Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Article Note: On orientation and retention of library staff

Citation for the article:

Chapman, Connie. "Retention Begins Before Day One: Orientation and Socialization in Libraries." New Library World 110.3/4 (2009): 122-135.

Read via Emerald.

The only problem I had with this article is that it preaches the same old ideas that a massive job shortage in librarianship is coming, the massive retirements, etc., that we all pretty much know are not going to happen. This is discussed in the opening of the article, and I wrote on the margin that I wish authors would stop repeating this myth of the massive retirements. Especially now with the current economic malaise, there is not going to be any massive retirements. If anything, people will hold on to their jobs as long as possible. And in the case they do retire, very often that job will be closed or frozen. For instance, we have a "flexible" hiring freeze here in my workplace, and a new memo just went out about needing to justify any part time hires (this is more for student workers), which means they are looking for ways to hire less student workers if they can. All I know is I will probably have to make some justification to keep my reference assistant for the evenings, but I digress. The point is every time some librarian writes about the usual "there will be jobs, librarians are getting old and will retire, yadda yadda," it is really a disservice to the profession. I could go on, but this is not really the main point of the article. It was pretty prominent in the opening, which is why it caught my eye.

In the opening, the author also makes the point that, in that decreasing pool of librarians, there will be a decreasing pool of leaders. This would be something I would be curious about, but I know that the lack of leaders is not going to be because of retirements. I have had a thought or two on leadership, and now that I have some small supervision tasks, I get to think about it a bit more. However, I often think of even more reasons I would not want a leadership position, or rather a management position (we do have to make the distinction).

In the opening, Chapman mentions as well that there is little research done on turnover rates for library staff (123). This is something we do not hear about as often, and it may be interesting to look at. Chapman then moves on to make her main point: that a good HR program that integrates elements of orientation, socialization, and retention, will help the library retain good workers. She does go on to define the terms of orientation, socialization, and retention. Now overall I would think that retention is something that you need to consider and maintain if you want to keep your good workers from leaving. Sure, a lot of people will stay put in fear of the job market, but if someone is talented, they will leave anyhow. You need to do your best to keep the good ones.

So what advice does the author offer? Keep in mind that Chapman is looking at organizational literature, the kind of material that applies more to corporations and companies like Wal-Mart; that right there can be a red flag for some people. After all, libraries are very different entities, especially academic libraries. But there are some good ideas here.

One idea is that you need to make sure that you integrate the new employee into the institution's culture in a welcoming way. Chapman cites literature claiming that the failure to do this means a worker can make a decision to leave a lot sooner (125). She also cites literature that stating that "if new employees have unmet or unrealistic expectations, they will leave an organization prematurely" (Simmons-Welburn and Welburn qtd. in 125).

Chapman cites Gering and Conner's recommendation, from their 2002 article on employee retention, for a retention strategy, which "includes a business plan, a value proposition, progress measures and management influences" (qtd. in 125). The business plan part was easy for me to grasp: it involves identifying the costs of employee turnover and identifies solutions to address that problem. The concept of the value proposition was something that made me think a bit more. Allow me to quote that part in full, the comment:

"The value proposition identifies the organization's unique characteristics which can then be promoted when recruiting so as to attract employees who identify with those characteristics. An organization can measure the effect of the retention plan by methods such as noting whether abseentism or tardiness is reduced, whether employees volunteer for community or special projects sponsored by the organization, and whether employees recruit their friends" (125).

Two things for me. One, the idea of whether employees participate in things like special projects or activities sponsored by the organization is crucial. Nothing diminishes your credibility in a community faster than your library sponsoring some event or activity, and the librarians or library staff fail to show up or participate. While no one expects 100% attendance (after all, life happens), when there is a consistent absence of the professional staff at sponsored events, one has to wonder. Two, the idea of the unique traits of the organization made me wonder who has given thought to this in their libraries. As an academic library, we should be asking what makes us unique? For the workers, we should ask why would we want to work here (wherever here happens to be)? In my case, I know a reason or two why I work at my current workplace, but if I had to put it in a brochure, or make the proverbial elevator pitch, I am not quite sure how I would do it. I would not want platitudes for this but good practical points.

Chapman then goes on to cite a list by J.L. Kawasaki for recommendations to work with new workers in the first weeks of their job. This is a good list, so I am citing it here too (see page 126):

  • "provide meaningful work."
  • "provide appropriate tools to do the job"
  • "participate fully in orienting new hires"
  • "provide opportunities to make connections within the library organization and the institution"
  • "create an environment that provides elements for asking and seeking out"
  • "information and professional development"
I am aware of some of these ideas because I used them to some extent in helping to train the new librarians we recently hired. No, we did not go on one of those mythical hiring sprees. The accreditation agency for the university had a say on the matter, but let us not digress. I have tried my best to be helpful in terms of providing the elements for the new hires to ask and seek out any information or help they may need. This is consistent with a point that Chapman makes later in the article that "it is much better to encourage relationships with co-workers who can help point out what is important" rather than just telling them to read the manuals (130). The information and professional development part I don't really have control over, and the way things are, well, I will say it is almost non-existent as things currently stand. Personally, this is a significant point of concern for me, but it is one not for this post.

Chapman goes on to discuss the idea of organizational culture and how it is important to integrate the new hire into that culture. She also mentions that supervisors are the most effective influence during the orientation process (128). This made me think of a book I read a while back that makes the same point. In my case, I don't supervise the new librarians; I just train them and turn them loose, so to speak. It can have the advantage that I can then work more as the person to point out what is important and what is not. This would be an example of informal socialization, if I understand the article right, where "informal socialization had a greater impact on job satisfaction and professional commitment than did formal orientation" (129).

But I can say that back in the day when I had more of an immediate supervisor (as in an assistant director versus just going straight to the top as I do now), she was quite influential over time in terms of how I was brought into the organizational culture at the time. And I did learn a few things from her as well. Chapman adds some additional thoughts on supervisors:

  • "The supervisor is often the bridge between graduate school and the profession as new librarians enter their first job (Black and Leysen, 2002). Supervisors can act as mentors, define expectations, and protect new librarians from trying to take on too much in their first year on the job. Supervisors can also connect new librarians to important individuals and resources" (131).
  • "In an academic library the supervisor can help the new employee by identifying the place and status of the library in the university setting, who the library administration reports to, and how the library is perceived by the university administration and non-library faculty. The supervisor can be very helpful in interpreting these issues as the social, economic and political context in which an academic library operates can be much more complicated than that of a public or special library (Jones 1988)" (131-132). Now, this makes me ask how much is too much in interpreting and identifying some of those perceptions. As any academic librarian knows, many non-library faculty do not exactly have a positive perception of the library, to put it mildly. Often academic librarians need a bit of thick skin to deal with this.

Oh, and another thing I learned in my previous job that I applied now was making sure the new librarians had one-on-one meetings with all appropriate individuals, and I kept a checklist, as Chapman suggests.

Chapman also addresses the need to evaluate retention programs, and in this age of assessment, this is important. It is also important to note that new employee needs to be an active participant as well in the orientation process.

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