If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.
– E. Joseph Cossman
Volume 76 | Issue 1
January 2008

Under Pressure: Impacts of front-line employee stress on service delivery to minority students

Jason Wang

Higher education is a time-consuming and occasionally painstaking enterprise for all involved in the educational process—even those engaged outside of the classroom. Organizational pressure from mandates imposed by higher administration frequently limits the amount of time and energy available for university personnel to give to students. Policy statements that challenge entire institutions to become more student- or learner-centered (e.g., "finish in four" programs) have significant cascading effects on units and departments within the institution, including support units that may not be involved in the decision-making processes or given additional resources.

Non-faculty university employees provide a broad range of services to students and often outnumber faculty by as much as four to one (Mortimer & Taylor, 1984). Despite their numbers and extent of involvement with students, scholarly studies generally ignore university employees who deal with large numbers of students during their daily work (Shuherk, 1999). These employees make decisions about service delivery in the process of coping with increasing stresses of their jobs. These coping strategies have real impacts on service given to students and, in turn, can affect student persistence decisions.

Literature review

The work of Leslie Perlow (1999), Michael Lipsky (1980), and Barbara Gutek (1995) provide a theoretical foundation for studying service employees in higher education. These authors assist in conceptualizing the specifics of university employee perspectives on time, work, and clients, as well as employee coping techniques in high-stress environments. Perlow (1999) finds employees feel a lack of control over their time and must ration any time they do control. Lipsky coins the "street-level bureaucrat" as a front-line and often entry-level employee who defines organizational policy and procedures through behavior. The concepts central to Lipsky’s street-level bureaucrat are rationing time and financial resources; employees preferring to serve customers who are like themselves; and wanting to feel good about their work and minimize conflict. Gutek’s (1995) core concepts as related to this topic are that customers’ feelings about service are now related more to the specific interaction than to the service provider. Therefore, employees prefer to offer customers fast and easy service, minimizing their own frustration and personal entanglement during the encounter. In addition to rationing time and resources, Gutek (1995) found that employees ration services. These observations on service provision are critical to the study of large institutions where interactions are primarily encounter-based. Each author addresses potential service employee behavioral responses under conditions of high stress and large workloads commonly found in higher education institutions.

Research method

This article stems from dissertation research at the University of Arizona. The study was conducted to understand the perspectives and coping strategies of university personnel who deliver services directly to undergraduate students, particularly in contexts characterized by rapid change, increasing responsibilities, and declining resources.

The exploratory case study was conducted in four departments at one large, public, land grant, Research I institution geographically located in the southwestern United States. Southwest University (pseudonym) serves approximately 25,000 undergraduate and 5,800 graduate students. Southwest University employs 2,200 faculty, 7,400 full-time staff, and 1,200 graduate assistants. Southwest University also engaged in a concerted effort to become more student-centered one year prior to the study.

As an exploratory study that sought to understand complex and multifaceted behaviors, the data gathered was qualitative in nature. Fieldwork included interviews, document analysis, and unobtrusive observations. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 37 employees from four departments. Departments were selected because they met one or more of the following criteria: 1) departments that regularly and frequently interact with students; 2) departments with which all students must interact, and in some cases, on a fairly regular basis; and 3) departments likely to be affected by the administrative mandate to become student-centered. The specific departments included the Office of Academic Services (academic counseling), the Office of Admissions, the Office of the Registrar, and the Residence Life Department.

Only front-line employees who delivered service directly to students were interviewed. The interview questions were frequently conversational in nature to understand issues that emerged organically from the interviews. Each study participant was interviewed once, and interviews lasted from 45 to 75 minutes.

Demographic information of interview participants was gathered prior to interviews. Just over half of employees interviewed (51 percent) were Caucasian. Employees with ancestries primarily from Mexico and Central America constituted 38 percent of the employees interviewed. No employees of Middle Eastern or Asian descent were interviewed.

Interviews were transcribed and interview statements were thematically coded into seven categories: lack of control over time, preferred clients, coping strategies, rationing time and service, changes in service delivery, and employee behavior affecting policy. Coding was via direct verbiage as well as deconstructing the language within the context of the interview and interpreting the underlying meaning (Berg, 1995; Wolcot, 1994).


Research findings verified the pervasiveness of street-level bureaucrat behavior (Lipsky, 1980) in the departments researched. Interview participants generally expressed a sense of autonomy, regularly worked without direct supervisor oversight, and felt they were able to change policy through behavior. This was even so for classified employees.

Two findings from the study are related to service delivery and have potential for far-reaching impacts—particularly for minority students. The first finding deals directly with the way in which employees in high-stress service environments ration time to preferred clients. The second involves coping strategies that frequently favor these preferred clients.

Preferred clients

Employees were asked to describe the personality characteristics of students with whom they would be willing to interact for an entire day. Adjectives or phrases used to describe preferred clients include calm, intelligent, mature, inquisitive, enthusiastic, friendly, nice, motivated, self-aware, prepared, agreeable, appreciative, and respectful. In many cases, the characteristics described mirrored those of the employees themselves. It appeared that employees wanted to spend time with students who are like themselves. In some cases, this was subtle with service providers using adjectives to describe typical or preferred students that matched personality characteristics of the service provider.

JW: Could you describe your typical student?

RG: Some of the characteristics would be someone who is real outgoing. One thing that’s really difficult is when you have someone who is introverted. You can’t ask just yes or no questions. You have to ask open-ended questions. And sometimes that doesn’t even work. So someone who is very outgoing, someone who knows what they want, someone who isn’t ambiguous, someone that’s clear. I like that. I tend to like someone who is like me. You know what I mean, like how I was as a student. Very goal-oriented, knows what they are doing.

Like RG, some service providers expressed the same desire to work with students like themselves without considering their favoritism, while other service providers realized the extent to which this bias was manifested.

JW: If you had to spend an entire day interacting with one type of student, what are some of the personality characteristics of that student?

KO: … I want someone who is like me when I was a freshman. It’s probably true. Like someone who is honest, hardworking, and a little bit insecure, who needs something from me that I could give to her. And is willing to do her part. So we’re not wasting either of our time.

When asked about what brings them the greatest personal satisfaction about their job, employees frequently described interactions with students who were like the employee. While this often involved affecting student growth, the preference for interaction with students similar to the service provider is noteworthy. In this instance, the student also responded quickly and positively to a conversation with the employee.

JW: What about your job gives you the most personal satisfaction?

UX: When I reach a student. A couple of weeks ago, I had a student in my office that has the same ethnic background I have, and she was having some conflicts on her [residence hall] floor. And right away, I identified what she was going through. And she hadn’t identified yet why she was having so much trouble. And so I got to have a conversation with her and help her understand. And it was like a light bulb went off in her head, and she actually cried. But it was like yeah, I can go off that for three weeks now, because I touched her and now I’m helping her.

This supports Lipsky’s (1980) argument that preferred clients tend to be those who respond quickly and willingly to employee recommendations and courses of action. Service providers also described this bias more directly.

JW: If you had to spend and entire day with one type of student, what would that student look like?

EN: To be honest, that wouldn’t really matter to me. It would just be someone who was easy to get along with.

JW: What does that mean to you?

EN: Someone who realizes we’re there to help. Is willing to listen to what we say. Accept that we actually know what we’re talking about and that what we’re saying is something that they either can’t get past or at least the advice that we’re giving them is something that’s really going to be helpful for them.

This employee is describing a student who will take recommendations with little question. Additionally, this employee describes a bias toward
encounter-based service delivery where service providers are expected to be competent at a base level, functionally equivalent while clients are encouraged to move quickly through the service unit (Gutek, 1995). The bias favoring these types of students cannot be overstated in offices evaluated primarily on the number of students processed by advising, counseling, processing records, or admitting.

Coping strategies

For the purposes of this study, "coping strategies" are techniques or behaviors employees use to deal with the stresses of the job—condoned by department leadership or otherwise. The primary coping strategy related to this study was regarding how employees ration services in environments where there is more work than can be possibly be done. Perlow (1999) describes a process by which service is rationed when employees are busy. By Perlow’s definition, the rationing of service is a subcategory of coping strategies. Employees had many different techniques for rationing service that they delivered to students. Some strategies related to the source of the request for time or service. The following example not only identifies who is granted greater access to the service provider, but also an algorithm by which the employee defines priority work.

JW: Talk a little bit about interruptions. What do those look like and how long do they last?

EN: They are usually very short. It’s usually the phone. We’ve got a new phone system and some phone calls don’t go directly to voicemail. I don’t give my direct number out to students or they’d be calling all the time and I’d be picking up in the middle [of a session]. So if the phone rings in the middle of a session, then typically somebody in the office wants to talk to me or somebody else on campus who I gave a phone number to in an office or department. So it’s OK. It’s not a student.

This employee uses a coping strategy of limiting access to students by only giving a direct phone number to certain individuals. This filtering technique allows the employee to make decisions about the importance of phone calls even while in session with students. Like many employees, superiors are given greater access to the employee and their work is assigned a higher priority—frequently higher than service to clients.

While the concept of increasing supervisor or university officials’ access to employee time is an important and arguably unavoidable condition of universities’ fundamentally hierarchical systems, service rationing techniques are more commonly directed toward clients. Some employees interviewed rationed service by encouraging certain students to return for future service.

JW: How do you choose who to see? Do you have a favorite type of student?

KO: Oh yeah. I definitely have a type of student I like to see, but I don’t know if I have.... [long pause] I’m probably nicer to some students than to others, so maybe I encourage them to come back more. I mean I sort of prefer unpretentious, not necessarily smart, just not sorority types. I like girl students better than boys usually.

It is unclear if this employee simply encourages certain female students to return for future service and is impartial or apathetic toward male students or actually discourages male students from future service. The latter could be accomplished directly by referring male students to another employee or office or more subtly by callused behavior.

However, preferential service is provided in more subtle ways while still staying in the confines of policy.

ND: I’ve had people come to me and they’re just maybe one point away from going from a sophomore to a junior. They want us to, you know, during priority registration, add them to a class because they’re just one point short, and they think, "Oh, well can’t you just...?" And I say, "No, we can’t" [in an empathetic tone]. You know, it’s frustrating because you know you can’t say, "You little jerk, why are you trying to make me do something illegal?" And… it’s really difficult sometimes to send people away because there’s just not anything we can do to help them.

JW: Are there other times that you perhaps could help?

ND: Mmm.

JW: Instances where perhaps a very cooperative and polite student is really just in a situation that might not even be their fault.

ND: Yeah, it’s … well … that’s the problem. As I said before, a lot of times I can turn them over to a supervisor and they can decide, you know, whether they’re gonna bend the rules for this particular person. In my own position, I just don’t feel like I have the authority to make those kinds of decisions.

The first student will likely not receive service assistance outside of that clearly articulated by policy and practice. However, the second student may—particularly if the student can argue a plausible case and make a connection to the service provider. This employee had opportunities to make preferential service decisions by choosing who will be sent to meet with a supervisor or, more importantly, who will not.

Many employees also expressed a desire to limit service to individuals who were least preferred although most were quick to say they would not. Adjectives used to describe these least preferred students include pushy, rude, inconsiderate, snobbish, nasty, self-centered, angry, hostile, frustrated, and irresponsible. The significance of this finding is subtly hidden in that there were no questions asked about the personality characteristics of least favorite students. Instead, questions were asked about personality characteristics of typical students and preferred clients. Entirely unprompted, employees were quite vocal about the characteristics of disliked students. Some employees had more to say about disliked students than the ones preferred. Ultimately this motivates inquiry into whether a passionate disdain for certain student types manifests itself in behavior. If so, it is important to consider if the behavior patterns are similar in kind and extent to behavior patterns toward students favored by service providers.


Extensive training models and research exists on diversity and cross-cultural training in various fields (Lefley, 2002; Perry, 2002). However, beyond personal experience, intuition, and anecdotal testimony that decries the impacts of institutional racism (McCall, 1994), the research literature is alarmingly quiet on the extent and ramifications of service provider bias given the pervasiveness of the study findings.

Research study participants expressed a consistent service delivery bias. This bias favors students who share demographic or personality characteristics with the service provider and appears to be actualized through more time being spent with these students. This time may be spent providing services consistent with department mission, merely interacting with preferred students, or providing preferential service. Regardless, each promotes persistence toward graduation (Astin, 1977 & 1993). Additionally, this study found that service is likely to be rationed to preferred clients who are similar in background and personality to the service provider and who respond rapidly to treatment.

Service providers who choose to deal with the stresses of their jobs by rationing time to tarry with favored clients do so at the expense of service to other students. Additionally, preferred clients are frequently students who are atypically mature and, as a result, generally require less service provider time. Ironically, the very students who need the time of service providers most, appear to be the least likely to receive it— at least on a preferential level.

The critical question is not necessarily who receives more, better, or preferential services as a result of service provider bias but rather who does not. While this bias has potential to affect all students and was observed in service providers of all ethnic backgrounds, the impact is likely to be greater for minority students who must interact with service units where staffing may not represent a cross section of the campus demographics. The service provider biases described are likely not maliciously or even consciously applied. Nevertheless, if unchecked, these biases have potential to significantly affect the service students receive and the persistence decisions of those students. As a result, policy and practice recommendations are made below.

Policy and practice recommendations

  • Conduct workflow assessments. Work with human resources consultants to assess organizational efficiency and effectiveness, particularly to understand if overstaffing or understaffing is an area of concern as the use of employee coping strategies tends to increase with stress.
  • Conduct customer exit surveys. Develop and implement exit surveys administered to students shortly after service is provided. Exit surveys can be developed in conjunction with a professional consultant or in collaboration with an upper-division statistics course. Exit surveys can not only provide insight into customer satisfaction but if properly constructed, can identify service provider biases.
  • Engage in fair and consistent human resources practices in the areas of employee recruitment, selection, evaluation, retention, performance management, and termination. University or private human resources consultants can assist in the development of a clear action plan for each of these areas. Fair and consistent human resources practices clearly express performance expectations for employees and support employees to perform well. In particular, revisit employee evaluation criteria to assess how employees are rewarded and if employees have an opportunity to surreptitiously affect the evaluation process in ways that do not support organizational goals.
  • Give praise and recognition regularly where merited. Consider developing an inexpensive or cost-free employee recognition program. Many front-line employees interviewed for this study lamented the lack of recognition for their work—
    particularly in departments where performance evaluations were too simplistic and overly routine to be of benefit or when any form of recognition was absent. Adding value to employee work within the structure of the organization will reduce the likelihood of employees engaging in coping strategies by seeking approval and recognition from clients.
  • Increase employee awareness of preferred client biases and provide diversity training for employees where appropriate. Awareness that this real bias exists, in addition to the associated social implications, is an effective start to encouraging equitable service delivery.
  • Hire diverse staff members who represent the demographics of the campus community.
  • Assess staff biases and promote research to better understand the extent and impacts of service provider bias and preferred clients.

Engaging in these policy and practice recommendations will likely not eliminate the service provider bias and any associated behaviors. However, these recommendations represent a start toward increasing awareness of the biases and will assist in providing consistent service to all students.


The time-consuming and pain-staking nature of higher education is confounded by unilateral upper-
administration mandates and decreasing resources. This effect is hard felt in service units in the academy often neglected in planning processes. In these environments, employees cope in ways so as to reduce stress in their jobs. These coping strategies have a bias that favors students who reflect ethnic, gender, or personality characteristics of the service providers. The service biases and any potential disparity in service is cause for reflection.

As a case study of one institution with 37 interview participants, generalization to other campus departments, much less other universities, is tenuous; however, the pervasiveness of the service provider biases found in this study merits consideration. Increasing service provider staff diversity is a first step toward curbing employee behavior that favors students who are similar to the service provider, but initial research indicates even employees who were not among the campus cultural majority demonstrated favoritism toward students who were like them. As such, increasing awareness that such biases and behavior exist and providing diversity training are together a critical second step (Perry, 2002). Service provider ignorance of the bias to favor clients similar to the service provider and a lack of service provider staff diversity can produce systematic de facto discrimination that has far-reaching implications—particularly for minority students.


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