Monday, March 12, 2012

Taking Time To Read the Fine Print


On Sunday in addition to the usual flurry of preparation-for-the-week I was also waiting on tenterhooks with the rest of my colleagues. Faculty was waiting to see if we would indeed go on strike today. I had signed up for picket duty already, I knew where I would be walking the line Monday-Friday of this week if conciliation between our union and the Board's negotiation team failed again. 

Rather than write about strike action, the importance of strong union leadership, and the ongoing war against higher education that is being waged on all sides I am want to think about the importance of reading the fine print. 

When I was offered my limited term appointment at Dalhousie it was a magical day. Literally. I had just finished my first year of sessional teaching (alright, actually I had just survived, and barely). My divorce was finalized. The house that I owned, which had been sitting on the market after three years of Money Pit-like disasters had finally had an offer. It was even sunny, and I am pretty sure that there were birds singing and little animals running about doing choreographed movements. I met my friend and mentor for a cup of coffee and a discussion; she had been contacted by the hiring committee and wanted to talk to me about what I would do if I was offered this ten-month position thousands of kilometers across the country. After our coffee I walked to my realtor's office to sign the final papers on the sale of my house. Just as I was getting into my now partner's car my cell phone rang: I got the job. I immediately called my mentor and she gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. She said, "Erin, read the collective agreement. Sit down with a pot of tea and read the whole thing. It will be tedious, but you'll thank yourself later. Use a highlighter, take some notes, and write down any questions you have. When it comes time for you to negotiate for a full-time position be sure to call me. Women need to be better at negotiation and at reading the fine print."

Readers, I followed her advice. Sure, I forgot or didn't understand or simply skimmed a great deal of the information, but reading through this huge document gave me a sense of the sheer amount of fine print associated with this profession. When the DFA entered into pension negotiations I knew where to look in the collective agreement, but more importantly I knew that even as a junior contract faculty member this stuff mattered immensely for me.

The job market is so tight right now that it feels like winning the lottery even making it through to a campus interview (in fact, given the super-saturated market of strong candidates, I think it is a kind of lottery). However, it is crucial to remember that you are in a position of power as well. You must read the fine print. You must find someone to mentor you in contract negotiations. You must realize that even though on the inside you are thrilled to pieces you have been selected for an interview you still need to look at all the paperwork and know what you are signing on for.

The question is: where and how have you learned to read the fine print? Who has taught you how to negotiate for yourself? 

2 comments:

  1. The importance of understanding contract agreements can't be stressed enough. To push the point further: understanding how much certain contracts can affect you is something we rarely take into consideration. Knowing which contracts can be skimmed and which must be layed out on an operating table and dissected is just as important information to have. It's no good knowing how to read a contract if you don't know which ones you need to pay attention to. We are inundated by licence agreements and have learned to scroll down and click "I agree" by default, which is a mentality many people retain when dealing with important documents.

    The case of Jamie Leigh Jones being forced into arbitration by her employer KBR because of a small clause in her contract is an extreme example of how much small print in a job contract can affect one's life.

    However, I believe that the apathy towards understanding contracts and the trust people have in them when they are backed by, what people believe to be, reputable institutions or people is widespread among both men and women.

    I find that people in the arts are jaded towards anything related to business. There is a prevalent attitude which dictates that if one isn't a banker or a lawyer the realm of contracts and salary negotiations is too complex for one to understand. This erroneous notion disincentives people into signing themselves away to lower salaries, bad bargaining agreements and sub par working conditions.

    Understanding contracts and negotiations isn't easy but it is a skill that any competent person can master.

    Thank you, Erin, for highlighting this.

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  2. The advice that your friend gave is some of the best that anyone can ever give in this lovely little age of ours. I'm not nearly as far along in my life, and thankfully don't have to deal (too much) with the stresses of contract positions and over-saturation of qualified workers in my job. But I lost a very large sum of money in my first year of university because I went by what I was told by their faculty and not by what the fine print of my scholarship information package said. I got sick, flew back across the country, and found myself 2000 dollars poorer three months after I had ceased even thinking about it. A pot of tea, some patience, and a few highlighters will put some things in perspective in a way that can really save you down the road.
    Side note: Lucky for us that the strike didn't end up occurring, huh?

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