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Rethinking Our Human Resources Practices to Build a More Equitable Museum

Category: Alliance Blog
A graphic of the name "Museum of Man" with "Man" crossed out and rewritten as "Us," with the slogan "All of us." written underneath, surrounded by silhouettes of diverse people.

Less than three weeks after COVID forced museums around the globe to close their doors last year, an article by Arundhati Roy in The Financial Times titled “The Pandemic is a Portal” stopped me in my tracks. In the midst of an exponentially mounting crisis, Roy courageously sounded the call to resist the urge to seek a return to normality. She offered up an alternative, and posed a challenge to us all:

[The pandemic] is a portal,” she wrote, “a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, . . . and dead ideas. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

At the 106-year-old Museum of Us (formerly the San Diego Museum of Man), which sits on the unceded ancestral homelands of the Kumeyaay Nation, we took Roy’s challenge to heart. Over the past sixteen months, our driving question has been: How can we emerge from the pandemic’s portal to become a better version of ourselves? And while our answer has taken a wide variety of forms (including a long-overdue name change), key shifts in our human resources policies and practices are making the biggest impact of all.

You see, faced with so many unknowns at the onset of COVID, we made the heartbreaking decision to terminate forty-three employees in June 2020. As difficult as it was for us, the pain was far worse, of course, for our colleagues who lost their livelihoods. Although we took many different steps to support our furloughed, and ultimately terminated, team members, it simply wasn’t enough. So, we set out to ensure that something good came out of the harm we caused by laying them off from their employment. Specifically, we committed to rebuild our team (and, in turn, our organization) in more equitable and decolonial ways.

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Here are some steps we have taken so far.

Investing in Forward-Facing Staff

As we prepared to reopen our museum consistent with public health guidelines, instead of returning to our old staffing model, we decided to reimagine our forward-facing roles altogether. Specifically, we changed our Visitor Experience Associate position from part-time to full-time, so that every team member would receive our generous benefits package, including a new retirement match of up to 6 percent. We also raised the position’s wage from $13.75 an hour to $20 an hour, committing to annual cost-of-living increases (at a minimum). That way, we will continue to stay ahead of pay equity, rather than losing ground every year. We also redesigned the role so that it is a long-term career position, with an increased focus on opportunities for professional development and growth within our organization. Finally, we are in the process of adopting a reasonable cap (likely in the range of 6:1) on what the highest-paid employee (currently, me) makes relative to what the lowest-paid employee (our forward-facing staff) makes. This will help make our entire compensation structure more equitable going forward.

Rethinking the Eurocentrism of Our Holiday Schedule

The Museum of Us offers team members thirteen paid holidays every calendar year. Historically, these have been set holidays designated by the museum as mandated days off. But thanks to input from our BIPOC staff, we’ve come to understand how many of those holidays are deeply rooted in a colonial paradigm: New Year’s Day, Presidents’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. In response, we decided to revise our holiday policy, effective January 1, 2022, to allow team members to substitute (and even group together) holidays that are meaningful to them. Employees still may choose to take any or all museum-designated holidays, if they wish, but the power to decide will become theirs. We are excited about changing this seemingly innocuous practice so that it better supports all of our team members in a decolonized way.

Providing Community-Centered Leave

Like most employers, the Museum of Us offers various types of paid leave, including vacation and sick time. But when our Indigenous team members shared that they needed time off to participate in multi-day ceremonies in their home communities, they pointed out the obvious: Their absence from the office was neither “vacation” nor “sick” time. To the contrary, it was hard work, centered around cultivating community well-being. It was for the good of many, and for future generations, not for their personal enjoyment or convalescence. We soon realized the ripple effect of good that could come from enabling all of our employees to take paid time off to do the same.

We considered classifying such leave as “professional development,” but quickly saw the ways this would run afoul of applicable employment laws. So, we settled on a new paid leave category altogether. We call it “Community-Centered Leave,” and it is specifically designed to encourage employees to support their communities in ways that are meaningful to them. Effective January 1, 2022, every team member at the Museum of Us may take up to three days of paid Community-Centered Leave per year.

The result of these changes? Well, it’s still early, but we’ve discovered that employee satisfaction and engagement rates have gone up significantly. And, just as happy nurses make for happy patients, happy forward-facing staff make for happy visitors. Employee retention rates have gone up as well, leading to a plethora of intangible (but also invaluable) benefits. We now have a more stable institutional culture with stronger, more capable teams. Projects have fewer stops and starts. We expend less bandwidth recruiting, orienting, and training new employees. And the list goes on.

Although the benefits of human-centered HR practices are undeniable, they can be hard to see from a short-term perspective. When we play the long-game, however, they become crystal clear. I find three concerns commonly emerge in response to these kinds of shifts:

1. “We just can’t afford it.”

For sure, these changes have a tangible impact on the bottom line. I would suggest, however, that while maintaining the status quo may save a few bucks on the profit and loss statement, most of our organizations are dying a slow death by a thousand cuts, without us even realizing it. This prevents them from ever truly soaring in a healthy way. The benefits of taking a human-centered approach (starting with the very people upon whom the visitor experience depends!) will far outweigh the associated costs in the long run, particularly when implemented in an intentional way. The key is to move from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance. Viewed through this lens, the script flips and it becomes clear: “We just can’t afford not to put our people first.”

2. “Won’t employees take advantage?”

Yes, they will, but only when they aren’t fairly compensated and/or respected for their labors. This is a cultural problem, not a justification for maintaining the status quo. When an employer and an employee have entered into a fair exchange and have mutual respect for one another, they honor each other, too. It may take time to build up trust and goodwill, but the kinds of practices described above will do just that. When leaders consistently show up as listeners and learners, and then do better as they know better, the path to right relationship begins to unfold.

3. “Won’t it create liability?”

Yes, it can. But liability is not a weakness in and of itself. When managed creatively and in human-centered ways, it can even be converted into a strength. Our Community-Centered Leave is a great example. While an employee could argue that this leave should be subject to the same rules as vacation (including pay-out upon separation), our policy clearly distinguishes between the purpose of the leave (serving one’s community) and that of vacation (personal enjoyment). Moreover, from an employee perspective, we are providing three additional paid days off per year in a values-consistent way. As a key component of our employee recruitment, retention, engagement, and satisfaction strategies (particularly relative to our BIPOC team members), this new policy will undoubtedly pay significant dividends for years to come. I’ll take that benefit-to-risk ratio any day.

I’ll close this post by sharing that, for the Museum of Us, all this is just the tip of the iceberg. The more we learn about how our policies and practices undermine the values we espouse, the more we realize how much more we have to learn. Like so many of our organizations, the Museum of Us continues to be full of hypocritical disconnects between who we strive to be and who we actually are. I believe that, as leaders, we must relentlessly work to identify and bridge those gaps, one by one, in the name of equity and inclusion. And what better place to start than from the inside out?

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing; I’m hoping this sparks some transformative conversations in the field.

  2. Thank you for sharing this! We always have to acknowledge our own shortcomings, but that does not mean that we should ever stop from striving to consistently improve.

  3. There are so many eye-opening elements here, insights that greatly broaden one’s perspective. Having enjoyed the museum for my entire life including childhood (and disclosure: the author is my brother), I am inspired by the drive here to address bigger-picture issues that have been, at best, historically misunderstood and underestimated, and, at worst, purposefully neglected. It’s extremely powerful how solutions and approaches to the core issues may be expanded to help us have a broader perception of community and community values. “Unceded.” What a powerful term. I’m so glad to have read it here for the first time.

  4. This was a great editorial and provides significant food for thought. I’m passing this on to my HR Manager so we can discuss. As mentioned, sometimes we just have to take a leap of faith and do it!

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