culture that values buildings and collections more than people? If an institution renovates or builds while its staff is still receiving sub-standard wages, doesn’t that send a message? If you’re working 50-60 hours some weeks without complaint (except for the circles under your eyes and the fact that you haven’t eaten a meal with your partner in weeks) what should a board member think except that she’s likely getting better value for money out of you than from the employees at her own business? I am not saying that hard work isn’t a good thing. It is. And I’m not saying that boards don’t value their staffs. I’m sure many do. But investing in human capital although it isn’t as sexy as a building renovation often yields great results. To use a sports metaphor, do you build the new stadium or invest in the players? How many of you who are in leadership positions have felt the urge to tell your board, whoa, let’s raise salaries before we add that new wing?
And if you’re an employee, when was the last time you thought about your own self-worth? You have value, value that is measured in cold hard cash, but also in paid time off and other benefits. And work/life balance is not just the province of working parents. So unless your museum is curing cancer, learn to press the pause button. Go home. Visit your parents. Go back to your swim class. Rehearse with the gospel choir. And most importantly be prepared to have the critical conversation when you need something. Know what you need. Is it flex time? Is it 35 hours instead of 40? Is it working nine days out of every 10 so you can see your ailing parents? Or is it a raise so you can move closer to work? Figure out what will make life better and ask. And for goodness sake if you are a finalist for a new position, make sure you understand the cost of living for the area near your new job. Your salary can sound fabulous when measured against a community where rent and food is cheaper.
We have a colleague who recently made the jump from a small under-funded county historical society to a larger, better funded museum with dynamic new leadership. She negotiated her offer. I’m not exaggerating when I say she started her new position on a high note. When you begin by knowing who you are and what you need, you set a template for staff interactions going forward.
So if you’re overworked and underpaid, sit down and figure out why you matter and then have a conversation with your direct report, your director or your board. And if your organization’s financial picture is too grim to ask for what you need, then make sure, very sure, you understand what you’re getting out of it. Is it convenience? Location? Other benefits? Is it a variation on a paid internship that provides experience you need? Do you see yourself as an organizational savior? Is that even possible? Understanding “the why” helps limit those days when work seems soul-crushing. And let us hear from you.
Joan H. Baldwin