Process for Establishing New Human Resources System Begins with Focus Groups

October 20, 2006
Oct. 20, 2006 — University employees offered suggestions for improving human resources procedures on Oct. 11, in the first step toward “creating a new human resources system,” according to Yoke San Reynolds, vice president and chief financial officer.

Reynolds convened four groups of employees, including three consisting of randomly selected classified employees, to meet with representatives of the Segal Company, a benefits, compensation and human resources consulting service. The employees answered questions, discussed problems and offered suggestions on how to improve the system. Segal representatives will present the anonymous comments to Reynolds, who was not present during these discussions.

Restructuring legislation approved by the General Assembly gives U.Va. more flexibility in managing its affairs, including creating a new human resources package of programs. Reynolds hopes to have the process complete by the end of 2008.

“We are interested in your suggestions on what would constitute a well-designed HR system,” Reynolds said in a letter to the randomly selected employees.

Meeting in the morning in the Rotunda boardroom, one group of employees complained about how hard it is to get a job at the University, even for people who are already working here.

One man said it took him two-and-a-half years to get his current position, after he called some of the supervisors of the department he wanted to join, seeking help.

“You have to know somebody and know about a job they want filled,” another employee said.

There were complaints from the other direction too. One employee trying to fill a vacancy had to request additional applicants from HR because the ones she had been sent were not looking for the type of job she was offering.

Employees said job descriptions were too generic and to get more pay, they have to move from one job to another within U.Va. One woman said recent pay increases were negated by hikes in health insurance and parking fees.

Reynolds, in a discussion after the focus group met, challenged this statement, giving as an example the following: a 4 percent raise ($1,200) for a job that pays $30,000 per year is not negated by a 4 percent increase ($132) on the annual premium for the high-premium health plan family option, and an increase to $43 a month for parking in a premium reserved lot.

A complaint arose over how little a department head can increase an employee’s pay to keep him or her from being lured away by another department or an outside employer. Others suggested that experience and knowledge should be the determining factors in setting pay levels. Discussion moderator J. Richard Johnson, senior vice president of Segal, asked employees if supervisors were using in-band adjustments to increase employee’s pay.

“Sure,” said one. “If you can extract teeth.” Employees requested more options than the current evaluation levels: extraordinary contributor, contributor and below contributor. They also stressed that employees should be evaluated by a person who understands the nature of the job in question, as well as a suggestion that peer assessments be part of the evaluation process. One employee complained about having to use annual leave to vacate her parking space at the John Paul Jones Arena lot to open the space for event-related parking that evening.

“If you’ve already paid for a parking space, why can’t you park anywhere, as long as you have the hangtag?” another employee asked.

Employees also talked about flex time, tuition breaks for children and spouses, and more time to tend ailing children. They also wanted more opportunities for training and education. One man complained that he sought some technical training through the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program, but all the technical programs he wanted were only offered at the school’s Northern Virginia campus.

For communicating with employees, Johnson said U.Va. would have to use multiple methods. After the session, one participant said he was pleased. “I expected someone in front of the room drawing on a blackboard,” he said. “This was more relaxed, and I am optimistic about it. Eventually things will change.”

“I felt I was listened to,” said another. “This is more than going through the motions, because they didn’t have to do this at all.”

“The input from the focus groups [and from faculty and employee communication councils] will be used to develop a survey that all employees will be asked to complete,” Reynolds said after the meeting. “We are working on the survey with the [U.Va.] Center for Survey Research and [with the College of] William & Mary and Virginia Tech.”

The survey will probably be distributed in January.