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You Nearly S*** Yourself

Stay in one place for long enough in HE and you’re bound to be caught up in a restructuring of some kind.

Observing a maelstrom of wasted time, incompetence and frustration beneath them, but lacking the appetite for any serious confrontation, restructurings were a great way for senior management to periodically look as if they were doing something about it: call in some external consultants, pay them a lot of money, then throw staff into a big mixer and see what happens.

My first year as a manager ended with the news that the entire administrative function of the institution was to be restructured and I would need to reapply for a different, but similar, role in the reconfigured organisation.

The pertinent details of this process are seared into my memory. The interview began with an extremely uncomfortable wait outside the room, during which one member of the panel could be heard giving an unfavourable appraisal of the previous candidate, who had recently departed.

Much as I tried to focus on something else, the volume level made it difficult to avoid, and to enter the room with phrases like ‘She hasn’t got what it takes’ and ‘If she can’t handle the pressure in here, what is she going to be like in the job?’ ringing round in my head was less than ideal.

Such comments were a portent of what was to come. Although perfectly capable of messing it up on my own, the panel, and, in particular, its most voluble member, had evidently decided that turning up the heat was going to be his method of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

The nadir was a role-play scenario designed to test clarity of thought and skills with regard to multitasking – a kind of ‘these five things are happening, what do you do first?’ type thing.

It was fairly standard stuff, but under the pressure of the situation I managed to become fixated on the fact that one of the people vying for my attention in this scenario was the indiscreet panel member, a rather senior member of staff, who needed the toilet.

Clearly, I should not have been so literal-minded, but I could not get my head around why the Deputy Registrar was in my office asking where the nearest gents was. What made it worse was that, rather than giving me the opportunity to think it through, the panel began badgering me to show some urgency, as if this scenario really was unfolding, right there and then.

‘David needs the toilet! He’s RIGHT HERE, in your office! But there are all of these other things to deal with, so what are you going to do? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?’

I can’t remember what I said, but it involved some floundering, which was apparently held against me. I knew it had gone badly and could only imagine what kind of comments about me the next candidate overheard as they were waiting to enter the room.

I had been through an internal recruitment process once already, completed a year in the role, passed my probation, and received encouraging feedback from my manager. Yet this was somehow deemed less important than surviving the slightly ludicrous and contrived pantomime to which I had just been subjected.

The university seemed very keen on formal internal recruitment processes for administrative staff, and no alternative to putting people through them for every contract extension, secondment and slight change of role could ever be countenanced.

This could be a source of great embarrassment on both sides, particularly where colleagues who had been working together for some time found themselves at opposite ends of the table, with the same or similar questions being asked to people who had already answered them under near-identical circumstances at some point in the recent past.

I later figured that it was all part of the university’s extreme cowardice when it came to managing bad behaviour and poor performance. A recruitment process gave them an easy way out, an opportunity for a ‘better candidate’ to come along rather than deal with any problems with the person in post directly. As a strategy for retaining and motivating staff, it left something to be desired.

There was a six-month period in which I ended up interviewing the same internal candidate three times for different positions at the same grade. Despite being at pains to provide constructive feedback, his performances at interview only got worse. Such experiences cultivated a sense of paranoia and conspiracy among longer-serving colleagues who were continually knocked back.

(Some departments fed this by discouraging career progression, either internal or external, to the extent that those working there compared the environment, in hushed tones, to a Stalinist cult, with any future aspirations viewed as disloyalty to be ruthlessly punished.)

Having sought feedback after my interview, I was offered a meeting with the man with a penchant for loudly slagging people off and an inability to find the men’s facilities of his own accord without bursting into the nearest admin office and asking for assistance.

‘What we were doing there,’ he said, ‘was recreating the pressure of the situation in the room, to see how you’d react. That tells us a lot more about you than what you actually said.’

He seemed very pleased with himself for coming up with this rationalisation, which still didn’t make much sense to me. It was almost worse that he was being nice now, although he had little in the way of encouraging or useful feedback for improvement, which was what I was really after.

‘You just need a lot of improvement in all areas,’ he said. ‘At the moment, you’re a long way off. A long way off.’

It turned out that this man was of the school of thought that there was, in fact, only one way to do things, and that way was to be bullish and unapproachable. Clearly, he wanted to recruit in his own image, and my apparent timidity had not impressed him.

I later discovered that he had also bellowed some unsolicited interview feedback from across a corridor to one of my colleagues, whose application happened to be successful.

‘What the f*** happened in there, mate? You nearly f***ing s*** yourself!’

As did you, without anyone to tell you where the toilet was, I thought. But as feedback goes, ‘a long way off’ didn’t seem too bad in comparison.

That wasn’t actually my worst interview experience in HE, which was for a post at an institution that fancied itself as a prestigious world leader.

Having failed to acknowledge this quite deferentially enough during my answer to the opening question set the academics on the panel against me, and things deteriorated from there, to the point at which they started discussing my performance in unfavourable terms while the interview was ongoing and I was still in the room.

(For example, in immediate response to one of my answers: ‘What he’s said there doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that he’d know what to do in that situation, unfortunately.’)

The process ended with a guided tour of their historic buildings. As the genial old groundskeeper type noted my haunted expression and dwindling enthusiasm, I explained politely that I was very unlikely to be working there in future and made my excuses.

Anyway, despite my disappointment, the nature of these things was that they seemed to work themselves out in the end. And by ‘work themselves out’, I mean that more vacancies would eventually come along on the basis that the person previously doing the job had hated it, or gone mad (or both) and quit.

Sometimes such an opportunity would come along whereby the process of hating it or going mad was ongoing, and you would be asked to cover, on lower pay and with less support, for the duration of an extended and unspecified period of sick leave.

Basically, once there was no one else left willing or able to do a job, that’s when I’d start warming up.


This is an edited extract from Our Teaching's Great, The Admin Sucks: Tales From Inside Higher Education by Ben Richards, available to buy now.


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