Higher Ed Hot Takes
• Issue #19

Could employee transfers be the key to retention?

Neurons firing in a dark space.

Could employee transfers be the key to retention?

Last month, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on dead-end jobs in higher ed. Clearly, the article hit home for readers because a few weeks later, they published a reaction piece featuring anonymous faculty and administrators extolling the coverage of this problem.

To be honest, I was surprised the article didn’t cover a basic solution that seems to evade higher education, at least on the administrative side: employee transfers.

In my previous life as an administrator for a university, promotions and transfers weren’t common without painful department restructuring. Every job opening was posted on the University employment page, I think, per policy. Hiring managers had the option but would rarely post open positions for internal candidates only. And, in the rare occurrences when an employee did change departments without a position posting, staff assumed one of two reasons behind the change:

  1. The move was related to a forced separation between employees for a period of investigation after an accusation was made, or

  2. The person was laid off, and it was uncomfortable for them to finish the terms of their contract in their current position.

In other industries and organizations, transfers are much more common. Department directors have a good sense of their staff members’ talents and career aspirations. Leaders talk with one another and recommend their good people for openings within the company. Internal staff members are part of succession planning.

The benefits of a flexible transfer policy for higher education administration are substantial

You have a good shot at retaining your organization’s best employees. Rewriting resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles involves time and resources. When an organization requires employees to spend their downtime producing quality applications for internal postings, it just makes sense that those employees might use those application materials for openings outside the organization. When you can set them up for a successful and meaningful internal transfer, they don’t need to spend their time on a risk that may or may not pay off.

You decrease administrative bloat. We’ve all heard that higher education suffers from administrative bloat and too much bureaucracy. How much departmental time is lost in building search committees, reviewing applications, interviewing candidates through multiple rounds, and onboarding new team members from outside your organization? Do you think your committee members are productive when they have to take days away from their regular responsibilities to fill open positions?

Bad hires have high costs. Some experts say that interviews are poor predictors of performance. And according to Harvard Business Review, “the cost of a wrong hire is often calculated to range from 30% to 50% of their salary – or more.” When your organization allows transfers, you can draw from a bank of earned internal organizational capital. You better understand an internal transfer’s skills and development path. References are more likely to be thoughtful and straightforward.

It’s good for morale. When employees can advance in their responsibilities or even change departments for lateral skill development, they have more agency in their careers. When an organizational culture encourages those changes between departments, employees feel seen. It’s a very tangible way to boost employee recognition.

It’s good for supervisor and director development too. There are a lot of manager training programs out there. But frankly, if you want to get better at developing people - at evaluating their strengths and weaknesses and providing opportunities for improvement - YOU need practice with a lot of different kinds of direct reports. You can’t learn one set of skills that works well for developing one specific employee and then cash out on it over and over again. People are wildly different, and they need different experiences and motivators to feel both confident to try new and better tactics AND safe to receive appropriate feedback on their performance.

Well, why haven’t we all done this? What are the downsides?

I think the potential downsides partly explain the lack of implementation. For one, it feels risky or antithetical to diversity and equity goals. If you have a campus administration that doesn’t represent your student body in some fundamental ways, internal transfer policies threaten to instantiate that lack of representation further. However, I would argue that transfer policies and a thoughtful employee development landscape could actually better support diversity and equity efforts. A lack of representation is one thing. But, a lack of representation within your organization’s hierarchy is also a problem. A flexible transfer program could be a tool for developing and promoting employees of color, LGBTQA employees, and employees of different abilities, ages, ethnicities, or cultural experiences.

Other downsides include leaving some departments with seemingly perpetual gaps and possible resentment between employees who get transfers approved and employees who do not. But, while related, these issues are more cultural than a direct result of transfer policies. Departments with perpetual gaps signal weaknesses in how those jobs are structured, recruited for, or managed. And bitterness between employees over transfers is about transparency, consistency, and feedback, not about whether or not transfers are available.

To the claim that transfers could create stagnation within the university: Departments often have staff members who have been in their roles for decades. University culture is unwittingly biased towards administrators who don’t accelerate organizational change. And those people are just as likely to create that stale vibe you’re trying to avoid.

I realize that there are probably many different strategies and tactics to think about when considering how to manage a higher education ecosystem of talent and work. And I don’t mean to be glib about a difficult topic. But, I can say anecdotally that so many of my friends and former colleagues from the higher education industry found that leaving for an outside job was the only way to be seen, the only way to grow professionally, and the only way to move into a more senior-level position. Now imagine if we could give those bright, innovative, and compassionate leaders a chance to work their magic inside our institutions.

- Kristin Van Dorn

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Is your university website useless?

White text that says "is your university website useless?" against a gradient background.

Did a recent website redesign fail to deliver on its promises?

Can you relate to the following scenario?

Let’s say you hired content strategists to produce a simple sitemap and designers to create dozens of wireframes, only for them to be argued about for weeks by 18 different stakeholders.

And once you agreed on a design, those same stakeholders quarreled and ripped it apart until, finally, you were left with a website that worked, but not as well as it should have. Now you’re in a situation where you’ve spent a whole lot of money with very little return on investment.

If this is you, what can you do about it?

1. Define your primary audience.

Hint: Your website is not for everyone.

Any website that tries to cater to everyone ends up catering to all of them poorly.

2. Complete a total audit of your website.

If you can do that in-house, great! If not, look at hiring a third-party agency, so they can comb through your website and give you the insights that you need. (We can think of a great one that rhymes with Cravery).

3. Ensure that the marketing staff has complete ownership of the website, not faculty.

You’re the web professional; you are the expert.

Faculty are experts in pedagogy.

Financial aid offices are experts in getting prospective students the right-fit financial aid packages.

And your admissions staff are experts in guiding those prospects through the admissions process.

In Higher Ed, everyone wants to do everyone else’s job, and when that happens, all we end up doing is wasting time and money.

- Joel Goodman

Note: I expand on this in a video called "Is your university’s website useless?" Consider subscribing to Bravery’s new YouTube channel.