Human Resource Trouble

Workers Say Effort to Fix Office Is Misguided

Harold W. Hirtle doesn't like the people in Human Resources. They don't like him much either.

It's hard to identify the exact starting point for the antipathy between Hirtle, an employee and shop steward in the Office of the University Publisher, and the University department charged with helping Harvard's workers.

It may have been when working conditions in the office became so bad that Hirtle went over the heads of human resources and shop officials and called in the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to fine Harvard and order a cleanup.

It may have happened when, faced with allegations of employee drug use in the office, human resource professionals shunned testing and instead organized a tribunal during which office employees were led, one-by-one, into a room and presented with a prisoner's dilemma: Squeal on your co-workers, or lose your job.

Or it may have began one of the dozen times that Hirtle tried to talk to on-duty employees during his off-hours and was escort- ed off the premises by managers. When he complained, he was suspended, and human resources rushed to back up his bosses. He "got satisfaction," he says, only after he took his complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, which rescinded the suspension.

Whenever it started. Hirtle, like many employees at Harvard, has become embittered with the various human resources departments around the University.

"It's calmed down a little bit, but it's still under the surface," Hirtle says now of his relationship with human resources. "It's a battle and it's not pleasant."

This antipathy represents an interesting predicament for human resources officials University-wide, who handle tasks such as benefits, training and child care in addition to union contract negotiations and implementation.

This academic year, the office, under new director Diane Patrick, embarked on a grand decentralization plan to give virtual autonomy to satellite offices of human resources in the graduate schools and departments. Under the plan, a scaled-back central office would exist merely to consult and provide some services. The goals were two-fold: make the services offered by Human Resources more accessible to workers while giving individual deans and local administrators more control.

After one year, there is a strong sense among the University's unionized workers that, while any attempt at improvement--after years of confusion and inaction--by the office is admirable, the decentralization plan isn't working.

Workers and union leaders say the power given to human resources people in the schools has made their bosses less accountable to University policies and Labor laws. Since human resources people now work closely with deans and administrators, they are even more strongly opposed to what workers see as their proper rights and benefits.

"I think the way it's been decentralized really hurts it as a University department, and it hurts the employees trying to deal with Harvard," says Donene M. Williams, president of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, a University-wide bargaining unit. "They lack a very clear vision of what Harvard should be as a workplace. So we end up with many different visions of Harvard as a workplace."

That sounds like revisionist history to University officials who remember the first negotiations with the clerical and technical workers, Harvard's largest union which represents 3,600 workers. In the 1989 contract, the union and Harvard said "we agree about the value of decentralization."

"Indeed, it is our common view that insofar as it is practical and equitable, constructive relations in the individual workplace are to be encouraged as the focus of problem solving," the contract reads.

Beyond what the University sees as union hypocrisy, human resources officials say the only way to save their long-struggling central office was with a bold plan to decentralize the delivery of human resources services. The unions and workers complain because they don't know what's best for them and because of natural resistance to change, human resources officials say.

The Office of Human Resources, the centerpiece of the University's decentralized network of human resources offices which spans Harvard from the Divinity School to the Longwood Medical Area, has long been a black sheep in the Holyoke Center bureaucracy.

Three different University vice presidents--the vice president and general counsel, the vice president of finance and the vice president of administration--have passed around responsibility for the office over the last decade. And managers and workers around the University have long complained about the central office's inefficiency and lack of direction.

Six years ago, Vice President for Finance Robert H. Scott and newly appointed Vice President for Administration Sally H. Zeckhauser got together to talk about what should be done with the Office of Human Resources.

"We agreed at that point that because I was an experienced vice president and she was new, we decided to keep it under me in finance," Scott says.

Under Scott, the office floundered. It's had six directors in the last six years, and it became so directionless and inefficient that many individual schools and departments lobbied for greater control over their own human resource functions.

In May 1991, Scott passed responsibility for the department to Zeckhauser, and she ran with the ball. Zeckhauser spent a year studying the department and getting input from University officials, many of them administrators in the different schools and departments. In the end, the arguments for decentralization presented by these administrators won out.

"What I was trying to do was create a collaborative office to reshape the center office to meet the needs of the schools overall," says Zeckhauser. "Certainly the model in the operations I've been working on is a customer service model." The customers, she says, are both the smaller human resources units and the people who work there.

Beyond the shift to a decentralized system that eventually emerged, Zeckhauser also formed a University-wide human resources policy-making council, ordered the development of an annual human resource plan (which Patrick refused to release) and expanded the size of the central office's monthly newsletter.

After Harvard Real Estate President Kristin Demong served a year as acting director, Zeckhauser hired then-University Attorney Patrick away from the Office of the General Counsel.

Patrick knew the ins-and-outs of human resources from her experience representing the office as a Harvard lawyer. Friendly and well-liked, she's won the trust of many staff members who feel they can approach her with almost any question. But Patrick acknowledges that her office remains largely distrusted by workers around the University who have long been promised change in the department, and have yet to see it.

"I would like to have the University look to this office for expertise in all of the areas of human resources and for assistance," says Patrick. "I'd like them to look to this office as a partner in planning strategically for the University."

"We have been in transition for so long that people wonder what our mission is," Patrick says. "We are in the process of defining what that mission will be."

Communicating that mission to workers and unions, however, has not been a strength of the Office of Human Resources. The customer-friendly department has a lot of unhappy customers like Hirtle. Among them:

* Security guards in the Harvard Police Department say the central office has for years ignored their complaints about discrimination and on-the-job harassment in their unit. In many instances, human resources officials referred guards back to police department administrators who already had dismissed their complaints.

Human resources officials won't discuss any specific complaints, but they suggest that the guards who have complained are trying to cover-up for spotty employment records. General Counsel Margaret H. Marshall has opened an investigation of the complaints, and hired a former FBI agent to conduct interviews.

* Employees of the University Health Services clinical laboratory say their UHS human resources coordinator, Karen G. Fischer, has long worked with laboratory manager Barbara Skane to quash employee complaints about everything from overtime to alleged improper packaging of lab specimens.

The employees say Fischer largely ignored their complaints when their 30 minute break was cut in half. Two employees said that after they approached Fischer in confidence, Skane asked them about the specifics of those complaints. They say Fischer violated their trust. Fischer has refused to comment.

In addition, the employees only saw changes in lab packaging--which included the use of occasionally leaky brown paper bags to handle blood and semen specimens--after OSHA threatened to investigate.

* Jean S. Thong, an employee in the manager's office at the Medical School's Vanderbilt Hall, says she was laid off earlier this year even though assistant director of Medical School human resources Elaine Pridham knew Thong's boss had mistreated her.

A year's worth of electronic mail messages from Vanderbilt Hall show that Pridham had intimate knowledge of arguments and disagreements between Thong and her boss, Yvonne Geeve. Thong says her lay-off was unusual because another employee in the department has less seniority than she does.

There are no rules saying that seniority should determine who is laid off and who is not. Workers say Thong was the hardest-working employee in the small office.

Pridham, at one point in the electronic mail, tells Thong to take a vacation so that she will be away while Pridham works with Geeve on her management skills. Pridham refused to comment.

* Darryl Hicks, a cook in the College's largest dining hall, says human resources officials have long ignored complains from him and other workers about how they are treated on the job.

And when a student group, the Harvard-Radcliffe Labor Alliance, met with Patrick to discuss the Hicks case, the director was unnecessarily dismissive, according to students.

Hicks has a long disciplinary record, but he says that his bosses, in concert with human resources, have worked to build up his record in hopes of firing him, which they did this spring. The firing came shortly after he filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Patrick says decentralization should quell complaints by allowing for more personal, local solutions to labor-management tensions. She says she doesn't see any more complaints now than she did a year ago, before the decentralization of human resources began in earnest.

But she also acknowledges that there are problems in the Office of Labor Relations, which is part of the central Office of Human Resources. The labor relations office has been without a director since Vivienne Rubeski, who was admired by workers for her honesty, died last year.

"They are grossly understaffed," says Patrick. "With the loss of the director of labor relations, we lost a lot of capacity."

Union officials say Patrick has dragged her feet in picking a replacement for Rubeski, while the director says she had to wait for the end of contract negotiations with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers before she had could devote her full attention to the choice.

But workers say the absence of a leader has left much of the responsibility for labor relations with associate director Carolyn R. Young '76, who is widely despised by union representatives for being too inflexible. In an interview with The Crimson this spring, Young said she could not remember ever reversing the termination of an employee that was appealed to her.

"Carolyn's a great one for quoting legalities, although she doesn't want to recognize the rights of union members," says Hirtle, the Office of University Publisher worker and shop steward. "She does her job very well, if her job is to maintain management at all costs."

Young doesn't comment on specific individuals or their statements, but she says she tries to deal with each case on its merits.

Patrick defends Young's performance. "I don't find that office to be rigid," says Patrick. "I, too, read what [Young] said, and even if she said that it doesn't show any evidence of rigidity. It simply means the agreements proved to be in favor of management in the individual cases."

If workers outside of the department are unhappy, those who work on the sixth and seventh floor of Holyoke Center have not always been content either.

Workers who have been with the department during the past six years describe it as having been a difficult place to work because of the lack of continuity.

Last summer, in order to scale back the central office, human resources offered 73 employees a voluntary severance plan. Twenty took advantage of the offer--twice as many as the department had expected.

"We've hired seven or eight people this year, because more people took our incentive program than we planned," Patrick says. She says the rapid reduction in force temporarily hurt the department's effectiveness.

Patrick and other officials say different employees had different reasons for leaving, but they acknowledge that some were unhappy with working conditions and did not want to undergo another administrative shake-up.

Beneath all the official, reasoned explanations for the recent change in human resources is a hope that decentralization will take hold, and Harvard's workers and managers will live, for the most part, in harmony.

In interviews, officials in eight of the local human resources offices said they were pleased with the experiment of decentralization. They don't see as much of the central office as they did two years ago, and they like it that way.

But no other Ivy League school has as decentralized a human resources administration as Harvard. Some officials at other schools wonder how so many local, autonomous departments can ever make the University-wide changes in areas like affirmative action that are dictated by college presidents and labor law. Ken Freeman, director of employee relations at Dartmouth College, says decentralization prevents bold initiatives and progress in people managing.

"With centralization, we're given a higher probability that you're complying with federal laws," Freeman says. "At Harvard, when it first happened, there were a lot of people who weren't competent to administer labor law."

The failure of the recent five year plan to promote affirmative action around the University may be indicative of a problem with decentralization. And with President Neil L. Rudenstine urging the University's departments to come together, an active decentralization policy may be at best unproductive and at worst untimely.

"When Rudenstine first came on board and he talked about making the University one place. I'd hoped he'd also make it one workplace," says Williams, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers president. "What we've seen is the exact opposite."

Rudenstine disagrees, and says he supports the notion of autonomous units as long as they cooperate with one another.

"Ideally, you want local representation," says Rudenstine. "That means clearly you're going to have a certain amount of local decision-making go on. If you had only a central staff, I'm not quote sure how that agreement would work."

In addition, Williams and union director Bill Jaeger say human resources has become more inefficient under decentralization, and that individual human resources units duplicate each other's work.

Patrick defends decentralization. She says the only duplications that occur are in the field of conflict resolution, which every office needs to be actively involved in.

And different schools have different human resources needs. The School of Public Health, for example, subsidizes staff who participate in athletics or work out at health clubs. Such a program is not necessary at the Business School, which has a sparkling gymnasium called Shad Hall.

"It's a mistake to say we're completely decentralized," says Patrick. "Yes, that means some policies are developed here that are not in place there. That doesn't mean that they are wrong."

Despite all the complaints, workers and the union retain some optimism about human resources. Many officials in the office, especially Patrick, are seen as well-intentioned, and human resources offices all over the University have tremendous potential.

But a cease fire in the war of the words probably won't come anytime soon. Workers and unions want to see less decentralization, more emphasis on helping employees pursue their complaints, and, above all, a coherent vision for Harvard as a workplace.

All that may not happen. "You're going to see a lot more decentralization, not less of it," says Vice President Robert Scott.

But even the most bitter enemies of human resources hold out some hope for improvement. Harry Hirtle, the worker in the Office of the University Publisher, doesn't like human resources, but he's had some good experiences working with one employee there, Associate Director of Human Resources Donna McGee, and he thinks things can change.

Says Hirtle, "The initiative needs to come from Harvard to smooth over relations."

Stephen E. Frank contributed to the reporting of this story.

The Office of Human Resources has consumed six directors in the last six years. An energetic new director has a bold strategy for revitalizing the department, but both workers and experts from other universities say the strategy, decentralization, is fatally flawed.

Patrick acknowledges that her office remains largely distrusted by workers around the University who have long been promised change in the department, and have yet to see it.Crimson File PhotoDONENE M. WILLIAMS, president of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, says decentralization of human resources administration has hurt employees trying to deal with Harvard.