Cooking Up Fair Employment

University community is improved when all employees can participate in activities

During Adams House’s annual Halloween Drag Night this October, a scene played out in the House’s kitchen that has resulted in bitter accusations and a University investigation into Adams House chef and union official Ed Childs. Details of what happened in the kitchen and the ongoing investigation are heavily contested or unavailable. But the case raises questions about how University employees engage with House communities and about how supervisors, managers and employees treat one another on the job.

That employees can participate freely in House and other University events is extremely important for generating positive attitudes within the University community. Harvard workplaces ought to be characterized by respect for employees. As Harvard’s August 2002 Statement of Values affirms, “we owe it to one another to uphold certain basic values of the community [including] respect for the rights, differences, and dignity of others.” Those values must be adhered to in interactions between workers and supervisors, and claims by an employee that a supervisor or manager was disrespectful should be taken very seriously.

Usually, according to Childs, employees are able to participate in the Adams House Drag Night and regularly do so. This year, however, full employee participation was hindered. Childs—a 28-year veteran of Harvard’s workforce—claims that employees were told they could not participate at all; a manager claims that employees could participate, but only after cleaning for the night was complete. Childs says the tasks assigned—including cleaning the walls of the kitchen—were frivolous and that preventing the workers from participating in the House event was unacceptable. Childs refused to do the work assigned to him and called on other employees to join him.

Given the uncertainty about what actually happened and the gravity of Childs’ claims—reflected in fellow workers’ willingness to stop their work and argue with a supervisor—it seems appropriate for the University to thoroughly investigate the incident. This investigation should not, of course, constitute a review simply of Childs but should also examine the actions of supervisors and managers who may have contributed to the dispute. And to encourage fair accounts of the events—without implied pressure from the University—employees and supervisors should be interviewed in a non-threatening environment, with union representatives present and with the involvement of the University ombudsperson.

Regardless of the outcome of an investigation, such a harsh management-employee conflict highlights a need for more sensitivity training. A program with this goal already exists—Harvard recently updated its training program for supervisors and managers. The new program came out of a report from the Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Policies (HCECP) and the resulting Training Advisory Group. Though the program’s development has been completed and, according to a Office of Human Resources report last summer, hundreds of supervisors and managers have gone through the three-session course, it is immensely important that all management take part in the training sessions and that the University work to ensure complete participation.

Childs has worked at the University for many years, has established strong relationships with students in Adams House and around campus and has served the school on HCECP. As a valued member of the Harvard community, Childs should be allowed—and encouraged—to participate in House events. If the cleaning of walls, or any other cleaning task assigned that night, could have been easily delayed until after the Drag Night festivities, it should have been.