An Ounce Of HR Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure, Part 1

For the past two decades, I’ve written about how the lack of adequate Human Resources (HR) practices has hobbled the internal culture inside professional orchestras. As a result, workplace satisfaction, the one thing nonprofit organizations supposedly offer to offset competitive pay, is so bad it continues to be one of the few third-rail topic neither employers nor musicians’ unions want to touch.

So you can imagine how gratifying it was to see Emma Quackenbush’s article on this very topic appear in the 3/16/2022 edition of Van-Magainze.com. Right out of the gate, Quackenbush identifies the problem for what it is.

“In this environment, coworkers are often best suited to understand the distinct set of struggles associated with these jobs. Musicians can form close relationships with their colleagues, which sometimes provide support and friendship; however, other relationships can become toxic and negatively impact employees’ well-being. There is a delicate balance in an orchestra between strong leadership and collegial behavior in order to avoid dysfunction. So why are orchestras, as a whole, so neglectful of personnel management and human resources (HR)?”

The article does an excellent job at pointing out several practices that likely seem bewildering to outsiders looking in. For example, the fact that job duties and responsibilities for personnel managers, the staff member responsible for processing musician complains and overseeing the workplace environment, don’t include HR requirements.

“While personnel managers have a functional understanding of the day-to-day requirements of the job, it is common that personnel managers have little to no specific training in human resources. A 2017 job posting for the New York Philharmonic didn’t list HR training as a requirement for the job (though they do have a separate HR department). In a 2019 posting for personnel manager of the Jacksonville Symphony, the job description reads, ‘The Orchestra Personnel Manager is responsible for the human resource management of orchestra personnel, including… addressing musician personnel issues.’ But in the requirements for the job, the only formal training they require is a ‘bachelor’s degree in music with a minimum of three years experience in orchestra personnel management.'”

As a result, the author purports that workplace culture often turns unnecessarily toxic due to the lack of proper staff training, onboarding processes, and routine refresher courses. Here’s one example from many that become public knowledge:

“The lack of access to human resources often leaves musicians open to bullying, intimidation, and harassment. A high-profile example of this came in September 2018, when the principal oboe of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Katherine Needleman, filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against concertmaster Jonathan Carney. She alleged that the BSO allowed a hostile work environment caused by Carney to go unchecked…But this incident shows that Needleman’s concerns weren’t addressed by management in a significant way until she filed her complaint with the EEOC. A report given by an outside lawyer suggests that HR training was lacking in the organization prior to the EEOC complaint.”

About halfway through the article, the author continues to reinforce the root cause in the form of active avoidance from both sides of the stakeholder fence.

“…the orchestra industry’s avoidance of personnel management has a way of encouraging organizational dysfunction, which The SAGE Encyclopedia of Corporate Reputation defines as “the product of structural, cultural, or leadership patterns that undermine the purpose, health, wholeness, safety, solidarity, and worth of an organization or its stakeholders.'”

I was glad to see Quackenbush (and the editors at Van Magazine) devote some white space to the unique nature of musician involvement. The author points out how Players’ Committees can become involved in HR issues and much like their staff peers, they receive little to no training to guide their actions.

This is where things get sticky. In my 28 years in this business, I have yet to find an orchestra’s executive leadership willing to invest in that training. Given that they invest minimal resources into staff training, it’s not a surprise but the rationale can come across as what might best be described as irresponsible.

Too many executive leaders adopt a position that the union alone is responsible for funding any HR training for Players’ Committee members. I’ve heard that precise sentiment (punctuated with varying degrees of colorful metaphors 🤨) from more individuals than I can remember.

On the surface, that sentiment may seem logical and make no mistake, the union absolutely has a responsibility to share in that financial investment. But outsourcing responsibility when the collective bargaining agreement that dictates a committee’s involvement is mutually agreed upon by employer and employees fails to acknowledge the reality that all stakeholders are in this together.

We’ll pick up on several additional items from the article along with a few things I wish it included and some options for making positive change in tomorrow’s installment.

In the meantime, please leave a comment with your thoughts and share Van Magazine’s article with colleagues and friends.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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An Ounce Of HR Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure, Part 1