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Module 8: Project Closeout

2.9 Managing project staff

It is not uncommon for project staff to be employed on a contract basis. An individual staff member who had a succession of employment contracts would accumulate sabbatical leave entitlements for each year of employment and superannuation and severance pay entitlements would increase for each year of service. It is critical that the project budget takes into account the accumulated liabilities of each individual who is employed on the project, or there may be insufficient funding at the end of the project to meet financial obligations to project staff.

Wherever possible, staff get rolled over into a new project or into a new position when a project finishes. If there is a gap in funding until a new project starts, they may get funded using ‘soft money’ such as income derived from consulting services by the research team.

Highly competent research and technical staff usually find a new position on a new project and in this way an individual can easily accumulate 15 years of consecutive contracts. Some departments have almost all of their research staff, and up to a third of the academic staff, on short contracts. Accumulated liabilities are important to understand and quantify.

If it is known that there will not be a further position for a staff member on a new project, the staff member must be notified at least two months prior to the end of the project that employment will end. Staff are usually aware that a project is about to end, but they may still hope that there will be a roll-over opportunity. The chief investigator needs to take an active role in managing people at this stage of the project and should encourage staff to update their resumes and seek other available support to maximise the opportunity of continued employment. Most universities have on-line job alert newsletters where the staff member can register as available for new projects.

Managing staff is a major aspect of project management and the chief investigator should undertake professional development in this areas to develop skills and expertise in communication and dealing with people, beyond the technical competencies in their chosen scientific fields. The Chief Investigator must be comfortable managing other people so that they provide feedback effectively and fairly to all staff members regularly during the project and don’t avoid letting them know that their contract is about to end. If the management of the project relating to the end of specific staff contracts is delayed to the point that the minimum time that notice has to be given is not complied with, then there will be financial consequences for the project.

2.9.1 Common people management issues

Generally there are three major categories of problems that occur when dealing with staff who leave before the end of a project, or whose contracts are due to finish at the end of the project:

  • Severance pay has not been budgeted correctly into the project. Severance pay is part of the salary cost of the project and it has to be paid out of the grant and therefore should be budgeted correctly. If the chief investigator wants to employ a person on a short-term contract and the person has already worked at the university for 15 years, the severance pay has to be calculated on the basis of a 15-year employment history rather than a short-term employment history.
  • Chief investigators forget to tell project staff about whether the grant will be renewed (or not). This has two possible implications.
    • Should the grant be renewed, but project staff have assumed it will not, staff may have secured employment elsewhere. This means replacement staff must be found to complete the project.
    • Alternatively the grant ends and the staff member has not been alerted to this information in time, having made the assumption that the chief investigator would provide this advice in a timely fashion. This leaves a staff member in the position of having to find new employment in a hurry. It is hard to know how often this actually occurs as staff do not generally complain openly about it, because they need references from their supervisors. In the long run however, chief investigators with poor staff management habits and poor departmental processes are likely to lose good staff to other departments with better people management practices.
  • The chief investigator does not return the appropriate paperwork to the HR department. This is likely to leave staff in a financially vulnerable position.

Another key issue regarding staff leaving a project (either at the end or prior to the end of a project) is intellectual property. All staff who have signed confidentiality agreements need to be reminded in an exit interview of the time sensitive nature of confidentiality agreements. This is dealt with in more detail in Subtopic 2.5 Acquittal of confidential information

2.9.2 Early termination of staff

The early termination of staff is a rare event. Reasons for early termination may include:

  • Death of the grant holder
  • Running out of money due to poor budgeting or planning
  • Loss of project assets (such as equipment, field sites or laboratories), for example, destroyed by bushfires

All of these examples may lead to being unable to undertake the project as contracted and so the project and staff need to be terminated.

In addition, there are numerous forms of misconduct that could lead to termination of staff, including serious misconduct, such as falsification of data or IP theft and inappropriate use of funds, for example double-claiming of travel expenses or lodging of false invoices for purchases that were not made. This list is not exhaustive and in addition, each institution will have terms and conditions of employment that are reflected in staff contracts.

The Project Funding Agreements of most funding agencies include clauses that deal with misconduct and they generally stipulate that if a person is accused of or investigated for misconduct their eligibility for applying for a new grant ceases. At the end of a project, project information and data needs to be stored securely so that any query about potential misconduct can be investigated and dismissed on examination of recorded data. If data has gone ‘missing’ due to poor procedures this then makes it extremely difficult for a staff member accused of misconduct to clear their name.

2.9.3 Conducting exit interviews

Conducting exit interviews is an important part of managing staff who leave or who are terminated early. Whilst these interviews are sometimes difficult to undertake, because of the circumstances surrounding exit, they are a significant opportunity to provide closure for the staff member and the organisation. This can potentially diffuse any bad feelings as well as be seen by existing employees as a sign of a positive culture that is open to feedback.

Effective exit interviews will draw out relevant and useful information that can be integrated into planning processes, for example to improve recruitment and retention practices, as well as extract useful knowledge, contacts and other information from an employee that may be required by their successor.

Exit interviews may also provide the opportunity to retain a valuable employee, if the reasons for their leaving can be sensibly addressed. Good people can often leave because they are can't see opportunities to grow and advance. Organisations need to know about why people leave to be able to respond appropriately.

Exit interviews can be done face to face as well as by survey. In the context of a research project, a face-to-face process would be preferred, but that does not preclude capturing some information through a survey as well.

An approach may include:

  • Introducing the purpose of the meeting and the person/people conducting it and their roles/positions
  • Questions about the organisational environment and how it is perceived (such as, why did you come here to work and how has that changed or is different to what you expected? Would you recommend others to come and work here?)
  • Questions about the job role and its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for development (i.e. what is most/least satisfying about your job, what would change/keep? Did you get enough feedback on your performance?)
  • Any specific barriers of senstitive workplace issues, such as discrimination
  • Questions about reasons for leaving (what triggered you to leave?)
  • Requests for feedback to improve the research team environment (if you could change one thing, what would it be?)
  • Requests for feedback to improve the department/institution environment (if you could change one thing, what would it be?)

The exit interview is not a grilling for the person who is leaving, rather it is an opportunity for the organisation to improve and professionally manage the people who have worked for them. Once you are clear about your specific objectives for conducting exit interviews and the information you need, there are many questions that can be asked. To maximise the chance of getting this information in a meaningful format:

  • Keep a consistent and structured approach from interview to interview so any trends and commonalities can be picked up easily and noted for action
  • Organise a neutral and comfortable venue where they can relax and where you won't get interrupted, especially by other employees they know
  • Get someone else to attend with you, preferably an objective third party
  • Don't debate or be defensive about what is said. Their perception and opinion is their reality. Clarification should be sought only for the purposes of understanding what is said
  • Keep a written record but guarantee confidentiality

2.9.4 Finishing positively

The project closeout period is the time to ensure that your team can move on to their next opportunity. It is important you provide them with appropriate references to enable them to do so. You may also offer support in reviewing their CVs and in connecting them with other potential employers. It is very important to take time to meet with each individual to affirm their contribution to the project team and to ensure they are able to look forward to the future.

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