Saturday, February 04, 2006

"Us versus Them" Inside the Organization

I am fascinated by individuals' psychological processes defining groups of people. From a marketing, marketing strategy and organizational performance perspective, this process affects the assessment of other individuals, individuals' activities and the activities of the group. In an October 2005 post I explained how this process can blind marketers to the opportunities in front of them.

From a theoretical perspective, attribution theory is the most basic notion of this: individuals perceive they are successful because of their hard work and unsuccessful because of factors out of their control; but the successes of others are due to luck and failure is due to personal shortcomings. This notion has been extended to groups, with similar attributions occurring when people are randomly assigned to a group with no inherent meaning (e.g., the "blue" group). In my research on creating market-oriented organizations, every successful change included a redefinition of primary group membership from functional or other subgroup (e.g., accounting, west coast, executive-level) to the organization level. Specifically, everyone was part of the effort to make money by serving the needs of the market.

Well, it's been a tough week, because I've been distracted by a very real example of how important these effects can be for group cohesion and performance. Specifically, the faculty union is pursuing domestic partnership benefits and the administration is beginning to research the options. There was a story in the Tampa Tribune on this development and an op-ed written by USF Professor James Stock suggesting a limited pool of money exists at USF and providing domestic partnership benefits was less important than a number of better uses. If I didn't know Dr. Stock, I would never have known about his letter. The rub is I do know him. He's a full professor in the marketing department, whose office door is a virtual billboard for Christian events on campus and around Tampa. I'm an assistant professor in the marketing department, a
Unitarian Universalist and I happen to be gay. Juxtaposing our differences versus what we have in common highlights the importance of group definition within a larger group of people who have a set of common objectives.

Before going on, it's helpful to define the mission of USF. My understanding is USF is defined by two overriding goals: performing world-class research and facilitating learning and understanding through education. The best way to fulfill our mission is if every stakeholder's efforts are directed at contributing to that goal. Anything not contributing to that goal is a waste of resources and a potential threat to fulfilling our mission. That means every professor is working on world-class research and/or doing an exceptional job of educating people. Every "back stage" person should be focused on encouraging and supporting these efforts.

By defining USF by our common mission of research and education, rather than by college, department, location, tenure, role, etc., individuals within USF can work together much more efficiently and effectively toward our common goals. An exemplar of this approach is Alberto-Culver, which requires each and every person at the company to annually write and memorize their own Individual Economic Value statement, which ties the efforts of that person to the goals of the organization. Every person knows exactly how they contribute to the long-term profitability of the company by addressing the needs of the market. Harley-Davidson accomplishes this by incorporating their company mission and goals into each individual's annual plan. Everyone at Harley-Davidson knows how they fit into the organization and why what they do matters.

This brings us to domestic partnership benefits at USF. Would they contribute to accomplishing our common mission? How?

First, Dr. Stock states he opposes domestic partnership benefits on financial, rather than on moral or religious grounds. While not sure of the costs, he states no one else has offered cost estimates either. (There is a reason the Provost is looking into this, the cost/benefit tradeoff is complicated.
HRC offers some broad numbers showing significant returns for such benefits based on the experience of world-class companies.) Assuming there is a cost, Dr. Stock suggests the money would be better used elsewhere. Since Dr. Stock did not offer to give up USF's subsidy of healthcare, life insurance and other benefits for him and his family, I assume he specifically means providing healthcare benefits to domestic partners would be a suboptimal use of USF resources. If, indeed, he is suggesting that eliminating all benefits for spouses and family members would be a good idea, well, I don't agree. If we want to attract and keep world-class employees, I think family-related benefit packages are important. Fortune magazine's "The 100 Best Companies to Work For, 2006" certainly suggests that benefits are important for attracting the employees which make a company great. (There's also quite a bit about the importance of a common mission for achieving a common goal.) I assume we can all agree that benefits are an important attribute for highly sought after employees. Hence, benefits contribute to the mission of USF by attracting the best employees, all other things being equal.

Domestic partnership benefits do matter for gay people. Whether straight or gay faculty, considerations for moving to a new university and city include the impact on an entire family. For married people with children, these issues typically revolve around schools for the kids and finding an appropriate job for the spouse. For gay people, the lack of domestic partnership benefits makes the decision much more complicated. If my partner can't find a job in time, how will we pay for his health care? If he does find a job, what if it doesn't offer benefits? If USF doesn't offer domestic partnership benefits, how likely are they to help find him a job?

This is not a thought experiment. When I joined USF I was in a relationship with an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Medical School and one of the top three pediatric neuropsychologists in Chicago. We discussed the possibility of him moving here, whether as a professor at USF or building up a private practice in Tampa. The private practice option was too risky and complicated for us. Since I didn't have domestic partnership benefits, we'd have to find a third party to cover his health and insurance needs. Given he worked at one of the top medical schools in the world, finding him a position at USF would seem straightforward. Instead, we were nervous about how my colleagues would react and whether USF was open-minded enough to facilitate an interview. In spite of our concerns, we did pursue getting him a job at USF by asking people at the business school to route the information in the same way it does for straight couples. He also applied for/inquired about positions in a number of departments for both posted and the possibility of non-posted jobs. In every communication he explained our situation. None of my requests were ever formally acknowledged or formally or informally followed-up on. None of his inquires or applications were ever replied to. Given the lack of help from USF, we investigated options for me returning to Chicago or both of us getting a job at some third university. Since I was just starting out my academic career, we didn't get very far - I would not be attractive to other research universities until I established a track record. Today, he is in Chicago and we're no longer a couple. As relationships go, I can't pin the dissolution of our relationship on any one thing. But trying to build a life together in Tampa was hindered by the lack of benefits and other opportunities offered to straight employees and potential employees at USF. Domestic partnership benefits are important for attracting and retaining talent.

The final and most overlooked way partnership benefits contribute to USF's mission is the signal it conveys about what's important. If our
raison d'ĂȘtre is performing world-class research and facilitating learning and understanding through education, then everything the organization does, prints and supports should be judged against the mission. This means accolades and rewards are given to those who support that mission. Domestic partnership benefits equal to married couple benefits are a public acknowledgment that what matters to USF is research and education and how well employees perform or support those activities.

Conversely, when employees are treated differently for performing the exact same activities equally well, that suggests that we're not all really part of the group. It also suggests that what's important is not the stated mission of the organization, but some other hidden agenda. There is a long stream of cultural work in sociology and anthropology explaining how the symbols of a culture become disconnected from the underlying assumptions of that culture and the impact. Within an organization's culture, this decoupling leads to dysfunctional activities and political rivalries which waste time, effort and impede achieving the mission of the organization and, typically, the goals of any one subgroup.

Regarding USF, offering some benefits to straight employees and not gay employees sends a signal that gay employees are not as desirable or important as straight employees, all things being equal. It creates group differences that conflict with the stated mission of the organization. (This extends far beyond domestic partnership benefits. When people are recognized for the length of their employment rather than continuing to publish in A-journals or the number of careers they've launched, it sends a signal that "hanging on" matters. When tenure is seen as a reward for past research rather than a license to engage in more risky or controversial research, it sends a signal that history is more important than active research. )

So what? Well, research is pretty clear on what happens. Given the chance, employees who were attracted to the epoused values of an organization, but find the values-in-use are different, will leave in pursuit of an organization that better fits their goals. Ironically, for those people who do not care about the espoused values or can not leave - they end up staying. That's how organizations implode.

The people who leave will go off to find an organization that better matches their objectives and an organizational culture that values them and their colleagues as people contributing to a common goal. Perhaps the most encouraging and insightful moment this week occurred when a straight colleague offhandedly commented on being one of the 20 people who wrote to the Provost in support of the benefits. I hadn't written, but this person had. This is an example of how such signals are not only important to the explicitly marginalized group, but to people who see it as a signal regarding what's important to the entire organization.

Now on to how all this ties together. Since I found out about Dr. Stock's Tampa Tribune op-ed piece, I can't help but be bothered. The day before, Dr. Stock had mentioned working together on a project. I was excited. We were colleagues with overlapping interests and talents and common goals who would work on something that leverages what is different about us. However, after reading the op-ed piece, I feel very uncomfortable. I sense there might be a limited pie and I need to get mine instead of assuming the system will make sure things are equitable. In his op-ed piece, Dr. Stock clearly stated his view that my partner's health and safety are less important than his wife and family's health and safety and less important than a myriad of other under funded opportunities on campus. If my personal life is categorically less important than any straight researcher's personal life, I question what kind of a place I'm working at. I came here to do research and help people learn. It turns me on. That's what I thought mattered at USF as well. Now I feel like some kind of second-class citizen in an organization that wants and expects world-class research and education, but would prefer it from straight people.

In closing, I had not written my support for domestic partnership benefits to Provost Khator because I felt too overwhelmed with my research and teaching to write a cogent letter. Reading Dr. Stock's op-ed piece has taken away far more time and effort than writing Provost Khator would have ever taken. Having my colleagues talk about his op-ed piece has been equally distracting. Thinking about all this, getting aggravated and feeling generally marginalized as a member of USF has been both distracting and depressing. I can't imagine working any harder on my research or my classes. If I am to be judged and rewarded not by the outcome of that work, but by whom I love, perhaps I need to find an organization that does value me as a person and judges me by my performance. And that is a very real example of how group definitions within an organization impact achieving the organization's mission and, specifically, why domestic partnership benefits are important for those of us interested in fulfilling the mission of USF.

P.S. If you are part of the USF family and you believe domestic partnership benefits matter in what we're collectively trying to accomplish as a university, I suggest you share your thoughts and opinions with Provost Khator and President Genshaft.