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April 30, 2001

Review system builds teamwork

Kitty McNeill is the Oxford College librarian


For many individuals, performance reviews have a negative connotation. The mere mention of the word “review” causes fear and trepidation. Others believe performance reviews are meaningless rating systems that have no true connection to the work of the individual and the organization.

During the past two years, I have led the effort to develop a new Performance Development and Review System (PDRS) for the staff at Oxford College. Why would the college librarian be interested in developing a new review system for staff? More on this question later.

All review systems have their strengths and weaknesses. How-ever, I believe an effective, positive review system can serve as a framework that supports the work and the mission of the institution. To be effective, the system must be designed to fit the needs of both the organization and the individual.

In August 2000, I attended the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Harvard Leadership Institute. In one of the primary texts for the institute, Reframing Organizations, Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal describe their four-frame model—the structural, political, human resource and symbolic—for understanding and leading organizations. They believe that by understanding the human resource frame, “organizations can . . . be energizing, productive and mutually rewarding.”
“Organizations exist to serve human needs rather than the reverse,” the authors state. “People and organizations need each other: organizations need ideas, energy and talent; people need careers, salaries and opportunities. When the fit between individual and system is poor, one or both suffer: individuals will be exploited or will exploit the organization—or both will become victims. A good fit benefits both: Individuals find meaningful and satisfying work, and organizations get the talent and energy they need to succeed.”

The PDRS we developed at Oxford benefits both the individual and the organization. We framed the process around a key statement from Oxford’s strategic plan: “Oxford College is a community of learning characterized by intellectual vitality and freedom, individual responsibility, personal care and mutual trust.”

In support of this statement, we wanted a system that would foster open communication and trust,help individuals understand their important roles in accomplishing the college’s educational mission and goals, empower individuals, and provide growth and development opportunities for our staff. We developed a set of key objectives, everything from communicating goals and objectives to defining individual roles to coaching and mentoring—along with, of course, evaluating performance. In order to accomplish these objectives, we identified three key components: self-reflection, goal setting and feedback.

The review process begins with self-reflection. Staff members reflect on their work of the past year, record major accomplishments relating to their goals, comment on their strengths, identify areas they would like to enhance or improve, and list professional development programs they would like Oxford to offer.

Next, employees set goals for the following year by reflecting on their roles within the department and determining how they will personally contribute to the accomplishment of the college’s goals.
The most important part of the process is the opportunity for both the staff member and the supervisor to provide written and verbal feedback to one another. For example, as a part of their self-reflection, staff members respond in writing to several questions such as, “How can I, as your supervisor, change or improve my performance/behavior in order to improve your job satisfaction and performance?” The answers to this question and others provide a starting point to the conversation between individual and supervisor and form a basis for developing an environment of open communication, trust and collaboration.

Why was the implementation of this new process at Oxford successful? We have a dedicated, stable staff of 81 people committed to the mission of the college and to the support of our students and faculty. We involved staff at all levels in the development of the new review document and process. During the second year, we continued to ask for input and responded to suggestions by shortening the document and simplifying the process.

With the assistance of Sonji Boston, training associate for Human Resources on the Atlanta campus, we helped both staff and supervisors understand the new review process, goal setting and (most importantly) how to give and receive constructive feedback.

In the second year and with the expert assistance of Jim Brown, Oxford’s director of academic computing, we developed an electronic performance review document and an easy, convenient and secure submission process using LearnLink. (Incidentally, as an added benefit, every Oxford staff member now has a LearnLink account; again, we provided training and clear, written procedures for support.)

We committed to providing development opportunities on the Oxford campus so individuals from our various departments could interact with and learn from each other. This year we offered the “Frontline Leadership” and “Working for Excellence” programs to signify the importance of staff development and the integral role each individual plays in Oxford’s success.

Most importantly, we are committed to following through with suggestions and needs identified during the PDRS and to finding ways to reward exceptional performance.

What are some happy endings to this story? The performance review—once an annual form that was completed, filed and forgotten—is now a positive process that guides and supports our work throughout the year. Individuals are identifying and receiving the support they need to enhance their performance, growth and job satisfaction. Building on new relationships formed during development classes, individuals from different departments are communicating, sharing ideas and collaborating on new ways to support the college.

To answer my original question, why would I be interested in developing a new review system for staff? I believe each individual plays an important role in the success of our institution. Developing this new program is one way I can help find positive ways to support and develop our vital human resources at Emory.


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