Who’s the Boss?

You’ve answered several questions about faculty, but what about working with staff? In my case, I have a departmental secretary/program administrator who has been with us for over a decade. Her performance isn’t terrible, and tasks do get completed, but the pace of work is just so slow. Often, though again not always, I need to remind her to get started or follow up on things I’ve asked her to do. This has been a pattern for some time, and like most faculty in our department I’d just previously learned to live with it. Now as chair I find the impact on my work and frustration levels to be more noticeable. Short of beginning my college’s multi-stage formal staff performance review process (itself a time suck by all accounts), what can I do to manage this situation?—Professor Boss

Dear Professor Boss,

One thing that we learn as chairs is how crucial support staff are to our day-to-day lives, for better and for worse. When a chair has a fantastic departmental administrator, the job is infinitely easier. But when a chair has to work with an administrative assistant who is inefficient, unreliable, or even hostile, things get very difficult very fast.

I know this is an obvious question, but have you actually spoken to your assistant about her performance? Does she know that you’re unhappy with the quality of her work? Since, as you’ve said, the department’s tendency has been to put up with it, it may be that she doesn’t have a clue about the causes of your frustration and just thinks you’re cranky. When we talk about difficult conversations we imagine them to be with colleagues, but they are equally difficult with administrative staff. Right now, that’s a conversation you need to have.

Since you’re a newish chair, use your inexperience to your advantage. Set up one-on-one meetings with all the departmental admin staff, from work study students to this assistant, to learn about what they do (depending on the size of your department this might happen over the course of a week or in a single day). If there are formal job descriptions for their positions, you can use those as reference points for your conversation. If there aren’t any job descriptions, now’s the time to use these meetings to craft them.

You want better response times and follow up? Ask her what the previous chair expected in terms of work turnaround. I expect she’ll say that there wasn’t anything explicit and things were fine. Now’s your chance. You can say something like “I’m not as multitalented as my predecessor — I know s/he could keep everything in his/her head and keep track of all kinds of deadlines. I find that I need to have things more planned out. So let’s figure out a system by which we can chart out what needs to be done when.” You could institute weekly check-in meetings on Monday mornings in which the two of you go over the tasks for the week.

I know this is more work for you upfront, but I do have sympathy for your assistant. No one has complained about her work, and your unhappiness may come as a real shock to her. She needs a structure that will support the kinds of changes you want.

One final change you might want to implement is annual in-house performance reviews for staff. It seems like your options right now are onerous institutional reviews or nothing. That’s bad for everyone, and means that employees have no reliable source for information about their performance and get reviewed by their supervisors only when something is wrong. If you normalize a yearly review process, then problems can come up in a much lower-stakes context. Plus you also have a venue in which you can record improvements and good performance. And if matters don’t improve, you have a paper trail to track suggestions that you’ve made that your assistant hasn’t implemented.

1 Comment

  • In the same boat says:

    A good staff is the main reason I agreed to stand for Chair. Faculty are almost all inexperienced in formal evaluations, and the new one-size-fits all computer systems don’t help. Our “multi-stage formal staff performance review process” is also a time-suck, confusing, and ultimately pointless as “goals” have to be “aligned” to the vagaries of the university “strategic plan” which at a very large complex university is basically a pile of platitudes. (We won’t discuss the bugs in the new software.) An in-house review would be better–but would going that route cause any problems with HR should any action be required?

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