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Warped appraisal process – what went wrong?

It’s just not getting better, is it?

We were informed – by a written response, distributed at the close of our last JNC meeting – that there are no problems with the current appraisal process, if there are then they are not within the gift of HR or management to solve. It’s not their problem if managers are distorting the process because they haven’t been trained and are not being held to account – because they didn’t intend for the process to be problematic.

Members of Southampton UCU are increasingly seeking UCU support over problems encountered with the way appraisals are being done at this University. UCU executive members are despairing at what appraisal has become, not least because so many of us were involved in over two years’ effort in the so-called Reward project designed to create a new appraisal system we thought would benefit colleagues. Increasingly it seems that appraisal has warped into a device to attack and punish staff, rather than support them. In some areas of the University there appears to be an “appraisal is about performance only” agenda and the annual appraisal meetings are simply being used as part of a disciplinary and capability process. We are asking members to contact us with their concerns about recent appraisals, but below we highlight three of the reoccurring problems we have already identified.

Setting objectives for the coming year

The process of setting objectives for the coming year is meant to happen AFTER the submission of the retrospective appraisal and ownership of this should always be in the hands to the appraisee. The setting of objectives should be focussed on personal and career development and growth and should not be a list of “all the things your manager needs you to do next year.” Objectives need to be realistic and within the control of the appraisee (which is why “winning the Nobel Peace Prize” cannot be an objective but “making a submission to a panel by the deadline” might be). Objectives may be adapted over the year – subject to changes in workplans and circumstances, and they can be “stretching” with the caveat noted above that they must be within the control of the individual – for example, I can write a research bid for a prestigious funder, but I do not control whether it is funded. I can institute administrative processes or create new systems that aim to improve some part of the students’ experience of learning, but I cannot make all students get a first class degree or tick the excellent box in the NSS.

Ratings and moderation

We have written about this before, but we are really very concerned about the ways in which numerical scoring of performance is being used.  All the way through the negotiations about appraisal UCU were clear that telling people they had done a great job (when they had done so) absolutely has a place in appraisal.  We were also very happy that the appraiser could confirm that a staff member has “met expectations,” being clear that this was an acceptable outcome because no-one should be expected to exceed expectations on everything all the time.

The place for discussions of underperformance was not appraisal. This clearly falls into the capability and disciplinary processes designed to offer staff development and support opportunities to improve. Clearly appraisal can be a place where the barriers to achieving an objective can be discussed: for example, the module did not run so I could not deliver the new curriculum we planned; the IT system could not be configured to support the new process we envisaged. Under such circumstances, objectives can legitimately be ignored or adapted.  But appraisal is not the forum in which to inform someone that they will be disciplined, or to begin formal disciplinary documentation. Sadly it is clear that some managers a misusing the process in exactly this way.

Readers of the blog will know that Southampton UCU objects vehemently to the use of numerical appraisal scores and bell-curve moderation of these.  We now suspect that the use of these scores is being encouraged as a silent redundancy policy. We suggest that every score of 1 or 2 given this year will be used to push capability/severance processes, further “protected conversations” and removal of frontline staff. We are asking you to tell us if you see appraisal being used in these ways. And if members are asked to discuss “under-performance” or have protected conversations please don’t attend these without seeking advice from your branch.

Training for appraisal (or the lack of it)

Since the demise of ILIaD Southampton UCU has been concerned about the lack of development and training for all staff.  We understand that the new CHEP (Centre for Higher Education Practice) finally has a director and will be developing resources and training opportunities over the coming year. Training for appraisal falls under the remit of HR and much of this has been reduced to online training. Training for managers in “difficult conversations” (redundancy?) continues to be offered but we are sad that the innovative Appraisal Skills Workshop using Forum Theatre techniques to focus on the skills and behaviours in appraisal discussions has been dropped.  We know that members had mixed responses to this training – not least because it was initially poorly advertised as training for using the new system rather than developing skills in mentoring and developmental conversations. Nonetheless many appraisers and appraises said they welcomed this learning which explored techniques in listening, questioning, coaching and objective setting to ensure a positive outcome for both the appraiser and appraisee. We are aware that many forward thinking employers have woken up to the importance of positive conversations and the ways that these can be used to support staff and organisational goals. It seems a real shame that University of Southampton management and HR do not seem to be using these resources and evidence to get the best from our staff.

For us here in UCU a positive appraisal process – as part of a regular interaction between managers and teams is vital. This is an area in which the University senior management could improve, by listening to staff concerns about where appraisals are not working well, and by re-focussing on a genuinely developmental process. A good appraisal is an opportunity to celebrate success, to reaffirm values and wellbeing, and to plan for the coming year. Let’s make it work as intended.

 

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