When Cultures CollideCulture has been a slightly ambiguous term that refers to the set of predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize a group or organization. A Harvard Business Review article described culture like the wind. “It is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt.” In the United States, we live in an individualistic culture. Americans usually view each person as a self-sufficient individual, and place more importance on the individual, not the group. Some may view this as rather selfish and egotistical, while others may see it as a welcomed freedom from the constraints of family, community, or social class. Emerson has also historically maintained an individualistic workplace culture. Many things have been negotiated at an individual level. For example, an employee’s salary increase, how much severance pay an employee received, whether an employee received health insurance if they retired early, all depended on each individual negotiating the best deal for themselves. When the Emerson Staff Union was formed in 2017, there was an unspoken agreement among those who voted for the union that staff would thrive with a more collectivist approach. However, the word “culture” was never really overtly mentioned. One of our members recently spent some time in Norway, and found it to be a window into a more collectivist culture. One of the most memorable experiences was talking to some American expatriates about living in Norway and the different cultural expectations. In Norway, there is a culture of community, and something called the “Law of Jante.” It is a social code that dictates emphasis on collective accomplishments and well-being, and disdains focus on individual achievements. In short this means the idea that nobody is better than anyone else. One example that illustrates the difference between Nordic and American culture took place at a Norwegian workplace. As our member’s American friend recalled, one day employees were called into a meeting to discuss a complaint from a janitor that the offices of several employees were too cluttered, making it difficult for the janitor to do their job. The American expatriates were shocked that there was even a meeting about this. Their immediate reaction was “Who cares what the janitor thinks? They’re just a janitor, not important people like us.” However, in Norway, the culture is very different. A janitor’s complaint was just as valid as any other, and the employees were told they must declutter their offices so that the janitor could do their job, and because a tidy desk and clean space improves the well-being of all workers. Spending time in a different culture made some of us realize that some things that we think are universally accepted—such as the importance of individual personal branding, that most people like to be publicly recognized for their accomplishments, and that winning and being promoted above others is the ultimate goal—are actually simply elements of American culture and don’t exist everywhere in the world. Consider the Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård, who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. After winning, he said he felt uncomfortable being in the spotlight, and didn’t know what to do with his trophies because displaying them on his mantle would be considered too ostentatious in Scandinavian culture. This is not to say that one culture is better than another, but simply to recognize that different cultures exist, and that we can help shape them. One advantage of an individualistic culture is that we believe that individual contributors can have a huge impact within their own spheres of influence. Most Americans believe that with a little initiative, creativity, and empathy, anyone can be a leader, or, to use the favored term of the day, a “change agent.” As Bryan Walker and Sarah Soule wrote in Harvard Business Review, “culture lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of ‘how things are done around here.’” Over the past four years, Emerson Union has been changing the culture of Emerson College. A contract that spells out regular salary increases for everyone, standards for severance pay, and early retirement benefits is only one part of it. The other part is the community of staff that we have created. The pull to cultivate close interpersonal relationships with our fellow staff members has created a sense of gratitude for each other and the work and roles that each of us play in every department at Emerson. The Union has allowed many of us to interact closely with staff outside of our departments, and understand more deeply how things work across the college. Before the union, some of our members remember not really knowing staff in other departments. It was easy to blame “that other incompetent department” as the cause of workflow issues, but once we got to know workers there and how understaffed they were, we found a new sense of understanding and appreciation for them and their work. Although an individualistic culture will likely continue to be a dominant force in the United States and at Emerson, we can bring some elements of collectivity to the college culture. We can move out of the high-power (management) vs. low-power (staff) mindset and work together to cultivate gratitude toward staff at all levels whether they are a vice president or an administrative assistant. Culture is created by habits that become the norm. If as staff members we start acting more collectively we will change the culture.
Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash
Hold Emerson Accountable to its Stated Values
A few weeks ago, some of our union members handed out flyers questioning what appear to be union-busting tactics on the part of the administration and urging them to bargain with us in good faith as we enter negotiations this fall. During this leafleting, some of our members wore signs that read “Hold Emerson Accountable to its Stated Values.”
What do we mean when we say that we want to hold the college to its stated values? The long-term trend toward increasing executive compensation, as well as recent decisions by the college not to pay union staff our contractual raises (offering smaller lump-sum payments instead) and not to hire more staff even though our student body is increasing, have been troubling. Between 2018 and 2020, Emerson’s student population grew by almost 13%, but the number of staff actually decreased by 2% in the same period.
Emerson’s Five Pillars
Since 2011, the College’s strategic plan has been based upon the following five pillars: Academic Excellence, Civic Engagement, Internationalization, and Global Engagement, Innovation, and Financial Strength. By remaining understaffed, and shortchanging the staff who are here, we believe Emerson is unable to uphold the pillars necessary to achieve its strategic objectives and stated values.
With high staff turnover, Emerson can’t support its faculty. When faculty incur delays in IT response time due to staff shortages, it affects their classes and the students in them. How can we deliver academic excellence, when we have to tell faculty they have to wait for IT to install new licenses for their research software that expired in August because we are down to two staff members for the entire Help Desk?
Many civic engagement programs at Emerson, such as a summer film program for low-income Massachusetts high school students, are run by individual faculty, dependent on external funding, and have no overarching institutional or staff support. Important programs such as these run for a few years and then die off, only to be started up again by someone else if they can get funding, leaving no continuity within the community.
Internationalization and Global Engagement
Our staffing is too low to fully meet the needs of international students. Last year, during the pandemic, international students told the Berkeley Beacon that they were disappointed with the lack of details in Emerson’s plan for international students and the length of time it took the college to communicate with them. Students tried to get information from their faculty advisors because low staffing and turnover in the office of international student affairs delayed communications to students. How can Emerson possibly be a “global hub” for communication and the arts when its international student affairs office was run by 2 (now 3) staff members?
When the same programs are created, and then abandoned with staff turnover, only to be recreated again, the focus is on the bare bones, not innovation. Studies have shown that when people lack resources to get their work done or when they struggle to pay their bills, they can’t participate fully in innovation. When employees struggle with the cost of living, regardless of industry or geography, they are significantly less likely to experience innovation. These concerns get compounded when they see their organization, or people at higher levels, thriving financially.
While maintaining a lean staff might appear to save the college money, or at least save more money for increased upper administration salaries (five Emerson vice presidents earned over $300,000 last year) there are costs, both financial and non-financial, associated with high turnover. Every time the college replaces a salaried employee, it costs six to nine months’ salary, on average, in recruiting and training expenses (although Emerson is known to cut corners on training, too). In addition, lean staffing damages the college’s reputation, and in turn its ability to grow.
A recent press release published by PR Web summarizes the problem perfectly:
“Inadequate staffing is a principal contributor to job-related stress, which is, in turn, a principal factor in turnover. Employees in understaffed organizations can lack a sense of control over their rapidly increasing workload. This hectic environment can lead to poor work performance and can be detrimental to the organization as a whole.”
We’d like to hold Emerson accountable for its stated values, vision, and strategic plan. Staff want to help. But when we are asked to complete all of our original job responsibilities along with those of our peers who have left for better employment, we feel the need to call out this hypocrisy.
We don’t owe our employers a physical office presence!
Working from home seems like a rational move for many of us, now more than ever. The idea of working from home was certainly not a novel thought introduced along with the Covid virus. Some companies and institutions1 had adapted work from home modalities well before the 2020 pandemic hit. Even though the pandemic, along with persistent research, shows that working from home has no negative effect on the productivity of the employees, still many employers are hesitant to grant this option to their workers.
It appears that employers want to charge their employees for their work at their homes. An added bonus: while employees spend in order to create and maintain a home office, employers save on skipping the same expenses. The situation is presented as if we owe our employees a physical presence in the office, but do we?!
Whatever the path to a more flexible work schedule may be, workers should remember that they don’t owe their work to their companies. We are not the borrowers, rather it’s the other way; the institution and the company take time and skills in cash literally every second we work for them and pay us with a week- to weeks-long delay!
We should remember this as we bargain for our rights to work from where it makes sense, as Tayo Bero reminds us in her Guardian article.
One of our members, Illona Yukhayev, wrote these articles:
- GUEST OPINION ON EMERSON CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS: WE ARE NOT ALL IN THE SAME BOAT, DigBoston, May 5, 2021
- Letter: How Juneteenth became a staff holiday at Emerson, The Berkeley Beacon, June 16, 2021