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Harvard's New Dining Halls Work - But Are Workers Happy?

By Geoffrey A. Fowler and Victoria C. Hallett, Crimson Staff Writerss

Larry Williams, the union representative in Leverett House dining hall, picked up a phone two weeks ago to talk to Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) Director Ted A. Mayer about concerns prompted by upcoming renovations to House kitchens. Mayer never returned the phone call.

Instead, Mayer sent Williams a warning--and threatened him with possible job suspension for making the call.

Adams House cook and chief union representative Edward Childs says he was baffled by Mayer's reaction. "[Mayer] is isolating himself from his staff," he says.

After three years of strained relations between Mayer and his staff over support and personality, Childs filed a serious grievance with the Local 26 Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union against Mayer last Wednesday.

At press time, Mayer had yet to respond to the grievance, but, former dining hall managers say, clashes like these contradict the "participative management" style Mayer says he applies to his 650 employees.

During a year of high-profile external change--an extensive $3 million renovation of Eliot and Kirkland dining halls--and stressful internal reorganization, hourly employees and managers alike say they have locked horns with Mayer because of what they claim is a gruff administrative style.

The retention rate has plummeted, among managers in particular; Quincy House alone has lost five over the course of the year.

"I can't walk on campus now without a manager saying, 'Can you get me a job?'" says former Adams House Manager Peter J. Atkinson, who left HUDS last fall because of "a personal conflict with management" to take a position with the Kennedy School of Government's independent dining services operation. He is still a member of the Winthrop House Senior Common Room and a first-year advisor.

Since he took the helm in June of 1997, Mayer has revamped the organizational structure and customer accountability system--difficult endeavors, especially in a tight labor market that encourages mobility among food service workers. Armed with consultants, he's also put into place a program that engages all levels of staff in strategic planning.

"I want Dining Services to more directly address the needs of Harvard," Mayer says.

HUDS has become more corporate--a move Mayer promised would build a better team from the management and staff.

But instead, dozens of staff members say, it has isolated many of them.

"[There is] a growing chasm between 67 Winthrop St. [the offices of HUDS,] and the front line of the residential dining program," Atkinson says.

"Participatory Management"

Lined with shelves of books on management--including a thick biography of automotive tycoon Lee Iacocca--Mayer's office reflects his corporate vision.

Sitting at his large conference table, he extracts laminated charts from his desk and lays them out. "We're made of two parts: technology and people. Both are necessary," he begins.

Mayer's multicolored documents represent the results of the first action he took as dining services director in the summer of 1997. He wants to put HUDS on the track to professionalism--scrutinizing staff, facilities and budgets to bring them in line with his strategic goals.

In interviews and with staff, Mayer uses the buzzwords of the corporate world: accountability, trust and strategic plans.

"The director's office, all of the managers and 10 hourly staff members spent four days together in Western Mass.," Mayer says. "What came out were five initiatives...and the vision wall."

Each manager and representatives of the hourly staff, Mayer explains, was given a chance to give his or her input. Now, he says, each is accountable for the plan they all developed.

For example, by monitoring managers' computer use, Mayer discovered that some use the resources too little--with unwillingness to learn new technology--or too much--with wasted hours surfing the web. "Am I putting a greater burden on them by asking them to be on the floor?" Mayer asks.

University Vice President Sally H. Zeckhauser admits that Mayer's changes have placed the greater burden directly on managers.

"This is our vision, but you have to be accountable for it," Zeckhauser says. "The weight is on the supervisors. It's focused more on the managers locally."

But some staff say Mayer's mantra translates into empty rhetoric. "They talk a lot about accountability, trust and respect--but they don't practice what they preach," says one manager who recently left HUDS, but asked not to be identified.

While none take issue with institutional accountability, staff say they object to Mayer's weak support system.

"Everyone should be accountable, but it has to start at the top," says the former manger. "I think that there is a big difference between positive reinforcement and criticism. When we're already giving 110 percent, sometimes they don't recognize the whole picture."

A second former manager recounts being berated by a member of the director's office for labeling carrot coins as long branch carrots--items with identical nutritional value.

Staff members say, however, the changes are not the sole cause of tension. They criticize the way he treats them as people.

Atkinson says Mayer's attitude frequently clashes with his employees.

"He won't say 'hi' to people when he's mad," Atkinson says.

Childs sees Mayer visit Adams House for the occasional meal, but their relationship is anything but close, he says.

"We get an aloof greeting," Childs says. "We know a lot less about him than we did about [former HUDS director] Mr. Berry. Sometimes we don't even remember his name."

And managers say meeting Mayer's expectations requires them to work longer hours with less direct support from the director's office. Hall managers regularly work as many as 14 hours per day, they say.

"Truth and respect seem to only go one way--down. Not back up," says the second former manager.

The Party Line

In response to complaints, Mayer repeatedly emphasizes "change is hard."

"A lot of misunderstanding takes place," Mayer says. "You're dealing with people who have been here a long time, but the environment has changed and what students want has changed."

"Things had to continue to change, but in order to do that, a greater degree of management expertise was necessary," he says.

Although Mayer believes he's on track, he admits to some managerial blunders.

For example, a number of staff members criticized Mayer's decision to travel to England with a handful of other administrators to check out cutting edge equipment while the renovated dining halls were reaching their peak stress level.

"The ill-fated trip to Europe was not a lark, but the timing was a failure," Mayer says. "That was when the staff at Eliot-Kirkland needed us the most."

Committed to his management strategies, Mayer says he believes these problems will smooth out over time if people just stick to his plan.

To assist, Mayer has employed a series of consultants, from the New England Culinary Institute for chefs, to Chanon and Reina Associates, Inc. for managers.

However, some of the staff take umbrage at the presence of the consultants.

"I've dealt with consultants and I think they are a waste of money," the first former manager says. "There's only so much trust and respect that we can talk about."

Because the consultants offer a highly visible outside voice, they provide Mayer a broader perspective on management issues, he says.

"I am much more aware of what's going on than people realize," Mayer adds.

Mayer blames some of the workers' apparent dissatisfaction on a culture of complaint.

"You have to apply a certain amount of perspective to what people say," Mayer explains. "Does that mean they're unhappy or is that just how they communicate?"

Unionized staff and some managers may protest, but the executives in Mayer's own office remain steadfast in their support of their boss.

"I think Ted is very supportive of managers...in the same way I know he is appreciative and grateful for the wonderful staff members that interact with our customers every day," says Executive Chef Michael Miller. "I know that for a fact."

Mealtime Messiah

The tensions in HUDS may be exacerbated by the memory of Mayer's predecessor, Michael P. Berry.

Dubbed the "Mealtime Messiah" who provided students with their every desire from festive meals to chocolate milk, Berry brought new life to HUDS for the first time in over 35 years.

"I couldn't understand what they were doing or why they were doing it," Berry says. "No one had asked the students what they wanted."

So he asked. Door by door.

At the beginning of each year, Berry would stop by every undergraduate room one at a time.

"It took many, many nights, but it was fun," Berry says. "We'd bring treats to the room."

His relationship with his staff was even stronger, Childs says.

"I knew every one of them," Berry recalls. "We didn't have one [union] arbitration in five years. When I announced I was leaving, there wasn't a dry eye in the place, including mine."

Just as Mayer has "participative management," Berry had a three-tiered-five-word-plan: "Yes, Wow and Give a Damn."

"If we were going to do this, we were going to do this right," Berry says. "I never had a bad day in five-and-a-half years."

The difference between the two management plans also reflects the vast differences in the two directors' personalities.

Mayer relies on business structures, such as committees, broad-based surveys and consultants to get feedback from students and staff.

In contrast, Berry used consultants sparingly--mainly for design issues--and preferred to lead initiatives himself, especially staff motivation.

"Their personalities are 180 degrees different," Zeckhauser says. " Ted is much more low key, but knows food equally as well. He has been deliberate in his goals and with performance management."

Is Change Hard?

Before he left Harvard for Disney, Berry's accomplishments included revamping the menu, instituting salad and sandwich bars, inventing "festive meals" and creating retail branches including the popular Science Center Greenhouse.

When Mayer took the job in June 1997, after HUDS' first pick turned the position down, he says HUDS lacked consistency.

"I came in when everything was wonderful, yet still things had to continue to change," Mayer says.

Under Mayer's administration, HUDS has developed the "fly by" lunch program, instituted a wide-scale facilities renovation project and plans to add an extra "brain break" snack to the undergraduate meal plan next year.

Mayer says that the changes he has implemented are difficult because they necessitate deeper reorganizations in staff work habits.

"It takes a lot for people to change their modus operandi," Mayer says.

"When Ted [Mayer] came aboard, the work that we needed to do in dining services was harder work, much harder in the sense that it was very process oriented," says Executive Chef Miller, who has worked under both Berry and Mayer. "We had done a lot of positive things with customer service levels, but we needed to address some food quality issues and some renovation issues and really sit down and develop a long-term process and plan for dining services."

But Childs says that the difficulty of change alone can't explain Mayer's high turnover. "There were no more changes than under Mr. Berry," he says.

It may just come down to personality differences.

While Mayer has focused on increased accountability, Berry relied on motivational support to bolster employees.

"Accountability came across in another way. I inspire people to be all they can be," Berry says. "They had to work a little harder, but you get out of life what you put in it and they got it."

Perhaps time, too, makes a difference. "Mike [Berry] is gone," says Master of Quincy House Michael Shinagel. "It's always easier to idealize the past and demonize the present."

"It just worked for me, and he has to go with what works for him," Berry adds.

Revolving Door

A challenge Mayer faces that Berry didn't have to confront is a tight labor market, which encourages staff to look elsewhere for employment.

While the current United States unemployment rate is 4.1 percent, Cambridge's rate has slipped as low as 1.4 percent in recent months.

"People don't come knocking at your door--you have to go out to them," says Judith R. Della Barba, associate director for human resources at HUDS. "When an opportunity comes along in this market, people have an opportunity to move like they've never moved before."

With more openings in higher paying jobs than ever, HUDS' historically high retention rate has dropped considerably.

Still, some say the labor market can't shoulder all of the blame.

"Harvard was the best place to work. That's what doesn't come through," Atkinson says. "You never work past nine, there's a fixed wage. And Harvard's benefits are way better than Atlantic Fish Company or Border Cafe."

Atkinson notes that a dedicated human resources department, which Mayer added to HUDS, is an advantage--but he questions why it failed to stem the exodus.

Della Barba suggests that the loss of five managers in Quincy this year is due to the large number of other jobs available in the food services field, as well as personal problems beyond HUDS' control.

"Granted [losing five managers] is high, but they were individual events. I don't see a connection between one another," Della Barba says.

And, in fact, the human resources department has made great strides in keeping staff within its ranks.

While HUDS' list of hourly job openings was a full two pages in early November, by May that list had been whittled down by half.

To Those Who Wait

Mayer says his plan is finally coming together.

The success of one of Mayer's two-year projects, the Culinary Support Group (CSG), backs up his contention that his management style will work in the long-term. A new unit, housed below Eliot and Kirkland, the CSG was initially unpopular with the staff.

"You think they weren't pissed at me? You think they weren't angry with me?" Mayer says.

But with CSG manager Andy Allan's continued commitment to working with Mayer and his consultants, the underground kitchen has become one of the tightest and happiest units, this year winning the highly coveted "Harvard Hero" award.

"What they did was remarkable turn around," Mayer says.

But at what cost?

Allan has spent many hours at CSG.

"I have worked like a dog. I don't get out much. This is my baby. When you have an infant, that's all that matters," Allan says.

Eliot and Kirkland Houses, which faced staff shortages and high stress in the months following their renovations, have also settled into a more comfortable routine.

"I think the initiatives we have begun are now solidifying," Mayer says.

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