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WCU employees express high satisfaction

WCU’s results were at the front of the pack compared to other UNC System schools. WCU graphic WCU’s results were at the front of the pack compared to other UNC System schools. WCU graphic

Western Carolina University is ahead of the pack on employee satisfaction, according to the results of a survey to University of North Carolina System faculty and staff.

“In a nutshell, this pretty much tells me that Western’s workforce is very engaged and also relatively satisfied on the positive perspective, particularly as compared to our peers within the UNC system,” Associate Vice Chancellor for Human Resources and Payroll Cory Causby told trustees during their Nov. 4 retreat. 

The 2022 survey is the third employee engagement survey since 2018, when the UNC System’s new strategic plan called for conducting them every two years. The survey presents employees — both faculty and staff — with a series of 30 statements. Respondents rank their responses on a five-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The statements cover everything from institutional culture to leadership to COVID-19 response. 

Overall, 64% of WCU employees participated, up from 62% in 2020. This was the second-highest response rate of the 16 institutions, not including the UNC System Office’s 69% participation rate. Of responses given in the survey, 68% were positive — either “agree” or “strongly agree” — up from 66% in 2020 and putting WCU in a tie for third place with the UNC System Office and N.C. State. 

The most positive responses came from staff members whose positions are exempt from the State Human Resources Act of North Carolina — mostly professional, salaried positions that do not receive overtime — with a 76% favorable rating. Responses from staff members subject to the SHRA were 68% favorable and faculty came in lowest, at 64%. 

Notably, faculty were also the most likely to have concerns about senior leadership, with only 49% indicating confidence in senior leadership. Likewise, only 54% of faculty responded favorably to questions about communication and collaboration at WCU. The only other category response to fall below 60% came from SHRA employees, only 53% of whom responded favorably to questions about performance management. While the overall scores for these three categories were higher than the system average, they were lower than WCU’s results in 2020. 

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While faculty indicated lukewarm confidence in senior leadership, the survey does not define what senior leadership means. Respondents gave high positive ratings when asked how they perceive their supervisor or department chair, exceeding scores for the 2018 and 2020 surveys. 

“It can be anywhere from the department head to a dean to a division head to the chancellor, but it also goes beyond that,” Causby told trustees. “A lot of times people may be talking about the Board of Trustees, they may be talking about the Board of Governors. In some instances, there were comments about Faculty Senate and combining that with senior leadership. So it’s very broad, and it’s not spelled out or defined in the survey.”

While WCU generally received more favorable results than the UNC System as a whole, this was not true of questions pertaining to its COVID-19 response. The university scored 1-3 percentage points lower than the system average on questions asking about departmental adaptation to work conditions during the pandemic, how clearly the institution communicated policies and procedures to assist employees, and whether the institution is taking appropriate action against the pandemic. Satisfaction was lowest among faculty, who returned a 62% favorable response to COVID-19 questions. Meanwhile, SHRA staff clocked in at 75% positive and non-SHRA staff at 78%. 

Overall, WCU employees indicated that they’re happy with their jobs and work environment — but also that they’d be willing to leave for a better salary elsewhere. Employees could select multiple answers to a question asking for reasons why they might consider leaving — and 73% said they’d think about it for a more competitive salary. At a distant second were better work/life balance and better opportunities for career advancement, which were both selected by 32% of respondents. Only 15% of employees selected “satisfied with my current job” as one of their answers. 

However, Causby said, those responses don’t necessarily mean that three-quarters of the workforce already has a foot out the door. 

“I think this was an opportunity for many folks to indicate where they had the greatest level of dissatisfaction right now, not that they were leaving,” Causby said. “65% of faculty responded to this. Salary has been a big issue over this past year with faculty.”

While faculty and staff received a combined 6% raise in the 2021 and 2022 state budgets, even this unprecedented amount fails to offset inflation of 7.1% that occurred between November 2021 and November 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator. Salaries have lagged for years prior to the pandemic. A 2021 analysis by WCU business professor Sean Mulholland, who is now director of the Center for Study of Free Enterprise, showed that inflation-adjusted salaries at WCU reached below negative 8% between 2010 and 2019. 

Over the past couple of years, WCU and the UNC System as a whole have struggled with extremely high rates of employee turnover. In fiscal year 2022 between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022, 202 employees left WCU voluntarily. The figure does include retirements, deaths, disability or employer-driven separations such as firing or labor force reductions. The four-year average for fiscal years 2018 through 2021 was just half that, at 100.5. 

The situation seems to be improving, but it’s not back to normal. Between July and November, WCU saw 65 voluntary separations, a 26% drop from the 82 recorded during the same period last year but nearly double the 38 voluntary separations reflected in the 2018-2021 four-year average for those months. 

The surge in separations is a system-wide trend. During an April Board of Governors meeting held in Cullowhee, UNC Board of Governors Committee on Personnel and Tenure Chair Kellie Hunt Blue said system office staff attribute it to pandemic pressures and the “Great Resignation.” Salary is also frequently mentioned as a driver. 

Despite the challenges, Trustee Bryant Kinney said he’s happy with the survey results considering the enormous pressures the university has faced since 2020. 

“I think overall this is a compliment to the leadership and the staff and faculty, to have results that to me are pretty darn good coming out of what you came out of,” he said. 

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