Southampton UCU Rotating Header Image

Appraisal

Taking the PIP? Some concerns about appraisal, line management and performance improvement plans

We have had several requests for help from members related to distressing or difficult appraisal conversations, the use of Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) and, sadly the return of ‘protected conversations’ where staff are encouraged to leave the University. We are especially concerned to hear that PIPs are being very badly used in some areas.

PIPs have received some very bad press:

If your boss really wanted to improve your performance, he or she would sit down with you and talk to you like a friend or a coach. They’d say, “Something is getting in your way on the job. Let’s figure it out! You are awesome and I know we can work through this.

Although a Pip is often presented as a tool to assist you in your performance, you should be under no illusions about its secondary purpose. If you don’t improve, it will give your employer evidence that they have followed correct procedure, otherwise they may be at risk of a claim for unfair dismissal.

Sadly it seems that sometimes PIPs are being introduced here in these very negative and damaging ways. We remind members that all staff at level 4 and above have additional employment protections and rights under our Statutes and Ordinances. Ordinance 3.6 referring to capability says that informal action may be taken to make staff aware of standards expected, and agree a way forward – “including supervision counselling or mentoring, It may include reviewing duties and responsibilities etc”. Importantly this should also include the provision of appropriate training or development opportunities.

It is our understanding that PIPs are being used as the informal stage of the capability procedure. Unfortunately in some areas, we know that these are being introduced in appraisal conversations in ways that members find unhelpful and distressing. Sometimes the appraisal is the first time a member of staff is alerted to a problem with their work or behaviour – this should not happen. We are clear that appraisal and capability procedures need to be kept separate (i.e appraisal must not be used as the informal part of the capability process). Moreover, good management is predicated on regular meetings and conversations, not a once a year form filling exercise, and managers should therefore be supporting their staff all year round.

PIPs, like appraisal, should not be a negative experience. Used well, a PIP may be a helpful part of a positive managerial relationship and can provide structure and support. But, if your manager genuinely wants your performance to improve, they should provide you with support to achieve the improvements. They should agree SMART objectives and a realistic timeframe. Managers should help you to identify a mentor and development opportunities to directly address the objectives within the PIP. The PIP should not interfere with your annual appraisal (for example being on a PIP should not mean that the staff member automatically scores as ‘unsatisfactory’ against their individual or global objectives).

Tips for engaging with PIPs
1. Is the assessment of performance correct? What is the evidence of poor behaviour or performance?
2. Is the PIP a well-structured plan for addressing problems? Are there SMART objectives (e.g. to draft a paper, submit a grant, to address a behaviour in meetings, but NOT actions that are outside the control of the individual e.g. to publish in a 4* journal, to win a grant of a pre-specified value).  We encourage members to note what is said in the meeting and document any conversations that you have with your line manager or HR about your PIP.  If you disagree with the objectives or comments you should raise your concerns with your line manager in writing.
3. Make sure you get proper training and the support to succeed – this may include workload reallocation, dedicated time, formal training, counselling, coaching and/or supervision.
4. Above all, ensure that a reasonable time frame is set to address the issues identified.

And for managers

5. Carefully check if there are personal or health issues that may be affecting the employee’s performance – managers need training in dealing with mental health and stress themselves and for the team members.

6. Seek guidance and support too – HR should review the plan with a focus on removing any bias against the employee. Managers need to be aware of gender and racial bias and how this can affect their interactions with staff. Insecure managers may feel threatened by some employees and PIPs should not be used in these situations.

7. Take care to inform the staff member that the PIP could lead to formal capability processes which in turn could lead to dismissal.  If you can, tell them how you plan to help them avoid this outcome.

Your branch casework team will review the current cases we have related to appraisal and PIPs and take our collective concerns to the senior management. If you are experiencing difficulties please contact Amanda.

Appraisal guidance – a welcome pause

On behalf of members we have raised several concerns about new appraisal guidance and performance expectations documents that have been appearing in different Faculties and Services. Members and reps in Arts and Humanities recently had a very constructive meeting with their Deanery team and reached agreement that the guidance document issued recently is to be considered ‘paused’ at present. We are looking forward to further discussions with senior managers across the University about improving how we appraise, support and develop staff.

As a reminder, UCU recently got senior managers to confirm that Weekend open day/visit work by level 4 and above staff is voluntary and should not be set as a performance expectation. We continue to push back on other unreasonable expectations creeping into appraisal processes. We also note your continued concerns about excessive workloads for academic and academic-related professional staff and we are delighted to announce that we have recently trained our first group of Health and Safety Workload reps. These new reps will be focussing on using the support offered by H&S legislation and the collective power of our union to address workplace stress and work overload. This work is part of the national campaign on workloads, and more details of our involvement in this can be found here.

Groundhog Day 2019 – Appraisal revisited

The University’s Appraisal policy for levels 4 and above was jointly agreed between UCU and the University of Southampton following the lengthy negotiations undertaken as part of the Reward Project.

Following the fiasco of the DAP (Development and Performance) proposals, based on the discredited General Electric or McKinsey 9 matrix, we pushed hard for a new appraisal process with core guiding principles and a developmental focus.

In recent weeks we have received copies of different local Faculty-specific guidance documents that appear to contravene the agreements and which potentially breach other agreed University policies, legislation and contractual arrangements.

We have been working with senior management representatives from HR to try to resolve the most pressing concerns about these changes to appraisal. Members will have seen we have had some welcome success clarifying that staff attendance at Open and Visit Days is voluntary and therefore should not be listed as a compulsory target in appraisal documents.

One of our concerns is with the inclusion of highly problematic metrics and performance targets in appraisal process. These include but are not limited to:

Use of Module Evaluation Questionnaire (MEQ) and NSS 

One guidance document supplied to UCU sets out a target MEQ score of at least 4 in all areas, and an expectations that staff ensure a student completion rate of at least 50%. We wonder how this is to be achieved? Locking students in a lecture theatre until they complete the MEQ perhaps?

There is a wealth of evidence of gender and racial biases in these kinds of student evaluations e.g. research shows that students consistently score women lower than men. Given this the use of these scores in appraisal presents a clear risk of indirect discrimination in contravention of the University’s own equality and diversity policies, training (section 1.3 of the University of Southampton’s EDI briefing), and the law.

Moreover, it is well-recognised that MEQs are not a measure teaching quality. The link between teaching effectiveness and high evaluation scores is weak, and reliance on these can have undesirable negative consequences (e.g. grade inflation, and even rewarding bad teaching). In addition, those responsible for teaching know that an unintended consequence of such targets is to discourage staff from teaching ‘difficult’ or compulsory models (there goes Statistics 101 for all but the Statistics undergrads).

If you need more evidence, our colleagues in the UCU branch at Essex provide further detail in their report on why MEQs are unreliable. The bottom line is that any University that values and respects academic research should not uncritically use these measures.

Several guidance documents reference the use of NSS scores as performance measures, despite the fact that the causal link between the input of an individual staff member and the NSS scores cannot be established or verified. And again the spectre of ‘improving completion rates’ reappears. How is this to be ensured – bribery with meals ? Don’t laugh; we know one Faculty that gave out chocolate bunnies.

Inappropriate use of REF benchmarking scores

And just when we thought it was safe to go out again, the REF has returned to blight our lives. Some Faculties are setting targets that require the publication of REF returnable 3* and 4* publications, others the production of the same. Once again we have been forced to remind senior managers that :
i) While the production of publications is within the control of individual staff, their publication is not.
ii) The peer-review process that generates indicative and actual REF scores is known to be unreliable.
iii) No feedback loop exists to inform departments how individual publications were graded in any REF exercise, thus judgements about ‘REF-ability’ are ultimately speculative.
iv) In the last REF, the level of agreement between the internal ratings of submissions and those awarded by the panels was far from perfect.

Problematic performance targets and recognition of leadership roles

The documents in circulation create a range of problems with the assessment of so called leadership roles. What ‘counts’ as leadership is highly variable – mentoring is identified as an example of evidence of leadership in one document but not all. A more fundamental problem though is that not all roles and committee memberships are fairly and transparently allocated – we know for example that women staff are disproportionately represented in roles that relate to education and pastoral care, but Senior Tutor roles for example are seldom listed or considered as equivalent to other leadership positions.

In addition to the metrics and targets noted above, we are aware that senior managers are cascading income generation targets to individual members of staff. These too have been highlighted as a source of work stress [paywall] and may run counter to collaborative and innovative research.

We raised these serious concerns with senior management at our JNC last year and wrote a follow up letter to all the Deans and HR. Sadly we received only one response from a Dean (thank you Professor Mills) but we did get a response from the Employee Engagement team in HR. To date we have had one positive meeting with this team and we are hopeful that we will make progress this year. We did however get a ‘no’ to our request that the Faculty-specific appraisal guidance documents in circulation should be withdrawn pending these discussions with UCU. So our advice to all our members as we enter the appraisal ‘window’ for this year is to keep letting us know about problems you encounter with the appraisal process, and we will keep pushing management to ensure a positive, non-discriminatory and developmental appraisal process.