Improving Staff Relations

In each organization that I have worked for, be it a museum or otherwise, there has been a divide between the front line staff and the office staff behind the scenes. When I first started in my new position last year, there was a group of people who recognized this issue and wanted to take action to solve it, which was a unique experience. Often times, in my experience, the issue was overlooked or brushed aside.  IRP1

Encouraged by the organization’s dedication to its staff, one year ago I began working toward improving relations and communication between departments in the museum. This month, I will look back on the successes and failures I saw as I worked toward fixing this problem, and will detail some of the programs proposed and implemented. The first step in this process was coming up with a brief, informal proposal to get the ball rolling, seen below:

Internal Relations

To ensure excellent guest service, the front line staff must feel as though they are a valued, integral part of the organization. Front line staff want the support and respect of their superiors, a job that engages them, and a sense of belonging. There are several simple ways to ensure that the organization is an environment that takes pride in the development and support of its front line staff.


  • Staff feels that back of house employees:
    • Do not support them
    • Are unfamiliar with the work front line staff does
      • Thus, have little respect for the work front line staff does
  • Do not know names of front line staff
  • Are not involved with front line staff
  • Avoid interaction with front line staff
  • Do not listen to comments, concerns, complaints, suggestions of front line staff

While these issues were brought up directly by front line staff, many of them are evident to observers. Issues affecting front line staff also affect visitors. A disenchanted front line staff person will have less pride in their work than one who feels as though they are a valued member of the team. Visitors can often sense the staff’s displeasure with their work environment. By creating and fostering a positive, collaborative work environment, the overall experience of both front line staff and visitors will be enhanced.

Potential Solutions

IRP2The following solutions are split into three categories: Integrating back of the house staff into front line operations, Involving front line staff in higher-level decision-making, and Building upon existing recognition programs. Nina Simon, author of The Participatory Museum, offers insight into the value of staff from the back office in the quotation on the right. Simon’s point is echoed by the front line staff of several museums (Further Reading #12-16). In addition to getting back of house staff involved on the front line, there is value to spending down time with front line staff. An organization that fosters career development for their part timers gains a reputation as a career stepping-stone. While this does lead to turnover, it also attracts the best and brightest applicants for front line positions.

  • Find ways to make back of house more accessible to front line staff
    • Roundtable Discussion
      • 3-4 Gallery Hosts, Manager, 2-3 back of house staff
      • Gallery Host-led discussion during lunch hour
      • Address needs/suggestions of floor staff
      • Shows interest from back of house
      • Gallery Hosts selected randomly
    • Career AdvancementIRP3
      • Gallery Host, Manager, Relevant back of house staff
      • Manager and executive answer Gallery Host questions pertaining to field
      • Encourages professional growth and development
      • Shows interest from back of house to assist with Gallery Host development
      • Offer training opportunities for front line staff
    • Frontline Backup Training
      • Floor training for back of house staff
      • Includes four hours of shadowing (4 different hosts/locations)
      • Voluntary, once ten are trained, Family Night is viable
    • Family Night
      • Back of House staff works floor
      • Floor staff & families come in for free
      • 2 hours, once per year

A critical error made by many cultural institutions is not involving front line staff in key decision making. The two quotations above directly address this problem. The restaurant example given by Anthony K. Tjan in the Harvard Business Review (Further Reading #11) makes it very clear: Who knows better what foods are enjoyed at a restaurant than the people who clear the tables? They see what is eaten and what is not. To apply that example to the museum world, who but front line staff knows best how exhibits are utilized? The observations and opinions of front line staff are an essential tool in the development of new programs and exhibits.IRP4

  • Find ways to involve front line staff and allow them to influence some aspects of the business operations
    • Exhibit Design
      • Consult with front line staff about past exhibit successes and failures
      • Have front line staff sit on planning committees
    • Meetings
      • Invite randomly selected front line staff to attend occasional:
        • Operations Meetings
        • Committee Meetings
        • Focus Groups
        • Visitor Service Meetings
        • Event/Outreach Meetings
      • Allow front line staff to run end of day/beginning of day meetings

Many companies have adopted Employee Recognition Programs. Most of these programs involve some sort of financial reward. Meghan M. Biro of warns against a reliance on financial rewards, instead suggesting a focus on positive reinforcement and recognition from higher-level staff (Further Reading #2). An adapted program to suit the organization’s needs would apply Biro’s ideas to the Disney Great Service Fanatic program described in the quotation on the left. This program would combine the best of both schools of thought: financial rewards for excellent service and recognition from the top of the organization.

  • Increase/Improve recognition programs
    • Small gift cards for smaller actions
    • Program similar to Disney’s Great Service Fanatic for larger actions
      • Yearly Awards for three best actions – $100, $60, $40 gift cards

Voted on by vice presidents, presented at end of the year celebration.


Museums today are facing new issues in part time employee recruitment, retention, and satisfaction. These issues are having a negative impact on the visitor experience. Through the implementation of the aforementioned low-cost and easy-to-adapt programs, the organization will be an innovator for employee relations within the museum world.


Further Reading

  1. Author Unknown. “Iceberg of Ignorance – Are You Aware of All Your Small Business Problems?” The Thriving Small Business.
  2. Biro, Meghan M. “5 Ways Leaders Rock Employee Recognition” Forbes (2013).
  3. Erb, Marcus “Seven Ways to Boost Employee Morale” Entrepreneur (2011).
  4. Gallo, Amy “Making Your Strategy Work on the Frontline” Harvard Business Review Blog Network (2010).
  5. Jones, Bruce I. “People Management Lessons from Disney” Disney Institute.
  6. Lavinsky, Dave “The Employee Motivation Checklist” Fast Company (2012).
  7. Miller, Jennifer V. “How to Improve your Company’s Customer Service” Executive Travel Magazine (2010).
  8. Schwartz, Tony “New Research: How Employee Engagement Hits the Bottom Line” Harvard Business Review Blog Network (2012).
  9. Simon, Nina “Should Everyone Work on the Front Line as Part of their Career?” Museum 2.0 (2010).
  10. Simon, Nina “What Could Kill an Elegant, High-Value Participatory Project?” Museum 2.0 (2009).
  11. Tjan, Anthony K. “Listen to Your Frontline Employees” Harvard Business Review Blog Network (2012).
  12. GlassDoor review of Boston Museum of Fine Arts
  13. GlassDoor review of the Franklin Institute
  14. GlassDoor review of the Please Touch Museum
  15. GlassDoor review of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
  16. GlassDoor review of Port Discovery

Share Your Thoughts

As always, we would love to hear your perspective on this issue. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below or by sending us an email at phillyemp[at]gmail[dot]com.


3 responses to “Improving Staff Relations

  1. Pingback: Five Posts Worth Another Look | Philadelphia Emerging Museum Professionals·

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