Suggestions for ways to improve your relationship with your casual colleagues

After many Twitter-based discussions regarding the state of casualisation within the higher education sector affecting academic staff, general staff, and professional staff alike, I have decided to write a list of suggestions to take on board when you are communicating with your casual colleagues. Some of these are specific to academics, while others apply to casual colleagues more generally. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Make your own suggestions in the comments.

The anecdotes and examples are drawn both from my own experiences, and those of my peers. Thanks to those of you who contributed your stories.

1) Don’t liken your situation to that of your casual colleagues, especially if they are not comparable.

This situation can manifest in a few ways, but the crux of the issue is this: sometimes full-time staff make demands on the time and energy of their casual colleagues without taking the scope and limitations of our casual, limited-hours contracts into account. For example, if we come to you concerned that the assignments we are marking have no defined upper word limit, don’t dismiss us with “I have a lot of marking to do as well”. The thing is you don’t get to compare your situation to ours because you have the ability to do something about it. Casual tutors are paid a flat rate for marking which assumes a certain amount of words per student, so marking assignments that are 3000 words, as opposed to the paid rate of 1500 words, makes a big impact on the time we spend doing it and how much we will eventually get paid for our labour. You have a full-time position and an office, whereas we are oftentimes marking from home at 3 in the morning around caring responsibilities, thesis writing, and other employment. NOT the same.

Similarly, don’t demand that we call you from home, or ‘glance over’ something, or come onto campus unnecessarily. Separately these things amount to being ‘not a big deal’ and may only register to you as an inconvenience. However what is not a ‘big deal’ for you may in fact be a huge deal for us as this is time and expense that we aren’t reimbursed for. That’s how these minor inconveniences have come to encroach on so much of our time, because they are incremental.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Be mindful not to overload us with work that is outside of the scope of our casual contracts. Set strict word limits and take care to design assignments and prepare course content which is mindful of these limitations. Be supportive of our concerns, and when we come to you with an issue relating to the workload, please LISTEN.

2) Don’t refer to us in the plural

Don’t refer to my casual colleagues and I as “the casuals” or “the team” when you actually are referring to me. For example, if you receive work that needs to be assigned to me then please use my name. Say: “I will see if The Smart Casual is able to do that” not “I will get one of the casuals to do that”. Your casual colleagues are not an amorphous, interchangeable blob of work doers, or free floating heads who seem to magically appear whenever unpleasant things need to be done.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Include us in these conversations as full and equal participants. When you speak to us think about how you would feel to be talked to/communicated with in this way. This goes beyond casual/full-time relations and is just common courtesy.

3) Don’t dismiss us when we want to know more about the future of the project you want us to work on together

For casual staff within higher education, our employment is precarious and piecemeal. We have to give careful consideration to the projects we take on, and those we choose to reject. If we come to you wanting to know if the project is going to be ongoing, or what you see our role as being, then please be candid. No funding? Fine. No future? No problem. But don’t dismiss us and don’t give us false hope. The time commitment and deadlines also play a major factor in our decision making, so let us know as much as you know so we are able to make an informed decision.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Don’t take our participation for granted. Instead, ask how are we going and if your proposed project is likely to fit into our schedule. We have many conflicting priorities and don’t just exist when it is convenient to you.

4) Do value and acknowledge the contribution we make.

Casuals work really hard. Take notice of that. You don’t have to throw us a parade, but a simple thanks at the end of session goes a long way, maybe even a cup of coffee (on your dime) can make us feel less like the hired help and more like your peer and colleague. Similarly…

5) Don’t forget we exist in the time between projects.

To be an ally to your casual colleagues you should keep them in the loop. When the working relationship is over, the marks have been submitted and the essays handed back, maybe invite your casual colleagues to talk about future projects, their kids, whatever. This may appear to be in contrast with what is set out in point 1) about coming onto campus unneccesarily however just being invited would go a long way to making us feel as if we are a part of our campus’ community.

6) Don’t comment on the personal appearance of your female colleagues.

I am not going to explain this one. Comment on the contribution we make in the workplace. Give us feedback on work we have submitted to you. Ask our opinion even, but don’t draw attention to things that are irrelevant to our interactions within the workplace. You may consider it to be friendly banter, but the power dynamic is as such that we may not feel comfortable having to defend our sartorial choices to you.

[Please note: that faux leather jacket is not an “affectation”, the word you are looking for is “awesome”. But regardless, please don’t]

7) Don’t pay lipservice to the idea of the ‘team’ and then operate the workplace based on a caste system.

The term is meaningless buzz unless there is real commitment to it. Team doesn’t just mean “people who work in the same room as me sometimes”. There is nothing more patronising than attempting to use empty team rhetoric to motivate adults. And think about what you are communicating to your casual colleague by asking them to hold down the fort so the full-timers can attend the department Christmas party… two years in a row.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Create open communication channels, and check in with all team members to see how they are moving towards their professional goals. Don’t just talk about “the team”, facilitate it on our behalf. Help your casual colleagues by fighting for paid meetings so we can discuss issues and not feel so bloody isolated. If you are aware that the Faculty or Department you are working in is holding an event then make sure the casual members of your team are included. Not just cc’d into the email mind you, but that they feel that they would be welcome to come. At the very least, make an attempt to have all team members in the same room at the same time at least once every few months. Nothing makes me sadder than realising that it has been months since I have seen a colleague in person, because our roster/schedules have us passing like ships in the night.


I think we can all agree that the system is broken. Full-time positions are unlikely to materialise in the immediate future, however that doesn’t mean we can’t start to think of more immediate and direct ways we can foster a healthier and more balanced work environment for all workers within higher education. What are your thoughts?


5 thoughts on “Suggestions for ways to improve your relationship with your casual colleagues

  1. It’s amazing how often these rules are forgotten even by academics we know well and enjoy working with. (Fully acknowledging my privilege here in having FT work) Can we please post these in staff rooms around the uni?

  2. OK – we are taking the ‘privilege’ thing where people are apologizing for having a full-time job! Work = privilege is a mistake because it feeds into the idea that it is a vocation and therefore terms and conditions aren’t important because we all do this for love…

  3. Pingback: An Illustrated guide to the academic session (for a casual) | The Smart Casual

  4. Pingback: Academic allies | Slapsista

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