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Ivy League HR

May 29, 2000
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Related Topics: The HR Profession, Featured Article
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Thursday, April 20, 8:20 a.m.

Harvard University may own the most recognizable brand name in academia, yet few people would think of this leading university and research facility as one of the major employers in Massachusetts.

As many as 13,824 people report to work daily at this picturesque campus hugging the Charles River in Cambridge or at its associated locations throughout the Boston area. That number puts Harvard University fourth on the list of top state employers, behind telephone carrier Bell Atlantic (18,000), Stop & Shop Supermarkets (16,340), and Raytheon (14,000), the defense contractor.

Less than one-quarter of that total, or 2,588, are faculty, with the vast majority providing a host of support services. In addition to the school's employee population, the student population is 18,541, including 6,684 in undergraduate programs.

Polly Price serves as Harvard's associate vice president for human resources, reporting to Sally Zeckhauser, the university's vice president for administration. Price, 56, has worked in human resources for 15 years and has been in her present position as head of the university's Office of Human Resources since 1996. Her mission is lofty but, in her view, attainable--to help make Harvard not only the World's Greatest University but also the greatest place to work in the universe.

As she heads to work on this crisp, clear April morning, the kind that coaxes us New Englanders through the dark winter months, Price is looking forward to a day that will illustrate just how big a challenge her mission is. Wearing a muted brown houndstooth jacket, contrasting skirt, and comfortable flats, Price will begin her day in a breakfast meeting with two professors at the Faculty Club. She wants to get their help with a survey her department administered to some of Harvard's professional staff to gauge job satisfaction.

A meeting with nine of her key staffers and an update session with her information technology team will take up the better part of the mid-day. Finally, she will end this day in Massachusetts Hall hearing about Harvard's efforts to improve the working conditions of its lowest-paid employees.

As head of the university's Office of Human Resources, Price is responsible for making Harvard an attractive place to work as well as study. On a day-to-day basis, OHR ensures that the University complies with the host of governmental regulations that guide any employer from a Fortune 500 heavyweight to the neighborhood mom-and-pop grocery.

The Office of Human Resources is ground zero for all benefits programs because workplace enhancements such as health insurance and retirement benefits have been standardized across the university. But that is about all that has been standardized at Harvard when it comes to human resource issues, she explains.

When it comes to hiring, Price faces competing demands. Harvard University is made up of eight different academic schools and divisions, from Harvard Medical School and Harvard Law School to its various libraries and associated departments. Price, then, heads an HR department that is by its very nature decentralized, with a number of different people in top decision-making positions who do not report to her.

"What that means," she says as we chat for a few minutes before the breakfast meeting, "is that my office does not do the hiring for all Harvard staff. Although everyone comes to us for information on benefits, we handle the hiring only for the central administration." Practically speaking, that means that prospective employees looking for jobs at Harvard go directly to the departments they are interested in working for.

Price, however, is very interested in what goes on in the other HR departments across Harvard's dispersed campus. Given the state's 2.9 percent unemployment rate and the hot competition for the best employees, particularly in the information technology sector, Price has to keep up with how everyone at Harvard is recruiting and retaining their staffers so that the day-to-day work gets done.

"That can be an enormous challenge in this environment," she says. "Up until a year ago, we were losing qualified applicants because we had no system for referring prospective employees who didn't get a particular job on to other departments. Those names just sat in a file."

Communication, then, is key to harnessing the Harvard brain trust. Price must nurture relationships with the deans and directors of Harvard's schools and departments even though she is not ultimately responsible for who is hired. And she must provide the leadership to help Harvard meet its vision of being a model employer.

Price tells me what she finds so attractive about her job: "You are working with the smartest students, the smartest professors in the world," she says succinctly. "People say to me all the time they could go to work for a dot-com and make a lot of money or come here and work beside a Nobel laureate. What I bring to this job is a solid understanding of how organizations, particularly academic institutions, work."

8:35 a.m.

Harvard's Faculty Club is just what you'd imagine an Ivy League university would offer as an amenity to its teaching staff. The two-story neo-Georgian brick structure is located just outside Harvard Yard, and is set off by a soothing fountain and lush landscaping.

Inside, oriental rugs, classic furnishings, and highly polished wood paneling greet visitors. The dining room tables are covered with linen and set with sterling silver. Fresh flowers decorate each table, and the staff await to meet any dining desire. You can't help but speak in hushed tones.

Here Price is meeting two of Harvard's internationally known sociology professors, Peter Marsden and Richard Hackman, to get their opinions of the Workplace Environment Survey conducted last November by the Office of Human Resources for the central administration's staff of 3,400.

Also in attendance is David Jones, a member of Price's staff who, as director of workforce initiatives, managed the survey. Hackman has brought along a graduate student, Josephine Pichanick, who is considering using the survey as the basis of a future research project.

Jones begins the meeting by explaining that OHR hired A Great Place to Work, a San Francisco consulting firm, to design and administer the survey, which was completed by 1,370 individuals.

Price adds that the employees at the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Divinity School will be taking the survey in the next several weeks and that both the School of Public Health and the Education School are considering using it soon.

"Clearly there is interest from these administrators in finding out how their workers perceive their jobs and what they could do to make the environment better," she says.

What is before the group this morning are the raw results of the initial survey that came back in February. Price has asked Marsden and Hackman to help her analyze the responses.

They are polite but immediately want to know why OHR hired an outside consultant rather than using Harvard's own in-house expertise. "We've got people at the Business School that hire themselves out to do just this kind of work," Hackman observes. Price is ready for that criticism, saying, "We hired these consultants because they are able to tie their analysis to 'best practices' in other companies," she responds. "Also, sometimes professors here don't have time for us."

Price also points out that the survey has already caught the attention of Harvard's top administration. "The provost has agreed to sit down and have lunch with staffers on a regular basis to discuss their concerns. Until we did the survey, we didn't have that kind of support for change."

For the moment Hackman accepts that. He notes that Harvard faces an unusual problem as an employer. Workers report that they love working at Harvard, but many don't like their jobs or their bosses.

Price agrees with Hackman that the university needs to put more emphasis on management training.

9:40 a.m.

The breakfast meeting breaks up with assurances that the professors will continue to provide guidance. Price is out the door for a brisk three-minute walk across Harvard Yard to her office and a scheduled weekly staff meeting. "First, though, I am stopping for a big cup of coffee," she says with a smile, ducking into a nearby Au Bon Pain.

Then it is up to the sixth floor of the Holyoke Center, in the middle of Harvard Square, where Price is warmly greeted by her receptionist and others in her office of 94. She sheds her coat in her tidy office overlooking the square and heads into the staff meeting.

10:02 a.m.

Around a table in a small conference room waiting for her are Mary Christakis, director of finance and administration; Rita Moore, director of information systems; Kim Roberts, director of employee and labor relations; Merry Touborg, director of communications; Gina Perris, director of benefits; Mary Cronin, director of human resources; Jane Hill, project ADEPT team leader; Heidi Conway, a benefits manager; and Jones, whom we met at breakfast.

Each reports on projects under way in his or her area of expertise. The meeting runs for a full two hours, and conversation never lags. Price mostly just listens, occasionally adding a word of encouragement or asking an on-target question. "We are all so busy that this is really the only chance we have to connect and listen to each other," she had said going in.

Conway gives a brief report on a customer-service survey sent out to those who have used a Harvard benefit service recently. Jones then gives a report on preparations for an upcoming conference on workforce management that his department is organizing entitled "Staff Diversity: The Roadblocks-A Middle Management Perspective."

Jane Hill reports on the progress of the university's conversion to a multimillion-dollar Oracle-based computer system dubbed ADEPT. Routine HR processes ranging from payroll to benefits accounting are scheduled to move onto the system shortly, and Hill and her department are bracing themselves for the inevitable snafus that come with major changes.

The group also discusses how to sell top administration on a suggestion to provide personal computers to the university's service employees for their home use. Moore notes that the idea becomes more cost effective as the price of personal computers drops. "This will not only promote literacy among these workers but will be especially important as we move to employee self-service with our benefits information," she says. "These are the employees that are least likely to have a computer on their desk at work."

Perris reports that Harvard has contracted with a service to provide child care at the next job recruitment fair, hoping this will be a good marketing tool.

The meeting breaks up just after noon, and Price goes to a private lunch meeting with Roberts and the Joint Council, a group of university administrators and representatives of its largest union, Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers.

2:00 p.m.

Price is at Joanne Doherty's employment training office suite, in a neighboring office building, to get an update on Harvard HIRES, the university's 11-month-old custom-designed online recruitment program. In addition to Doherty, John Kendzior, Price's manager of recruitment, is at the meeting, along with Deanna Demert Myers, a computer specialist who can walk Price through the program.

The initial results are exciting, she learns in minutes. Kendzior reports that while the number of jobs in the sensitive IT division has dropped only slightly compared to a year ago, the total number of open university jobs has fallen dramatically from 419 in March 1999 to 303 in March 2000. He credits HIRES. "What we're seeing is that the number of applicants applying over the Internet is increasing steadily, and that the applicants who do submit their r sum s online are being hired faster than those mailing or faxing them in," he says.

At the same time, Doherty notes, the cost of recruiting candidates via the university's own computer Web page and through other Internet services is a fraction of that of more traditional methods like newspaper advertising.

But what most excites Price is the function that allows recruiting managers across the university to see r sum s submitted to any other departments. "We have not had that ability before, and we knew we were losing good people," she says, after hearing that in the first eight months, over 200 people were placed in jobs when their names became available in the general candidates' pool. That function alone will save the university in two years the cost of designing the HIRES program, she adds.

2:50 p.m.

Price is on a schedule, so she excuses herself for another fast-paced walk across busy Harvard Square to make a meeting in Massachusetts Hall with her boss and a committee looking at Harvard's nagging low-wage issue. But even though Price is in a hurry, she pauses for a brief moment to watch a pair of street performers giving a ballet demonstration. Their stage is a large sheet of cardboard, and the backdrop is the Harvard Square MBTA station.

In a second-floor conference room in the building that houses the university president's office, the topic is a tough one. For a year now, the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies has been considering the university's responsibility to its contingent and service employees. Among the recommendations is spending $1.4 million for a workplace education program. Another is extending benefits to many of these workers who are part-timers but have worked for the university for many years.

The spotlight is on Harvard to come up with a model solution to a problem plaguing many employers. The university has come to depend on long-term part-time workers to staff its low-skill custodial, maid service, and dining room jobs. Many of the workers are recent immigrants who can't read in their native languages let alone English, Price tells me.

Just two weeks earlier, nearly a hundred Harvard students calling themselves the Progressive Student Labor Movement set up tents in Harvard Yard for an overnight rally protesting what they claim is the school's lack of commitment to a living wage for all workers.

As we walk into Massachusetts Hall, Price explains that those in the top administration are concerned about more than just the wage issue.

"The question we are asking is, What is the obligation of the university to improve these people's lives? Perhaps it is more important to improve their job skills, not just raise their wages."

Toward that end, Harvard has launched a pilot workplace literacy program called Harvard Bridge to Learning and Literacy. At this session called to discuss its performance is June Cuomo, director of the Faculty Club; Judy Della Barba, human resources manager for Harvard's dining service; Carol Kolenik, a training specialist; Jim LaBua, deputy director of labor; Tom Vautin, head of operations and services; and Sally Zeckhauser.

Kolenik reports that since September, 38 people have voluntarily attended Harvard-run English-as-a-second-language classes during their regular work hours so they don't lose pay. Harvard is now prepared to double the enrollment next year, with an eventual target of 250 a year.

Vautin and Cuomo add their expertise when the discussion turns to incorporating the classes into the regular workday without upsetting work schedules as the enrollment increases. Zeckhauser wants to make sure that students are being invited to volunteer as tutors. Price's role here is to listen, and the meeting runs well past 4 p.m. It is clear that there is more to discuss in the coming days and weeks.

But as Price leaves the meeting and ends her day, she still has an enthusiastic spring in her step. She is looking forward to tomorrow, another day of working through these and other challenges toward her eventual goal.

"We know we have the resources here to make this the very best place to work."

Just the Facts

Organization: Harvard University

Responsibility: Recruitment and training for the university s central administration, as well as benefits for the entire university workforce

Headquarters: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Employees: 13,824 total at all Harvard campuses; 3,400 at the university s central administration

HR Challenges:

Nurturing relationships with various schools and departments in a decentralized hiring environment.

Dealing with student protests regarding wages for the university s employees.

You should know: Harvard University is the fourth-largest employer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Recent Articles by Caroline Louis Cole

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