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FAQs - Personnel Issues

 

What are some basic "Rules of Engagement" for dealing with faculty performance issues?

Keep the following in mind:

Do:

  • Focus objectively on the faculty member's job performance.
    Avoid becoming involved in a faculty member's personal problems. Avoid diagnosing personal problems.
  • Establish clear performance expectations for each individual you manage. Review these at least annually with each person. Keep notes of past performance as a baseline for comparison.
  • Document specific examples of problem performance including when, where, and what happened. Objectively describe what the faculty member did or did not do. Relate these examples to individual, departmental and university performance expectations.
  • Meet individually with the faculty member to review the documentation emphasizing patterns rather than specific incidents. A single incident may have an acceptable explanation; however patterns of poor or unacceptable performance more effectively describe a problem. Avoid accepting excuses. Set up a plan that includes steps to improve performance and set deadlines. Suggest that the EAP be used as a resource. Schedule regular follow-up meetings to review progress.
    Document the meeting, the change plans, and the follow-up date in a memo to the individual, keeping a copy for your file.
  • At each follow-up meeting, evaluate progress and emphasize the need for continued change: Don't skip this step. It is difficult for most of us to maintain change without reinforcement

Don't:

  • Don't become involved in prolonged complaining about one colleague with office staff or faculty colleagues. You can gather details and check with colleagues about important incidents or work patterns, but be discreet about what you say to other colleagues.
  • Don't focus on the issue of the day (one event that annoys you). Look for consistent patterns and give them consistent attention and follow up.
  • Don't just focus on negatives. Be sure to give reinforcement for positive changes.
  • Don't talk in general terms without addressing specific behaviors. For example, telling people they "have a bad attitude" or "you're not a team player" is not very helpful. Discuss specific behaviors that are not productive.
  • Don't talk to the group as a whole to address an individual's problem. Speak with him or her individually to address concerns.
  • Don't move directly into the "punishment phase." Don't assume employees know what they are doing wrong or know your sense of what is appropriate. Clearly articulate what the appropriate behavior is when discussing problems.
  • Do not ignore prolonged declining job performance. If poor job performance lasts for six months, it is time to initiate some direct action.

 

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I have heard some questions about the issue of maintaining a positive work and learning environment. What exactly does that mean and what are the University's policies?

The University of Missouri is committed to providing a positive work and learning environment where all individuals are treated fairly and with respect, regardless of their status. Intimidation and harassment have no place in a university community. To honor the dignity and inherent worth of every individual -- student, employee, or applicant for employment or admission -- is a goal to which every member of the university community should aspire and to which officials of the University should direct attention and resources.

Regarding students, it is the University's special responsibility to provide a positive climate where students can learn. Chancellors are expected to provide educational programs and direct resources designed to improve interpersonal relationships, to help develop healthy attitudes toward different kinds of people, and to foster a climate in which students are treated as individuals rather than as members of a particular category of people.

This policy also relates to employees of the University. It is the expectation of the University that all employees and potential employees will be treated on the basis of their contribution or potential contribution without regard to personal characteristics not related to competence, demonstrated ability, performance, or the advancement of the legitimate interests of the University.

For more information about maintaining a positive work environment see section 330.080 of the Collected Rules and Regulations.

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I think the office staff could be much more effective if they would learn to work better as a team. Are there some ways I can help them learn to work together?

There are many factors that hinder effective team performance. Knowing what these are and eliminating them is the best approach to enhancing your staff's team performance. As a corollary to eliminating hindrances, there are some specific "team basics" you may apply to increase office productivity. Before we tackle specific dos and don'ts, it is important to be clear on what you mean by "working as a team."

Typically, when managers urge their employees to work better as a team they are really encouraging "teamwork," a set values and behaviors that helps all of us work more effectively with each other. [1] Teamwork values include good communication skills, a cooperative attitude, giving backup to those who need it, and understanding and appreciating the contributions of others. Employees who have these skills and values can more easily coordinate their efforts.

A more specialized definition of a work-team refers to a group of two or more individuals who are collectively responsible for a defined work-product. They pool their individual competencies and resources to obtain specific goals, and are held individually and mutually accountable for the team's output. [2]

With these distinctions in mind, your first step is to be clear on whether you are wanting better teamwork and/or team-based work-products. If you are interested in the latter, be clear about specific outcomes you think teams will achieve. This is important because implementation requires great effort to overcome people's natural resistance to working in teams, and typically requires more rigorous application of team discipline to pull off successfully. Whether teamwork or teams, your next step is to identify obstacles. The following "offenders" are hindrances to teamwork and teams alike.

Obstacles to Team Performance:

  • Lack of clear and consistent job descriptions for all staff. Often employees have little idea what each other are actually doing or supposed to do. Everyone has to know the boundaries of their job-where their job stops and someone else's begins. Without this basic condition, staff are wary of linking their efforts with others. The anxiety caused by such lack of clarity fosters self-protection, not cooperation. You can correct this easily enough by making sure you have written and specific job descriptions for each employee you manage.
  • Lack of common and well-defined goals and objectives. In other words, even though individuals may have distinct responsibilities and tasks, there must be clear and common objectives that indicate the need for team efforts. Without a shared understanding of what the team is supposed to do, there is no compelling reason to work collaboratively.
  • Weak performance ethic. Refers to the organization in which leaders have failed to provide clear and compelling performance demands to which they hold themselves and their employees accountable. [3] Performance among employees is uneven, perhaps including a mix of high achievers and one or more "loafers" who avoid contributing their efforts and resources and get away with it. Such environments breed resistance to teamwork because it is too risky to be "lumped" together and have to depend on others. Your good performers will feel resentful and exploited. You must provide meaningful performance challenges, as concrete and measurable as possible. Set high (and achievable) expectations for performance, and hold yourself and your staff accountable to those standards. If this is a significant change from your department's culture, be patient and know that change takes time. Encourage and support your staff's efforts, let them know you are committed to removing obstacles, and generously praise the small successes along the way to a strong performance ethic.
  • Insufficient training for the required tasks. This can lead to a sense of helplessness and insecurity, and makes team participation unpleasant. Provide all the necessary training and supervision so that all employees are on board.
    Unresolved personal conflicts among staff. You cannot resolve these for your employees, but if such conflicts are impeding office productivity and collaboration, openly acknowledge the problem and urge them to find a way to work with each other enough to get the job done. Consider a referral to the Employee Assistance Program for free and confidential conflict mediation. Interestingly, a strong performance challenge that requires teamwork is often the best context for "incompatible types" to work out their differences.

For more information about effective team performance, www.workteams.unt.edu has lots of information and links related to work-groups and teams.

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The staff in my department work very hard and often there is a lot of stress. Is there something I can do to help them relieve stress?

Workplace stress is a very real and vexing problem. "Workplace stress" may be broadly defined as the unpleasant physical and emotional responses that occur when there is a conflict between demands on an employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting those demands. In general, a combination of high demands and low control over those demands can lead to stress. Left unchecked, high levels of workplace stress tend to erode staff morale and stifle creativity and productivity. The department chair, by virtue of position and authority, is the best person to address the issue of workplace stress, and to initiate key changes in work practices to reduce stress.

Since the causes of workplace stress vary, so do the strategies to reduce or prevent it. Workplace stressors may be broadly categorized into three types:

 

  1. factors unique to the job,
  2. employee's role in the organization, and
  3. organizational climate. Examples of each stressor and possible solutions are below.

Stressors unique to the job:

  • Workload (overload or under load)
  • Pace/ variety/ meaningfulness of work
  • Autonomy (ability to make your own decisions about your job)
  • Lack of control over workload, pace, constant change, deadlines, etc.

The following tips can address these stressors:

  • A job can and should be reasonably demanding, but not based on sheer endurance! Provide some variety in tasks, and ideally provide some area of decision-making that the employee can call his own.
  • Don't allow your failure to plan ahead become someone else's "crisis!" Warn your staff well in advance of predictable "crunch" times so that they may plan ahead and make informed decisions regarding their work schedules, vacation times, and the like.
    In times of heavy workloads, give employees as much control as possible over their hours as the job permits-flexible hours and compensatory time, for example.
  • Make every attempt to help employees feel that their jobs lead to some sort of desirable future. On-the-job training, creative new assignments, or course work may help to rejuvenate employees and prevent burnout. (Be careful-some employees would find this more stressful!)

Stressors due to employee's role in the organization

  • Role conflict (conflicting job demands, multiple supervisors or "bosses")
    Role ambiguity (lack of clarity about responsibilities, expectations, and evaluation criteria)
  • Level of responsibility (having too much or not enough, or worse, having a lot of responsibility but no clear authority to carry out one's mandate)

 

To deal with the stress of role conflicts:

  • Have a clear, written job description for every employee you manage. Have annual performance reviews, and be very clear and specific regarding the criteria of excellent, average, or poor performance.
  • Protect staff members from "difficult" or demanding faculty. Do not allow faculty to be disrespectful to any staff, and don't allow staff members to be pulled into "tug-of wars" between multiple bosses. Give clear guidelines to help your departmental staff prioritize multiple demands on their time.
  • Do not give staff duties that they do not have the authority to carry out (i.e. supervising other staff when they have no real power over rewards or discipline).

 

Stressors from the organizational climate

  • Management style (organized/disorganized; predictable/unpredictable; a "stress conduit" or a "stress buffer")
  • Interpersonal relationships at work (cooperative and friendly, or competitive and tense)

To address organizational stressors, consider the following:

  • Some organizational problems are beyond your control, but you have influence over many factors that affect your staff. It is your responsibility to be a "stress buffer" by making your influence on the work environment a positive one. As a leader you should assume the roles of "planner, provider, and protector" for your staff. [4]
    Plan goals and projects wisely, and be sure that the necessary resources are allocated (i.e. adequate staffing, time, materials, equipment).
    Provide your staff with more than the information they need to meet the demands of their work. This includes adequate training for new information systems or technologies.
  • Protect your staff from the harmful policies or unenlightened decisions made by higher administration. Avoid dumping your stress about such matters on your staff, particularly since there is little they can do about it except feel stressed and powerless.
  • Never underestimate the influence you have on the climate of your office. Be cordial and respectful towards all your staff. Recognize and show appreciation for their hard work. If performance improvements are needed, give constructive feedback. Constructive feedback acknowledges what an individual is doing well, points out specifically what needs improving, and makes concrete suggestions on how to improve.
  • If office relationships are chronically tense or unfriendly, you must deal with the players involved. Long-standing feuds, bullies, chronic complainers, or social loafers (those who rely on the efforts of others and fail to contribute their own time, resources, or efforts to the group) are toxic to work environments. Your goal is to focus on the problem in terms of specific, observable behavior, not to make personal criticism. Thus, instead of noting that "you are lazy and not pulling your weight" (critical and vague), say, "you have not attended the last three team meetings and your weekly reports are usually late" (specific). Ask the employee to come up with a solution, if possible. If no solution is forthcoming, then you must proceed to "shape" the behavior by setting clear expectations for change, explaining the consequences of not changing, and having a plan to monitor progress.
  • Consider a referral to the Employee Assistance Program for employees who feel unable to manage stress effectively. The Employee Assistance Program can also help mediate interpersonal conflicts between staff. All services are free and confidential.
  1. Katzenbach, J., & Smith, D. (1994). The wisdom of teams: Creating the high performance organization. New York: Harper Collins.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Blair, G. (1996) Starting to manage: the essential skills. United Kingdom: IEEE Press.
 

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I have a faculty member who is not showing up in the office, missing classes, and seems to be having problems getting anything accomplished. Is there anything I can do?

This can be a tough situation, but it is important to confront the issue head-on. One of the best ways is to create a conversation related to the annual review and goal-setting meetings you have with the faculty member. Use them as a frame of reference for conversations about performance. For example, compare the faculty member's current effort to his goals and the department goals.

If he isn't on track, visit with him and express concern that he will not meet his goals for the year. This type of conversation, with a focus on the annual goals, gives you the chance to link the discussion to something concrete that you've shared together in planning his workload and activities for the year. It may also help get around any defensiveness and the awkwardness of starting a conversation on this topic because you can express natural concern as it relates to performance. Last, you can set up a follow-up meeting to discuss his progress.

Here are a number of other issues to consider in this type of situation:

  • This behavior could be a smokescreen for substance abuse. Your conversation with him lets him know it's being observed.
  • Look for patterns of behavior. Group the incidents and identify those that need attention due to their significance as opposed to minor "style" issues that can be ignored. Address those issues that have an impact on his performance and are not just a matter of a personal style that differs from yours (e.g., completing work at the last minute rather than having things done a week before the deadline).
  • Some students would rather drop a course or switch their major than confront chronic problems with professors. If you have severe cases, you might prevent students from dropping out of courses or even changing majors if you can correct this behavior. A conversation about the missed meetings or office hours establishes important groundwork with the faculty member and clearly sets the stage for appropriate practices.
  • Help him see the importance of smaller "routine issues" that may be a major inconvenience for others. He may be affecting others' ability to get work done by not showing up for committee meetings, missing meetings with students that other faculty have to cover for, leaving problems for others to address, etc. Start with a conversation that focuses on specific behaviors and their impact on others. It should allow you to address the issues when they are relatively small -- before they blow up in a crisis situation with students or other faculty members.
  • Basically get in early; work on problem-solving with the faculty member early on before this type of behavior becomes commonplace for him. It will be easier than trying to wrestle with established patterns later when they appear to become the accepted norm.
  • Establish a clear connection between behaviors and larger output issues tying his behavior to faculty productivity issues in your conversations. If you can connect the behavior to output, annual personal or departmental goals, progress toward tenure or promotion, etc. you can increase the likelihood of a positive impact.
  • This type of effort also allows you to practice preventive management. Preventive actions are much more productive than just focusing on the "squeaky wheel" people or issues. If you only focus on problems, you will always be dealing with crises and putting out fires.
  • Keep in mind that the department's goals and the faculty member's goals may be at odds. It is important to clearly articulate the important department and college goals so you can work to bring them into some sort of congruence.

 

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I have two faculty members who can't seem to get along. They are constantly battling with each other. What can I do?
  • Personality transplants for both would be nice, but unfortunately are unlikely. Probably the most productive approach is to focus your attention on the situations where their conflict most impedes the work of others (including support staff) or, negatively affects the department accomplishing specific goals. Swallow hard regarding the small, but irritating stuff. Be sure you know your own buttons, because these two individuals have polished pushing buttons to a fine art. Here are some suggested steps:
  • Find a face saving reason why both you and the persons in question need to address and change the existing negative behavior patterns. (For example, the University and federal funding agencies are prioritizing interdisciplinary grant applications, but no one in other departments wants to work with them.)
    Don't accept excuses for his/her emotional reactions to the other person.
    Focus on present and future expectations, not on the past.
  • Meet with each of them separately because your goal is to reach the self-respect and professional reputation values in each and these vary by individual. (Together, they would be baiting each other instead of attending to what you are saying.)
  • Focus on the specific problematic behaviors unique to the individual in front of you. (Make a list before the meeting to help you stay focused.)
  • Also describe the general categories for expected change. It will help each of them anticipate the type of situations where you will come down hard.
  • Concentrate on specific behaviors, not attitudes, when setting expected changes for each and keep the list short. (You don't want to expend energy playing mind games and make "baiting the chair" more fun than carping about/at each other.)
  • Follow up each meeting with a memo summarizing the "agreed upon" expectations. This follow-up memo serves as notice that you are serious about this change agenda and are starting a paper trail. Don't use an email note for this task; email notes can be modified and then forwarded to others and paper implies a level of seriousness that email notes do not.
  • Changing this situation will require some consistent, strong leadership that clearly defines when a particular behavior from either is out of line and why. Deal with each behavioral issue separately and in private with the individual so that it is more difficult to place the blame on others or on external circumstances.
  • Don't deal with a specific situation via a generalized complaint to a group; the offenders will ignore it and the others will feel abused and unappreciated.
    It is important to be clear that you are not expecting them to like each other or to socialize in non-work related situations.
  • If you take on this change agenda, be prepared to follow through with a consistent set of expectations for at least a year; it usually takes that long to change chronic behavior.
  • Remember the three year old who throws a temper tantrum at the store while watching out of the corner of his/her eye to see if you are going to do anything? You need to have some carefully thought out consequences in mind to apply in a non-reactive manner when a behavior persists that has been defined as out of line.
  • If one or both are explosive in style, pay attention to the behavior of other faculty who may enjoy baiting either or both, just to see the fireworks or to distract your attention from them. Individuals within a department take on roles that fit personal style and meet both individual needs and those of the department. When objectionable behaviors are of long standing, using a wide-angle lens to pay attention to the overall departmental dynamics is often productive. If what you see causes you concern, consider getting some consultation. The Employee Assistance Program or Human Resources may be able to make some useful suggestions.

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I have a faculty member who can not get along with anyone. She is constantly blaming others for her missed deadlines, poor teaching evaluations, and nonproductively. Is there anything I can do?

It sounds like you have hired someone with attributes that could be very useful to your department, but she is having difficulty developing the skills of self sufficiency and support staff diplomacy that are critical to surviving in an academic department. You appear to be faced with the age-old question of how much can you expect her to adapt to the culture of your department, and how much do you need to accommodate her style and ways of doing things. She apparently was productive under other conditions or you would not have hired her. I think you will need to work this problem from multiple points.

You will want to start with an individual session with her to talk about how it has been for her here at UM in this department. Explore what has gone well and what has been more difficult. Also explore what was available at her previous position that facilitated and supported her productivity. Probe for details, as needed, so that you begin to acquire an understanding of the specific differences between this situation and her past one. For example, having your own secretary can make a huge difference in being on time for meetings and appointments or buffering you from interruptions. (You will want to have another discussion with her later once you have a clearer sense of the issues and possible solutions.)

Once you begin to have an understanding, from her perspective, of the conditions under which she will probably thrive or at least survive, it is time to tackle support staff concerns. Academic departments vary widely in how support staff services are organized and provided to faculty. Some have one designated person coordinating requests and delegating tasks to other support staff; some assign individual staff to provide secretarial and support services to a selected group of faculty.

Talk to your administrative associate about your perceptions of your new faculty member's needs and how those could best be met within your department. Also be clear about the unique contributions she brings and how you want to devise a strategy to help her become successful in this setting. Your administrative associate probably will have some useful observations and suggestions to contribute to this problem solving process. Be clear, however, that while you are willing to consider non-traditional approaches, you will not let this individual run over support staff. Please note that women (and men to some extent) tend to expect a higher level of interpersonal and social skills from women and are offended when they don't occur. (The "absentminded professor" that everyone respected and worked around was male, NOT female.) If there has been little change among your support staff over the years, you may find them resistant to accommodating to the needs of a specific individual, stating that they "want to treat everyone equally." You may need to help them understand that treating everyone "fairly" so that all can be maximally productive, usually means attending to the specific needs of each individual and accommodating where possible.

Next, examine the culture in your department. Did you hire her as a "high flyer," hoping that she would spearhead a departmental culture change -- for example, in the direction of grant acquisition? If so, you may want to give a close look at the supporting infrastructure (or lack of it) for this new focus. Blaming the lead person on a new initiative for inability to accomplish new tasks in a non-supportive system is counterproductive. Not informing the support staff of a new departmental initiative will contribute to blaming the "change agent."

If there are only a few women and she is one of them, don't assume one of the others would be a good mentor. If you are attempting to change the departmental culture, the environment is very competitive or the personality styles are different, mentoring requested by you is not likely to be helpful. A productive, politically savvy faculty member of either gender might be able to provide some low-key useful advice. Introducing her to successful female faculty with similar missions in other departments might help her make useful connections. Then she can decide which relationships to follow up with as potentially helpful.

Now it is time to think through your sense of the issues and the possible solutions before talking again with your new faculty member. There probably will be areas in which you will need to ask her to change her style. Be specific and clear and explain why the requested changes are important and how changing will help her accomplish her goals. There are also things you can change within the department to support her agenda, some immediately and some within a more extended time frame. Commit to reviewing the situation within a specified time; you will need to continue to schedule these review sessions until you are assured that the needed changes have occurred in all the necessary areas. She will feel reassured in your interest in her welfare/productivity, and you are less likely to get blind sided by an unpleasant incident.

If she continues to have problems, consider a referral to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Services in this office are free and confidential. There may be things from her personal life that are affecting her performance and need attention. It would be inappropriate for her to tell you, her boss, the details. A referral to the EAP sometimes can have an enormously positive effect.

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I have heard that spouses or relatives can't work in the same department. Can relatives such as spouses work in the same department?

Yes, but you need to be careful to avoid violation of the University's policy on nepotism. University policies discourage this practice but permit it where the person is needed to perform University services and appears to be the best qualified person available, except:

  1. Where a prospective employee is related to a University employee who would be his or her administrative superior.
  2. Where the relative of a supervisor in one department is employed in another department and where a prospective employee for the first department is related to a supervisor in the other department. For example, if the son of the Chemistry Department Chair is employed in the Physics Department, the Physics Department Chair's daughter can not be employed in the Chemistry Department (i.e., you hire my son and I will hire your daughter).

For more information about nepotism see the University of Missouri Collected Rules and Regulations Section 320.040.

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If I have a staff member who is not performing adequately, can he or she be terminated immediately, without the need for further review?

Only if the actions are considered to be egregious enough to merit it. Where problems with employee behavior or performance arise, a supervisor should seek to correct the problem with the least amount of disruption to the work environment. Furthermore, department chairs should consult their campus Human Resource offices about the University and campus policies , standard operating practices, or a variety of possible strategies that might be appropriate.

When necessary, the staff discipline process normally used at the University is referred to as "progressive discipline" and may include oral warning, written warning, suspension, and ultimately discharge. Employees who function in executive, administrative, managerial, professional and supervisory positions are not typically subject to progressive discipline.

The goals of progressive discipline are to: inform the employee of inadequacies in performance or instances of improper behavior; clarify what constitutes satisfactory performance or behavior; instruct the employee on what action must be taken to correct the performance or behavior problem; and inform the employee of what action will be taken in the future if the expectations are not met.

In some extreme situations employees may be discharged for incidents that are serious enough to warrant discharge. This could include such things as theft, intoxication on the job, conviction of a felony, violence or the threat of violence, willful damage to University property, as well as others.

When allegations are serious enough to merit summary discharge, it is usually advisable to suspend an employee, pending investigation. This suspension is for the purpose of investigating the problem and conferring with appropriate officials regarding the decision to discharge, and should be so communicated to the employee.

For more information about the disciplinary processes consult the Human Resources Manual Section 601.

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Reviewed 2014-08-28.