Man of the people

by Eric Smith

Taking over as McGill's executive director of human resources at a time of budget cutbacks, labour negotiations and a hiring freeze doesn't seem to worry Robert Savoie.

In fact McGill's newest senior director welcomes the challenges. "My experience (leading a company's human resources) through three recessions is that you come out of these difficulties stronger and can look forward to a better future," he says.

"When everything's easy you can't always tap into your strengths," Savoie adds. "Difficulties provide the opportunity to identify what you do best."

Savoie's three recessions came while he held the position of director of organizational development and industrial relations at Ciment St-Laurent, a Quebec subsidiary of a Swiss company.

But although Savoie's work experience has been in the industrial sector, he is no stranger to the academic milieu.

For the past 17 years, Savoie has also held a position on the Board of Directors of the Université de Montréal, the last 16 on the executive committee. In this capacity, he also sat on several Board committees charged with employment-related tasks, including the retirement committee and the human resources committee.

Savoie says it's too early to say whether actions taken by the Université de Montréal on human resources questions might provide solutions for McGill.

"It would be presumptuous of me to apply my experience at Université de Montréal directly to McGill," he says. "I have to come to know McGill much better. The organizations are different. Each university has its own structure. McGill is more decentralized."

Savoie, who has been dividing his time between Ciment St-Laurent and McGill since February, adds, "the more I get to know McGill, the more interested I get."

And his industrial experience has shown him, he says, that "the only significant difference between a group of companies is not the technology, the plant, the buildings, or the finances. It's always the people."

This is even more true, according to Savoie, when it comes to universities. And he adds that when it comes to people, McGill has significant strengths.

"McGill is the most international university in Canada," he says. "In business when I was travelling I would always meet a McGill graduate wherever I was in the world."

But Savoie recognizes some of the difficulties McGill has in attracting people, especially top academics. Faculty salaries at McGill are not at the same level as other top universities in Canada. "It's a problem for all Quebec universities."

And although Savoie welcomes recent commitments by the University to bring its salaries more in line with those of other major Canadian universities, he cautions that McGill will never be able to compete on salary alone with some of the private universities in the U.S.

"We also have to make the University a very good place to do research," he says. "We have to play on Montreal's city life, on the intellectual milieu here. We need to use all the cards in our deck."

One of Savoie's first responsibilities in his new job is to head negotiations with McGill's TA union AGSEM (see story One-day strike by TAs in this issue). Savoie has the experience of dozens of collective agreements. But when asked what he expects from current negotiations, Savoie says, "This is a question I never answer. Every time I have tried to forecast a collective agreement, things never work out just the way I thought. But I can confidently forecast that somewhere down the road there will be an agreement."

One area Savoie intends to develop at McGill is job training. The provincial government has passed Bill 90 which requires organizations to dedicate one per cent of their salary mass to training. "There is much work to be done in this area," Savoie says. "We could do much better."

The question of training is of particular relevance to McGill because the University still employs some people whose jobs have been closed. Although Savoie is careful to stress that the University makes sure all employees who draw a salary are working, "our first priority is to train them for jobs that become available."

Savoie says he does not yet know the extent to which his department will be involved in devising and implementing new programs for pay and employment equity. Although he maintains his commitment to both, he says, "Employment equity is a bit of a contradiction when you have a hiring freeze."

He adds that his experience implementing equity plans elsewhere has taught him that "the last thing women professors want is preferential treatment. But it is necessary to ensure that diverse applicants are always considered as part of the process."

Savoie says he has begun meeting with the University's deans individually to discuss human resources priorities in each of McGill's faculties. He intends to follow up with meetings with each of the University's directors. "Human Resources is a service," he says. "My job is to make it the best service it can be for the employees, the faculty, and the University as a whole."