The Problem. A team of five administrative staff members processes a lot of complex paperwork requiring great attention to detail. They also answer telephone and in-person questions from the public. Their supervisor, Henrietta, works in a nearby office, but not right in with the rest of the group whose desks are all in one larger area. She is also in charge of two other work groups, each of which is situated in an separate open area nearby.
Whenever there is staff turnover, the remaining staff members train the new person, and report to Henrietta on the newcomer’s progress. Henrietta was promoted from one of the groups, but does not know the work of the others very well. As a result, she relies on more experienced staff to tell her how newer staff are doing. She uses this information to evaluate staff performance and determine when discipline is needed. As might be expected, this creates resentment, conflict and distrust among staff members, and sets them against one another. Additionally, Henrietta really has no way to evaluate the work of senior staff – she just assumes it’s outstanding unless she receives complaints.
Henrietta also uses the ‘exception’ approach as an additional basis for appraisals. That is, she puts whatever she hears from outside the group (usually a complaint against someone) into the evaluation because, other than comments from staff colleagues, that’s pretty much all the information she has. So, if she hears a negative comment about someone, it finds its way into the performance appraisal as if it represents that person’s overall performance, whether or not it really does. Since both promotions and raises are based on performance ratings, this matters a lot. Not surprisingly, staff are very resentful of her approach.
The Solution. Though it may seem that Henrietta ought to change ways, in the end this is a tough work structure problem, not a personnel issue. Even if Henrietta leaves and a new supervisor is hired, the situation will not be resolved. The next person in her position will likely come from one of the work groups and still not know the work of all three units. That person will still have to rely on others for input on staff performance unless the systems is changed.
So, until a fair evaluation system is developed (one that does not rely on colleagues reporting on each other, or on the ‘exception’ approach), the problems will continue. Two possible solutions include:
- Creating a lead position in each work group so that the person responsible for training and evaluation physically sits in the work group and has experience with the work.
- Establishing objective criteria for evaluation, including a way to measure volume of work, kind and severity of mistakes, customer service and other key work requirements.
Since everyone in the three work groups is well aware of these problems, they should be involved in developing solutions. Henrietta (possibly with the help of an outside facilitator so she can better participate) should meet with her staff and brainstorm better ways to evaluate performance, pilot the results, and finally develop a system that all feel is workable, fair, and equitable. ~DS