Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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To Speak with a Unified Voice, Employee Councils Merge into a Staff Senate

Even at the inaugural meeting of the newly created University of Virginia Staff Senate, the 80 members rolled up their sleeves and broke into work groups before celebrating the launch of the organization with a sparkling cider toast and buffet luncheon.

“Getting stuff done. That’s what we do. We’re U.Va. staff,” said Eric Newsome, webmaster and outreach coordinator in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, who is one of eight Staff Senate officers. The group, which comprises the three Employee Communication Councils representing the Academic Division, held its first meeting Thursday. It got some work done and listened to remarks from U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan.

Meeting in the Harrison-Small Auditorium, representatives from the employee councils reviewed the main reasons for merging their three groups, received a copy of the bylaws and met the nine officers who will lead them in the transition year. They also watched a recent Human Resources video that highlights working at U.Va.

Previously, employee councils were organized based on vice presidential units – under the executive vice president and provost, the executive vice president and chief operating officer and the Health System’s academic and research areas. A fourth council, at the Medical Center, will continue separately. The provost’s and medical and nursing councils represented about 1,200 employees each, and the COO council represented more than 2,700 employees.

In the new organization, one member and an alternate will be elected to represent up to 200 employees. A school or business unit with 400 employees, for example, would have two members.

During a transition period, current employee council representatives will serve in the Staff Senate. Elections are expected to be held in June, when the membership will shift from approximately 83 representatives with alternates to 78 representatives with alternates.

With the three separate councils, “the staff didn’t have a cogent, inclusive voice like the Faculty Senate,” Newsome said. A consolidation committee looked at best practices, structure, bylaws and feedback of employee councils at more than 50 peer institutions, plus those of the U.Va. Faculty Senate and the councils. 

All three employee councils voted to merge into one group. In addition to strengthening a “representative and deliberative voice for staff in matters relating to the University,” as its mission states, the unified group will allow for streamlining procedures and reducing time spent in meetings, freeing up time for more effective activities. Staff Senate information will be consolidated on one website in the near future.

Some recent accomplishments of the employee councils include reviewing educational benefits practices; exploring the idea of employee mentoring programs; scheduling a self-defense class and safety awareness for employees; increasing staff representation on University Committees and task forces; and holding a successful drive to benefit the Blue Ridge Food Bank.

 In small groups, the Staff Senate members brainstormed goals to work on in the coming year and then shared their ideas. They ranged from making a list of what University Committees staff should be represented on, to improving the Reward and Recognition program, to building an interactive section into the new website where employees can post comments or questions and receive a prompt response.

Sullivan applauded the decision to form one unified organization, saying it should have greater impact at a time when shared governance is more important than ever as the University implements the strategic Cornerstone Plan. Organizational excellence, one of the plan’s initiatives, includes enhancing the stewardship of U.Va.’s resources, she pointed out.

“Our most important resource is people,” Sullivan told the group. “We want to build a culture of continuous improvement. You’ll benefit from sharing your perspectives and working together.

“We talk a lot about the student experience related to faculty, but staff are also essential to that experience,” she said. “You are the face of U.Va. I see the value of your work every day. Thank you.”

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