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Making difficult decisions

- Wits University

Workers’ Day feature: the Director of Employee Relations at Wits chats about her role, love for the law and balancing PhD studies with motherhood.

Betina Fleming, Director of Employee Relations at Wits

Employee relations practitioners are probably amongst the least popular at the workplace and this is something that Betina Fleming, the Wits Director of Employee Relations, has come to accept as part of the job.

Afterall, most people only engage with her office when there’s conflict and disputes around performance or they are possibly facing serious issues relating to professional conduct. The outcome of the decisions made through the processes followed in her office is bound to make others unhappy.

But beneath the seemingly straight-faced posture, Fleming is an ordinary metropolitan girl full of personality.

Fleming was raised in a block of flats in Hillbrow, a time she recalls as filled with glee despite a difficult home environment.

“We had a relatively carefree childhood in the streets of Hillbrow, Berea, and Yeoville. Pieter Roos Park was our home where we often played late into the afternoon.”

She and her brother, raised by a single mother, had a relatively joyous and liberating time in the cosmopolitan environment of Hillbrow.

The family moved to Bez Valley in the year 2000 when Fleming was in the midst of her high school career, following the sudden death of her father, who had only recently rejoined the family, and concerns around safety. Having survived two failed abductions in her childhood, one whilst  walking home from school (which involved a sprint from a Mercedes and hiding in a nearby bush!), Fleming’s mother made the decision to relocate the family.

On the cusp of adulthood, Fleming had to contend with the fact that she would not be able to pursue her career of choice.

“I was very studious and wanted to be a doctor but Maths was really killing my average and I knew I needed to achieve entry to a university. I had kind of thought about the possibility of doing law before, but knowing what my subject choices would have to be, I set myself officially on that path,” she says. This path was considered very fitting by her brother who teased Fleming that she was born to argue, always being on top in sibling squabbles.

Life Experiences Build Character

By the time she enrolled for an LLB degree in 2004, Fleming was already earning her keep having scored herself a job at as a data capturer.

“The admin jobs helped towards daily expenses and assisted my mother in managing to pay the monthly interest on the student loan she had to take out to get me through university.”

It was also during her undergraduate studies that she met her husband Mark, at a comic book shop. The curiosity of who was behind the raucous laughter she heard one day in the store drew her from the back of the shop. He has the “most wild, bombastic laugh and I've ever heard,” she says. She introduced herself to Mark, scored him a cheeky discount on his comics, and the rest was history. The couple was engaged 6 months later and were married in 2007.

In 2008 Fleming served her articles of clerkship, initially at a small law firm and later at the Wits Law Clinic. Having completed her articles, Fleming took up a position in the University’s Legal Office. During this time, she was deeply involved in various strategic projects, policy review processes, and contract negotiation and drafting. Under the leadership of the then Director of Legal Services, she was responsible for the Student Discipline portfolio.

In between, she progressed professionally and academically. In January 2011 she was admitted as an attorney of the High Court of South Africa, obtained a postgraduate Diploma in Law at Wits in 2017, and a Masters of Law degree with distinction in 2021. Her thesis focused on employers’ responses to alcoholism in the workplace. This topic was close to her heart having had a father who battled with alcoholism until his death and speaks to some of the challenges at the workplace.

The mother of two, openly shares that each phase of her life has made her more “resilient”.

She is currently reading for her PhD and is excited about the progress thus far. Milestones to-date include writing an academic article and presenting at a conference about her research -  which are just a few of the requirements to complete the degree.

The mother of two admits that balance is hard but relies on her family for support. As a mother to a child on the autism spectrum, she is also learning every day to be present but admits to sometimes feeling ill-prepared for the highs and lows of having a child with special needs.

Learning through Internal Stakeholders

The Wits workforce includes more than 6000 employees thus it is essential to maintain healthy horizontal relationships between colleagues as well as vertical relationships between supervisors/managers and their subordinates. This is crucial for the University’s operations and the success of students and the university’s strategic goals.

Employee Relations, as an HR function, reports to the Senior Director of Human Resources. Their core responsibilities include policy development and the revision thereof, staff engagement and advocacy around policies within their ambit; wage negotiations, conflict resolution, staff discipline, and processes related to operational requirements and incapacity.

Her team, in consultation with organised labour recently revised the University’s Disciplinary Code and Procedure, a document that had become outdated over time. The new Code sets the University’s disciplinary processes out in greater detail, making them easier to understand.

An internationally accredited mediator, Fleming’s team consists of three employee relations practitioners, one of them a Senior ER Advisor, and an administrator.

With a dynamic, knowledgeable, and solid team behind her and close relations with HR divisions such as the Transformation and Employment Equity Office, the Remuneration and Benefits Office and the Human Resources and Development Unit, Fleming believes her office is a fair and impartial player at the University. The office’s own internal moral compass is to be fair in all aspects of their work and to ensure that they keep the best interests of the University and its community at heart.

“We draw comfort knowing that we're always, always, always trying to do the right thing. We're not ever trying to do something that is underhanded or unlawful,” she says.

While her job can be incredibly challenging on a professional and personal level, Fleming emphasises that the bona fides of her and her team helps her sleep better at night. Fleming further states that the strength of the office comes from knowing that the University has an excellent Senior Executive Team and robust governance structures that ensure the University stays on track.

Her vision is to continue to improve labour relations at the University through continued engagement, training, and awareness at all levels. “Working at the University is truly an honour, and I hope to continue to do my alma mater proud,” she concludes.