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This article appears in The Best of the 2022 Leadership in Higher Education Conference (Magna Publications, 2023).
Headlines in the media regarding staffing have been bleak. Phrases like “The Great Resignation” and “quiet quitting” point to the same phenomenon: personnel shifts and changes abound in higher education. Although higher education is typically a bastion of employment stability (Brantley & Shomaker, 2021), many institutions have seen increased numbers of staff and faculty depart since 2020. More gravely, many institutions have had to make difficult decisions to downsize employees. As leaders, how can we most effectively navigate personnel changes in this climate with the hope of transformational outcomes?
One role of leaders is to have a long-range view of the institution. Although leaders must attend to daily tasks of problem solving, managing, and handling the unexpected, it is crucial that leaders maintain a vision of where and how to move forward, all while cautiously scanning the environment for problems. When it comes to personnel changes, they come in two varieties: either employees are looking to leave or the institution is seeking to dismiss them. While firing for cause is a personnel change, here I will focus only on quitting and layoffs.
It is unusual that an employee quits without warning. Leaders should look for warning signs that people are considering quitting. According to Gardner and Hom (n.d.), employees give several common indicators in the months prior to quitting. These include decreased productivity and effort, being less engaged socially with coworkers, attendance issues, and attitude changes and expressed dissatisfaction. Gardner and Hom suggest conducting “stay interviews”: individual meetings with current employees to understand their motivation for staying and what they would need from the organization to want to stay. Questions might include, What brings you a sense of meaning at work? What do you wish you could change in your job and why?
In my experience, similar interventions have extended employees’ tenures. As an example case, a professional staff member had consistently shared that they were on the job market. Direct supervisors talked with the employee, asking what about their work was most meaningful and what was most dissatisfying, and then took action. In this case, that meant minimizing attendance at specific meetings this employee found highly frustrating and increasing student interaction in their job. This strategy served to retain this staff member for another four years. Since departing, this person has held two different positions in less than two years.
Importantly, Gardner and Hom note that these warning signs offer a few months of notice. When leaders can recognize these signs early, intervene with stay interviews, and advocate for changes to improve the employee’s satisfaction, it may very well extend an employee’s tenure. That said, it is important for leaders to know what reasonable concessions they can offer fairly and equitably.
Institutions never wish to engage in layoffs, and depending on their position, a leader may not be the first to know such a decision is coming. It is helpful to consider information like department and campus budgets and enrollment trends as indicators to use to help envision whether layoffs may be on the horizon. Fostering open discussions with upper-level leadership can aid in foreseeing such changes as well.
Leaders must plan ahead (whether by months or by hours) and recognize that layoffs are major transitions for all levels of the institution. Colleagues “left behind” after layoffs can benefit from the perspective that they are in a transition as well. When you reframe layoffs as transitions, an evidence-based model of great use to consider is Schlossberg’s 4S model (Schlossberg, 2008). Schlossberg suggests that when we have a transition in life, four factors which can help or hinder our navigation of the change: self, situation, supports, and strategies.
Self refers to one’s mental resources and characteristics. Such personal characteristics as being optimistic or having experience navigating layoffs might help a leader. Being emotionally reactive or having little trust in one’s ability to navigate change, by contrast, may hinder this transition.
Situation refers to the level of control, timing, and length of the transition. According to Schlossberg, it is generally more helpful to have greater control over the transition. Additionally, timing involves factors such as considering what other stressors coincide with the transition. For instance, if layoffs co-occur with other major stressors (e.g., a global pandemic), the transition may be more difficult than if few other stressors were present.
Support has to do with the social support of others around during the transition. As a leader, it helps to have a mentor, confidant, or team to lean on both for problem-solving advice and as a sounding board.
Finally, strategies refers to coping techniques we might use. Effective strategies may include increased self-care or stepping away from an emotionally charged conversation. Ineffective strategies may include substance use or ignoring problems.
It is useful for leaders to consider which assets exist in all four areas and where deficits lie. By taking stock of the strengths, leaders may realize what they can leverage moving into the layoff and transition. By recognizing deficits, leaders create opportunities to advocate for resources.
For leaders and employees “left behind” after an employee leaves, many feel a twofold sense of loss: the social loss of colleagues and the institutional loss of people who held specialized knowledge. Often models of grief and loss, such as the well-known Kubler-Ross theory, are helpful to refer to when understanding that supervisors and employees may go through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression before moving to acceptance. Different employees may be at different stages, and there is no deadline for the process to end. At my institution, after a reduction in force, many employees did not move into acceptance fully for four to six months.
After considering the disruption and negativity of personnel changes, one must ask whether there are any positives beyond budgetary savings. As I know from examining literature on organizational change and experiencing it as a leader, positives are neither immediate nor guaranteed. It is up to the leader to strategically work through challenges with the potential for positive outcomes in the long term. Here are three transformations I made while leading a group through a reduction in force at my institution just over a year ago.
Building trust: Engaging in a reduction in force certainly can breach trust among employees, so how a leader navigates this change is critical. The leader must start from scratch with levels of trust, which is an opportunity to build a culture of trust. According to Covey (2022), being consistently transparent, listening, and following through on promises and deadlines helps to build trust. Building a team with trust ultimately leads to stronger performance.
New roles: Changes in personnel can open discussions about what existing employees would like to engage in to increase job satisfaction. For instance, after our reduction in force, we were left with a gap in staffing around first-year retention initiatives. After I discussed this gap with staff, one employee shared that she had always wanted this role. By adjusting her duties to incorporate this, her commitment to the institution and satisfaction at work increased.
Doing what wasn’t possible: Often institutional change grinds to a halt with the words “We’ve always done it this way.” Major personnel shifts do open opportunity, however, and what was once considered impossible or met with stonewalling may become feasible. As an example, after our reduction in force, we did several previously impossible things. We moved all staff in the affected department to a single physical space. We also did a major revision to new student onboarding and finally built relationships across campus units, leading to streamlined enrollment processes.
To conclude, personnel changes are part of higher education now more than ever. As leaders face the challenges of retaining employees or navigating an unwelcome layoff, there are strategies they can use to navigate these changes. Regular communication with employees and stay interviews can greatly improve retention. Actively planning how to navigate layoffs and using models of transition like Schlossberg’s 4S model can help leaders create a roadmap through changes. Finally, even as people grieve both the change and lost personnel, there is opportunity. Writing this over a year after a reduction in force at my institution, I can attest that the changes we endured were not welcome, but reflecting, we now have employees who call themselves “a cohesive team,” more standardized and efficient enrollment processes, and better mentorship among employees. Transformation after personnel change is possible.
Brantley, A., & Shomaker, R. (2021). What’s next for the higher education workforce? A look at the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Higher Ed HR Magazine. https://www.cupahr.org/issue/feature/whats-next-for-the-higher-ed-workforce
Covey, S. M. R. (2022). Trust & inspire: How truly great leaders unleash greatness in others. Simon & Schuster.
Gardner, T. M., & Hom, P. W. (n.d.). 13 signs that someone is about to quit, according to research. SHRM. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/signs-that-someone-is-about-to-quit.aspx
Schlossberg, N. K. (2008). Overwhelmed: Coping with life’s ups and downs. M. Evans.
Joan R. Poulsen, PhD, is associate dean for academic and student affairs and associate professor of psychology at Indiana University–Purdue University Columbus, providing leadership for first-year programming, retention, advising, student life, tutoring, and career services.