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Enhancing a Valuable Asset: Positives of Thoughtful Staff Management

Institutional Culture Leadership and Management

Enhancing a Valuable Asset: Positives of Thoughtful Staff Management

Formal reports and general discussions within the academy about department or school productivity focus almost exclusively on the work of the faculty. This accounts for the attention now being paid to the chairs’ evaluations of faculty that target strategies designed to maintain high performance and, in some cases, to drive improvement. While it is difficult to argue that this approach is inappropriate, ask almost any chair how their department would fare without the support provided by their staff, and they will admit that virtually every aspect of the operation would be negatively impacted if they had less talented and motivated staff. Yet, in many departments, staff are not regularly evaluated at a depth comparable to faculty, if at all, and are rarely the recipients of opportunities to enhance and expand their skills.

Our different colleges have differing faculty-to-staff ratios and staff with varying levels of expertise. For example, a small undergraduate-only college may have departments with a faculty-to-staff ratio of 10 to 1 or higher. In some instances, a single staff member may be shared by two small departments. In both cases, the individual must perform multiple tasks including placing orders through purchasing, appointing adjuncts, filing travel reimbursements, fielding phone calls, greeting visitors, setting appointments, and so on. In larger institutions where research and graduate programming are prominent, faculty-to-staff ratios can be 1 to 1 or lower. The tasks at the small institution done by a single person are now accomplished by several individuals. In addition, there are graduate and undergraduate advisors; graduate admissions personnel; preaward and postaward grant personnel; development officers; IT personnel; outreach coordinators; and specialized technical help in science and engineering fields to maintain instrumentation, prep teaching labs, operate facilities such as animal rooms, core labs, greenhouses, fabrication labs, and collections; plus some more exotic staff such as instructional design experts, glass blowers, and carpenters. It is not difficult to imagine the chaos, productivity losses, and frustration that would take place if any one of most of these functions were done poorly.

Let us now return to the notion of staff evaluation (or management) in the context of the large, complex research university. Clearly, the chair could not and should not attempt to evaluate all the staff. In cases where there is a hierarchy of function among clusters of staff (e.g., a senior or chief accountant and several junior accountants), those at the higher end would evaluate the others. In other cases, faculty would perform this function. For example, the director of undergraduate studies would evaluate the undergraduate advisors while the director of graduate programs would evaluate the graduate advisors and those who work in the graduate admissions office. Delegation can work in these cases, but true equity in the process is achieved only when the evaluators develop comparable criteria, use the same evaluative language, and meet as a group to discuss the particulars of each case. Finally, there is the issue of chairs and their delegates in reviewing the work of those with high school diplomas to PhDs and in widely varying and non-disciplinary fields. For example, the chair of chemistry evaluates faculty on teaching, research, and service—but how does he or she formatively evaluate someone with an MBA (the senior accountant) and IT staff, all of whom have far more expertise in their areas than the chair? Perhaps this is one reason why in-depth reviews of staff performance are often “forgotten.”

The overall goals of effective staff performance management include gathering data for promotion consideration and for merit pay. However, these administrative goals are overshadowed in importance by goals that are developmental and promote relationship building. Chairs and other supervisors will have the opportunity to provide feedback that reinforces, guides, and motivates future behavior. Development can be further enhanced by support for additional training or encouragement for new activities. By demonstrating genuine commitment in ensuring that individual staff have the opportunity for personal and professional growth through these developmental efforts, the supervisor can energize the staff member and establish long-term loyalty. Finally, regular face-to-face communication on job performance can contribute to building a high-trust relationship.

Effective performance management can lead to personal development and improvement in performance. It provides the opportunity to identify changes needed in the job description. It may also lead to identifying and acknowledging staff contributions that were previously overlooked, allowing the supervisor to identify individual aspirations and perhaps discover new talents from which the department may benefit. In situations where resources are scarce, it is an opportunity to express appreciation and provide recognition for the important work that the staff contribute to the mission of the department.

There are several criteria one could use to assess the effectiveness of the assessment process. Certainly, accurate assessment of performance is critical for effective performance management. Another important outcome of the process is the use of feedback to improve performance and develop employees. Even if the feedback generated is accurate, the process itself cannot be deemed successful if feedback is not accepted and applied to behavior. Thus, an often overlooked criterion for appraisal process success is appraisal reactions—namely perceptions of fairness and satisfaction. Research suggests that if employees believe that the process was fairly conducted, and they are satisfied with it, they are more likely to heed the feedback and use it to adjust or enhance behavior. The five-step process outlined below provides suggestions for a process that will generate positive reactions from staff.

Rather than a single event, chairs and other supervisors are encouraged to think of this as an ongoing process. This process best occurs when both parties are active and take responsibility in each step of the performance management cycle. Each step describes a specific event or set of behaviors that should occur; however, an assumption of this model is that performance feedback is shared by the parties throughout the process. Although the final step is a formal summary of performance over the year, feedback should be provided to employees continuously throughout the year.

The first step is to clearly establish the job responsibilities; this requires that both parties share information, ask questions, and seek clarity at the beginning of the performance cycle and throughout the year.

In the second step, both parties need to calibrate and establish a common frame of reference for the behavioral expectations that underlie the job responsibilities. For instance, the department’s fiscal officer might have budget reports as one job responsibility. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to express behaviorally what it means to meet expectations for that duty. The behavioral expectation may include a statement of frequency of delivered reports (i.e., quarterly reports) and include a statement about the quality/accuracy of the reports (i.e., reports are generated with few if any mistakes). Developing criteria and standards that are clearly understood will allow individuals to more effectively self-regulate behavior to meet those goals.

The third step in the cycle is to monitor and collect performance indicators. Again, both parties are responsible for routinely assessing performance against the goals and cataloguing examples of success and/or failure to meet goals. This is especially important for staff positions where the outcomes of the work are not readily seen by the supervisor (e.g., number of IT issues addressed by an IT team). In these situations, we encourage supervisors to collect performance feedback or evidence from others that staff members may work with. For instance, your fiscal officer may work directly with a campus office that may be able to provide meaningful feedback about the staff member’s performance. The point here is that a fuller conversation about performance over the year can only happen if the supervisor has evidence of behavior across the year.

The fourth step is to evaluate performance prior to the interview. It is recommended that both the supervisor and the employee individually complete a performance assessment form. This encourages the employees to spend time thinking about their performance and preparing for the interview. It also provides the employee the opportunity to have some voice in the process. Research strongly supports the importance of voice for ensuring perceptions of procedural justice and fair treatment. Finally, if the supervisor see the self-assessment before the interview, they can preidentify areas of agreement or disagreement.

The final step is the interview, which often generates anxiety for both parties. However, if the steps above have been followed, and both parties have actively communicated throughout the year, the anxiety should be mitigated to a great degree. However, supervisors should consider these suggestions before the meeting:

  • Both supervisors and staff should prepare for and formulate their goals for the meeting.
  • The supervisor should ensure that there is ample, uninterrupted time for the meeting.
  • Start with the self-assessment. Through active listening, the chair/supervisor may gain information that could adjust perceptions and create avenues for follow-up questions.
  • Make sure that feedback focuses on specific examples and behaviors. Using generalities or focusing on personal characteristics is counterproductive and raises defensiveness.
  • The supervisor should be prepared to offer developmental support for high-performing staff as well as appropriate support for those needing improvement.
  • It is important that the supervisor maintain emotional equilibrium.

Staff in our academic departments are professionals, and treating them as such, including providing them with thorough, fair performance reviews along with help in improving or expanding skills, can boost morale and may enhance department productivity.

Jane Williams is associate dean for academic affairs and strategic initiatives, associate professor, and former interim chair of psychology at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis.


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