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 He "got satisfaction," he says, only after he took his complaint to the National Labor Relations Board, which rescinded the suspension.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.