Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

Why Your HR Officer Is Leaving

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Looking to land a senior-level job in human resources or organizational equity? If you have the qualifications, now is the time. Even if you’re not quite ready to move up, this might be the time to a make a case for a bigger role.

Why? Because suddenly there seem to be plenty of jobs in HR and equity offices with no one to fill them. As my university’s chief human-resources officer, I regularly receive calls from search consultants looking for names of potential candidates. Within the last several months, there has been a serious uptick in search-consultant requests for leads in these fields. I received four inquiries just yesterday.

At first, I thought that might be a function of an improving job market in higher education. But after attending two recent conferences with human resources, organizational equity, and Title IX professionals, I am now convinced that something more fundamental is at play. At both gatherings, I was struck by how often I heard participants expressing frustration and resignation.

During sessions, meals, and hallway conversations, some of the most strategic and talented people in these roles shared with me their desire for a radical change of venue or even career. Some of them talked about seeking opportunities to work at more progressive colleges and universities. But others said they were looking to get out of higher education entirely and move into a sector that takes leadership and organizational culture more seriously.

Over and over, I heard similar sorts of comments from participants looking to shift their careers outside of academe. They fear that the high levels of visibility and the regular personal attacks — which have become common job hazards for certain campus leadership roles — may eventually destroy their prospects for any kind of future employment. To many, it seems smarter to get into another field or industry before they are irrevocably pilloried for failing to find fault, offer absolution, or deploy their psychic powers to predict all the places where evil might lurk. We should not be surprised that so many vacancies exist in what might seem like "plum" jobs at even the best colleges and universities.

I am concerned, but not all that surprised, by this new level of frustration and anxiety. While I happen to think it is an exciting time to work in a role that can influence cultural transformation, I appreciate that the work feels harder than ever. But it is important work. And while the #MeToo movement, the demands for pay transparency, and the discoveries of previously suppressed misconduct can be embarrassing for organizations and challenging to manage, it feels like — as a nation — we are finally engaged in important conversations about our most important values.

Given the spirited conversations and increased demands for more equitable workplaces, HR and equity officers no longer have to cajole their campuses to take these matters seriously. In a recent conference, one colleague noted: "For years, no one wanted to talk to me. Now everyone wants my advice on how to improve their culture. I just wish I could meet the new demand." This comment elicited plenty of head nodding but also expressions of frustration that it has taken so long for many campuses to understand the value of inclusion, accountability, and organizational justice.

With such encouraging trends, why are so many colleagues who are engaged in this work feeling depleted rather than ebullient? Shouldn’t they feel more energized and empowered than ever before? I see three reasons for the escalating levels of turnover among campus HR and equity officers, especially at senior levels.

Constant clean-up duty. First is the assumption, still prevalent at some institutions, that creating a good campus culture is a "fluffy’ business that is not core to the work of higher education. And because "everyone is busy," it is deemed acceptable for managers to refuse to manage and for colleagues to keep quiet about problematic and longstanding behavior until it eventually affects them personally. At those two recent conferences, I heard many people in HR and equity positions describe how Sisyphean it feels to serve on constant clean-up duty, especially when it is obvious that a little courage — or at least earlier intervention — could have prevented or reduced trouble and upset. Everyone has to do their part to build a sense of community, but it can be discouraging when few people seem to understand that.

Constant criticism. Many administrators in HR and organizational equity feel like they are constantly in a sniper’s rifle scope — regularly criticized, maligned, and second-guessed in completely unpredictable ways. Of course everyone in these positions should be open to constructive criticism and held to high standards. But it is wearing when there is an assumption that HR and equity officers are either "working for the man" or "advocating too zealously for employees." People in HR and equity roles are criticized for not working fast enough or deliberately enough, being too strident or too lax, and failing to persuade organizational leaders to act more decisively or more cautiously. Often, the criticism isn’t offered to optimize processes or improve decision making, but to revel in the opportunity to point fingers and shout "gotcha" without full benefit of the context in which choices and decisions were made. Further when HR and equity recommendations are not adopted, there is often a perception that "HR did nothing."

No real access to the senior leadership. Perhaps most enervating — at least according to some colleagues in these jobs — is knowing where the issues are, but having no venue to communicate them to those with the power to make things right. You might assume that your HR and equity officers have the ear of your president and provost and regularly meet to present and review trend data, but many still do not and they have to rely on their powers of persuasion to move concerns up the food chain. It should be no surprise that many HR and organizational equity leaders in higher education often know where things are simmering, while presidents and chancellors learn about bad news only after a fire is raging.

So what is the solution? Will rearranging organizational chart boxes do the trick? Is there a path toward greater grace and shared problem-solving that would benefit us all? Can the blame-game culture on our campuses be reversed? Will there ever be a way to carve out the time necessary to engage in the deep structural work required to create healthier organizational cultures?

Like many in this field, I am pondering those questions a lot these days. But until I answer them, there are plenty of openings all over the country, and I am doing my best to help search firms identify my next set of colleagues.

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