It’s wise policy to track activities for private, public workers

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When I read Thursday’s article in the U-B on the audit of exempt staff’s work hours in the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office, one question came to mind: Why are nonprofit and public sector organizations so casual in managing their staffs?

Charities, service organizations, colleges, hospitals, government agencies of all sorts — they are organized to serve the community, they are entrusted with donations or tax dollars. So why not make the most of those dollars by putting a little rigor and discipline into managing their biggest expense: employees.

When I look back at the moments in my career that had me exasperated and sputtering in disbelief I don’t think of the greedy CEO raking in millions. I can quickly think of several exempt staff members in nonprofit hospitals, colleges or working for government agencies.

Some years back an exempt professional employee working in a large nonprofit organization told me he knew he could earn more than his salary of $48,000 if he took a job in a for profit company — but he knew he would have to work much harder in a for profit company. He openly acknowledged that he slacked off and disappeared some days because no one kept track of him and that was one of the benefits of working for a nonprofit. I appreciated his honesty if not his ethics.

And I remember a man who was paid $160,000 a year at a nonprofit where I was auditing the pay program. He couldn’t give me an example of anything he had accomplished in the past year. He came into the office most days, socialized a bit, sat through a meeting or two and golfed a lot. He had much more time to golf after the board of trustees got my report.

There are people who are responsible and diligent in every organization and people who are comfortable taking a pay check while doing as little as possible.

It is a manager’s responsibility to see that his employees are working effectively and that they earn their paychecks. It takes a little time and a little effort, but keeping track of staff and staying on top of what everyone is doing is the job of a manager.

But nonprofit organizations — well, let me paraphrase the words of many nonprofit and public sector managers: “We can’t pay the staff much, we trust them to do the right thing. And besides, I am so busy and I don’t want more paperwork. I am no good with numbers or spreadsheets and I know everyone is doing their best.”

How long would a manager who said that last in a profit-driven company?

If exempt employees at Starbucks spend half their work day playing Frisbee golf, I really don’t care. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz would care; their co-workers would be angry and resentful. But their paychecks are funded by the world’s many caffeine addicts.

But nonprofit organizations are funded by donations, federal and state dollars (taxes), our insurance premiums or second mortgages taken out to pay for tuition or a big hospital bill. I believe the dollars that fund nonprofit and public sector paychecks deserve special care.

We shouldn’t have to “trust me” those dollars are being managed well. The nuts and bolts of exempt paid time off rules as outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act are loose and need to be tightened, but that doesn’t justify a casual approach to managing exempt staff. Nor do we need to spend money on attorney fees or elaborate systems of time-keeping.

A good manager checks in with his staff a few times a week, if not daily. A quick chat to make sure everything is in order and the assigned work is on track.

Exempt employees should submit an activity and status report weekly or monthly. Those activity reports do not track hours worked but should note any sick days or vacation days taken. In no way would that jeopardize a position’s exempt status.

If there are questions about what an exempt employee is doing to earn a paycheck a manager should be able to give a detailed answer and activity reports would make that easy.

Managing a nonprofit or public sector agency is difficult, the public is demanding and there will never be a shortage of chronic complainers. But a few details, a demonstration that good management practices are in place and some simple documentation can go a long way toward gaining the trust of the community.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her consulting firm HR Partner on Call. She contributes a regular column, Fair Exchange, to the Union-Bulletin. Contact her at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com

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