Maintaining Law Library Value in the Information Age: Staffing Implications

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The goal of Trends Interactive is to generate freewheeling discussion of a variety of subjects of interest to law librarians. This article on preparing staff for changes in job duties has been written by Michelle Wu, Director of the Law Library and Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center.

Libraries have always had to adapt to new technologies, but in recent years, change has come more rapidly and frequently than in earlier generations. The law library must quickly incorporate new technologies into its operations if it is to remain a valuable asset to the parent organization. Unsurprisingly, this creates stress both on users (who may expect services, technologies, or resources that are not available at a given library) and staff (who may want to provide those services, technologies, or resources but do not know how). The topic of change in law libraries is quite complex. This column addresses only one narrow issue—that of preparing staff for changes in job duties.

Avoid Surprises

Given the rapidly changing environment, it is entirely possible that the actual job duties and job requirements have changed while the original position description has not. In order to ensure that performance expectations are met, supervisors should regularly review and update job descriptions and responsibilities, taking into account not only immediate changes but also changes they anticipate coming to the library in the next one or two years. They should meet regularly with employees during the revision process, inviting their thoughts and concerns, as those nearer to the tasks themselves often have ideas that may not have occurred to those further removed. If they have not done so already, supervisors should share with employees both the library’s overall strategic directions as well the intended goals of the department, so that employees can see not only how their jobs might be affected but also how those changes are intended to better meet the needs of the department and library.

While it would be ideal for the supervisor and employee to agree on new responsibilities, please note that in most cases this is not necessary. Please check with your Human Resources (HR) department for local practices and expectations that this is management’s decision. At a minimum, the employee needs to understand the new responsibilities and why the changes are taking place. The changes in a position description should be driven by the needs of the organization and should be justifiable on that basis. If, as a supervisor, you cannot articulate an operational need for the change, you should reconsider the necessity of it.

The employee may not consent to the changes or may suggest alternative routes to the goal (e.g., changing someone else’s job). While a supervisor should always take such suggestions seriously, to ensure that she has considered both the advantages and disadvantages of any planned action, the final decision rests with her. Just because different paths to a goal exist does not mean an employee can unilaterally disregard a change his supervisor has put before him. A supervisor may encourage discussion and negotiation, but should clearly state when discussion has ended and action is about to be taken. Otherwise, the anticipated change might never occur.

Implementing Change

When a change in responsibilities is made, a supervisor should provide training for the individuals affected, and regularly monitor the employees’ progress. The training may be provided in-house, at a nearby library (e.g., university library), or outsourced (e.g., webinars, workshops). The number of training opportunities has increased, not only because technology creates new training spaces, but also because many of the skills librarians and library staff now seek to master have long been mainstays in other industries. For example, coding need not be taught by another librarian but might be better taught by someone in the technology arena.

Once training is complete, supervisors should work with their employees during a transition period in which employees have time to learn and master their new tasks before being held fully accountable. These can be instituted in blocks (e.g., one month to learn process X) or altered over time (e.g., extended a transition period because of technical difficulties). During this period, it is important to stay in touch with impacted staff and to adjust quickly to unexpected challenges. In most cases, this type of careful planning and constant communication will allow for a smooth transition.

However, there may be times when the employer realizes that an employee is simply a poor fit for the new responsibilities of the position. Sometimes it is possible, though discussion and creative readjustment of positions, to make adjustments to the individual job or multiple jobs to see to it that necessary tasks are completed, while ensuring that each person is able to do his job. However, in a few instances, such job adjustments may not be possible or practical. In those instances, further action may be necessary.

Unwilling to Adapt

Where a supervisor has an employee fully capable of mastering new responsibilities but unwilling to accept them, he will find himself at the beginning of a potential disciplinary problem. As always, first talk to the employee to determine why there is resistance to the new pieces of the job. Is it because she feels that there was insufficient notice, that she’s the only one in the library expected to change, or that she has no obligation to do any tasks not contemplated upon her hire?

Insufficient notice. Occasionally, resistance to change is not about the change itself but about the process. While employers cannot turn back time, they can acknowledge that the timing or order of steps was not what the employee had expected. If the parties can recognize and address any procedural deficiencies, a smooth transition is still possible.

Inequity. There are times when an employee is not objecting to the substantive changes to the job, but rather to a perceived external factor. Inequity is a commonly cited objection. For example, an employee may feel that she is the only person in the library being asked to change. The supervisor needs to find a way to demonstrate that the employee’s perception is not accurate. In the above instance, a supervisor could debunk the employee’s perception by citing changes that have occurred to other departments. Even if the employee really is the only one affected, explaining why it was necessary to alter the job description (e.g., that serials have been cancelled, so a serials clerk’s job would be affected more than others) might help alleviate the employee’s sense the she is being unjustly signaled out.

Preference. It is possible that an employee will decline to undertake new responsibilities, because she is disinterested in them or feels that her consent is necessary to the change. Here, education is key. It is incumbent on the supervisor to ensure that the employee is aware that defining job duties for a given position is management’s prerogative. If a supervisor has done all he can to educate someone and address the reasonable concerns of an employee, then starting the disciplinary process is the next step. (See Letting Go below.)

 Unable to Adapt

This is the more challenging of the scenarios, simply because neither the supervisor nor the employee can force the acquisition of skills beyond a person’s ability to master them. The supervisor invariably feels a conflict, wanting both to (1) be humane to an employee who is trying his best but simply cannot grasp or master the skills required for job, and (2) be accountable to her institution and her other employees. Few libraries have enough staff capacity at this time to carry one or more employees, and it is not fair to increase the workloads of others because one member of the team is unable to meet his obligations and will never be able to meet those obligations.

Counseling. Supervisors should have an honest discussion with such an employee about his skills and the institution’s needs. In all likelihood, the employee is as aware he is performing poorly and is as frustrated about the situation as everyone else. Consider jobs that the employee could do within the library. Be creative. Others may be willing to swap job responsibilities.

Honesty. If the organization has moved to a point where there are no suitable jobs for someone with these employee’s skills, be honest with him. Help him look for jobs suited to his strengths outside the organization, if he’s interested in further employment. If, instead, he wants to retire but is uncertain whether he can do so, connect him to the people at your institution able to assist him in understanding the retirement options available to him and in helping him map out a financial plan. If, despite this honest discussion, the employee insists on remaining but cannot do the job required, then steps will need to be taken to sever the employment relationship. (See Letting Go below.)

Letting Go

Where an employee is unwilling to adapt or unable to adapt, there may come a point where the supervisor has to inform the employee that he is to be let go. This can be accomplished in multiple ways. Ideally, after informal counseling, all parties agree that the job and the individual are a bad fit, and the employee voluntarily decides to leave. The less ideal route is through the disciplinary process, which is likely to happen if the employee, after extensive counseling, still believes that he is entitled to his position and is unwilling to leave voluntarily.

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