Task Forces Kick Off Design of New Human Resources System

February 01, 2008
February 1, 2008 — The cavernous Newcomb Hall Ballroom was packed on Tuesday, Jan. 29, with almost 250 people gathering around tables for the initial meeting of employee task forces that will guide the creation of a new human resources system for University staff.

They'll be seeing a lot of each other in the coming weeks. The bulk of their work is due in just two months.

For many in the group drawn from across Grounds, what they are responsible for was just starting to sink in.

"I'm proud to be involved in coming up with something," said Doug Hurd, director of facilities for the library. "It's bold and ambitious. To get that number of people to work together and come up with something is not going to be easy. We'll know more in a month."

Hurd noted that all the employees involved were taking on this challenge on top of their normal workloads. "But people weren't complaining — they're willing to spend some extra hours if they think it's going toward something worthwhile."

"The fact that as many folks showed up as did indicates that a lot of people are interested," said physics lab director Rick Marshall.

"Whatever the system ends up looking like is going to be based on what these groups come up with," explained Jim Traub, the project manager for the creation of the new system. "It doesn't mean that every single recommendation is going to get approved. But whatever does get approved will be based solely on the work of these groups. It isn't as though there is some other solution sitting on the sidelines. It truly is a blank slate."

By the end of the marathon meeting, many participants were optimistic about the possibilities ahead. "I was skeptical about the purpose of convening a large group of employees and whether it would be useful work," said Wayne Terwilliger, manager of general books at the University Bookstore. "But they went a long way toward convincing me that they are going to be putting employees to good use” in this process.

The higher education restructuring legislation passed by Virginia's General Assembly in 2005 allows U.Va. more autonomy and flexibility in several areas, including human resources, explained Susan Carkeek, vice president and chief human resources officer.

In her opening remarks, Carkeek told the group that the current state classified staff system is a direct descendent of the federal civil service system created in the 1880s to prevent federal jobs from being handed out as political rewards. Creating a new system "gives us a chance to create a system rooted in the needs of U.Va. in 2008, rather than the needs of 1880. ...Our goal is to create the best HR system we can," she said.

The parameters of the new human resources system are governed by a management agreement forged between the University and the state. The agreement stipulates that a new human resources system will not affect employees' retirement, health insurance, worker's compensation or access to the state's grievance procedures, Carkeek said.

The system will govern "University staff," the designation that replaced "classified employees" on July 1, 2006. Anyone hired on or after that date will automatically fall under the new HR system that is drawn up.

Classified staff will never be transferred into the new system without electing to do so, she added. They will have the option, at least once every two years, to opt in. The first such 90-day enrollment period is projected to be this fall, from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, with the new system officially launching on Jan. 1, 2009.

The convening of the task forces is the culminating stage in efforts over the past 18 months to gather employee input about how to improve the University's human resources system, beginning with focus group meetings with randomly selected employees in October 2006. 

Their input helped form the basis of a survey of all staff and their staff and faculty supervisors (5,662 employees), conducted in April through June of 2007, the results of which were presented to employees in a series of meetings in September 2007.

"We are building this from the ground up, based on the feedback we received from the focus groups and the survey," said Carkeek. "We want to design something that uniquely reflects the needs, issues and values of this University."

University Human Resources sought employee volunteers to work on the task forces, and about a quarter of the 300 members are self-nominated. "I wanted to get as many people as possible involved in this process, but the response we got was even more than I could have hoped for," said Carkeek. "I invite anyone interested to come and join in. There will be many opportunities to get involved, such as during the public comment period."

The 20 separate task forces each have unique responsibilities as they meet weekly over the next two months to hammer out recommendations regarding all aspects of the new system. For instance, one task force will be investigating enhancements to the leave system, such as adding the option to "sell back" unused leave. Another task force will design a new performance evaluation process.

Fifteen of the 20 task forces will lay out career paths — complete with storyboards detailing how a hypothetical career could evolve through several different positions at U.Va. — for various "career clusters," with commonalities found in different divisions across Grounds. Four examples are information technology, operations, finance and facilities.

The task forces will envision overlapping and interrelated parts of the new system. For instance, the career development storyboarding will inform the training and development opportunities that a different task force will come up with. Task force members will use U.Va.'s Collab software system to improve collaboration between the task forces.

The task forces' policy recommendations are due March 30, said Traub, who was hired recently to lead the process for two years, drawing on his experience supervising similar large-scale projects on tight timelines.  Most notably, Traub was a director of the post-Sept. 11, 2001 campaign to hire 50,000 new security agents and federalize security at the nation's 450 airports in just nine months.

The task forces' recommendations will be reviewed by administrative and advisory committees during April, followed by a University-wide public comment period from May 1 to June 30.  Then, during the month of July, the task forces will respond to comments and revise their recommendations before final implementation decisions are made from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, ahead of the enrollment period starting Oct. 1.

How many classified employees choose to enroll at the first opportunity will be one indicator of how well the design process goes, Traub said. However, "just as important as the sign-up rate of transfers into the new system is that the U.Va. community is comfortable and confident with the process that got us there," he added. "And I think we're doing that."