July 12th, 2008

Performance Appraisal Interviews as a Tool to Improve Faculty Work

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The primary cost associated with an academic department is personnel. Personnel can include secretarial and support staff, but is typically dominated by faculty. In fact, as much as 95 percent of a department’s budget can be tied directly to faculty costs. This means that department heads and chairs have little room to negotiate around faculty and must instead face challenges directly. Compounding the chair’s ability to create change is the reality of academic freedom and tenure, both of which can immobilize progress and growth.

This tension between tight and heavily restricted budgets and the general nature of faculty work means that department chairs need to have a toolbox of strategies that will allow them to create change and responsiveness with faculty members. More important, this must be accomplished with faculty members’ support and enthusiasm.

Perhaps the most overlooked tool department chairs have is the performance appraisal. Conducted correctly, the appraisal can lead to good feelings about work, higher levels of motivation, and better knowledge of how individuals and individual work fit together. Yet this process is also one of the most difficult tasks a chair faces.

Appraisal interviews are one component of a larger system of faculty evaluation and therefore cannot do everything. At the very minimum, they should focus on goal accomplishment, current job performance, skill and knowledge level, strengths and weaknesses, how to get better, and how well the faculty member works with others. To accomplish these things, it is helpful to think of performance appraisal interviews as having three distinct phases: setting the stage, the interview, and follow-through.

Setting the stage

The initial stage-setting has to do with creating a sense that the performance appraisal interview is a developmental strategy and not a punishment. This means faculty members need to be aware and clearly briefed on what the appraisal is and is not. This often also means there must be a clear definition of the roles and expectations of departmental faculty members, and these will often vary based on individual, career stage, and departmental needs. Additionally, it must be clarified with both chairs and faculty that building a culture of excellence means there is open, honest, and meaningful communication about how roles change and performance can be improved.

Once notice and recognition of that notice has been achieved, there are a variety of ways to complete a pre-interview report. In most cases, formal guidelines need to be developed and in place that outline the areas to be addressed and what types of evaluative measures will be used to determine how well a faculty member is doing in a particular area. Once these have been established, there are a variety of ways the pre-interview report can be completed, including the chair completing it and later discussing it with the faculty member; the faculty member completing it and sending it to the chair before the meeting; the faculty member completing it and bringing it to the interview; both the faculty member and the chair completing it and bringing it to the interview; or both starting with a blank copy.

The interview

The interview process is the opportunity to expand on written comments and elaborate on the areas of assessment. The chair should first let the faculty member talk and identify the general perspectives of the interview and how it is perceived. This means the chair must effectively listen and use paraphrasing to demonstrate understanding. This is typically referred to as “active listening” and provides a platform for the chair to ask for more information. Phrases like “tell me more” and “go on” are commonly used, as are nonverbal expressions such as head nodding and giving clear, full attention. The chair is also well positioned to use empathy for a greater understanding of the faculty member’s perspective, using phrases like “I know what it’s like,” “I can only imagine what its like,” or “I realize it’s not easy to hear this.”

The chair should spend adequate time preparing for the interview and should allow enough time so it is not rushed. The chair should avoid comparative statements, be willing to confront inappropriate or lacking behavior, and have the confidence necessary to assess the faculty member. Further, the chair should keep on track with the interview, ensure understanding of what the faculty member is saying, and approach the interview as an opportunity to coach faculty members on greater performance.

Follow-through

This is one of the most overlooked components of the performance appraisal interview and often the most important for long-term development. Although the faculty member may walk away feeling good about the interview, the written follow-up report is what will be remembered and looked at repeatedly. The report should provide an up-to-date workload or description of the job being undertaken, recognize the self-appraisal of the faculty member, offer a good plan for future work (one that is effective, accepted, and legally defensible), and outline goals for the future. Chairs will find it helpful to begin their written report by placing themselves mentally in the position of the faculty member who has just been interviewed and assessed.

Written reports of performance appraisals provide a foundation for faculty members’ growth in specific directions, whether to focus increasingly on teaching or research or service, and provide initial documentation in instances requiring progressive discipline. Additionally, written reports can be used to identify specific goals to be achieved and timelines for achieving them. The most important aspect, however, is that they reflect joint ownership of the plan being undertaken.

Final tips

As behavior rarely, if ever, changes on its own, the role of the chair is vital in helping faculty members and departments reach their goals. Performance appraisal interviews, whether conducted quarterly or semi-annually, will benefit the collective effort of the entire department or unit. Additional tips for conducting the interview include the following:

  • Use open-ended rather than yes-or-no questions.
  • To show you are listening carefully, ask questions that are based on what the faculty member just said.
  • If asking sensitive questions, provide a rationale as to why you are asking them.
  • Ask self-evaluation questions and allow time for reflection (these are often the most revealing).

The appraisal process can be awkward for department chairs for several reasons, including the personal relationships and friendships that often emerge among faculty within a department. Assuming the chair places a greater burden of responsibility on the faculty member in that role, changing the relationship and dynamic among faculty members. To reduce awkwardness, the appraisal interviews should be approached with a great deal of mutual respect, be developmental or have a mentoring focus, and focus on the goals of the department.

Department chairs must especially find ways to keep the focus of performance appraisals on individuals in relation to departmental goals and work accomplished and to not conduct or view the appraisal as a personal relationship-building experience (or, conversely, as “pay-back”). Appointment to the chair position is often limited to a few years, and a frequent temptation is to try to make friends by giving good evaluations. Respect, however, is earned, is a more powerful tool for transition back to the faculty ranks upon completion of the chair term, and can more likely be achieved by keeping the appraisal focus on work performance.

Overall, chairs will find performance appraisals valuable in helping departments achieve their goals and will find developing departmental goals and objectives to be the most difficult and challenging part of the entire process.

The authors thank Dr. Jim Hammons at the University of Arkansas for his assistance in this work on performance appraisal interviews.

By Michael Miller and Richard Newman

Michael Miller is a professor and head of the department of educational leadership, counseling, and foundations at the University of Arkansas. Contact him at mtmille@uark.edu.

Richard Newman is a professor and chair of the department of physical education at Presbyterian College in South Carolina. Contact him at renewman@mail.presby.edu.