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Human Resources

Reducing anxiety with enhanced higher ed performance reviews

Coaching and considering career goals led to more productive feedback
University Business, July 2018

Annual performance reviews are shunned for good reason. Your boss tells you everything you did right—but mostly wrong—over the past year, subjectively rates your performance, and then identifies areas you need to improve. Many higher education institutions question the wisdom of this antiquated approach and are exploring alternatives.

Some are abandoning ratings while others are training managers to conduct frequent coaching conversations with staff. Regardless of the technique, these new procedures no longer make employees anxious but rather deliver feedback that leverages their talent to help them and their employer achieve key goals.

Managers become coaches

The University of Notre Dame has been redesigning its performance management process, says Tammy Freeman, director of HR services at the school that employs approximately 6,500 faculty and staff. Instead of goal-setting, ratings and mid- and end-of-year reviews, all managers learn how to coach their employees to a higher performance.

So far, about one-third of the managers have completed the workshop.

HR also plans to launch an individual contributor workshop that teaches employees how to coach each other and maximize feedback and opportunities. “We’re trying to make coaching a daily interaction,” Freeman says.

The school is piloting SumTotal, a software program that encourages feedback among all employees via online conversations that can also be documented. “We thought we had to fix the performance process, but realized that if we didn’t fix the conversations going on, the process wouldn’t matter.”

Community contributions

At other schools, post-tenure faculty reviews have a more holistic approach. During these reviews, the University of Denver now focuses on its community contributions, says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Although post-tenure faculty tend to be less active when it comes to, for example, research or writing peer-reviewed articles, they’re not being penalized, she says. Instead, reviews now focus on their life experiences outside the classroom.

Maybe they helped push through important legislation or they conducted public lectures on end-of-life issues or access to higher education.

“It’s a shift in the culture around the purpose of assessment and evaluation,” Pasquerella says. “There’s an attempt to look at new models for performance improvement as opposed to a punitive approach for performance evaluation.”

Forms launch dialogue

Three years ago, Cameron Keel, staff evaluation coordinator at Austin Community College District in Texas, realized that the system’s annual performance review process wasn’t meeting the expectations of the school’s 5,000 administrators, faculty and employees. Keel says annual reviews still offer value, but they’re not enough.

“We’re looking to supplement reviews with increased communication, greater alignment with the college and more connection to the system we already have,” Keel says.

In March, HR began piloting a form in its own department that asked employees to identify:

  • what they need help with
  • their strengths and weaknesses
  • roadblocks they experience
  • their successes
  • what support they need to accomplish their goals

If successful, HR may expand the idea and introduce forms on topics ranging from careers to goal-setting so employees and supervisors can engage in frequent “touch points,” Keel says.

Developing these opportunities sends a clear message that you want employees to succeed and maximize their value to their team or organization. Now who would object to that? 


Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.