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Human Resources Basics

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Betsy Ripley, MD, MS, RAC
Senior Associate Dean, Office of Faculty Affairs
Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine

Faculty affairs deans are tasked with a variety of responsibilities varying by institution. A survey of faculty affairs and faculty development offices in 2012 showed that most offices managed at least portions of human resources (HR) topics. These included administrative support for contracts and letters of appointment, salary, grievance proceedings, and faculty management issues including discipline, separation, and retention.1 This covers the full spectrum of HR issues across the life cycle of the faculty. Understanding the responsibilities directly and indirectly assigned to this position is vital. 

HR duties are subject to institutional policy, departmental and school policies, and state and federal laws. Some policies may be applicable to all employees of your institution while others only apply to faculty. The institutional structure may also complicate these duties. Clinical faculty may be hired by a practice plan or hospital separate from the university position. Faculty affairs deans must understand the structure of their institution, as multiple sets of policies may apply. Laws may vary depending on whether all or part of the employment is with a state institution. 

 A faculty affairs office may have an HR specialist within the office, rely on a central office, or serve as the HR office for the medical school and approve and send transactions to a central office. The faculty affairs office is responsible for faculty issues, but be aware of who in your school and institution handles staff issues. Usually, a human resources officer is designated with oversight responsibilities for personnel issues in four overarching categories:

  • Personnel hiring: interviews, reference checking, offer letters, contracts, international visa issues, and new employee orientation.
  • Personnel support: benefits and compensation administration, retirement programs, performance appraisal, employee assistance programs, labor relations (if unionized), and personnel records.
  • Personnel retention: education and training programs; award and recognition programs.
  • Personnel separation: exit interviews, retirement counseling, and separations.

Your faculty affairs office may be responsible for a portion of or all these items. It will be helpful to know which functions your institutional HR office does and does not perform related to faculty members. Understanding the process and flow for different HR transactions is important. 

Department chairs and other faculty may directly supervise other faculty and staff. They may not have extensive managerial experience and may not be up-to-date on changing HR policies. You will become a resource for these faculty in working through questions and concerns as they arise in the departments. Getting to know individuals within the school of medicine and the institution who also work with HR issues will be very important. Here are some tips for dealing with HR issues:

  • Know your institution’s frequently used policies. This may include hiring policies, leave, benefits, required reporting, and promotion and tenure. Bookmark the policies most often consulted.
  • Meet your HR colleague(s) before a crisis occurs. You can count on one sooner or later.
  • Documentation matters. Keep brief, accurate notes for your file on personnel-related discussions with faculty or staff. Understand that documentation, including emails, may be used for litigation or made available under the Freedom of Information Act. Understand your institution’s policies on record retention.
  • Talk with your HR officer and legal counsel about the appropriate documentation for personnel matters and methods of using positive discipline.
  • Learn about your institution's employee assistance program and whether there are specific support resources for faculty versus staff (e.g., faculty assistance program) or if faculty assistance is provided through a contractual or community referral arrangement. Keep the referral contact information handy so when a crisis occurs, you’ll know who can be called and how to reach them.
  • Develop an understanding of the basic federal and state laws that affect personnel matters at your school. Be aware these may change over time.
  • Get to know your legal counsel, and develop a working relationship with them. You should feel comfortable consulting with them regarding legal documents (for example, contracts, offers, and disciplinary letters), personnel concerns, and policy and law interpretation. Early intervention and advice can change the course of a potential lawsuit.
  • If you are working with several institutions, consider conducting a joint meeting with the institutional HR offices to facilitate communication and the appropriate sharing of information.
  • When in doubt, ask. Your HR administrator and/or legal counsel can help you understand what you should be asking and what potential risks to consider. 
  • Remember that personnel issues are confidential, and only those who need to know about an individual faculty member’s issue should be informed.
  • Your school’s chief financial officer or business manager may also be an excellent source of information and perspective on personnel issues.
  • Your office may be tasked with reporting data on faculty to the AAMC. Be informed on how this information is collected, maintained for accuracy, and provided to the AAMC. This includes how affiliate and adjunct faculty are tracked. 

Note: This section was updated from the valuable information provided by Valerie N. Williams, PhD, MPA, for the original GFA Handbook. 

Where to Find Faculty Affairs Assistance

 

A simple definition of faculty affairs is all things faculty. That can involve a wide variety of topics, and your office is often the central resource for either handling concerns or referring individuals to other offices for assistance. Your office should serve as a service center for faculty. Because the areas the office is responsible for, either directly or indirectly, are broad, you will need to work with and partner with other institutional and school offices or individuals in many areas.

Below are a few of the common offices that faculty affairs may work with regularly. Reach out to these offices to make connections and learn when and what should be referred to that office. As you find helpful people, be sure to get their contact information, including their cell phone number if possible. There will be items that you are required to report, and learning that process with each office early will help later when critical issues arise. 

Human Resources

The following situations or concerns would lead an associate dean for faculty affairs to consult with or refer a matter to human resources:

  • Reporting or investigation of suspicion of discrimination of any type or harassment. There may be a separate Title IX office.
  • Reporting to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
  • Finessing difficult faculty situations (negotiating retirement, resignation, or phased retirement).
  • Providing faculty employment processes and polices to assist department administrators and chairs in determining options (extend employment/renew contract, notice of non-reappointment, timing for advancement review, retirement/separation planning).
  • Changes to salaries or bonuses.
  • Managing complex leave situations (military deployments, prolonged illnesses, family leave).
  • Support for faculty recruiting, especially for leadership positions.

Medical schools regularly report faculty information to the AAMC and prepare information for LCME reviews. Some offices of faculty affairs maintain a faculty information system that contains each faculty member’s salary, rank, positions, start dates, appointment type, training, and other information. This allows you to quickly have access to personnel information. If your office does not maintain this information, determine who does, and see if you or someone in your office can have direct access. Being able to quickly look up information without having to request it from another office will help you efficiently handle many processes or issues as they arise. 

Legal Counsel

Getting to know the legal counsel at your institution is important. Depending on the size of your school and if you have separate institutions for the hospital(s), practice plan, and university, you may have multiple sets of lawyers. Find out who represents you in your work. Always note emails or documentation of conversations with legal counsel, as those conversations may be protected by attorney-client privilege. Some institutions may have a policy that limits direct contact with the institutional legal counsel without first being screened by an office or individual. 

Matters referred to counsel for advice and recommendations may include:

  • Faculty recruiting, especially for leadership positions and review of contracts and offer letters.
  • Significant grievances or appeals.
  • Notices pertinent to medical review panels or malpractice law suits.
  • Interinstitutional agreements: affiliation agreements, memoranda of understanding with other universities, public and private entities and agencies, research institutes, etc.
  • Assessment of potential institutional risk.
  • Assistance with developing, updating, or interpreting university or medical school policies or procedures.
  • Determination of documents to be released under a Freedom of Information Act request.
  • Assistance with preparation and representation if you are deposed or a party in a legal case.

Campus or Employee Assistance Programs and Physician Health Programs

As the faculty affairs dean, you should be aware of the employee assistance program(s) available to your faculty. Many of these programs allow self-referral and would not be discussed with faculty affairs without a release from the individual. Formal recommendations that a faculty member receive medical or psychological evaluation should be carefully discussed with legal counsel (to consider, for example, the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act). For clinical faculty, this would also likely involve the chief medical officer and consideration of the impact on credentialing and reportability. For programs that evaluate and monitor clinical faculty with substance use disorders, depending on the organizational structure, the chief medical officer or faculty affairs dean may report to the program and receive feedback on an individual faculty’s status in the program. 

State Licensing Board

The office for faculty affairs may serve as the school’s or college’s liaison with the state licensing board. When that is the case, you can expect to deal with issues such as validating faculty status and academic rank, clarification or documentation of visa status and institutional sponsorship, and licensing board disciplinary action. You may also be responsible for reporting issues to the board. 

Other Offices

  • Compliance services: Reviews compliance and ethical issues and conducts audits.
  • Institutional conflict of interest and research conflict of interest: You may, because of your leadership role, be required to report your financial interests to the institutional conflict of interest program. 
  • Americans with disabilities office: Depending on your institution, this office may be charged with determining accommodations and tracking individual needs.
  • Environmental services: Faculty issues around occupational exposures and conditions may be reported to you.
  •  Title IX office: You should know when and which complaints must be routed directly to the Title IX office.
  • Provost office: This office is usually responsible for both faculty and student affairs on the university level. University policies related to faculty are usually handled by this office. 
  • Other offices and faculty affairs deans for other health science schools at your institution. Some schools may not have an individual with the title of “faculty affairs dean.” In those cases, look for the individual(s) who do the same functions.   

Relating to Your Supervisor

As with every position, learning to work with your direct supervisor is critical. This may be the dean, vice-chancellor, or provost, depending on your institution’s structure. For illustration, let’s assume your supervisor is the dean. As the faculty affairs dean, the communication between you and the school dean has to be frequent and productive. Because the office of faculty affairs handles many issue areas, often areas with potential institutional risk associated with them, or decisions that may not be popular, it is imperative that you keep your supervisor aware of issues and plans. It is important that you have a working relationship where you can offer your opinion and suggestions and have them heard. As part of the leadership of the school, it is critical that once the dean has made a decision for the school, you are supportive of that decision. The dean is also aware of other initiatives and issues within both your school and the university. This perspective can be important as you work in your area. 

Be aware that faculty issues are only part of what the dean deals with on a daily basis. Work to find the dean’s preferred (and most effective) method of communication and level of detail. Remember that some types of information you may not want to put in email or writing. Agendas for meetings and one-page information sheets can be a useful way to provide the dean with enough information to be in the loop without being overwhelming.

Academic medical centers are complex organizations, and the office of faculty affairs plays a pivotal role in handling faculty issues as well as serving as an advocate and navigator for faculty as they maneuver within the organization. While other areas of focus like awards, promotions, and faculty development are very positive, the HR functions can be stressful, transactional, and time-consuming. Knowing who to turn to with questions and which offices to partner with on projects or issues can make this work easier when problems arise. 

Developing processes and procedures can assist with the transactional pieces. When looking to update programs and processes, don’t forget to reach out to other GFA members to see how their institutions have dealt with similar issues. 

Note: This section was updated from the valuable information provided by Janis Gissel Letourneau, MD, for the original GFA Handbook. 

Reference

  1. Sonnino R, et al. Evolution of faculty affairs and faculty development offices in U.S. medical schools: a 10-year follow-up survey. Acad Med. 2013;88(9):1368-75.

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