As a new professional, I’ve always imagined that at some point I would have to address work performance issues with my student staff. However, I had no idea just how nuanced and difficult that task would be. Like most departments in our field, yours probably has a structure for addressing issues of student work performance. Whether they be Orientation Leaders, Resident Assistants, or Admissions Guides, the process probably looks a little something like this: Verbal Warning, Written Warning, Probation, and Termination.
If you’re anything like me, you’re asking yourself, “Whoa, how did we get to probation?!” Certainly, for those more clear cut violations of protocol, I think it’s easier to make your way through these steps, but what about issues like communication or organization? We’re not talking about missing meetings without notice, failing to do rounds, or sharing confidential information. We’re talking about not returning emails or phone calls for long periods of time, or forgetting about deadlines for bulletin boards and programming paperwork. Hardly the grounds for termination in my view. In my particular department, our student staff are different from traditional Resident Assistants. Culturally, there hasn’t been as much emphasis on the more administrative tasks. While that seems to be slowly changing, I struggle with how to approach students’ shortcomings in these areas.
How many times do we let a student fail, without correction, before it becomes detrimental to their growth and success?
How many times can you have the, “I would encourage you to work on this…” conversation without seeing a behavioral change?
My approach thus far has been utilizing formal performance evaluations as a platform for these conversations. In the past, I’ve always viewed these evaluations as a formality, mostly because that is how they’ve been presented to me. However, I’m starting to see these as a valuable tool for shaping and steering student performance. I’ve started to use a 360° approach to performance evaluation, utilizing peer feedback, self-evaluation, and my own perspective as a supervisor. I work with the student to compare their performance across many areas of involvement, including academics and extracurriculars. I think this approach allows the student to evaluate for themselves what work they are prioritizing, and what they may be neglecting.
From there, we identify the things that are going well, and then get down to business on what should be improved. Where possible, I provide tools or strategies for overcoming the performance issues as a way to get the ball rolling. After all, this should be a team approach and I don’t believe in sending a student on their way with the assumption that they are automatically going to know what to do with my feedback. (If you’re interested in improving your approach to giving feedback, Roger Schwartz wrote a fantastic article about this for the Harvard Business Review.)
While the performance evaluation is all well and good, my real question lies in the time after that meeting when I continue to see mistakes. I’m searching in the huge gray area between outstanding, superstar students and the ones who break the major rules. When is enough, enough? Where do you draw the line?
If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to think about how you challenge the students who are challenging you.