By SUSAN JONES
Since starting at Pitt at the beginning of December, James Gallaher, the University’s new vice chancellor for human resources, has found the people here warm and welcoming and engaged in what HR is doing and what role the office can play.
“Which is not always the case,” said the recent transplant from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he served as the executive director for strategic initiatives in its human resources department.
“It’s been really great meeting so many people who are appreciative of the role that HR plays,” he said. “Not everywhere else in the world has a great appreciation for what HR can do to help improve diversity and help to cultivate a campus climate where people want to work.”
Gallaher said one of the reasons he decided to come to Pitt was “when I looked at the strategic plan, the Plan for Pitt, I could see HR … as a real cornerstone, as a real key, in terms of where Pitt is going as an institution. And that said to me that HR really mattered.”
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in an interview with the University Times that everyone at the University has given Gallaher a “whole stack of goals.” While there are many opportunities for improvement, the chancellor said there also is support and an understanding at Pitt about how important HR is.
“I think we have some major improvements to do to make sure that our HR approach and our systems work in a way that creates a fair and equitable compensation system, that the benefits, our work environment, our culture, all these things work together,” the chancellor said.
The new HR director faces the added problem of a labor market disruption caused by the pandemic, Gallagher said. “I think people’s expectations about flexibility have changed and (Gallaher) is trying to both continue what we were doing, and in some cases, I think accelerate it.”
The chancellor said compensation modernization remains a top priority for Gallaher and HR, along with other initiatives under the Shaping the Workplace project started under David DeJong.
In the past two months, Gallaher has been making the rounds trying to meet as many people as possible to start to develop the vision for HR going forward. In forming that vision, “It’s really critical that you obtain input and feedback from a broad range of campus and community groups. … You don’t just come in and set an agenda without having the right input and feedback,” he said.
He’s attended a Staff Council meeting and plans to continue meeting with different groups of staff throughout the semester, and he’s planning some town halls for this summer.
“I am really excited and honored to be here,” Gallaher said. “I really truly am, I think, the most excited I’ve been in my career. It’s a great university. I’m still looking to learn more about the town, but my understanding it’s a great town.”
His family, including twin 17-year-old daughters, is still in Illinois and plans to move to Pittsburgh this summer. He said Pitt is on his daughters' short list for schools to attend.
While he’s focusing right now on the big picture, Gallaher knows there are some ongoing projects of intense interest to the staff.
HR has been working on the compensation modernization initiative since fall 2019. The project will create new job families, such as grouping all accountants together, based on the scope of the work and level of qualifications needed. These will make it easier to compare Pitt jobs and salaries with those outside and within the University.
Gallaher said he met recently with the chancellor and his senior leadership team to discuss philosophy and approach to the project. “I’ve got nothing but a great deal of support from the chancellor and others about making this initiative happen,” he said.
Mark Burdsall, assistant vice chancellor of Human Resources, told Staff Council in July 2021 that the job groupings had been created and were awaiting input from senior leadership. Gallaher said the timetable is to complete the project this year.
“What that looks like in the end, we do not know at this point, and we won’t know until we’ve done the job mapping into the new structure and can then measure where people are against the market data and how that plays out for the campus,” he said.
HR is in the process of finding a new director of compensation. Gallaher said having that position open currently won’t slow the process down. “We don’t see that person as a requirement for implementing the initiative, but they will certainly be critical as it moves forward,” he said.
In September, a group of Pitt staff members announced an effort to unionize the staff, under the United Steelworkers. The group recently created a website to support its efforts.
Gallaher said HR’s approach to the possible union is “to stand by and provide information or support regardless of what the staff decide.”
Because he grew up in Detroit, Gallaher said, “I really understand the impact that the union can have, and it’s not something that I find at all fearful or problematic in any way, shape or form. As a matter of fact, when you think from a (diversity, equity and inclusion) lens, like I often do, unions were really important in getting some African Americans and other underrepresented groups to progress in an organization.”
Before moving to higher education, he worked at General Motors, where he dealt with union leaders and others every day. “And so I think I have a pretty good understanding and perspective of the goals of a union, and oftentimes they align with what we do in HR, and that’s trying to make for the best employee experience possible.”
He also dealt with several unions at Illinois for various groups of service workers, graduate students and adjunct faculty. Mostly all of the staff functions were unionized, he said, except for “academic professionals.”
Diversity and inclusion
Gallaher said he’s already started working with the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to identify strategies to help increase diversity efforts, such as where Pitt is placing job ads and is the University recruiting on diversity job boards.
There also are University initiatives to “build local, buy local and hire local,” he said. “ And there’s lots of diversity within the Pittsburgh area. If we actively recruit, we can find a connection that allows those individuals to come be a voice at the University of Pittsburgh. I think that at a large complex research institution, diversity is paramount. The demographics in the country are shifting, and individuals from diverse backgrounds bring a lot to the workplace.”
That diversity includes race, gender, age and other factors, Gallaher said, “that help to make a workplace that’s welcoming to to all.”
At Illinois, Gallaher led the return to on-campus operations initiative after the 2020 pandemic-related shutdown. Part of that was developing a set of guidelines for flexible and remote work, which has many similarities to Pitt’s flexwork policy.
He said that there’s no hard data yet on how flexible work arrangements are impacting Pitt, but anecdotally, people in HR have said it’s working out well. “I think that having the ability to work flexibly, if your job allows, has been a big bonus for many employees.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-244-4042.
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