Starting a new job and not everyone is thrilled about my hiring. Help.
February 28, 2012 1:12 PM   Subscribe

I've been hired for a development position in an institution of higher ed. I've been told by my supervisor that a lot of staff and faculty are not very happy with my hiring. I start Monday. I need advice.

Background: I've done some contract work for Institution X for a while, and I have now been hired full-time to work for them in a fundraising capacity. This is during a time when there is a state-wide hiring freeze for the university system, of which Institution X is a part, and the position I am taking was allowed to be filled because it is a 'revenue generating' position.

According to my supervisor and some other rumors I've heard from folks I know who work at Institution X, a lot of the faculty I'll be working with thinks that there are already too many people working in development and not enough money being generated, and my being hired is a waste of money and space and will put more undue bureaucracy on them.

I start Monday. The supervisor who hired me is going to be out all week, and I'll be flying solo meeting with all the faculty members I've been warned may feel somewhat hostile toward me. I'm looking for advice on how to approach this.

There will be no real way of assuaging anyone's fears until I am able to bring some money in, but that could take time - and fundraising is sometimes about more than just the numbers anyway. But in the meantime, do you have any tips on how to make the faculty and staff I'll be working with feel supported and be supportive? I want them to understand that I'm here not to make their lives hell but to help them find money and support for their projects, scholarships for their students, etc.

Any other general advice about working as a staff person in a university is also very welcome. I've never worked in higher ed, and outside of being pretty good with my profs as an undergrad, this is sort of new territory for me.

It's also worth noting that I will be working for the first three months at the main campus before moving to my permanent office in a satellite campus (where most of development is housed as it is in the state's major city and therefore close to funders, etc.). I do know that there is also some rural main campus v. big city satellite antagonism at Institution X.

Thanks you all much.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of faculty at my college are way happier with me than with my predecessor because from the get-go I deliberately cast myself as being there to help THEM--streamlining internal bureaucracy for project fundseeking, asking them outright what they needed for grantseeking support, and indicating that I respected how busy they were and that I was there to lighten the load.

If you email or call anyone because you need information for fundraising, or are trying to provide support for grant work (forgive me if you're not a grant writer, because I am and that's the approach I know how to take), always cast it as "is there anything I can do to help you get this done?" rather than "I need this information from you so I can do MY job." It's little, but it's made a difference.
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:22 PM on February 28, 2012 [12 favorites]


I wouldn't even let this 'faculty are pissed' thing cross your mind. You're setting yourself up here. Stop listening to your pals.

Faculty (and people) bitch about stuff. That's what we do. Faculty are weird. Socially awkward. Not good at working with others. Beware that this isn't normal.
posted by k8t at 1:23 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you really just have to a) pretend you don't know and b) be above it. Be on your absolute best behavior, listen and be curious about their contributions*, take notes, ignore any uncouth behavior on their part, and then get to work. There's really no point in immediately drowning in politics - and anyway, you don't know who your secret allies will be yet.

*This is assuming that these people are stakeholders of yours who have some kind of input or receive some kind of deliverable other than, you know, funds raised. If they're just bitches, still be nice and pretend what they're saying is important, and then go do your job.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:24 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it's good to know about these kinds of feelings. It isn't about you, and now if people are prickly you know for sure it isn't personal.

I came into my current position for a project that had a lot of resistance and baggage. Once I knew the background, I was able to avoid touchy subjects and win over everyone with how I could help out.
posted by Gor-ella at 1:48 PM on February 28, 2012

Don't take it personally. Faculty pretty much in every public institution are facing a situation where they're being asked to do more with much much less. Seeing the money that Institution X doesn't have being used to create another seemingly "unnecessary" position is demoralizing.

What I think will help is for you to align yourself to the concerns they have. They will have a lot of institutional knowledge to share with you that will help you not only gain insight into the institution's culture but also gives you an opportunity to cultivate a supportive professional relationship. And any faculty member that's been around long enough to become disgruntled will already have learned how to accept harsh realities, and they will come around. They always do. Those that don't, tend to leave.
posted by loquat at 1:51 PM on February 28, 2012

The first week of meetings is a great opportunity to promote yourself to the faculty members, ask them for 2 or 3 areas you can help in and build some alliances. I've never worked in higher ed either, but some of these things must be easier to find support for than others. Use the meetings to identify opportunities for early wins that will get you some momentum.
posted by IanMorr at 1:53 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I guess it's good (although kind of unsettling, imo) that your supervisor gave you this heads-up, but don't assume that the faculty attitude is the whole problem.

I used to work a non-profit that had a five-years-and-counting wage freeze for non-management staff (at under $30,000/year average salary), but our (awful) part-time head of development made almost six figures. There was a LOT of hostility when they hired another person to work directly under her. It was a bumpy first few months for this new person because her supervisor trained her be sort of disdainful in her interactions, and to keep a lofty distance from the rest of the staff, which reinforced the hostility and culminated in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get her fired before her probation period ended.

It was brutal, but it only got better when her supervisor left and she dropped the attitude, and started listening to our ideas and getting to know us, rather than behaving as though we owed her for the gift of our salaries. I don't think she meant to be so bad, she was just following her boss's example and perhaps found it hard to defy her advice about how to behave. I left soon after she was made permanent, but from what I hear she's still there and is now doing okay.

My point is: Hang back, be super nice and learn about the politics, and be careful about cues you take from this supervisor, especially since he/she has already sort of tried to poison the well regarding your new co-workers.
posted by sundaydriver at 2:05 PM on February 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've worked in university fundraising offices for quite a few years, and it's not that unusual for development to be one of the largest departments on campus. So it follows that a lot of people outside of the department think that the office is overstaffed, even though that's rarely the case.

The faculty will probably be polite to you and won't have any specific hostile feelings toward you - they're just frustrated that their own offices are understaffed and resentful that development gets to hire someone when they don't, and they probably have very little idea of the scope of work that goes on in the development office to understand why your office has the number of people it does.

What everyone has already said above is exactly what you should do - be polite, ask what they do and how you can help them meet their goals, listen to what they have to say. Most likely people will like you. Most likely they'll still go on grumbling about the development office being too big, even if they like every single person in the department.

Every school is different and it may turn out that Institution X really does just have a lot of negative energy and hostility, but don't go in assuming that. Snarking about the size of the development office is a hobby at a lot of institutions and is probably not anything you need to worry about.
posted by jessypie at 2:08 PM on February 28, 2012

I was in a similar situation, and I think dlugoczaj's advice is right on point. (I wish I could send it back through time to when I needed it!)

It is one of the pitfalls of working in university development, I think. Remembering that it's not a referendum on you personally can help.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:25 PM on February 28, 2012

My bit of advice would be to kill them with kindness. Even if some people are cold or rude to you, be nothing but pleasent back. The last thing you want is someone thinking, "I thought he was going to be a jerk, and he was!" Something to keep in mind is that people who complain also tend to complain loudly. It is likely (in my opinion) that this is a case of a few people making a lot of noise. Chances are that the vast majority of your coworkers will be fine with you being there, and your initial kindness will help win them over.
posted by Nightman at 2:31 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would pretend you haven't heard this bit of rumor and let them show you how they feel by their actions. For the all the bad reputations faculty get, I suspect many (most?) will be adults about this sort of thing. You can advocate like crazy not for hiring someone in a particular role but once the decision is made any mature member of an organization is going to move on and give you a basically blank slate. All the advice about going out of your way to be helpful seems dead on to me. I would think about your background knowledge as totally irrelevant _unless_ people seem weird or cold. Then it's useful explanatory information that will reassure you that it's not you they're unhappy about, it's your position. But go in on day one with your head held high and pretend there's no backstory. I suspect everyone will give you the benefit of the doubt and it will go great. It's so much harder to resent a concrete, helpful person than it is than an abstract role.
posted by heresiarch at 3:35 PM on February 28, 2012

Ask them to tell you more about what they do, and what types of things they are proud about in their job. These are the things you are going to be promoting when trying to raise money, and if you can get them to know that you are really interested in them, and want to show them in their best light, that may help to win them over. Also, donuts are always welcome.
posted by markblasco at 4:19 PM on February 28, 2012

Any other general advice about working as a staff person in a university is also very welcome.

You know what they say -- why is academia so competitive? Because the stakes are so small.

Relax, make friends, do good work. If you set out attempting to justify your existence among the backstabbers, they will stab you in the back.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:31 PM on February 28, 2012

I'll be flying solo meeting with all the faculty members I've been warned may feel somewhat hostile toward me. I'm looking for advice on how to approach this.

Read some of their more recent and most significant papers, then wait for openings that allow you very unobtrusively to demonstrate familiarity with the work of particular individuals.

Even if they recognize what you're doing (there's absolutely nothing wrong with it in the first place) I don't think they'll be able to help being charmed and more receptive.
posted by jamjam at 5:57 PM on February 28, 2012

Wow, your supervisor let that out huh? And then left town?

We just gotta get that out there in the open.

People aren't happy with your supervisor for hiring you, they don't know anything about you or how you will fill this position. Your supervisor is trying to offload the ire of the staff onto you.

Don't own it. Don't.
posted by roboton666 at 9:01 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

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