Climate of Fear

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about loss of those charged with a managing a department.

Our department is under the microscope for not stopping the students from protesting. Our Interim Assistant Director re-applied for the position that he had for three years. The Director resigned due to the overwhelming pressure from the Administrators. The hiring manager is the Vice President of Student Affairs. She gave us false assurance that he would get the job. She did a complete turn around and told our Assistant Director that he had until December 31 (1 week) to pack up and leave his keys behind. It’s now January 16 and he received a letter that they decided not to fill the position.

The whole team is shocked and baffled by the decision to not fill the position or rehire our Assistant Director again. Now there are only three people in the office, and all of this feels like they are trying to get rid of our department completely. The climax of fear in our department is really high. What are our rights to rehire our Assistant Director and how can we protect our department?

Signed–Our Rights?

Dear Our Rights:

This state of affairs is more than enough to make you and your cluster of coworkers uneasy as your begin a new semester. Apparently, there is more going on than simply pressure to stop student protesting. The Vice President of Student Affairs’ order to your Assistant Director to pack up and leave his key behind signals extreme displeasure. Such an unexpected and harsh firing is not the way a university functions unless that individual has behaved unethically or illegally. It’s my experience that a university and many other kinds of employers before ordering what appears to be firing would have discussed the possibility of a transfer.

Let me first address your question: “What are our rights to rehire our Assistant Director?” We have tried to say before a question is submitted that our site answers workplace communication-related questions, not legal ones. To get a clear answer to this issue, consult an attorney who specializes in labor matters. Probably you have a Human Resources Department that can provide an explanation as to the Assistant Director and to your department/s rights.  I expect you will find that unless your staff is working under a union contract, there are no rights that your Assistant Director or your department has regarding his employment.

Your Director resigned and the Assistant Director is fired. Is your department expected to function as before?  I imagine that is on you mind and can’t help but on your agenda. How might you problem-solve rather than only talk among yourselves about and lament what’s happened? I’ll make some suggestions:

  1. Face the uncertainty but re-examine what is your mission. Don’t see what you’ve done only from your own prospective—there almost always are things to do that fill the time. What really is accomplished by your work group? Who are your internal customers? What transpires between you and Students Affairs or whatever administrators is above? See this time as a time to get your ducks in a row or to herd the cats. List what are your concerns, the questions that are hanging because of the loss of a Director and Interim.
  2. Avoid blame. Holding a grudge against the woman who does the hiring and reneged on hiring the Interim Director will only create a barrier to working with her to gaining stability for your group.
  3. Improve communication. I suggest that your team of three now should reappraised what occurred, come up with questions, and prepared a proposal for what you want to happen. You have a right to request an investigation, and sometimes that provokes an opening as to whether good management practices were followed. Depending on the situation, you requesting that HR and/or Personnel conduct an investigation will result in better management. Other times that can result in backlash, but if there is retaliation for requesting an investigation, then there could be real changes. Whether you request an investigation, you can request a meeting with those above charged with overseeing your department. You might not be given details about what happened and why, but you should be provided answers about what’s ahead. The best that can result from the frustration all this has caused and is that such a meeting or meetings should spell out what’s ahead and that you will open the channels for clearer understanding of what is desired and that you agree on frequent communication. Also you three are entitled to know your standing and if you should expect your status to change.
  4. What have you learned? It strikes me that you have been given an unwanted lesson in the politics and culture of your Student Affairs and perhaps of the university. Sometimes the lessons we learn come too late to be of much help, such as in parenting. In your case, your jobs hinge on learning how to cope and if any of you need to seek work elsewhere. You might have learned what provoked the disruption. You might learn the importance of voicing your concerns whether acceptable or not. You hopefully have learned the value of keeping communication channels active.
  5. Guard against becoming sour. Bad things do happen that are not deserved. Find ways to transcend this one. Help each other to realize the good that you have and can do. Find specific instances within your work place and beyond that make you feel good.  

It is my wish that these thoughts might be more than empathy—that they might enable you three to talk about this constructively– in ways that makes coping better. Working together with hands, head and heart takes and makes big WEGOS, and that what you want. Please feel free to update us on how this all transpires. We learn from how others confront specific situations.    

William Gorden