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Human Resources

Employee Evaluations

Recognizing and rewarding top faculty and staff performers
University Business, May 2012

How much are your employees worth? The struggling economy has prompted many institutions to make serious changes in how staff and faculty are evaluated. While politicians claim education is the key to attracting quality jobs, millions of dollars have been slashed from higher education appropriations. Every budget dollar spent must be justified more than ever. Campus leaders have begun scrutinizing employee performance, and at some institutions uniform salary increases have been replaced with thorough evaluations that link pay to job performance.

Historically, it wasn’t uncommon for evaluations to be so generic that people paid little attention to them. But with everyone from deans to secretaries performing multiple jobs that require critical skills, that’s no longer the case.

“There’s really a movement toward the adoption of much more rigorous evaluations of faculty and staff,” says Tom Flannery, a partner at Mercer, a global HR consulting firm whose clients include colleges and universities. “They’re differentiating between high, average, and low performers and taking corresponding action, both in terms of pay and employment.” Flannery says HR needs to:

  • Develop consistent standards and a uniform process for conducting evaluations. Department A can’t be easy on employees while Department B applies a stricter set of standards. “It doesn’t work out in the end because Departments A and B [need] to justify their continued existence,” says Flannery. “They have to come to an agreement about the standards they’re using.”
  • Require evaluations to be performed on a timely basis. Besides conducting annual evaluations, supervisors need to enforce daily behaviors that reflect the school’s mission, goals, and core values.
  • Establish direct relationships between employee output or performance and the department’s contributions. “We’re in a redistribution [of wealth] environment,” he says. “You’ve got to defend why you’re as valuable as you say you are.”

What’s often missing is talent management. Managers need to identify career ladders for staff and create succession plans, which could improve employee productivity. Meanwhile, Flannery says, HR must be absolutely clear regarding the school’s mission in terms of teaching, researching, and public service, and integrate those goals and core values into the organization’s culture.
“Misalignment is where organizations get into trouble,” he notes, adding that managers must be objective when evaluating employees. “If [employees] are underperforming, move them out. If they’re performing [very well], pay them more.”

Three Schools, Three Approaches

An evalution process that works for one school may not work for another, due to such factors as leadership or culture. Consider how the following universities changed their evaluations to encourage, identify, and reward peak performance.

  • University of Puget Sound (Wash.)

This institution’s faculty evaluation process makes it stand apart. The school’s estimated 230 faculty prepare a 20- to 30-page reflective statement during their review period, which is every three years for assistant and associate professors, and every five years for full professors, explains Academic Vice President and Dean Kris Bartanen. The statement includes an overview of their teaching philosophy, a reflection of courses they’re teaching, and a response to any patterns revealed by student evaluations. Course materials, copies of student evaluations, and scholarly or creative works are also part of the evaluation packet.

What’s especially interesting is that department colleagues visit each other’s classrooms, conduct performance evaluations, then discuss their appraisals with remaining department staff, offering formative feedback and a department summary letter. The information is forwarded to the school’s Faculty Advancement Committee (FAC)—composed of Bartanen and five tenured faculty members—for review.

“Not all colleges have post-tenure review,” says Bartanen, explaining that colleagues at other schools typically express surprise that the performance of the university’s tenured faculty is routinely evaluated. Although rare, she says the school’s faculty code contains provisions that faculty members receiving a second unsatisfactory review can be terminated.

While no process is perfect, she says the approach has produced teacher scholars, strong retention, and a tremendous amount of collaboration within and across schools within the university. She says faculty go about their work in collaborative ways instead of comparing notes on whether someone else’s piece of the pie is smaller or bigger.

“The evaluation process provides feedback early on so if someone sees this isn’t the place for them, they get a good signal about that and that’s fair,” says Bartanen. “If the process is clear and ongoing, that deep investment really brings significant, positive results for students, and that’s what we’re here for.”

  • McMurry University (Texas)

Like at many institutions, employee salaries at McMurry have remained flat since 2008, when the economy began its downward spiral. Back then, the university’s president sent an email to all staff stating, “We’re not looking for excuses to get rid of people, we’re looking for reasons to keep people,” recalls Lecia Hughes, director of HR at the institution, which supports 265 employees and faculty. “That totally shifted the mindset [of employees]. ... His message was that we’re not in a position to offer salary increases or give raises, but we’re not letting anybody go, either.”

During a time when everybody was being asked to assume more tasks, HR began revamping its lengthy evaluation process for nonfaculty, turning it more into a conversation between supervisors and employees. The former evaluation process was cumbersome, shares Hughes. It required employees to identify not only their job responsibilities and established department standards for accomplishing those tasks, but also offer examples of how they’re meeting those standards.

As did former evaluations, the new process identifies areas that employees excel in and areas needing improvement. The difference now is that employees are also being asked how the school can help them better perform their jobs. Training was among their top responses. So far, the school has implemented a leadership development series for supervisors and Microsoft Outlook training for clerical support staff.

“We’re trying to take performance evaluation from, ‘These are all the things you’re not doing well,’ to where they take ownership of their performance,” Hughes says. “If we’re not talking to our employees about how their job duties are changing and how they’re reacting to those changes, then we’ve got jobs that aren’t getting done. We’ve got to have that engagement, that two-way street conversation to make sure we’re getting the best product out of our people.”

  • The University of Toledo (Ohio)

In the past, the university didn’t link employee evaluations to employee salaries. Employee evaluations were generic. Job descriptions and goals were reviewed. Supervisors offered suggestions for goal attainment and rated employees either satisfactory or not. Employees wrote a self-evaluation. Supervisors signed off on the evaluation. But it’s all changing, says Kevin West, the senior HR officer who co-leads UT’s HR and talent development department.

“As HR looked across the institution at these evaluations, one of the things we found was there was not much disparity,” says West, adding that the school employs 7,000 staff and faculty on its three campuses, including its teaching hospital, Toledo Medical Center. “Managers and supervisors were spreading the peanut butter equally. Everybody was real vanilla. Everybody was the same.”

Since only serious job deficiencies surfaced in evaluations, HR introduced a way to distinguish between people’s job performance. Employees would be rated in five areas, referred to as pillars: Core responsibility; nimble and responsive; customer service excellence; professionalism and respect; and communication effectiveness. Supervisors would provide a detailed narrative about why any employee was rated high. And, if most of  the staff in a department got a similar rating, HR would send back the evaluations to be redone.

Reductions in state funding prevented UT from handing out across-the-board raises or cost-of-living allowances, so HR developed a rewards and recognition program that was tied to employee evaluations. Managers who wanted specific employees to be rewarded or recognized ensured their evaluations were detailed and accurate. Employees with high ratings received a one-time bonus, reflecting 4- to 7-percent of their salary.  Those with low scores received a bonus that was less than 1 percent of their salary.

Meanwhile, HR is focusing on different ways to solicit feedback regarding employee performance from other sources, such as students and hospital patients. For example, maybe patients can complete a survey about their hospital experience. Their response about a nurse’s or admissions clerk’s customer service efforts would then become part of their personnel file and available to their supervisor during the evaluation process.

“The trap that HR falls into is that you’ve got a process you thought worked and was utilized by every unit,” West says. “But the process got stale. Sometimes supervisors need something new and exciting, a way to highlight great employees.”
Do your evaluations differentiate between good and mediocre employees? Or, does everyone get the same raise regardless of performance? If the latter, maybe it’s time for a change.