What Does the Employee Manual Say?

Earlier this year, I needed to spend many days dedicated to my family.  My mother was hospitalized and later passed away.  In the following weeks, I had to sort through her belongings, empty her home, and administer her estate.  As anyone who has dealt with a death in the family knows, these jobs can go on for weeks or months.  At the same time, I needed to be available to my school-age daughter for sick days, early dismissals, rides to ballet and swimming lessons, and time to just have fun together.  As a member of the “sandwich generation,” my time for personal business and even work was limited.

I’m not sharing this story for sympathy.  I’m sharing it because the time I needed for family this year made me wonder whether I could have gotten the time off if I were working full-time for an organization or business.

When my daughter was born, I took one month off under the Family and Medical Leave Act when my wife returned to work.  It was a decision to extend the time before my daughter would have to begin daycare, and it also helped to strengthen the bond between us and make me more comfortable caring for her.  It’s a decision I’ll never regret.  As a career move, however, I have no doubt that it hurt me, and one senior attorney in the law firm that I worked for at the time told me that outright.

At a theater I later worked at, despite having fifteen paid days off each year in addition to six holidays and unofficial “comp time,” I was made to feel uncomfortable whenever I actually asked to take vacation time or needed to stay home or leave early for my daughter or other personal business.  This was despite regularly working sixty, seventy or more hours each week.

Earlier this year, Commongood Careers, a nonprofit search firm in Boston, conducted a survey of 1,750 nonprofit employees and jobseekers and published the results as The Voice of Nonprofit Talent in 2008: Improving Recruitment and Retention by Responding tothe Needs of Nonprofit Employees and Jobseekers.  Because many arts employers are nonprofits, the findings might apply to theaters as well as to the social service organizations that the research actually focused on.  It might also apply in some ways to commercial theaters where jobseekers often take employment not for the salary and financial benefits, but for love of the work.

According to the research, nonprofit employees plan to have long-term careers in the nonprofit sector.  Eighty-four percent of the respondents indicated that “work is part of my identity, not just a way to make a living.”  But, the respondents also pointed out several factors limiting a possible long-term nonprofit career.  Among those were concerns about salary levels and work-life balance.  In fact, the non-salary benefits (other than healthcare) most often listed as important were vacation time and flexible working arrangements.

Over seventy-five percent of respondents believed that nonprofits have to change recruitment, employment and professional development practices if they’re going to attract and retain employees.  Commongood Careers CEO James Weinberg said, “To be competitive in recruiting and retaining the next generation of great nonprofit talent, organizations need to listen to jobseekers and pursue creative solutions.”  Relying on doing good work or having an appealing mission statement apparently isn’t enough anymore.

The study report suggests eight “strategies” for nonprofit employers to improve.  Among those are focusing on all employees’ careers, not only executives, and openly sharing information about the organizations “culture and values.”  One of the best ways to share information about benefits—and to communicate to employees that their benefits mean something to executive management—is to list and explain benefits in an employee manual.

Too often, theaters—especially smaller theaters—don’t have employee manuals.  These written rules and guidelines not only communicate benefits and terms of employment, but also help employers by setting down general rules and expectations.  Even theaters that rely heavily—or even entirely—on volunteer staffing should have written guidelines.  When dealing with volunteers, a handbook or manual can often indisputably be referred to for expectations, rules, benefits (such as comp tickets received for example), recognition, or the process of suspension or termination should that be necessary.  In my experience, employees and volunteers appreciate having written staff manuals or handbooks.

For employers, writing or revising an employee or volunteer handbook can be done with the help of a little online research to find examples, or—of course—with the help of a consultant like myself who has written both employee and volunteer manuals.  For employees, using that promised flex time or getting vacation days off may take a little more effort, but, if your theater doesn’t have an employee manual, why not bring that up as a first step?  It’ll be something you’ll refer to again and again.

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