Works council issues warning about consequences of the tight labor market

‘Loyal and high-performing UU employees are not appreciated enough’

Jan Hunink en Bobby Baidjnath Misier Foto: DUB
Jan Hunink and Bobby Baidjnath Misier. Photo: DUB

This statement, made earlier this year by chair Bobby Baidjnath Misier at a meeting of the Works Council of the University Corporate Offices (Dutch acronym: UBD), would have sounded somewhat emotional had it been made by someone else. Instead, due to his measured and calm delivery, he impressed those present with his appeal for more appreciation for UU employees that have been working for the university for a long time.

Prior to that statement, Baidjnath Misier had spent months speaking to a number of people in the UBD department – “from mechanics to secretaries and financial assistants” – about their work and how they coped during the Covid-19 pandemic. The conversations left him with “a very peculiar feeling”, in his own words. “After almost every conversation, I thought: 'I am so happy you work for the university and I am so proud to be your colleague.'”

In Baidjnath Misier's view, these days, with the overheated labour market and the fact that it's been hard to fill certain vacancies, the university risks overlooking these valuable employees. In fact, he thinks that the personnel policy is actively feeding a feeling of discontent among this silent group of employees, who solves problems behind the scenes and takes on more and more work and responsibilities. In doing so, the university is shooting itself in the foot.

Time for a discussion with Misier, who serves as ICT manager at the department of Information & Technology Services, and with council member Jan Hunink,  a Managing Technician at the Facilities Service Centre. What have they noticed in the workplace and what should be done about it?

Soaring wages
According to Baidjnath Misier, there has been an accumulation of things causing long-term university employees to feel undervalued. The Works Council has closely followed these developments over the past few years.

“It all started during the pandemic when many people were ill or at home. A significant group of employees took on additional duties from their colleagues, often voluntarily. They were not compensated for that, they just had to do more work. Many people have told us that the work pressure increased as a result.”

In addition, the labour market situation at the time forced UU to start employing more external personnel. “These people are paid ridiculously well, especially in ICT. Programmers used to cost around 80 euros per hour but, these days, that number has pretty much doubled. These new employees are being trained by lesser-paid staff, which feels unfair.”

According to Baidjnath Misier and Hunink, new employees have been assigned a higher job profile and pay grade than current employees with the same duties. “We have seen enough such cases. I can’t share them because of privacy issues, but whoever looks into it and starts comparing the data can see it.”

The employees also feel that, when a vacancy opens up, the university prefers searching for external candidates rather than promoting current staff members. A good degree is highly valued, even though current employees may have attained the same expertise due to their level of experience. This fact is often not recognised by managers.

Hunink concludes: “People used to start from the bottom and climb up the corporate ladder over time. Now, people are overtaking you all of a sudden." Baidjnath Misier adds: “I have heard complaints from people that have been stuck in the same pay grade for years who suddenly have to explain the workings of the university to a youngster with no experience but with a higher salary.”

More gratifications
According to Baidjnath Misier and Hunink, the university risks rendering its long-term employees unmotivated or worse: getting a burnout. Getting a positive assessment by their employer each year is not actually providing them with any benefits. Misier and Hunink think something has to happen. Due to inflation and the fact that many colleagues report having financial worries, a monetary benefit would be an important step.

“The Works Council is not in charge of salaries and we understand that it is hard to place everyone at a higher scale. Hence our proposition to make more extensive use of gratifications. We think that should be possible. To put it plainly, it’s not our job to figure this out. We just see that things are going wrong and something must be done about it.”

The university defended itself by stating that working for UU should be made more appealing by making the jobs themselves more interesting and providing employees with the opportunity to get additional training. Misier and Hunink think that's not enough. Misier: “In my field, ICT, employees are obliged to keep on learning. That is not a perk. What’s happening now is that the university is investing in people who will quit. Then they’re left with another vacancy that will be filled with a new, more expensive person.”

But isn’t that situation beneficial for the frustrated employees too? Why don’t they tell their managers that they deserve a more prominent role or to be placed at a higher pay grade? After all, the job market is so favourable that they could find another job easily.

“They can and some do exactly that. But there is a group of employees who told me that they are happy with a permanent contract and the security of monthly wages that allow them to pay their mortgage. They don’t have the energy, the confidence or the age to try again somewhere else. Make no mistake, there is a big barrier to stepping up to your boss with personal demands.”

Jan Hunink: “This is particularly difficult for people that have been working on the same job for years. They have been getting good assessments year after year but they are not able to convey that they and others like them deserve more compensation.”

Fleet review
According to the Works Council members, the Hay system, which is used to order job types among Dutch universities, should be re-assessed as well. It is considered too broad, which causes positions in completely different fields to be described similarly on paper. “The job description of an ICT employee can greatly resemble that of a facility employee.”

Another remark made in the council meeting was that the only way to get higher wages right now is to "manage" while, in other organisations, people with specific expertise can outearn managers.

Baidjnath Misier: “All departments within the UBD should get a ‘fleet review’, a sort of inventory in which everyone’s responsibilities are rea-assessed, as well as whether their tasks still match their job description and pay grade. That is what is currently happening in the ICT department and I am really happy about that.”

His statement in the Works Council meeting should mainly be seen as an appeal and a call for attention for the “hundreds of people who have taken on extra duties, who are underpaid, or who want to grow within the organisation”. He concludes with a message to the university itself: “UU, take stock and realise how many great employees you have, and how dedicated they are. Reward them! If a change in pay grade is not possible, then give them a gratification.”

The demand for more financial appreciation for employees of the University Corporate Office was part of the discussions in the council meeting held in January. The meeting was attended by Aletta Huizenga, Director of Human Resources; Eddie Verzendaal, Director of the Facilities Service Centre; and Anton Pijpers, president of the Executive Board.

They all acknowledged that the combination of a heavier workload, inflation and a tight job market logically leads to questions about pay grade and wages. According to them, it is not possible to do something about the outside of the formal university job grading right now. Positive or excellent yearly assessments therefore do not lead to a different job classification but managers can give the employee in question a gratification or offer them a course.

They added that, up until then, there had been no signs that new employees were being classified at higher pay grades to perform the same work, like the employees of the Works Council allege. But that could be investigated  further, they said.

According to the directors, the university is considering employing new ways to reward its employees. One example is the university-wide "Recognition & Reward" project, which also questions the strict distinction between research and facilitating staff.

In the next meeting, which is set to be held next week, the Works Council’s proposition to use gratifications more often will be discussed. A memorandum revealed that 8 percent of UU's employees was awarded such a perk on an individual or group-level last year.