An Ounce Of HR Prevention Is Worth A Pound Of Cure, Part 2

In Part 1, we started examining several points from  Emma Quackenbush’s article in the 3/16/2022 edition of Van-Magainze.com about how the lack of adequate Human Resources (HR) practices has hobbled the internal culture inside professional orchestras. Today’s installment will continue where we left off as well as considering options for making things better.

I was especially glad to see Quackenbush highlight how the large donor-driven revenue model impacts workplace culture and satisfaction. While I agree with the author’s perspective that the relentless hunt for donors distracts executive leadership from cultivating a positive HR driven workplace culture, it’s still a decision. An orchestra’s board of directors needs to provide capacity and prioritize HR efforts beyond simply dictating action.

If things begin feeling like a zero sum game where the only option to facilitate HR development means taking resources away from another effort, boards need to look at growing the pie. If donor development is occupying too much time, they need to become more engaged in those efforts to offset the workload or provide the financial resources to fund HR staff member and/or agency.

I only have two minor quibbles with the article:

It limits its scope of professional orchestras to only the largest budget organizations. These groups employ 1/3 of professional orchestral musicians and while they offer the consistency of a musician workforce that is almost entirely salary, it’s a disservice to think they are representative of the professional orchestra field. Add to that, the unique employment structure and work environments of the remaining 2/3 demand equal attention and consideration.

I wish the article included orchestra staff. Requiring a single stakeholder group to undergo training will only generate more problems than you’re trying to solve. While some HR training should be tailored to specific groups of employees, artificial limitations only agitate existing “us against them” attitudes into “you’re the problem and I’m the solution” syndrome. Office culture for staffers can suffer from just as many of the detrimental musician to musician situations Quackenbush examined. Moreover, the staff-musician-executive-board interaction must be considered in order to create the best possible outcomes.

The Path Toward Positive Progress

I’ll be the first to say there is no one true path to progress and this discussion is best served by including HR professionals capable of garnering the respect from all stakeholders: staff, musicians, executives, and board members. Nonetheless, here are a quartet of suggestions based on 27 years of experience.

  1. First and foremost, the field needs to begin talking about this beyond the lens of equality, diversity, and inclusion. The League’s 2022 Conference in LA this June has a single session that includes an HR professional talking about ways corporate America manages diversity, equity, and inclusion. It would be better served as a cornerstone session that is part of a larger HR plenary instead of the single offering.
  2. All stakeholders need to stop looking at HR training as a fix for existing problems. Toxic workplace culture isn’t an infection where HR training is the antibiotic so don’t approach HR as a series of checkboxes to tick off in order to claim some moral high ground.
  3. An agency driven solution needs to emerge for the benefit for small to mid-size budget organizations. While larger budget groups can engage in realistic discussions about forming full time in-house HR departments, that’s not a reality for the rest of the field. While groups that can’t afford HR staff can reach out to HR consultants and agencies that service the commercial sectors, that’s different from one that specializes in the orchestra or opera sectors. This is an excellent goal employers and unions could work together on with existing HR providers looking to expand their services or start a new firm. If we can establish a provider that all stakeholders feel good about inviting into their organizations, just imagine how much better things could be.
  4. Don’t approach HR as a proxy war for decades old struggles for control. I have real concerns stakeholders will be all too willing to weaponize HR instead of using it as the strategic advantage it offers. Like any tool, it’s only as good as the people using it but the more the field approaches HR policies and training in a way that rewards transparency to identify and promote best practices, the more likely we can break the cycle of both sides killing one another for a level of control they’ll never obtain.

What did you think of Van Magazine’s article? I’m also eager to hear more about HR efforts you’ve experienced at your organization.

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 2