May 02, 2022

Not My Job: Navigating Bureaucracies

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I was recently cc’d on an email sent by a colleague. It was addressed to another colleague and to someone in our dean’s office and it concerned a student who was upset about a requirement they needed to meet. The sender was angry that, based on information the student shared, a class they had taken would not meet a particular university requirement.

This email was problematic on a number of levels that give us insight into the concept of bureaucracy:

  1. The colleague to whom the email was addressed has absolutely nothing to do with these kinds of decisions (and neither do I);
  2. The colleague who wrote the email is not aware of the details as to why the particular class would not meet the requirement, nor is it their job to make such determinations.
  3. The person in the dean’s office is not obligated to explain such policies to faculty members;
  4. The student in question was cc’d on the email, which addressed all participants only by first names, thus obscuring their institutional roles and discussing “backstage” information between colleagues with a student;
  5. The email was highly emotional rather than fact-based or fact-seeking, leading to emotional responses from several of those who were included in the exchange;
  6. The email shared potentially private information with people who did not have a need to know, possibly violating a federal educational privacy law.

The email chain started with an angry tone, and that was met with anger from the dean’s office, followed by anger from the student. This led to phone calls between our department and the advisement office, who in turn had another discussion with the dean’s office, as well as another meeting with the student.

These interactions created stress and were time consuming and could have been avoided. At least six employees became involved in this incident, which only should have involved three.

This incident made me think about Max Weber’s concept of bureaucracy. Weber was writing at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as organizations grew larger and more complex. One of the main principles of bureaucracy is a clear division of labor based on one’s specific skills and training.

This makes sense: in the context of a university, there are many different tasks that would be overwhelming if not divided. Just to name a few involved here: instructor who teaches classes, advisor who helps the student navigate university requirements, deans who respond to petitions when a student seeks an exception to a university’s rule. Other specialized roles students may encounter include admissions, financial aid, counseling, and academic support.

Things can go wrong when students seek help from the wrong department, which happens fairly regularly. They might have difficulty navigating the different roles—even my colleague who has been at the university for several decades couldn’t figure it out—and end up more frustrated than when they started. This is exactly what happened in the exchange noted above.

I am often asked to help students register for classes (not my job, and I don’t have access to the registration system even if I wanted to help). Occasionally I hear information that is better shared with a mental health professional or I am contacted by someone who is asking about admission or was denied admission seeking my help.

As in the case above, my colleagues regularly send students to the wrong people—I had a colleague who sought my help when a student shared that they were suicidal, which is an emergency situation that I am not equipped to handle, but our student services office is. I will get emails forwarded to me about all of the issues noted above from people who should know better. Because their jobs are so specialized—usually they just teach their classes and conduct their research—they are often unaware of the broader organizational structure of the university. They don’t need to know about it most of the time.

These kinds of experiences might lead people to see bureaucracies as overly complex and hard to figure out. Weber saw as bureaucracies rational and did not intend for this to be a pejorative term, as it has become today. He did note that bureaucracies could have problems, such as being inflexible, or tasks might be so specialized that they become dull.

Weber observed that bureaucracies have written rules and clear hierarchies, as we do at our university. Rather than see this is as a problem, it should free up workers to do the specialized tasks that we our trained to do. We can refer to policies and remind others that doing our job correctly means adhering to written rules.

Because bureaucracies are hierarchical, we are accountable to those who outrank us, and we cannot overrule their decisions. This is one of the most important aspects of bureaucracy. As in the email exchange I described above, once a policy decision is made by those in positions of authority, there is no point in arguing about the issue with someone in a lower rank. I don’t like arguing, and I really like when I can say that difficult decisions are not my job.

How else can we apply Weber’s ideas on bureaucracy to real-life experiences?

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