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Penn State faculty to administration: The new HR system is hurting employee morale

Old Main administrative building
Emily Reddy
Old Main administrative building

Penn State is overhauling the system it uses to classify its staff and decide how much they should be paid, and according to professors who spoke during a Faculty Senate meeting Tuesday, so far the changes are hurting, not helping, employee morale.

“We are tired. We are beat down. The wind is out of our sails. Any promotion for me has been axed. I need to look for another job," said Penn State Faculty Senator Ed Fuller during the meeting, reading an email message sent to him by a friend who is a staff member.

“I hope university leaders are listening to this, because I don’t think this is a unique response," Fuller said.

Called the Compensation Modernization Initiative, the effort affects thousands of Penn State employees who are not faculty. According to the university, the change will modernize the Human Resources system, offer employees clearer paths to promotion, clarify job duties and update how pay decisions are made. As part of that, in recent weeks, staff members have learned their new job titles and levels. Many are unhappy, according to faculty who spoke at Tuesday's meeting, questioning the process the university used and the results.

“They’re already a beleaguered class of employees, and I feel like the result of this is them feeling like they’re getting beaten up more," said Faculty Senator Nathan Tallman.

He said many employees and units were told the initiative would lead to better pay. As it is, Penn State salaries do not keep up with inflation.

Other faculty raised concerns about employees' job classifications being changed.

Jennifer Wilkes, vice president for Human Resources said she has heard from people who feel like they’ve been demoted.

“I can tell you that nobody has been demoted. Nobody’s pay will be decreased as a result of this project," she said.

Wilkes said her office spent a large amount of time looking at what people do and writing job profiles that more accurately describe those duties. She said there were several validation steps to make sure employees were classified correctly. And she said Human Resources is working with departments if employees feel like they've been categorized incorrectly.

One of the next steps in the process is for employees to find out what their new salary band is and whether they will get a raise.

University administrators said they're still going through the budget process. That includes waiting to find out how much funding the university will get from the state for the 2023-24 fiscal year, and having the university budget approved by the board of trustees.

Sara Thorndike, senior vice president for finance and business, said the university needs to go through that budget process.

“We are hopeful that we will  have funds in the budget and be able to respond to the compensation modernization needs," she said.

David Smith, executive director of the Division of Undergraduate Studies, said he sees value in what the university is attempting to do. But, what’s challenging is that staff workloads have increased.

“We hear these statements about greater flexibility at the local level, more decision-making ability on salary, but we don’t have any tools to really make that happen,” Smith said.

Anne Danahy