HR expert says scrap 'off-the-shelf' appraisals

September 21, 2007

Universities risk alienating staff by not tailoring performance management to the unique nature of academic life, an employment specialist has warned.

A survey of 192 institutions by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association last year found that 81 per cent of institutions were implementing new systems of performance management or were considering it.

There is, however, resentment among many academic staff who say that their output cannot be as easily quantified as it can in the private sector.

Peter Reilly, director of human resources research and consultancy at the Institute for Employment, said universities must be aware that what might work for the private sector may be wrong for higher education.

"Performance management needs to reflect the fact that there is a diverse workforce, not just in terms of gender and so on, but in the sort of jobs that they do. It's not a case of one size fits all.

"Around 50 per cent of university staff are non academic, so what might work with technicians and estates staff might not with academics."

Mr Reilly, who presented his views to the Universities Personnel Association annual conference last week, said universities often made the mistake of having the same performance management system so that they were seen to be treating all staff equally.

Performance management must exist within a robust framework, he said, but could be adapted to academic life.

"The common approach to performance management has been to try to identify the competences needed for a particular job and to assess people against those competences and identify shortcomings.

"In the past two years there has been a 'positive psychology' approach, in which there is a concentration on people's strengths.

"In universities there are some academics who will have strengths in teaching and research but are not good managers. Do we say, 'Because you're not a good manager that means you can't do your job'? Or should we say, 'We will maximise your strengths'?"

Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, said universities themselves were realising that what he described as an "off the shelf" approach to performance management would not work.

"Universities are different from Unilever. They are not product-focused, and it has to be recognised that the culture is that of a pluralistic community."

But he recognised that the words "performance management" still get academics' backs up. "Maybe someone should invent a new phrase to describe it so it doesn't provoke this sort of Pavlovian reaction."

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said: "Universities are not private companies and should not be run in the same way. It is refreshing to hear people involved in the human resources side recognising that fact.

"It makes sense for any organisation to make full use of all the talent at its disposal, and that includes academics sitting on the board of governors, university senate and so on."

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