Human resources turnover slows CCAS support staff hires

Media Credit: Dan Rich | Photo Editor

William Briscoe, the chair of the physics department, has relied on students' help in moving the department from Corcoran Hall to a temporary spot in Staughton Hall.

Department chairs and faculty in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences said they have struggled to fill administrative positions after turnover in the University’s human resources offices.

At least two departments in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences are short on administrative staff, and some department chairs say they have been waiting for months to fill vacancies. Those faculty said top spots in the CCAS human resources office had been vacant for months, leading to back-up in posting job opportunities and filling empty positions.

University spokesman Brett Zongker said there are now no vacancies within the CCAS human resources team.

Mafona Shea recently took over as the school’s HR manager after an extended vacancy in the position. Zongker declined to say exactly how long the job had been vacant but archives of the school’s “Contact Us” page have not listed the position since March.

“It is normal for any workplace to experience staff turnover, and this has included recent changes in HR personnel,” Zongker said in an email. “A HR manager at CCAS and two HR Associates are now in place, and requests are being processed as quickly and as judiciously as possible.”

The University’s central HR department has also experienced turnover this year. Sabrina Ellis left her post as vice president of human resources in January, and Dale McLeod has served as interim vice president since. Officials have not yet announced a search for a permanent HR leader.

Faculty in the psychology and physics departments said the new HR manager will likely need to catch up on hiring that was delayed during the position’s vacancy.

There are currently four CCAS administrative assistant positions listed on GW’s job posting website in physics, biological sciences, statistics and organizational sciences. But more positions could be open than are listed: Some faculty members said they waited as long as six months for positions to be filled after reporting to HR that they were vacant.

Zongker declined to comment on how many administrative positions in CCAS are vacant but have not yet been posted on GW’s jobs website.

Department chairs said they have been stretched thin, balancing the additional administrative duties with their regular work as faculty.

Carol Sigelman, chair of the psychology department, said her department has had a vacancy at the office’s front desk for about a month. Sigelman said the department filed for a new hire as soon as they needed one, but HR officials have not yet responded to the request. The position has yet to be posted on the University’s jobs website.

“The absence of a front desk person has required more work by others in the office to keep things going smoothly,” Sigelman said. “This has also been very frustrating for faculty who are trying hard to advance their research but are frequently slowed by delays in their ability to hire the people they need to do so.”

In the interim, another employee in the psychology department has been working at the desk, covering administrative duties like answering phones, setting up appointments and helping students who visit the department. But Sigelman said the employee was not able to work for all of September because HR started using a new set of employment documents, which caused a delay in filing the employment extension.

Sigelman said this is not the only hiring delay she dealt with in the past year: In April, a psychology graduate student needed to complete two weeks of work with the department after graduation, but Sigelman said that delays in HR led to a five-month wait. The department has only recently gotten the green light to hire the alumna.

CCAS Dean Ben Vinson had a meeting with department chairs and HR representatives last year, apologizing for the delays and promising improvements, Sigelman said. But hiring delays have continued due to staff vacancies, meaning the existing HR staff has had to fill in the gaps, she said.

“An HR staff member who had to pick up some of the backlog of work was very helpful when contacted about a couple of cases but was also clearly overwhelmed and unable to make everything move forward,” she said.

One possible solution for these vacancies is ColonialTemps, the University’s in-house temporary work agency. But the temp agency’s office is also in search of two administrative assistants, according to the jobs website.

Bill Briscoe, chair of the physics department, said the department has been down an office staffer since last November, excluding a three-week period in May when someone was hired for the position but quickly left for another job. Since then, the department has used students to pick up the slack and assist with the department’s move from Corcoran Hall to Staughton Hall.

Briscoe said candidates for the administrative assistant position are now being interviewed, but the fallout from turnover in the central HR department has slowed the process. He added that the office has not been transparent about the status of hires throughout the vacancy.

“It’s hard to tell where our searches are at a time,” Briscoe said. “Once it leaves a local office at Columbian school – people we know we can talk to, get things done, people who are trying to help us – we, or they, sometimes can’t even figure out at what stage it’s even being held up.”

The new HR representatives in the Columbian College seem “very reasonable to work with,” Briscoe said. But he said administrators in the central HR department do not provide sufficient support to the schools or to the HR teams within individual schools.

“For the credit of the Columbian school, they saw the problem, and they tried to fix it,” Briscoe said. “It’s a terrible job when you come in in the middle, you have to fix a problem someone else caused, you have all that backlog. I can really feel for them.”

Now that the Columbian College has an HR leader, some department chairs are hopeful: Lynn Offermann, chair of the organizational sciences department, said she is already planning to extend a job offer for an administrative position vacated on Sept. 2.

“Being short-staffed is always tough, but we are fortunate to have a good senior secretary working extra hours and helping me to pick up the slack while we search for a replacement,” Offerman said in an email.

Sam Larson, assistant dean of operations and finance at Michigan State University, said being short on support staff can put more responsibilities on faculty members, which in turn affects their ability to do the “core work” of their jobs – research, teaching and advising students.

Larson said supporting administrative assistants is a top-down operation, and leaders can help strengthen departments by respecting support staff.

“I think that you have strong support staff when you pay them appropriately and when you provide career tracks for them so that they can see themselves as a contributing lifelong member of an institution,” Larson said.

Alexis Patterson, an assistant professor of science education at the University of California-Davis, said support staff are instrumental in aiding students and helping new faculty acclimate to a department.

“In terms of attracting students and then in terms of keeping students on the right pace and limiting frustration while they’re here, they play a huge part in that as well,” Patterson said.

Sarah Siraj and Avery Anapol contributed reporting.

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