Monday Paper spoke to DVC Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo about how the new 'exceeds' category of the performance ratings will work.
MP: What was the motivation behind the Exceeds ratings?
TN: When the performance bands were collapsed from seven to three, the need was identified to cater for staff whose exceptional performance in any given year went beyond the expectations reflected in the top band.
MP: The common phrase doing the rounds is that staff who wish to earn such ratings should be of the walking-on-water type - is that, more or less, what's expected?
TN: "Walking on water" is a popular phrase at UCT and, to the extent that it describes, in a rather exaggerated metaphor, exceptional achievement in the workplace, it is appropriate. The substantive agreement with the Union in 2010 introduced a shift of the benchmark from the 50th percentile of the national all-jobs market for all staff in payclasses 5-12 to the 60th, which is now the 'A' category, and which has raised the bar in terms of performance expectations. Someone rated A is expected to meet all job requirements and occasionally to exceed them. Our best workers are in the A category. Clearly then, an 'Exceeds' award marks out somebody who has had a truly exceptional and outstanding year. It is understandable that such a performance is sometimes described as walking on water. It should be remembered that the mischief of the old system was that it was always an impossible sell to convince line managers that your best people were in the '4' category. Being symbolically bang in the middle of a seven-tier structure, '4' was always going to come across as 'average' or 'mediocre', and line managers felt the pressure to give higher and higher ratings for ordinary performance. The current system solves this problem by making it clear that our best performers are to be found in the A category. Anything above that needs to be exceptional.
MP: Let's see if we can put this in relatively concrete terms - let's assume we have three PAs who answer their phones professionally, run their managers' diaries, take minutes from meetings, and generally do a stand-out job on all their tasks. What kind of thing would they have to do to be walking on water?
TN: Good question. Three excellent PAs, all with solid A-ratings as described above. What may distinguish one of them (let us call him or her X) from the others is if one of two things happens: (i) during the performance cycle there was an incident, event or other opportunity to shine which X grabbed with both hands and went on to score the try. An example would be where X's principal gets involved in hosting a big international conference at UCT and, beyond his or her ordinary duties, X is drawn into the process over a period of time and acquits himself or herself excellently, to the benefit of the department or faculty or its reputation; or (ii) in the absence of some defining incident, X puts in an incredible year even beyond his or her own high standards, frequently exceeding most of his or her objectives or excelling at extra tasks, such as those that might result (for instance) from unfilled vacancies elsewhere in the department. The point that needs to be emphasised is that there should be no expectation that the special circumstances leading to an award in one year will be repeated in future years. Except for the few instances where exceptional talent leads to exceptional performance year on year, the majority of good people at UCT should expect an A-rated career, punctuated by those occasions where their response to truly exceptional circumstances draws applause and appropriate recognition.
MP: What matters most for such Exceeds ratings - how much you do, or how you do it?
TN: It could be both. 'How much' may recognise the volume of what was done over and above ordinary job expectations, whether this was in the form of consistent performance over the year, or a once-off response to exceptional circumstances 'How' would be judged against the same yardstick.
MP: Among the numbers that come up in the PPS documents are that about 10% of staff would fit the Exceeds 1 bill, while another 5% would meet the criteria for Exceeds 2. Of PASS staff of, say, around 2 600, that's close on 400 people who would receive such ratings. Is the university comfortable with that number - is that a Goldilocks number, ie not too big, not too small but just right?
TN: This is the first time we are using this system and the guidelines were set using the historical data on general distribution curves in respect of performance. This year's process should tell us whether this number was the right one to use.
MP: One of the initiatives of the new PPS to address the concerns about managerial favouritism is that colleagues can nominate a particular staff member - how much does that colleague nomination or motivation count for, because don't managers make the final decisions anyway?
TN: This is a difficult one. While acknowledging the Union's argument to widen the nomination process for 'Exceeds' awards, we are also mindful of the immense practical problems of this approach. My answers to your questions above all indicate that an 'Exceeds' award should be seen as something special, a principle that may not always be adhered to where people are able to nominate colleagues or themselves. The safety valve of letting unsupported nominations go forward to the central consistency check has its own problems: what justification would there be for a remote body sitting in Bremner to overrule structures closer to the nominees and their work? For this year, the nominations not supported by the line managers or by localised consistency checks will be reviewed by the central consistency check. I expect discussion around the wisdom of this approach to continue into 2012.
MP: Apparently the Employees' Union did ask whether the names of the Exceeds staff would be made public, whether in Monday Paper or just in respective departments? (Not the size of the rewards, obviously, just their names.) Wouldn't that take away some of the secrecy that seems to surround PPS ratings, and perhaps stop the rumour mill in its tracks, at least partly? And wouldn't it also, perhaps, point out to colleagues exactly where the bar is set?
TN: This is sometimes a complex issue. A commitment to transparency is always a good thing but sometimes it bumps up against the requirements of confidentiality (you refer to it as 'secrecy'). On balance I think as we try to embed this new system we should err on the side of more, rather than less, transparency.
MP: What, to your mind, would suggest to you that the system is effective, fair and that it works?
TN: We have reached agreement with the Union that we all have to work hard to ensure consistency of application and to monitor and review all stages of the process. To support this, we have also agreed on training and testing of staff applying the system, the production of a resource guide to all line managers, and the strengthening of the appeals process and of reporting on non-compliance by both HRAs and the Union.
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