Associate Vice Provost for Research Administration and Development
Assistant Director for Research Administration and Development
During our work as research administrators, compensation information of researchers and other personnel named on proposals for sponsored funding is made available to us. This knowledge of salary information is necessary for correctly budgeting personnel costs and for allocating the appropriate effort during the award. While access to compensation information is necessary, the expectation of confidentiality exists for handling this information across the research administration profession. For this issue of the Pulse we were interested to learn what steps if any institutions may take in this regard for research administration specifically, beyond the reasonable expectation of professional conduct of employees. This anonymous survey was distributed to the subscribers of the RESADM-L listserv.
The survey was open between January 19th and February 2rd, 2018 and collected 102 responses. It is possible that more than one response came from some of the institutions represented by the survey participants. During the first several hours of the survey, the response option “other” in the question about institutional practices regarding the protection of salary information did not have a text box to expand further. We hope that the relevant information was captured in text boxes that were available in the subsequent questions. Below, we describe what we learned from our colleagues.
Over half of the survey respondents (55%) were affilitated with a public/state institution, with 37% affiliated with a private institution. Responses for “other” included federal/government, non-profit, and hybrid organizations.
Overall, the majority (82%) of respondents indicated that they are not aware of any instances where unprofessional handling of salary information occurred at their institution during the support of sponsored activities, while an additional 13% noted that only minor instances have occurred. Only one institution reported that a major instance has occurred. A comment for the response “Other” pointed out that while individuals compare their salaries to the salaries of others and “express unhappiness”, this is not specific to sponsored programs, and that while “it is considered inappropriate, it is not unallowable”. An additional response indicated that “faculty salary information shared amongs faculty members has resulted in several instances of faculty seeking increased base salary/wages.” This is often expressed as a feared outcome by institutional administrators, however it does not appear to be a widespread issue, give this singular response.
At those institutions that reported unprofessional handling of compensation information in research administration, we asked about consequences. Of the 18% of respondents to which this question was applicable, responses included; no crrective actions (4%), a minor corrective action such as retraining (8%), updates to policy of process (3%), and an employee disciplinary action (3%).
Differences by type of institution
Overall, the majority of respondents (62%) stated that no additional efforts are made at their institutions to protect salary information on proposals and awards because it is a professional expectation that it should be handled with discretion. Eleven percent noted that a Human Resources policy regarding the protection of confidential information in general is in place at their institutions. The high number of respondents whose institutions do not have additional protections in place makes sense in the context of the responses above, as it would be a solution to a problem that is rarely seen.
The remaining responses represented equal number (4% or five responses for each) of the following approaches: a policy regarding protection of salary and/or confidential information is in place specifically for sponsored projects; confidentiality agreements are signed by staff working on sponsored projects; in internal proposal budgets, elements that would allow reverse salary calculations are concealed; and for cross-departmental budgets only the total amount and not budget details are shared internally.
This question allowed for the selection of more than one response, and responses exceeded the count of respondents by 29. This indicates that at those institutions who believe compensation confidentiality must be enforced, more than one way of protecting this confidentiality was in place. Sorting the responses between public and private/other institutions, we saw that respondents from public institutions were less likely to provide more than one response to this question, leading us to conclude that public institutions more frequently rely on just one way of protecting compensation information.
This conclusion is supported by the comments of several respondents, who noted that all salary information is public (as at a public US institution) and there is no additional policy in place. Among our respondents, none of the public institutions conceal salary budgets and withhold budget details when working on cross-departmental budgets, and HR policy on salary confidentiality is somewhat more common among private institutions, as are policies specific to sponsored projects.
Our survey did not measure the level of concern among administrators about unauthorized releases of compensation information by employees working on sponsored research but anectotally, we are aware that it is high in some institutions. Our respondents reported very few breaches of salary information, despite most institutions having no safeguards beyond professional expectations. Those instances of unprocessional handling of salary information that did occur were reported to be largely minor in nature. We did find a contrast in the responses of public and private instutiotns, likely due to the fact that compensation details at public institutions is for the most part public information, making protections uncessary.
We will continue to periodically check the “pulse” of research administrators on various topics. Look for the next column in the SRAI Catalyst in the summer 2018.
If you have any topics or questions that you want to see addressed in Pulse in the future, please let us know. Send feedback, ideas, questions, and inquiries to Sarah Marina at firstname.lastname@example.org