[Ask an Archivist]: Handling Staff Turnover

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Ask an Archivist Question:

How do you deal with the upheaval that follows staff turnover at your institution/company, and what would you suggest to help a younger staff member who feels the pressure of extra work or the disappointment of having a project put on the back burner when someone exits?

Ask an Archivist Answers:

My department is finally fully staffed for the first time in about 7 years so I’m well versed in the upheaval of staff departures and arrivals. Making this disruption tenable hinges on communication.  All staff within a department undergoing this type of upheaval should expect and definitely ask for a collaboratively written plan that describes how the departing staff member’s responsibilities will be shared. The plan should also include an acknowledgement and acceptance of the work that will temporarily pause during this vacancy. It is also a good idea to get, if possible, a timeline of when the position will be filled and if the position will change. Knowing when additional responsibilities will end should make them easier to accept. Another way to make the situation more tolerable is to see all new responsibilities and tasks as opportunities to learn new skills and engage with staff with whom you may not normally work. Gaining new experiences, skills, and connections will certainly make you a better archivist.

Jennifer King
Interim Collections Coordinator and Manuscripts Librarian, George Washington University

What great timing on this question. Right now I am part of a staff of 11 people in the library and archives and we are down two bodies. The archivist usually has to work two Saturdays a semester, but since mid-August I have worked one evening a week, and one Saturday a month. This means less work gets done on the archival collections. But my boss doesn’t want to hear it, and I don’t want to whine because I want to be perceived as a team player.  That might mean that when I need extra help on a project, people will volunteer to take on some work (metadata or scanning) in my area. I compensate for my frustration by complaining to friends and family, and when I need to get something accomplished I stay and put in the extra time.  I can do this because I know we will be hiring replacement people (I actually am on those search committees).  When the administration just cuts staff, adding more work to your load that is different.  That’s when I think you have to negotiate for what needs to be done, and what tasks can be deleted.

Gerrianne Schaad
College Archivist, Florida Southern College

I’ve had the benefit of working in remarkably stable repositories, so I haven’t really seen as much upheaval as some archivists.  I do anticipate some upheaval when I see two retirements in my department.  Two archivists who are approaching retirement deal with very significant collections, and it is likely that is I will only be able to fill one position.  This is going to force me, as Department Head, to reprioritize the work of the repository, so I’m thinking about it to be sure.

Loss of staff brings changes, and to deal with change, I always fall back on communication.  My main advice would be to be sure that you are communicating well with your supervisor.  It’s important to try to understand how the loss of a staff position impacts your repository as a whole.  If your workload does increase, be prepared to talk with your supervisor about how you should absorb that additional work into your workload.  Your supervisor may need to reprioritize the work of the entire repository.  Likewise, you will need to reprioritize your own work to bring in additional responsibility.  It’s good practice not to make assumptions, but to ask where an assignment falls on the scale of importance to the work of the repository, and your supervisor should absolutely help you determine that.

If a project is shelved or takes a back seat, again — try to understand the implications for the repository as a whole. The question is one of resources – you may be involved in a project that is completely practical when overseen by one individual, but becomes impractical when that person leaves because they take a base of skill or knowledge with them.  Or, if YOU are overseeing the project and are asked to take a step back, think about why that might be – are you being asked to put your priority and talent elsewhere in the repository’s workflow?  Is this a temporary setback?  Will the project be resumed, or does it require you to re-think how the project is being done?  You’re probably the one who is best placed to think about next steps, to advocate for the project, to problem-solve about how to make sure that this is a minor setback and not a full-fledged loss.  Again, be prepared to talk with your supervisor about how the project falls into the overall work of the repository, and how you can make sure that the project doesn’t get derailed.

I tend to address uncomfortable situations and my own disappointment by trying to understand the root of the issue, and that’s clearly at the core of my advice.  I realize that this assumes a good working relationship with your supervisor.  But at whatever level you find yourself – whether you’re a project archivist reporting to a department head, or a department head reporting to a library director – I think that communication is a skill that’s fundamental.  It also comes from both directions (that is, you need to be willing as does your supervisor), so at least half of this equation is beyond your control.  You can, however, start the conversation and see where it goes…  I know that as a Department Head, I’ll be talking with my staff as impending retirements become more concrete, and will bring my folks into the discussion early enough to plan.

Amy Cooper Cary
Head of Special Collections & Archives, Marquette University

This is a great question and one that I have been thinking about lately.

If the staff departure directly affects your role and responsibilities, I would suggest setting a meeting with your direct supervisor to discuss what that staff departure means for you and address all of your concerns. You shouldn’t let your supervisor do all the talking though, take some ideas to the meeting and give some suggestions about the new work load. As far as the pressure of extra work, try to manage expectations from the beginning. Be honest about your current workload, but also know that you will likely be asked to be a “team player” and offer up help when you can. Just don’t over extend yourself and remember that self-care is so important.

Most projects tend to have their own ebbs and flows, so take a moment to strategizing how essential work on a project can continue even with a staff departure. If the project is something meaningful for you professionally and/or impacts the strategic goals of your institution use that to your advantage. Be willing to take the lead on aspects of the project (when you can) and give status updates to keep the project alive and on people’s radar.

I’m all for trying to see the positive in most situations. Staff departures can be challenging, but they also afford you the opportunity to grow and shine in unexpected ways.

Gabrielle Dudley
Instruction Archivist & QEP Librarian, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library, Emory University

When staff turnover occurs, it is important to consider how the departure will affect day-to-day operations of the organization and any personal goals you may have to adapt as a result. Further, it is very helpful to discuss with the remaining staff and/or volunteers any strategies to help compensate for the loss of that staff member. This effort should help balance some of the pressures you may feel to do extra work, and it provides a venue to address any concerns about reprioritizing projects.

If there is sufficient lead time before the departure, then seek any information that the person has that will help you perform your duties and maintain institutional memory. I’ve found this last activity to be very helpful, whether the departing person is a staff member retiring after 30 years or a student assistant leaving after a short time. It helps document projects and often provides tidbits of information that are useful in the performance of our duties.

Cliff Hight
University Archivist & Assistant Professor, Kansas State University

We have experienced this lately at my library. Hopefully, your supervisor will have a meeting either with you or the entire staff. This way you all can discuss what impacts this will have on each of your assigned responsibilities. If your supervisor does not hold a meeting, ask to meet with them. Ask them what they think your priorities should be now that you are short staffed. This way they see that you are concerned, but not only about yourself. While the project you were working on may be on hold, you have to keep doing daily tasks to keep the archives functioning, and it is important that your supervisor sees that you are willing to help during the transition time. To help cope, you could focus on small personal goals that you can do when no other tasks are needed. These could be related to the project you were working on or something that is a one-off task. Take pride in your work no matter how small the task is and you will feel better.

Tiffany Schureman
University Archivist, Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar

This is a tough question, in some respects, for leaders or managers to answer, since not only has it been some time since they were “in the trenches” as younger staff are but also they have their own very pressing set of pressures created by the departure of key staff.  Nonetheless, let me offer a few tentative observations.  For example, there is a large difference between staff leaving but with the assurance that they will be replaced in relatively short order and when the now vacant post is (for example) subject to a hiring freeze imposed institution-wide by the parent organization.  In the first instance I would begin by simply counseling patience, while doing all I can to speed the hiring process.  Of course, even in the occurrence of replacing the position, such a situation might trigger serious discussions within the archives or larger library about redefining or reallocating the vacant position.

In either case—knowing that the position will be filled but might be repositioned or significant uncertainty that the job will be rehired at all—your feeling disappointment and/or pressure would be natural.  First, it is your leader’s/manager’s responsibility to be as transparent as possible about the difficult situation, including frequent briefings to all remaining staff about the whys and wherefores driving the consideration to reposition the job or (at the higher administrative levels) impose a hiring freeze.  Remaining staff should be invited to ask questions and/or to meet directly with their supervisors or even the unit leader to understand at least why the pressure and disappointment are considered vital for overall repository success into the future.

But understanding only goes so far, of course, to ameliorate the difficulties faced by remaining staff.  Depending on the expertise or experience required, it might be possible for important projects to avoid being backburnered by having “soft money” shifted to them until completed (soft money is usually used to describe funds that are not formally designated for some purpose and that are insufficient to fund a staff position permanently).  It may be partially up to you to prepare, in writing, the case for completing your project rather than the other 3-7 projects which may also have been disrupted and delayed by the vacancy.

Reducing the understandable stress of doing your own job and some or all of the responsibilities of your former co-worker also relies on you, in part, to communicate clearly to your supervisor and/or leader not only the extra burden you now carry but also which of the many demands on your time are the most crucial to the archives.  You should expect your administrators to respond with a reallocation of your duties that includes eliminating some assignments.  Good leaders and supervisors will recognize the importance of not driving away other good staff by simply leaving them to pick up the slack; on the other hand, they can see only part of the picture where it comes to concern for remaining staff.  You must clarify the situation for them, as best you can.

In sum, such a stressful scenario is unfortunately common, but too often the powers that be are distracted or have only a partially accurate view of the situation—while they bear the lion’s share of making the workplace satisfactory, you and other staff also bear some responsibility for standing up for yourselves and making certain that your managers understand the full picture.

Mark A. Greene
Former Director & Emeritus Senior Archivist, American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming

If at all possible, try use staff departures to your advantage by taking them as an opportunity to expand your skill set.  Is there something that a departing staff member was responsible for that overlaps with a skill set that you’re trying to build?  If so, don’t be shy about asking to take on that piece of their job so that you can gain new skills, brush up on old ones, or try something interesting but outside of your specialty that you may not have the opportunity to do again.  It pays to be proactive on this one— the key elements of a former colleague’s work is going to be divvied up no matter what, so get in ahead of the game and volunteer for the tasks that best serve your current and future goals.

Also, if you are finding that your role or set of responsibilities is expanding too much in the wake of a colleague’s departure don’t be shy about going to your supervisor and being really clear that you are happy to take on some of this new work, but that some other projects may need to move to the back burner to accommodate them.  Ask for help prioritizing the different projects to make sure that you and your supervisor are on the same page. 

Carrie Hintz
Head of Collection Services, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, & Rare Book Library, Emory University

Throughout my career thus far, I’ve worked at small colleges as a lone arranger where I’m frequently called out of the archives to help with broader library duties like teaching general library sessions, helping out with faculty liaison duties, and pitching in at the reference desk.  Staff changes and open positions have only increased my non-archives workload, and I’ll admit to frustration when I don’t feel like I’m getting much done in the archives.

What’s really helped me feel better about this situation is trying to focus on all the new skills and experiences I’ve been able to acquire when I’ve had to fill in for others.  These opportunities have honestly made me a better archivist and librarian. 

Staff changes have also forced me to think more about the overall mission of my organization and not just about my own personal projects and goals.  What am I doing specifically to move my organization forward and how does my work fit with the work of my colleagues?  If I’m needed elsewhere, what are my essential duties and what can actually be put on the back burner?

 Finally, open communication with my supervisors has been key.  If you’re being pressured to do extra work, be honest about how that extra work is affecting your performance on your normal job duties.  Hopefully your supervisor will be willing to help you prioritize your time and effort.

Rachel Grove Rohrbaugh
Archivist, Elizabethtown College

I think the people left holding the bag, as it were, as people are downsized/moving on, should be seen as an opportunity for the young archivist. They should look at it as an opportunity to grow their skills and become indispensable to their organization. Better to have more work than none at all.

Projects will come and go and can also be completed in stages. If money for the project is an issue, just keep trying to put it in the budget for the next year until you wear them down. It worked for me.

The whole idea is to make yourself needed. Become the “go to” person. Don’t dwell on the downside of staff leaving. Perhaps they are going on to a better opportunity/job and maybe someday, after working tirelessly and picking up the pieces you will be moving on to your dream job.

Ellen Pierce
Director, Maryknoll Mission Archives

Staff leaving can definitely lead to some stressful situations.  I think most of us work in positions that could easily be two full time positions so we’re already constantly juggling priorities and projects.  I think the first thing you have to realize is that until the vacant position is filled, some things are just not going to get done or will need to be scaled back.

If some added responsibility will be falling on you, I’d suggest talking to your supervisor to find out what she/he feels are the priorities of the department and your position.  Figure out what you can temporarily drop or scale back in the meantime.  I’ve learned – kind of the hard way – that it’s impossible to do everything.  Your coworkers and supervisor(s) are there to help one another out so definitely let them know if you start to feel overwhelmed.

You can also look at it as an opportunity to learn some new skills that you might not otherwise have an opportunity to take on.  And if you’re disappointed about putting a project on the back burner, just remind yourself it’s only temporary and then take it upon yourself to not let your department forget about the project – communicate that it’s important to you for it to be a priority once your new coworker is in place.

Sarah D’Antonio
Archivist, The Dole Institute of Politics, University of Kansas

For all staff, it is important to communicate with your supervisor, and hopefully your colleagues about who will be taking up the slack and for how long. While we all want to be team players, and show we can handle the extra, stress is a real thing and can make an otherwise good or great job miserable. While a good boss will have this conversation with their staff, some don’t and it’s perfectly fine to broach the subject. Approach is important – always come from a place of being responsible and wanting clarification versus complaining, etc. 

If that does happen and the extra work is still too much, start some good habits as a new professional in setting boundaries for yourself and getting organized. Schedule time at work that is just for tackling certain projects or tasks, separate from meetings, etc. Don’t get into the habit of checking emails and working on projects outside of work hours unless it is absolutely necessary or required. 

Projects that end up on the back burner – do as much as you can to prepare for the next step and learn to be flexible; there will be more projects and other circumstances besides staff changes that create frustration over this. Periodically checking in with your supervisor if the project is still on hold, and giving them small updates on the upkeep or progress of your part of that project will keep it on their radar and hopefully help move things along when the time comes. 

Sandra Varry
Heritage Protocol & University Archivist, Florida State University

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