The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

4 Tips for Succeeding in Higher Ed HR

iStock_000015097052SmallComing in to higher education human resources from another HR industry can be a culture shock. First, there’s the overall culture of higher ed — traditional, conservative, slow to change. Then there are the anomalies of specific types of institutions and their environments, not to mention the many different types of employees (faculty, executives, staff, administrators) who are recruited, compensated and governed very differently. Understanding that working in higher ed is not “business as usual” is the first step to succeeding in this unique environment.

Here, several individuals who cut their teeth in the business world of HR before joining a higher ed institution provide some tips on what to expect when transitioning from private sector HR to higher education.

Tip #1: Don’t expect work to get done at the same pace as in the business world. “In the corporate world, work is done at a much faster clip than it is in higher ed,” says Karen Westendorp, who prior to joining Normandale Community College a year ago as HR business partner worked for nine years in private sector human resources. “I feel like we take a more thoughtful approach to our work in higher ed, and we take the time to plan and to reflect on what worked and what didn’t; but, while we might go slower, that certainly doesn’t mean we do less work!”

Tip #2: Be patient. Change comes slowly in higher ed. “I’ve found that higher education holds on tight to tradition and can be very resistant to change,” says Becky Landry, HR manager at Lone Star College-Kingwood, who prior to this role worked for 19 years in HR in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. “The implementation of new federal guidelines, updating/eliminating outdated procedures, and implementing new processes has sometimes been a sloooow, painful process.”

Tip #3: There’s a committee for that! “Higher ed favors the consensus approach to decision making much more so than the business world,” says Westendorp. “I’m still adjusting to the committee approach to problem solving and program planning.” Adds Josh Mackey, director of the Center for HR Innovation, Strategy & Planning at Maricopa County Community College District: “Because of the committee-oriented nature of decision making in higher education, the speed of decision making and implementation of those decisions is usually a much longer process than it is in many other industries.”

Tip #4: Be ready to share information and collaborate. “One of the most refreshing differences that I encountered in my move to higher education from the corporate world is the willingness of people to share information with those in the profession across institutions,” says Isaac Dixon, associate vice president and director of human resources at Lewis & Clark College. “This is not a common practice in corporate America, and in my discussions with those that have ‘moved over,’ it is the first thing they comment on.”

Are you (or one of your colleagues) new to higher education HR? Could you use some insight into the higher ed workplace? CUPA-HR’s new Understanding Higher Ed e-learning course can provide you with the basic background, information and tools you need to be successful in the unique environment of higher education. And to gain a higher ed perspective on essential HR topics, check out CUPA-HR Boot Camp.