Q & A with Linda Harber, Assistant Vice President for Human Resources

Posted: February 5, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette.

By Carrie Lake

What has been Human Resources’ (HR) greatest challenge since you arrived at George Mason in September? What are you doing to overcome it?

I think one of the hardest things when I came here was that HR employees had interim leadership for a year, and during that time they took on the huge task of converting to the Banner system. Either of those two things alone would have been a challenge, but I think having both together really did require a lot of additional hard work on their part, particularly because HR was very short-staffed at the time. They implemented Banner and we are now in Banner transition–trying to improve it and make it easier for our users. Now we’re rebuilding and reorganizing to better meet our customers’ needs.

linda harber
Linda Harber
photo by Evan Cantwell

How has HR been reorganized and how does it benefit the university?

I am what I call a fluid organizer. I might rearrange and see how that works, tweak it, and rearrange it again in six months. We want to reach for the perfect organization, and with the institution changing so quickly, it’s important for us to change with it. So far, instead of the three teams we used to have, we have reorganized into one team. Now one person is not more overloaded than another and people are cross-trained to help each other out. The goal of the reorganization was to better enhance the data records on the payroll side and to improve our customer service. I’ve been very fortunate to hire Pat Donini as my operations director, who will oversee both the payroll system and HR customer team.

The services provided by our front desk staff will be changing over the next few months. With some staffing enhancement and some work to the physical space, our front desk will change into a customer service center. There will be more than one person at the center and people will receive immediate assistance when they come in or call. We have been training our front desk staff to answer more questions–80 to 90 percent of the questions should be answered at the front desk for immediate customer service, and the other staff will be freed up to handle more problem-solving and problem prevention.

What are your goals for the coming year?

As you can tell, customer service is a big focus of mine. I want to provide exceptional customer service with what I describe as a sense of urgency. When you call HR with a question, you need an immediate answer. The answer is important to you and we should be responding in kind. We also plan to improve our web site. I want people to know that even if they can’t get hold of us to answer a question, the information can be found on the web.

I very much believe in streamlined, improved, paperless processes, and HR is heading in that direction. When we’re ready to send out letters, those paper letters are being replaced by e-mail–that’s how we are going to communicate. A piece of paper shouldn’t have 25 people touch it before it goes out the door. Mason is such a technology-driven institution that it only makes sense that we be as paperless as possible.

My third goal is enhanced communication with our customers. I’m a big believer in over-communicating if necessary. There shouldn’t be surprises on things that affect your benefits or things that affect policy. Recently, we set up a group of departmental liaisons–people in each school or department who work with HR and Payroll. Those people are on a listserv we call Instant HR/Payroll. We will use the listserv to get out information quickly. Then, our departmental HR contacts can forward the information to their faculty and staff as appropriate.

I’d also like to see us get into work/life balance programming and more total lifecycle benefits. We just started offering Weight Watchers at Work and I’d like to see us doing more of that kind of thing.

What is the new initiative called life-cycle benefits?

We are trying to focus programming and services for employees at all stages in the life cycle. Because we have such a family-like community at Mason, we feel it’s important to be there at each point in an employee’s career–from when they are hired to when they retire.

In response to customer input and our own assessment, we have revitalized orientation for new employees and we are trying to make it more fun. We’ve moved orientation from the Commerce Building to the Johnson Center, and we’re providing a free lunch.

On the retiree end, we realized we were not keeping in touch with people as they retired from the Mason community. Martha Reiner, our awards coordinator, has just developed a program that we are calling the Retiree Connection. When an employee retires, he or she will be given a package that includes a lot of great things that the Mason community has donated, including a free year of parking, discounts at both fitness centers, free tickets to a basketball game at the Patriot Center, and tickets to the Center for the Arts. We wanted not only to honor them as they retire, but keep them connected to the Mason family. In addition, we may invite retirees back once or twice a year. At Homecoming this year, retirees we have on record will be invited to a special program to hear the history of where we’ve been and where we are going.

Life-cycle benefits are really exciting because we have a really incredible recognition program here at Mason and this is just an extension of that. Our goal is to keep employees connected throughout their whole career.

You mentioned that paperless recruitment would be a major project. Can you explain what this will mean to a typical hiring manager at the university?

We are just beginning the committee structure to implement paperless hiring. We are going to use a web-based software program called PeopleAdmin, a strictly higher-education recruitment program. I instituted it at Virginia Commonwealth University [VCU], where I used to work, right before coming to Mason. It’s very attuned to the faculty and staff structure of a university, and it’s very flexible.

Once PeopleAdmin is implemented, the whole recruitment and hiring process becomes paperless. For example, an applicant will submit a resume via the web, then the hiring manager can go into the program and review the resume online. At the beginning of the recruitment, managers can enter qualifications to screen out people who don’t meet the job requirements. Once interviews are done, the manager marks a selection online, which is automatically routed to the Office of Equity and Diversity Services before it comes to HR to complete the hiring process. There will be different levels of security to allow panels or committees to go in and review applicants for certain searches. This software also feeds into Banner. The whole process is paperless.

Our goal is to have the software ready for classified hiring by July 1 and have faculty hiring up shortly thereafter. The staff here [in HR] is really excited about this. It is also supposed to enhance our number of applicants because of its availability. We will have two computers set up in our customer service center so that applicants without Internet access can come in and get help with the application.

What can employees look forward to as University Enrichment Day approaches?

President Merten will be the luncheon speaker, and the employee health director that I worked with at VCU will be the closing speaker. He speaks about stress and is absolutely fantastic. You won’t forget him if you hear him speak, so people should definitely attend University Enrichment Day, March 12.

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