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Academic pay and reward

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.

 

All Level 4-6 members: Check your final 2016 moderated Appraisal score!

Recently, casework revealed an Academic Unit had not told colleagues last year’s final moderated Appraisal rating scores. Members only discovered their final scores when preparing for this year’s appraisal. It appears these scores were only confirmed sometime after the Christmas break.

It’s hard to quantify the damage to morale this causes. Colleagues, who believe they have been identified by their peers as a 4/5 and gone forward into 2017, now discover they have been moderated down. Explanations that a 3 is the norm do not help to combat the sense of disappointment, or future disengagement from the process. This moderation may be carried out by senior staff far removed from the individual being appraised, and is explicitly not intended to produce an accurate reflection of individual performance (see para. 4 here [intranet link]).

Please, check your final appraisal contribution score, and if it has changed let the branch know. If you wish, we can support you to pursue why the change was not communicated to you, and to ask for the feedback you should have received.

There is no appeal process to a moderated score, however, failure to inform is a breach of the guidance:

It is of utmost importance that the direct line manager is  involved in the process of communication to the individual, and remains fully engaged in the process.

All final, moderated appraisal ratings must be communicated to appraisees and entered in the online appraisal form by line management in a timely manner [Not by HR; however, line managers are not able to do this in the current system]

Both of these actions should take place in a timely manner, and the reasons for any altered appraisal ratings should be explained in person to the appraisee, along with appropriate feedback.

The Reward project was held up as an example of UCU/UOS collaboration. We know numerous academic, non-academic and HR colleagues worked hard to try and create an appraisal process that was aimed at securing higher levels of employee engagement as a key tool in the University’s pursuit of ‘operational excellence’.

The local branch continues to lobby senior management over breaches to the negotiated appraisal process for L7 and level  4-6 staff. At our meeting with HR heads in October 2017 we asked again for the contribution score methodology, the benchmarking of scores (including the measuring of faculties and directorates against each other – see para. 4 here [intranet link] again), and the associated moderation process to be removed.

We feel that the appraisal process has changed from the one we negotiated; we wanted appraisal to support staff with an honest conversation with no surprises.  Instead staff are reduced to numerical score and submitted to an opaque moderation process. This final failure to even inform staff of the number confirms that appraisal currently is only about providing metrics for performance.

Anne-Marie Sitton, the recently confirmed Executive Director of Human Resources, promised at the October 2017 meeting to take our concerns and suggestions to UEB.  No outcome has been passed back to us.

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it  – our problem(s) with senior management at University of Southampton

We recently posted the ‘correspondence’ between your recognised trades union and the VC/President regarding the upcoming dispute on pensions on this blog. It will be clear to members that the VC is no longer in responsive mode, as least as regards UCU; we have received one-line acknowledgments to all our recent emails.  The VC also has access to the medium of SUSSED and all staff email lists where he has chosen to criticise individual members of UCU, and most recently to provide  a very particular view of the position regarding the USS pension situation.

This does not feel like meaningful dialogue.

In the run up to strike action it is common for the respective sides to become ever more polarised, and we are not hopeful that communication between senior managers and UCU will improve in the coming weeks. We are about to withdraw our labour, following an overwhelming vote by UCU members, signalling that they will not accept cuts to their pensions. Understandably much of the attention, in emails from the branch and from UCU headquarters, has been on the pension dispute and the coming strike action.  But the pension is not the only area of concern for members of Southampton UCU. Locally we continue to represent our members on a number of other issues, not least of which is the proposed restructuring of the University and cuts to staff.  On these other local issues the senior management appears unwilling to engage in meaningful communication.

UCU wants to talk with senior managers about what they are doing. Below we list just five of the pressing local issues that we’d like to discuss properly with our senior management: the University restructure; staff cuts; appraisal; casualisation; and equal pay.

1. Restructuring the University

 To be clear, UCU members don’t necessarily have a problem with restructuring, but we remain deeply unconvinced that reconfiguring to five instead of eight Faculties is the best way forward. Staff and students here are already suffering the ill effects of ten years’ poorly managed organisational change – the INEX project, Transition, the move from three to eight Faculties, the Pay and Reward review are just a few of the large-scale changes we have endured in recent years. Staff numbers have been cut, teams formed and reformed, people moved in and out of Faculties, with little or no thought to organisational culture, wellbeing, or morale.

Successive staff surveys have revealed low trust in senior management and deep concern at their failures to listen to staff, and yet we are about to embark on yet another top-down major organisational reconfiguration. Staff and students need to be supported and listened to before and during significant change. Genuine engagement with staff requires meaningful negotiation and consultation with recognised trades unions, and strong organisational development support – both missing in the early stages of this restructuring. The recent announcement that Mathematics will remain as a single academic unit and not be split into two different Faculties is a small step in the right direction, but this came rather late in the process and only after sustained lobbying.

2. Staff cuts and saving money 

Again, UCU is prepared to listen to arguments about cutting staff.  Of course, we must take a hard line against the threat of compulsory redundancies, and we have been angered by the so-called protected conversations with targeted individual staff, pressuring some to leave the University.  But when the voluntary severance scheme was announced, we asked if it could be opened up beyond the six publicly identified areas, not least because this appeared more likely to achieve cost savings and would have spread the losses, thereby reducing negative impacts on education and research. The University Executive said no to this.

Moreover, whilst imposing cuts to academic, administrative, and support staff to save money, the senior leadership of the University have studiously ignored widespread commentary on senior staff salaries. So we are cutting staff after a bumper year when the University spent approx £700,000, paying off the outgoing VC and making our incoming VC one of the highest paid University leaders in the country.  Little wonder that former education minister, Andrew Adonis, singled out these pay packages for criticism, but the University accounts also show that the salaries and benefits for 15.2 members of the top tier (‘key management personnel’) totalled £3.723m (ave. £245K each) in 2016-2017. Perhaps if Southampton wanted to take a consistent approach,  while we are cutting student-facing staff to save money we could consider a little prudence at the top end of the salary scale.

3. Misuse of appraisal

UCU is becoming increasingly disturbed by the misuse of appraisal and the introduction of increasingly draconian performance review measures. Our current case work includes examples of inappropriate conversations with staff, bullying and harassment. In some cases ‘Performance Improvement Plans’ have been imposed in a very one-sided, unhelpful manner – a case of “you will deliver more with less, but don’t expect any help from us”. The lack of staff development resource (following the closure of ILIaD and the loss of key staff) and the withdrawal of budgets for staff training supports the conclusion that PIPS are less about improvement and more about dismissal.

All staff at the University at some point went through a recruitment and selection process that deemed them worthy of appointment: why then do we refuse to develop and support them? Many colleagues already tell us that they pay for conferences, research materials, and business-related travel out of their own salary – now it seems they have to add training and development to these expenses. Are we really saying that the University of Southampton cannot afford to develop its own staff?   Southampton UCU simply wants senior managers to adhere to the negotiated appraisal process and to start supporting staff to deliver to their highest potential.

4. Casualisation 

We have always been critical of the reliance on short-term contracts and the damage that job insecurity does to education and research. We have an army of early career staff delivering research and education who struggle to make ends meet and are constantly at risk of contract termination. These staff are typically enduring high living costs whilst paying off debt incurred from years of study.  Many commute, either because partners work elsewhere, or because they can’t afford to move for a short temporary contract, or just can’t afford to move, full stop. Some will have been hit by the rise in train fares in January and those who drive already tell us how punitive the car parking charges are here.

Precarity damages education and research. Hourly-paid lecturers on short term contracts cannot engage in team meetings or curriculum development – this is bad for their development and students’ education and support.  Researchers on fixed-term contracts are preoccupied by their contract end date, and may find it impossible to get a mortgage, find they are not eligible for enhanced maternity pay, and so on, all to the detriment of our research. Alongside them, academic-related colleagues also find they too are increasingly offered only temporary contracts – and thus we regularly lose organisational memory and capacity.

Finally, a body of staff comprised largely of short- and fixed-term, hourly-paid, and fractional contracted staff will struggle to form a cohesive and supportive community, among themselves and with the students. This may be the intention of senior management, of course, but it is to the detriment of the institution, both currently and in the long term. We are all damaged by the reliance on casual teaching staff. UCU nationally and locally has continuously pointed to the damage wreaked by casualisation in higher education. We believe the University of Southampton should deliver on the commitments that it has given to UCU to reducing its reliance on casualised labour, in the interests of everyone.

5. The gender pay gap and equal pay

Senior managers are currently preparing the latest local pay review. UCU expects that that this will once again demonstrate a very significant gender pay gap at the University.  While much is made of the ‘equal pay’ for men and women within job grades (e.g. at level 4) the average gap between men and women’s pay in higher education is 12% – in 2015,the mean gap across all grades at Southampton was 22.9%, whereas in HE nationally it was 18.9%. Women continue to be clustered lower down the pay scale and in part-time jobs. The four most senior academic roles, some of our highest paid positons in the University (the VC/President and three Vice-Presidents), are all white men.

The new JNCHES Equal Pay Reviews and Gender Pay Gap Reporting Guidance for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) – published as part of the Pay Settlement for 2016/17 – calls attention to gender and diversity issues in our Universities, but this University does not seem to be at the forefront of those tackling these inequalities.  While the University of Essex took action and moved  female professors up three pay points to bring their average salaries in line with male counterparts there is no talk of such a move here. UCU has repeatedly called attention to pay gaps – not only gender, but also race and disability. Locally, we have asked for greater transparency in promotion and for better staff training on unconscious bias, but we see little evidence that senior managers wish to address this problem.

What is the branch doing? And how can you help?

Members of UCU can rest assured that this branch will continue to push senior management here to address these issues; your branch representatives take every opportunity to press for improvements to the working lives of staff here, and to defend education and research.  We do this alongside significant individual case work (and thanks are due to all our volunteers who support members in case work). We have pressed senior managers to improve the wording of redundancy and severance agreements, to improve their processes for consultation with staff, and to stop bullying and harassment. We will continue to make the case that the University will prosper if senior managers listen to staff and students. We will continue to do all this whilst pursuing the strike action to defend pensions that you have mandated. As ever we ask members of the branch to volunteer to help us take forward our work on these issues. If you can help – even for half an hour a week, we can use you.

Through the looking-glass

One of the most disturbing aspects of the last ten weeks has been the feeling that the foundations of the University’s governance are being shaken from within.  The disorienting prevarication of  senior management’s doublespeak and their stubborn refusal to model their own required standards of behaviour have, at times, left us lost for words and feeling as if we have entered an alternative reality – through the looking-glass – where things are never quite what they seem.

The continuing brouhaha surrounding senior management is hard enough to process, and we do not need to rehearse these issues further, when they are unravelling in the press. However, many members will be less aware of the ways in which senior managers have been breaking formally negotiated agreements and playing fast and loose with employment law.  Bear with us for the next couple of sections: you need to grasp some basics to understand why we are so exercised by the behaviour of senior management. If you are looking at this post and thinking “TL;DR,” you can cut to the chase by clicking here.

The Framework Agreement

Most of our colleagues could go through their entire time at the University of Southampton without knowing or caring about the Framework Agreement, but in fact it underpins every facet of their employment and determines the course of their career here. The origins of the Framework Agreement are that it was an agreement to bring together pay structure for all university staff which was negotiated between the national representatives of Universities and trade unions.  Each University then had to negotiate with trade unions to make a local agreement.  In Southampton, it was established in a process that ran from 2002 to 2005, and then some areas were revised by the Reward project, between 2012 to 2015. The time taken to negotiate the Agreement reflected the complexity and importance of the issues: alongside your contracts of employment, it provides a framework for your pay and conditions.

Within the Framework Agreement, there are four “job families”:  Education, Research and Enterprise (ERE); Technical and Experimental (TAE); Management, Specialist and Administrative (MSA); and, Community and Operational (CAO) [intranet links only] – covering different areas of the University’s work. Together, the job families and the framework are meant to ensure that employees are rewarded with equal pay for equal levels of responsibility, regardless of the type of work they do, and this puts into place the legal requirement for equal pay for work of equal value.

However, there are fundamental differences between the terms and conditions for the families, the most important of which relates to promotion: ERE staff can apply for promotion on merit – in effect, the grade is attached to the person, not the post. For other job families, the graded level is attached to the post: there are Level 4 jobs, Level 5 jobs, and so on. For employees in these families, promotion occurs if a job at a higher grade becomes available, or if their job is re-graded via the Job Evaluation Panel (below).

Southampton UCU represents staff in all families, Level 4 and above, with the majority of our members in ERE, MSA, and TAE.  There are no ERE levels below 4; there are no TAE levels above 5.

The Hay Process and the Job Evaluation Panel

The process by which a new post is placed within a job family and graded on the pay scale is based on a form of factor-based Job Evaluation known as the Hay Process. The University’s Job Evaluation Panel comprises HR and union representatives, all of whom have undergone two days of special training.  Job descriptions for new posts are reviewed by the Job Evaluation Panel, and the family and grade are allocated before the post can be advertised.  If there are discrepancies or areas that the Panel feel need to be resolved, the job description is sent back to the originator with comments for revision, and then resubmitted for the next time the panel meets.

When a unit, service, or department is restructured, sometimes old posts are terminated and new posts are created – this is not unusual and to be expected, as responsibilities are shuffled around.  If job roles are to cease as part of a restructure, then the post-holders are automatically “at risk of redundancy,” but this is often mitigated by the new posts on offer as suitable alternative employment. The Job Evaluation Panel exists to ensure that new posts are appropriately graded and to confirm/allocate the correct career pathway, so it plays a crucial role in any restructure.

Breaking Agreements

Recent University restructures have taken place in units and services that support its core activities, including the Library, Research and Innovation Services, Health and Safety, and the now disbanded LLAS (Centre for Language, Linguistics and Area Studies) and ILIaD (Institute for Learning, Innovation, and Development).  The restructuring of ILIaD’s activities showed why the Framework and the Job Evaluation Panel are so important: the posts involved teaching and research activities as well as teaching support and research support.  The complex mix of responsibilities meant that any restructure had to be very clear who would do what activities in the proposed new structure.

The ILIaD process was unnecessarily long and difficult, causing a great deal of stress to the staff involved, and we had hoped (see our blog from mid-September) that lessons had been learned from the mistakes.  The first inkling that some managers entrusted with restructures did not understand the job families had come during the ILIaD process: initially, management proposed a Level 3 ERE post (doesn’t exist in the Framework) and a Level 4 MSA lecturer (lecturing is not a core MSA activity). When Southampton UCU pointed this out, they had to go back to the drawing board – these proposed posts never made it as far as the Job Evaluation Panel, and were replaced with Framework-appropriate posts.

Around the time the ILIaD process was completed, another restructure began in NETSCC, (NIHR Evaluation, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre), a research unit funded by the Department of Health.  We have referred to this shambolic restructure several times in our emails to members.  In the beginning, it appeared that the process was going relatively well: while there were problems in communication that might have appeared serious, we put this down to the fact that we were in the middle of the summer and hoped for the best.

The problem with NETSCC

By September, however, it became clear that there were fundamental problems with management’s proposals for NETSCC.  Although the number of redundancies had been reduced from 29 to 6, we were informed that ERE staff were going to be moved to MSA posts.  Two generic job descriptions were produced, which although badged as MSA had clear research and enterprise responsibilities.  We asked if they had been through the Job Evaluation Panel: first we were told that they had, and then we were told that the Head of Reward had said that they did not need to go to the Panel, because there were only minor variations in the existing job descriptions. We did not agree that the move from ERE to MSA could possibly constitute only a minor variation: the change in terms and conditions is fundamental.

As the date for the closure of the consultation approached we became increasingly concerned that management were bypassing both the University’s ordinances and employment law.  Members that were to be moved to these new contracts should have been notified that they were at risk of redundancy (since their posts and contracts were to be terminated).  We then learned that these job descriptions would not apply to just the six members we were representing, but to 130 employees in NETSCC. Late in October, we finally got management to agree to send the job descriptions to the Job Evaluation Panel, and that if the Panel decided that the jobs were MSA, not ERE, then affected members would be told that they were at risk of redundancy, and due process would follow. We repeatedly requested that the consultation deadline be postponed to allow for clarity on the job descriptions and to ensure the employers’ legal obligations were met, but these requests were refused.

Cutting a long story short, the Job Evaluation Panel rejected the job descriptions as not compatible with the MSA job family.  The consultation closed on 31 October 2017, and staff were invited into one-to-one meetings, with the pathway still not confirmed: the staff were not told they were at risk.  Our request to reschedule the meetings was refused. Members shown ‘individual comparator tables’ and informed they would be expected to undertake a change in contract. No information shared prior to these meetings with the UCU representatives.

Management further claimed that the changes could be effected by a variation of contract – something which we vigorously disputed.  Moreover, they claimed that the changes would support employees’ career progression, when it is clear that exactly the opposite would be true: remember, MSA grades are attached to the post, not the person.

Late in the evening of 23 November, we were sent a letter from the NETSCC Senior Management Team, informing us that a meeting of three senior academics on UEB and the Chief Operating Officer, Ian Dunn, had decided the posts were MSA posts, and that letters would be sent to employees the following day, giving them one month to accept or decline the new job description and contracts.  Note: none of the people involved in making this decision normally attend Job Evaluation Panels and we would have expected their guidance to have gone back to the panel for ratification.

Our members in NETSCC are furious, but exhausted. They must now make a decision about whether they wish to accept the new contract, or face unspecified consequences from their employer.  We have asked for an Emergency Joint Negotiating Committee to discuss the legal and procedural irregularities of the process, and we have asked that the Vice-Chancellor be present at the meeting to account for this sorry mess.

WHY THIS MATTERS

If you have got this far, or if you have clicked the link above to skip all the detail, you may be wondering why all this should matter to you.  You will know whether your post is ERE, TAE, or MSA.  You will understand what that means to your career progression and the kinds of activities that you are required to perform.  You will know if you are required to teach and research, or provide support for those who do. The decision taken by senior management to bypass the Job Evaluation Panel puts all this in doubt, and sets an extremely dangerous precedent that we cannot permit to pass unchallenged.

If senior line managers can unilaterally decide that a post is ERE or MSA, then they can manipulate contracts in preparation for the REF, or produce posts that perform ERE functions without appropriate development, training, or reward. We may find that Level 3 posts are created for teaching; or Level 4 MSA posts “managing” research but not returnable in the REF, and not needing ethics approval because an activity is considered “evaluation” rather than “research.”

We have seen this contempt for the Framework Agreement already in the way that senior management have prevaricated and procrastinated over the Reward policies, particularly the Appraisal policy.  With the so-called Voluntary Severance Scheme, we have seen them manipulate the law and our own Ordinances on redundancy consultations.

We have arrived at a position where it is increasingly difficult to trust what our senior management tell us, and we cannot rely on them to follow their own procedures.  We have a comprehensive Framework Agreement negotiated over several years and just three years ago was endorsed by a vote of our members of 94.5% voting yes to the agreement, which can seemingly be undone by the COO and three senior academics on UEB.

We are also already rapidly reaching a point where we have no confidence in our leaders to lead.  We call on our members to support us in our mission to bring management to account for their actions – Southampton UCU have not had a satisfactory response to any of our enquiries for weeks.  Perhaps if enough staff and students demand explanations for the behaviour of senior management, we will eventually get an explanation that makes sense.

What’s it for?

Southampton UCU asked two interesting questions last week in a meeting with senior HR colleagues: What is appraisal moderation for? What are appraisal scores for?

We posed these questions because of growing concerns about how appraisals are being conducted and the use of moderation in ways that did not adhere to our negotiated agreements. We are especially concerned at the use of a bell curve (normal distribution) in moderation of appraisal scores – outside the agreed policy – despite a wealth of evidence that this practice is not only flawed but deeply counterproductive.

The original purpose of the agreed appraisal system

Members may recall that teams from UCU spent over two years in a negotiations process called the Pay and Reward (P&R) Project – looking at a range of policies for managing careers and promotion of our staff. At the heart of this negotiation was the new appraisal system. Both sides – the union and the managers – recognised that the old PPDR (personal performance development review) was broken. We needed a system that enabled us to help staff set objectives and develop, and which could enable managers to support them in ways that in turn helped the University achieve its ambitions. There was willingness from all parties to work hard to get it right.

Key to the roll out of the new appraisal policy [intranet link only] was a programme of staff development helping people to understand what good appraisal looked like. And while not everyone likes ‘active learning scenarios’ one aspect of this training – delivered by actor-facilitators – was powerful at reminding staff what could go wrong in these important conversations. Alongside this core training there was some online training to support the process (though never intended as a substitute for the interactive learning) and a new online appraisal system for storing annual documentation. The latter was not perfect, we all recognised that the software might need to be improved over time in response to feedback from users.

Southampton UCU had clear objectives in the negotiation of the new appraisal policy. We wanted a system that supported better management and development of our staff. We welcomed appraisal as an opportunity for staff to celebrate success and, where necessary identify areas for further support and development. Our vision of appraisal was a conversation – taking place regularly but formally documented annually – that moved away from managers telling staff what to do, towards shared and supportive listening, reflecting and planning. Local employers such as UHS NHS Trust have just such a system – indeed this particular example even has staff wellbeing at the heart of its appraisal process.

UHS Appraisal Process

At the very least, the system was meant to embody a future-focussed principle:

Emphasis on the Future – The majority of the appraisal will be future-focused, modelled on existing ‘Personal Best’ discussions. This will include:
1. Vision and intent
2. Processes rather than outcomes, including development of competencies.
3. Support, resources and training required.

The current distortion and misapplication of the appraisal system

Since its implementation in the 2015 academic year, it has become clear that the University of Southampton appraisal system is not compliant with the agreement we negotiated. The document that was ratified by UCU’s national panel still remains, but its visibility and intent have been obscured by the ratings scheme, added to the document late in the negotiations and only agreed with very specific limitations as to its use, and a moderation process and guidelines that were never part of the negotiated agreement. Nor is the process even being followed according to its own guidelines: rating criteria were meant to be defined locally, but this is inconsistent with the moderation process, and the moderation process lacks transparency and allows the moderators (possibly far removed from the team) to overturn a recommendation from line manager. Crucially, the moderation process breaks confidentiality of the appraisal conversation, and this is against one of the first principles in the agreed policy. The software does not even encourage the completion of the ‘thorough appraisal’ which the policy scopes:

1. Joint review and update of job description
2. Assessment of contribution to the University
i. Review achievement against past objectives
ii. expectations via future objectives
3. Behavioural competencies
4. Career aspirations
5. Development objectives

Alarmingly, training for appraisers has disappeared (apart from the online module), and since there has been no professional development training available for academic staff since 2016, there is no way to act on any development needs identified in appraisal conversations. All that has been achieved by the hundreds of hours spent on the project in its development is the creation of successive layers of documentation that must be processed by dozens of already overworked academics, the practical outcomes of which may not be acted upon constructively.

Our specific question, ‘What is moderation for?’ arises from this chaos: why is it vital that not too many colleagues are seen to be good at what they do? We might answer this positively – because while we would want to celebrate excellence wherever we find it, exceptional work must really be exceptional. When we agreed to the moderation of 4- and 5-rated scores, this was the rationale. But when the moderation process was introduced, it extended across the full range, turning the scores into the focus of an entirely different enterprise.   The moderation process now lacks transparency and allows the moderators (possibly far removed from the team) to overturn a recommendation from line manager.  Appraisal stopped being about celebration and development, and became all about sorting the wheat from the chaff. And because we cannot act constructively on any shortcomings identified in the process, those who are scored or moderated down to the bottom of the scale face only negative outcomes.

Below are some of the concerns raised by members in direct contact with SUCU, some of whom have gone on to be represented by the branch. These are indicative, not exhaustive; some are more serious than others. Some represent potential discriminatory behaviour; some represent behaviour likely to instigate a grievance; some are simply breaches of the principles agreed in the policy. Some of the concerns have been raised with us simultaneously with a request for representation in a ‘protected conversation’, after a settlement agreement has been presented to the member. These issues were presented to HR via a JNC paper over six weeks ago, and we have not yet had a formal response. Informally, in the meeting last week, we were told by senior HR managers that they could not account for how appraisals were conducted at Faculty level.

  1. Appraisal conducted as a perfunctory online process, not face-to-face
  2. Appraisal focussed on outcomes, rather than based on development needs
  3. Moderations not communicated to member
  4. Moderations communicated to member without justification
    1. Line manager unable to explain moderation decisions
    2. Refusal to communicate the basis of a moderation decision leading to an as-yet-unresolved FOI request
  5. Promotion/end of probation denied on the basis of student module evaluations
  6. Research leave denied on the basis of moderated appraisal score
  7. Appraisal outcome submitted by line manager without agreement of appraisee
  8. Failure of manager(s) to conduct appraisal, potentially resulting in outcome of ‘2’ through no fault of the appraisee – particularly seen in cases where employee has two managers/is employed cross-faculty
  9. Failure to return moderated scores, even as late as September 17, exacerbating and complicating the redundancy consultation that began earlier in the summer
  10. Performance measures used outside the appraisee’s control (grant income; student evaluation)
  11. Appraisal not conducted in line with member’s contract, leading to an improperly constituted capability procedure
  12. Single element of appraisal framework becoming the basis of the final score (research, teaching)

Fundamental to all of these issues – and the problems, even crises – that they have wrought on members is the rating system, to which we reluctantly agreed, and the use of the moderation process and the benchmark ‘bellcurve’ distribution, to which we did not. The principles, which stressed a forward-looking, developmental conversation, have disintegrated into a numbers game, in which the only monitoring or measure of success reported to JNC has been completion rates. When we are all expected to exceed expectations without exceeding expectations (see the VC’s address of 2 June, streaming at 1:06:38: ‘we all need to appreciate that for most of us, we would expect to get a rating of meeting expectations in most years for the job we are doing – in some years I really hope we would all get exceeding expectations’), the scores become meaningless in terms of career development or performance enhancement. They are only there to pit our individual achievements against each other, rather than to encourage community. This gives us the answer to our second question ‘What are appraisal scores for?’ Their only purpose is as management information – poor, unreliable, and crude data that inform performance management of and by inadequately trained or prepared academic managers, and that might ultimately inform restructuring and redundancy consultations.

What can we do now?

The meeting with HR ended with a plan and a request. The plan was to set out a timetable for the long-awaited formal review of the Reward policies. The request, made directly to the HR Director who sits on UEB, was that she take our proposal to the rest of senior management for the rating system and the moderation process to be abolished as soon as possible. In its place, we proposed a report template based on the principles that we agreed in 2014.

Eventually the software should be reframed to reflect the agreed principles and scope of appraisal – and, given the traumatic experience of many members of the current system, we would recommend that wellbeing be added to the discussion. Proper training must be re-instated, for appraisers, appraisees, and HR partners – and the time for new and refresher training must be added to workload models (when they finally appear – but that’s another blog).

We are only too aware that the appraisal system, with all its faults, both in design and delivery, is a major cause of poor staff morale. While the branch will inevitably have its hands full with restructures, current and future, we do not forget our commitment to support the staff that remain employed here. We still want the University of Southampton to be a happy and thriving community of workers. We see a functioning, supportive appraisal system at the heart of such an aspiration, and we will continue to press management until we have achieved this.

“And all for Love, and nothing for Reward”

“They for us fight, they watch and duly ward…. And all for Love, and nothing for Reward” (The Faerie Queene, Bk 2, VIII/2).

Southampton UCU have been concerned about the implementation of appraisal, probation, and promotion – the collection of policies called ‘Reward’ – for many months.  We have raised our concerns repeatedly at JNC meetings, but have found senior management reluctant to engage, either claiming that our concerns are unfounded or saying that the issue involves only “individual cases” that we may not discuss in the meeting.

This past academic year, we have seen a huge increase in casework around appraisal, probation, and promotion, with members at all levels – from new lecturers to distinguished professors – feeling aggrieved about the initial process with their line managers or, frequently, the moderation of their agreed appraisal scores. In some cases, unsatisfactory moderated scores have led to members facing performance management/capability processes.

All the ERE Reward Policies were negotiated with UCU, and ratified by our National Ratification Panel, in 2014. According to the agreed terms, these policies should have been jointly reviewed on an annual basis, but this has not happened.  Moreover, the implementation of these policies, both in the broadest sense (the appraisal moderation guidelines) and in some individual cases, has been outside the terms agreed in 2014.   Up to this point, management has refused to recognise this to be the case, but at the October JNC, HR finally admitted that the policies’ implementation was not in accordance with the negotiated agreements.

Having agitated for a review of the policies for many months, we are relieved that this review is now going to take place, commencing at the end of the month.  We have requested an analysis of last year’s results, for probation and appraisal, focussing on moderated scores, analysed against protected characteristics (gender/race/age/sexuality/religion) and by department/AU/professional service. We deeply regret, however, that we have been told that because the appraisal window for Level 7 has already opened, no changes to the policies can take place in this academic year.  We take the view that since moderation – by far the most damaging and contentious element of the process, and the one that sits largely outside the agreed policy – will not be taking place until January at the earliest, we should be able to make progress on making this part of the process fairer.

We would like to remind members of our view on module evaluation questionnaire scores. These MEQ results have been shown to inherently biased against lecturers with protected characteristics, and thus have no place in performance review or management. This view is supported by the Module Survey Policy, which does not list performance review as an aim for MEQs. We will seek clear guidance for line managers and appraisers on the appropriate use of student module evaluation.  We also will continue to press for a fit-for-purpose learning and teaching CPD programme for all staff, that can help both teaching staff and managers respond to any fairly identified needs.

 

“What’s a JNC, then?” What your union has been doing for you this week

It’s been a hectic week (well, couple of weeks, really) at Southampton UCU HQ. Even while we’re all slowly uncurling from the brace position of Week 0 and greeting our new and returning students, our intrepid committee and caseworkers have been going about campaigning on pensions, negotiations, training, representation, committee meetings, liaising with our sister campus unions – all part of the rich tapestry of local branch business.

UCU leaflets and desk ornaments

Union campaigning materials in the autumn sunshine, accompanied by the Heart of the Union and Tony, the AUT Brain.

The focus (highlight?) of the week has been the two Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) meetings on Thursday 12 October, the morning devoted to matters concerning all campus unions, and the afternoon to matters solely relating to UCU members.  The JNC is perhaps the most important event of each term, as it is where we initiate, debate, and complete formal negotiations with university management.  Any matter that has an impact on our terms and conditions of employment will eventually end up tabled at JNC: for instance, in September, we established new ground rules for policy development and approval, where University policy affects our T&Cs – and JNC is where all that work is finalised.  Most importantly, JNC is where we can hold the university to account if we feel that things have not gone – or are not going – according to the law, or our negotiated agreements, or to good practice.

We covered a great deal of ground yesterday in these meetings and some matters deserve write-ups of their own, just so this update doesn’t get too long.  For each, there is a tl;dr summary, but if you want to know more, I’ll be providing more detailed coverage over the weekend (13 Oct: I’ll be adding links as I write the more detailed posts).

  1. Pensions: The University has made its position clear, and will be issuing a press release soon.  We are very disappointed that the response has not engaged with the detailed criticisms of the valuation.  (In other news, we’ve continued campaigning for the consultative ballot on national strike action over the threat to USS.)
  2. Education matters – module evaluation scores and timetabling: We raised significant issues from our members relating to the conduct of module evaluation questionnaires and the inappropriate uses to which scores are being put, and we questioned reasons for the policy of retaining MEQ data on employees for six years.  We requested an urgent review of the Timetabling Policy, in terms of its incompatibility with the Equalities Act, and in the way some faculties are failing to implement flexible working requests.
  3. Appraisals and ERE Reward policies: We delivered robust criticism of the implementation of the ERE Reward policies, particularly appraisal, and established that the University has been operating outside our negotiated agreement of 2014.  The policies will now undergo urgent and long overdue review.

Other matters can be summarised briefly here. We raised several incidences of the University’s failure to respond to FOI and data access requests, and received assurances that the team dealing with data access has been strengthened. Also under the umbrella of communication, we reminded management that if they are going to use NSS results on feedback to, um, encourage individuals and departments to do better, they they need to up their game on feedback to us: focus group activity, working groups, suggestion email addresses… Management tell us that they engage with staff in a variety of ways, and are always seeking input and acting on it, so if that’s the case, we need to see the outcomes.

Two matters will need further discussion and work before our next JNC in March, so I’ll leave them with you to come back to us: the “expectation” of turning student emails around in three days (turnabout is fair play, so if you are left weeks without a response from HR or management, do let us know); and the imposition of Clarity [link to intranet; not for public users] as sole agents for university business travel.  We say this decision relates to our terms and conditions, particularly for those of us who self-fund our research travel, so we have insisted that it be referred to JNC’s Policy Review Group.  Please let us know if you have any difficulty arising from this (currently) unnegotiated decision.

Your UCU branch president,
Laurie

 

 

It couldn’t happen at a university?

Apart from the UCU web site, we have a number of valuable sources of information. Wonkhe is building a considerable reputation, and of course many of us buy the Times Higher Education Supplement. For wider employment issues, there are the Labour Research Department publications, and the Hazards Campaign on health and safety; this has strong involvement from our old friend Jon Bamford.

Among the press, we have worryingly few friends. I read the Guardian most days, but recently the news is sometimes so bad that I can only face the Sudoku. By far my best source of news is my subscription to Ian Hislop’s Private Eye. They do some really good Christmas cards too; unfortunately, you are now too late to either buy or post them.

As Ian almost never wins in court, I feel safe in attaching a tiny sample from last week’s edition. It couldn’t happen in a university, could it?

Denis A Nicole
Southampton University UCU Branch President

Summer casework: why we all need to be in UCU

Over the summer, we have been approached by several university employees who have needed independent support and advice. The University regulations allow union caseworkers to support employees in a variety of situations, and generally the independent support provided by union is very well received. In some cases, they were long-standing employees who had just joined the union because of their problem. In others, they were non-members who approached us asking “if I join, what can you do for me?” Yet other non-members asked if they should hire a lawyer.

These approaches all suffer from a lack of understanding of the university’s (and most other employers’) processes. Let’s deal with them one by one.

Can I join if I have a problem?
Yes, you are very welcome to join at any time. The union would, however, be completely unable to balance its books, or supply volunteer caseworkers, if large numbers of staff were allowed to join, and pay membership, only while they have an employment issue. The union’s legal service imposes a strict, but short, waiting period on new members before offering support. Similarly, within the branch, we are unlikely to be able to offer support for pre-existing issues with new members.

If I join, what can you do for me?
As I say above, we can support you with your next problem. We may be able to offer informal local assistance with your current difficulties. All the while, you will be helping to improve pay and conditions for all of us.

Should I get a lawyer?
This is the big misconception. A lawyer will be of almost no use to you until it is too late. You can take your problem to him or her, and they can offer you advice. But they cannot accompany you either to an investigation or to a disciplinary hearing. You will be on your own. And they probably will not know much about local conditions at the university. Your lawyer can come to an employment tribunal, but by then, after you have been sacked, it is almost certainly too late. Even if you win, you will almost certainly not be reinstated. The chances of winning are about fifty-fifty; if you win, you can expect a cash settlement of perhaps several thousand pounds, but no job to go back to.

Almost all of the good outcomes we achieve for members are the result of dedicated work by our trained team of volunteer caseworkers. They meet with members and come to investigation and disciplinary meetings. Their accreditation training is supplemented by wide experience of what actually happens at Southampton. And, within the limits of confidentiality, they share experiences at regular meetings. In most cases, we are able to prevent problems escalating. For the more intractable cases we can call on paid union professionals, who (unlike lawyers) are also entitled to come with you to meetings. Finally, if all else fails, we are able to offer support at a tribunal. But, as I said, by then it is probably too late to keep your job. Here is what the university writes:

The member of staff has the right, if they wish, to be accompanied by a workplace colleague or a trade union representative.

The representative/companion is permitted to address the hearing in order to put forward the member of staff’s case; they can sum up the case and respond on their behalf to any view expressed at the hearing.

The representative/companion is also permitted to confer with the member of staff during the hearing.

It should be noted that the representative/companion has no right to answer questions on behalf of the member of staff, to address the hearing if the member of staff does not wish him or her to do so, or to prevent the employer explaining its case.

Representatives/companions have an important role to play in supporting a member of staff and are allowed to participate as fully as possible.

There are other important reasons for you to be in the union. If, say, a student complains about you, you will be judged according to the university’s policies. University HR won’t be much help; their role is to protect the institution, not the individual. If the policies are unfair, you don’t have much hope. We are a recognised trade union, and the university has to negotiate these policies with us before adopting them. We are able to use our experience of casework to develop policies which work for both university and staff. Our effectiveness depends on how seriously we are taken by the university; we have far more influence when we have a high membership. Indeed, for matters affecting only level seven staff (Professors, etc.), we are not yet recognised and the university declines formal negotiation. So, if you join as soon as you arrive here, you are helping to protect yourself from policies that might later be used against you.

Finally, we negotiate, and occasionally go into national dispute, over pay and pensions. We improved the employers offers on each in the last round of changes. The current round of pay negotiations is under way and pensions are again under threat. We need your support now.

Join here.
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† See Struck Out, by David Renton.

Denis Nicole

Flexible retirement: get it while you still can

I wrote about flexible retirement a while back. Several of us have been able to take an 80% flex, and collect our USS pension, without difficulty over the past couple of years. It seems that now, however, management attitudes are starting to harden. We have heard rumours that Welsh universities have been denying flexible retirement; now we have an example of Southampton making it more difficult than it should be. Guidelines have been circulated in FPSE that

FEG would expect staff with no research funding to retain teaching commitment

In other words, however much you retire, you will still be doing a full FTE of teaching. I think that is unreasonable. And surely it is research quality, not funding, that should drive decisions? The guidance also carries the unsavoury implication that teaching is an activity which colleagues have to be pressured into doing; how will that benefit students or deliver better NSS scores?

If you are thinking about flexing, it would a be good idea get in touch with the union before starting negotiations.

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† I love this term. It seems that, whenever the university wants to create policies without bothering to negotiate with the recognised trade unions, they call them “guidelines”.

Denis Nicole