Seminar Reinforces Role of Employee Council Members as Information Conduits

October 11, 2010 — From brainstorming ways of representing their co-workers more effectively to hearing Susan Carkeek, the University of Virginia's vice president and chief human resources officer, share President Teresa Sullivan's three rules of administration, almost 50 members of the University of Virginia's Employee Communications Councils met Oct. 6 to review their roles, improve their leadership skills and identify opportunities for the coming year.

They discussed strengths, such as the diversity of their groups and their access to information, as well as challenges, such as the inability to make policies and the lack of orientation for new council members. They talked about what could be changed and what would help in fulfilling the councils' mission to be a communications bridge between the workforce and U.Va.'s senior administrators.

All employees at the University are represented through one of four employee councils, divided according to U.Va.'s vice presidents and the units reporting to their offices: the President/Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer; the Executive Vice President and Provost; Health System Academic and Research; and the Medical Center. Employees can identify their council, learn how to contact their representatives, and access minutes and meeting schedules at the website.

The councils serve as a communications link between front-line employees and senior University leaders. Employees can speak with their representative or council chair, and the councils discuss employee input at the monthly meetings. In turn, the leaders from the four councils meet every three months as the Employee Communications Council Executive Committee, where they speak directly with Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Leonard W. Sandridge and other senior University leaders.

Carkeek and several council representatives pointed out that U.Va.'s transitions in leadership afford opportunities for the employee councils to be part of the changes that will come with new leaders. In addition to having a new president, two other leadership posts will turn over in the next year; Sandridge will retire from his post after 20 years and more than 40 years at U.Va., and Dr. Arthur Garson Jr. will leave his job as executive vice president and provost.

One of Sullivan's earliest meetings during her transition to U.Va. was with the executive council that comprises the leaders of the four employee councils, said Kathleen Jump, an assistant to Sandridge.

"In this time of recovering from the recession, when resources are scarce and everyone is being asked to do more with less, the councils have become very important to the institution," Jump said. "The two-way communication is critical."

Sandridge, who supported establishing the employee communications councils, has called them "a valued sounding board," Jump said.

"We rely on you to be the word-of-mouth both ways," she said during the Oct. 6 workshop, meaning to and from employees and administrators. "The information and advice you bring will be considered."

Council representatives are now frequently asked to sit on other important committees, too.

"Don't underestimate your role and what you can do," Jump said.

That two-way communication resulted in the creation of the position of University ombudsman as a confidential resource for employees dealing with serious workplace problems, in the addition of partial coverage for acupuncture under the U.Va. health insurance plan and in the offering of a supplemental benefit credit for the lowest-paid employees.

The participants tested their communication savvy with an ice-breaker exercise where one person wrote on a piece of paper one of the highlights or low points in their life, and then passed the paper to the person on the right. That person had to draw a little picture illustrating what was written, and then pass the picture to the right. The third person had to write down what they saw, what they thought it meant, and pass it on. The initial phrase went around six or seven times. Some of the final written outcomes were totally different than the initial item; a few turned out pretty close to the original.

The game showed that people have different perspectives, said Bryan Garey, director of employee development in Human Resources. He and Eric Coleman of HR's Leadership Development Center led the group through two other sessions, a nuts-and-bolts workshop on productive meetings and a "S.W.O.T. analysis."

S.W.O.T. stands for strengths, weaknesses/challenges, opportunities and threats or barriers. The participants broke into smaller groups to analyze the employee councils under the system, then shared their lists with the whole group.

Frequently recurring observations under "strengths" included having open communication between employees and administrators, being supported by senior managers, having a diverse membership and having access to information.

Although the representatives said council members are interested and active in making the most of their communications role, some members said that many of their constituents seem apathetic about or afraid of possible changes.

Some of the attendees saw a lack of resources or a lack of power as weaknesses or barriers.

They also noted that there is no standard procedure for training new council representatives; some were simply notified they'd been appointed to the role. Participants agreed that was a situation that could be rectified.

Carkeek offered a perspective on her early days at U.Va., as well as a progress report on the goals she set soon after she began leading Human Resources. In her first weeks on the job, she encountered the outdated practices associated with processing Employee Work Performance forms, benefits open enrollment and inaccurate time sheets.

"Remember EWPs? My first week, I walked down the hall, and there were stacks and stacks of paper lined up in people's offices. Professional benefits counselors were entering data and scanning paper" – not a very efficient system or smart use of resources, she said.

"Throughout the process of changing systems, we have relied on the comments and advice of the Employee Communications Councils," she said. "The hard decisions we've had to make in health plan changes – the amount of change that needed to be done – would be impossible without ECC support."

Carkeek also relayed Sullivan's three laws of administration: one, don't deliver surprises (and in turn she would agree not to "shoot the messenger"); two, get control of your resources and use them wisely, which includes making the most of employees and their skills; and three, be inclusive when making decisions, seeking input from a range of people, including the stakeholders.

No one should take for granted that the best people will stay at the University without having a great work experience, Carkeek said.

— By Anne Bromley