A Conversation on Change

Published: Wednesday 29th October 2014

Associate Professor Karen Nightingale After nearly 30 years of working in tertiary education, ACU’s Associate Professor Karen Nightingale has seen many changes in professional development for teaching staff.
In the latest installment of A Conversation on Change, we talk to her about career development, and why performance reviews are vital for both managers and staff.

“In my very early days of working as an academic, you did not have such a thing as a performance review.  You just got into trouble when you did something wrong!” Karen said.

Karen believes the shift towards more formal processes for performance review and career development supports both career progression and excellence in teaching.   Karen joined ACU in 2010 as a Deputy Head of School within the School of Nursing, Midwifery & Paramedicine.  Her role has since evolved into State Head of School (VIC) - and in the last three years she has become responsible for conducting annual Performance Review and Planning programs (PRPs) for approximately 60 staff members, who span three disciplines and two campuses.

Previous to ACU, Karen worked at four other universities, affording her an insight into a variety of career development practices within the sector.    She says performance review processes in previous workplaces were not so effective for a range of reasons, including how they were valued by management and staff as well as how staff were engaged in the process and guided through the preparation involved.  

“Reviews at ACU are more structured than at some of my previous workplaces and are a condition of an academic’s employment.  Yet when I arrived here, I found that often staff avoided their review meeting because of the paperwork,” Karen said.

PRP requirements include a review of a staff member’s work for the past year, where staff are given a performance rating which indicates if they have ‘not met’, ‘met some’, ‘met all’ or ‘exceeded most’ of their performance objectives - or if they have achieved ‘outstanding’ performance.  Karen says the first year of conducting PRPs was a real learning curve - and giving ratings was difficult due to the lack of objectives set by staff, and any evidence to support their achievements.

“Staff members were very concerned about how they would be assessed for ratings. In addition, PRP meetings were often cancelled or rescheduled by staff because their paperwork was not yet ready.”

Karen resolved to make the process easier and clearer to follow for the next year: “I also like to know that the decisions that I am making are as fair, reasonable and objective as possible.”

After reading through PRP forms, career-focussed statements, promotion criteria and the Minimum Standards for Academic Levels (MSALS), Karen condensed the information into a short guidelines template.  The template set out tangible objectives and evidence for the four areas of Teaching and Learning, Research, Leadership and Service, and Professional and Community Engagement for each separate Academic Level.  Working with Human Resources, Karen ensured the streamlined template was a good fit with policy requirements before introducing it to academic staff in the next round of PRPs.

“This has helped staff to realistically review the requirements of their role, reflect on their achievements and complete the paperwork aspect.” said Karen, who has been able to achieve an on-time 100% completion rate of staff PRPs since the introduction of the template.

Career conversations

“The PRP conversation is really important in making staff feel valued and that they are doing a good job in their role, and to know the pathways and goalposts for how to advance their career.  Understanding where your staff members are headed is also helpful for managers with regard to workforce planning.”

“I usually have an hour minimum with each staff member for the PRP meeting, and we talk about what they want to achieve and what I can help them with. We talk frankly about my views on where they are and their performance, and I try to offer some guidance and mentoring.  Staff also have the opportunity to add their own comments in response to my feedback on the PRP form before it is finalised."

Karen says the PRP is also an opportunity for staff to make the link between their day-to-day work and the broader objectives of the University in the continual pursuit of excellence in teaching.

“I encourage staff to attend big-picture events - like the Vice-Chancellor’s talks and industry events that showcase innovative success stories from across the sector.  People need to be inspired and encouraged to actually take the risk in implementing these innovations or their own ideas.  We also still need to value the role that research plays in informing our teaching and improving the content that we deliver to students.  Teaching academics also need to be putting themselves up for teaching and learning grants, and for teaching awards.”

Getting ready for your PRP

Staff and managers are encouraged to attend an upcoming PRP information session to gain an overview of the process and to help them prepare for effective PRP meetings.

Karen’s tips for effective PRP conversations:

For staff

  • Get a clear view:  Look at classification criteria for your level and to be clear on the requirements for your role. 
  • Back up your achievements: If you are unsure about what examples are required to show your achievements for the year - seek clarification from your supervisor on the best documentation to provide.
  • Go for a stretch: “For a performance rating of ‘exceeded expectations’ or ‘outstanding’, lining up your objectives and stretch goals is really important,” Karen said.  Consider what you could aim for in the criteria for the next level up and incorporate this into your goals.
  • Build an electronic portfolio:  Use your PRP to build the documentation in your professional portfolio each year.  “If you are going for promotion in the future, it is good to keep a record of this evidence all in one place that is easy to access.”

For supervisors

  • Know your staff: The PRP is one element in a broader approach to supporting your staff, and Karen recommends a pro-active approach to staying in touch throughout the year.   “Once a week I do a walk-around to ask people how they are going.  I have an open-door policy when I am in the office - and can be contacted by phone also.”  Karen is based on the Melbourne campus, but visits her staff on Ballarat campus for a full day at least once a month.
  • Start early and have a system:  Karen works closely with her professional staff to pre-plan for PRPs, and uses a spreadsheet to keep track of the process. “We put appointments into my diary early on and reschedule PRP meetings very quickly where needed.  After the meeting, we forward the PRP document in PDF format to HR.”  Filing completed PRPs with HR helps the University plan the most appropriate professional development and training events for the year ahead.
  • Seek feedback:  Check how the PRP process is being received by your staff and if there are improvements that may help in the future.  “I really want things to be user-friendly and helpful for staff in developing their career.”
  • Use joint problem-solving:  Karen says an important part of being a leader is also being able to manage staff members who have not been able to meet job requirements satisfactorily.  Maintain an open and supportive environment so the staff member can reflect and suggest solutions:  “If there have been some issues, I usually have already had some conversations with the staff member prior to us getting to a PRP meeting, so there are no surprises. We do have a frank conversation and I try to get them to reflect on what is happening for them and to be solution-focussed.  It is about understanding that unless something changes, we will end up with the same things reoccurring.  Performance issues can often occur in the context of other things happening in a person’s life, so it is important to understand that context."