All universities, like so many other institutions, are tasked to do more with less. According to an October 2011 College Board report, last year the average public university increased tuition by 8.3 percent. However, in most cases, rising tuition has not translated into more robust departmental budgets or increased staffing levels. Decreased government support and rising costs for health care for faculty and staff have squeezed university administrators.
While some schools have responded to budget challenges with hiring freezes and even furloughs, one fact is clear: higher education must find ways to get more work done with fewer staff. To make matters worse, a lean staff means that administrators (and other staff) can be particularly challenged to deal with short-term and long-term absences or even permanent, surprise worker losses. A 2011 article entitled “Benchmarking Succession Planning & Executive Development in Higher Education” in the Academic Leadership Journal decried that few higher educational institutions utilize succession planning. Just as few have well-planned approaches to deal with short-term or long-term absences. Consider: What should be done when people call in sick? What should be done when they are out for longer timespans due to births, deaths, or disabilities? How can the organization handle the loss of people to family emergencies, medical leave, jury duty, or armed forces call-ups? College unions certainly face these challenges, making it important for managers to plan for replacements.
Replacement planning is the process of identifying short-term and long-term emergency back-ups to fill critical positions or to take the place of critical people. In this sense, short-term replacement planning is intended to find back-ups when workers are out for a short time, such as on vacation or out sick. In contrast, long-term replacement planning finds back-ups for longer timespans when workers are lost to death, disability, sudden resignation, or an indefinite absence. Replacement planning allows the work to be completed even when the person or people who normally do it are gone. Replacement planning differs from succession planning in that the employee who steps in is given the work temporarily and is not promised a promotion.
While it is especially helpful to have plans in place for senior staff, it can be beneficial to create replacement plans for departmental areas and even student workers. Replacement planning can be conducted as part of an annual staff retreat, before hiring new staff, or when updating organizational charts. Replacement planning is intended for emergencies, but it can also drive cross-training so that individuals are prepared in a systematic way to do more than one job when necessary.
Begin by asking managers and employees questions like these:
- If you lost one of your most important people suddenly, how quickly could you find a replacement?
- Who is your back-up?
- How many people do you have as back-ups, and how long would it take to prepare them to do your job without further need for training or coaching?
- How many people in your area can serve as your back-up in case of emergency?
- How many people do you have as back-ups for other key people or positions?
This information can inform departmental preparations to manage unexpected absences. Beyond this initial conversation, several approaches can be taken.
The first is the traditional approach. Create a chart for each work group similar to the one shown in Figure 1. For each worker, identify at least three back-ups. Indicate by a code whether each worker can do the whole job at present or if the individual needs additional training. (A typical code is RN = Ready now as a replacement; R1 = Needs six months of on the job development to be ready; and R2 = Needs one year of on-the-job development.) Next to the code, managers can indicate what additional training or practical experience might be needed so that the worker can successfully perform all aspects of the work. This chart can be drafted in a group setting or by a manager and then shared more widely for reaction and improvement.
The second is a more detailed approach and is based on the so-called DACUM method. Invented by The Ohio State University, DACUM is an acronym that stands for Developing a Curriculum. (For more detailed information about the approach, see http://www.dacum.org.) While DACUM has traditionally been used to pinpoint the work activities of one job or occupation, it can also be more creatively used to list all the work activities of a department or division.
DACUM is quite simple. Think of it as based on structured brainstorming. Call all the workers of a department or staff unit together—that can be done by shift—and ask them what they do every day regardless of their respective jobs. Place each work activity, beginning with a verb, on a single sheet of paper and post it on a wall for everyone to see. (Examples of work activities might include “meets with prospective donors,” “advises the programming board,” or “updates the website.”) When conducting a DACUM session, it is most useful for one person to facilitate and several others to write down the work activities and post them on the wall. Once the brainstorming is finished, the activities can be organized into categories.
The result of this session will be a map of all the work activities—essentially, a comprehensive job description—of a unit or department. Once that (perhaps lengthy) list of work activities has been identified, it is then possible to examine each task to indicate which employees—and how many—perform those activities. Such a comprehensive list of work activities can guide cross-training and on-the-job training to plan replacements. This approach can also be helpful in identifying and attempting to eliminate time-wasting work activities. It can also reduce the time it takes to train replacements by making clear exactly what work is done. The job map can be translated into a checklist to guide, and effectively accelerate, on-the-job cross-training. Such documentation of training will then aid managers in holding employees accountable for knowing what to do.
Replacement planning in action
In this section, three case studies reveal the benefits of replacement planning. These are based on actual cases, developed from interviews with union and activities leaders, though individuals and institutions have been disguised.
Case Study 1: Reorganization
Through a recent university restructuring, the Office of Student Involvement began reporting to the dean of students instead of the director of the union. The office has three full-time staff members, one 12-month full-time staff appointment (not likely to be funded next year), and a variety of student (graduate assistant, graduate intern, undergraduate) positions that support general office duties and special projects. It becomes suddenly necessary for one of the full-time professionals to take an extended leave of absence. No personnel replacement plan has been prepared.
Who can fill in? Do those individuals with the most knowledge of the position’s responsibilities work in the dean of students area or the union? What will happen once the appointed professional’s yearlong contract ends and two staff members’ responsibilities must be covered?
A meeting was called right away to discuss what needed to be covered and who was going to provide that coverage. Employees from the union and the dean’s office were both asked to attend. Ultimately, the remaining team members and student assistants decided they would prefer to manage the added workload themselves. Regular weekly meetings ensured that communication kept flowing. Moving forward, the dean has mandated that each office maintains a replacement plan two deep for functional areas.
Case Study 2: Handling Multiple Replacements
A student union in a medium-sized university primarily handles events and facility operations; campus activities are overseen by another department. Programming for students occurs in the union space but is not necessarily managed by union staff. The union has five administrative staff, 15 part-time/custodial staff, and 100 student workers. Over the past four years, this union has experienced multiple employee absences, many overlapping.
Three years ago, the union director announced the intent to leave the union for another position. It was originally agreed that the two associate directors would share the work and that an immediate search for a new director would be undertaken. This process was anticipated to last six months, but the economic downturn and other changing staff at the senior level necessitated the position remain vacant much longer. At the same time, a union employee who was a military reservist was called to active duty for nine months. Shortly thereafter, two other employees retired. The university requires every university department to have a replacement for each position, but no active, written plan existed.
Every long-term absence was handled on a case-by-case basis. The director’s responsibilities were distributed to many employees—mostly the associate directors, some of whose own responsibilities were then delegated to additional staff. Faced with only a few weeks lead time before the reservist employee was deployed, a recent retiree was asked to fill in on a half-time basis. Of the two other employees who retired, only one has been replaced, so other staff have needed to absorb additional responsibilities and some services have been scaled back.
After these multiple long-term absences, the employees covering the positions and work initially felt excited by the new challenges that confronted them. As the months turned into years on some replacements, a few full-time staff members burned out. Overall, the team at the union has proven to be strong enough to handle multiple replacements over a long period of time, but they have needed to learn replacement planning along the way.
Case Study 3: A Replacement Plan for a Replacement Plan
A large university has a union and activities structure that encompasses seven departments consisting of 70 full-time employees and 77 student employees. Service to students is the union’s primary focus, so all employee absences are gauged for their potential impact on students and programming. The union has an informal employee replacement plan in place, but nothing is documented. Education and communication among all of the union and student activities departments has been encouraged, and this has helped employees develop a general sense of what every person on the team does. All employees, in collaboration with the director, are expected to identify and communicate with their potential replacement. If there is a gap of skills or knowledge for the replacement to be successful, then training is provided for that employee.
Within this cultural context, a department director, working under the senior director of union and student activities, had a medical emergency that resulted in an eight-week absence. The senior director pulled together the department director’s staff to brainstorm how to handle the situation and assign work. Understanding that if students become frustrated with employee absences it could result in an overall negative feeling about the union, the senior director quickly implemented the replacement plan. The team who filled in for the director felt invigorated by the challenge, but as the time went on everyone realized that the work level could not be sustained much past eight weeks.
Although this university does not have a written employee replacement plan in place, it has cultivated a culture of trust and communication within the union organization. Back-ups for positions are emphasized on a continuing basis. In addition to the replacement planning, the union has a robust, consistent staff training program so that employees can be successful if a short- to intermediate-term absence arises. In this instance of a longer absence, the senior director generated a back-up plan for the back-up plan: If director was out for longer than two months, a short-term replacement would be hired for the position.
As evidenced by these examples, universities could stand to improve how they deal with the personnel losses, especially since many offices are already operating with lean staffing. When employees are asked to do work they have not been prepared to do, they can become stressed—which increases the likelihood their health will suffer or that they will resign. It also means that service to students may be negatively affected. One possible solution is personnel replacement planning. Note that in several cases the university had a policy about such plans but they were not systematically monitored or implemented. A plan without clear goals, roles, and accountabilities will usually not work as well as one that does possess those elements. Additionally, a drafted plan is only useful if it is continually examined, updated, and applied to staff training and appraisal discussions. By charting work groups or using the DACUM method, college unions can take the first step in ensuring that the work can still get done despite unplanned absenteeism and talent losses.
William J. Rothwell, Ph.D., is professor of workforce education and development at Pennsylvania State University–University Park. In that capacity, he leads a graduate emphasis in human resource development. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Michelle Corby is a program manager for the World Campus at Pennsylvania State University. She has previously worked as a higher education administrator in alumni relations, marketing, retention, and administrative services. Currently, Corby is pursuing a Ph.D. in workforce education and development with an emphasis in organization and leadership development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.