Performance Development Review
Cardiff UCU has run a follow up survey to invite feedback on PDR now that most members of staff have experienced the process. This survey used specific questions with which respondents could rate their level of agreement and also invited free text comments. The survey opened in mid-September, and nearly 300 responses were received, including hundreds of free text comments.
The survey asked questions under five main headings that asked respondents to evaluate their impressions about: (i) aims of PDR; (ii) PDR’s enhancement of development and performance; (iii) the integration of personal and institutional objectives; (iv) equality and diversity aspects of the new procedure; (v) adequacy of training for the new process.
Responses to these questions varied, some more positive, others more negative. In contrast, more than 90% of free text comments were mostly critical of PDR (and this report will propose an explanation for this).
On the aims of PDR, responses could perhaps be interpreted as a glass half full. Just over 50% of those who took part in the survey agreed that the PDR process had allowed them to reflect on their needs in a supportive way, and 56% of respondents agreed that PDR has fostered honesty between reviewee and manager. In contrast, there was strong agreement that PDR had unintended negative impacts and failed to enhance development and performance. Eighty percent of respondents felt that the process left them feeling monitored, and a similar number of respondents agreed that performance assessment was an anxiety-provoking part of PDR. Eighty seven percent agreed that PDR was not about development but was about managing performance. With respect to E+D, 67% of respondents did not feel confident that reasonable adjustments would be available within the workload model (WLM), and 65% felt that PDR did not offer an opportunity to talk about wellbeing. On training, over half of respondents agreed that training was timely (54%), but a majority did not agree that the training was adequate (58%).
It is clear from analysis of the numerical and discursive comments that a good relationship with a supportive line manager was linked to a better appraisal of the PDR system, rather than good ratings for the system itself. Furthermore where difficult working relationships already exist, these may be further exacerbated by the PDR process. That is, the positive feelings about the PDR process are a measure of good working relationships between employees; when the focus is PDR as a process, the feelings expressed are overwhelmingly negative. This is neatly summarised in some of the free text comments, which raise issues such as the relationship between reviewer and reviewee, and the damaging impact on morale and stress. For example:
PDR depends a lot on the character and integrity of the reviewer. I had a particularly good one (who is opposed to PDR).
My line manager is very supportive, but PDR is not. Given my line manager’s “powers” are limited, they cannot counterbalance the negative PDR impact.
I feel that my manager did not have a good enough knowledge of the PDR for me to get the most out of it.
Many of us are at breaking point.
Morale is at an all-time low.
The PDR makes me feel inadequate and has affected my motivation.
I have trouble sleeping and feel sick with worry.
A significant and worrying number of respondents report ill effects on their wellbeing. Given the University’s recent commitment to managing stress and bulling, the contribution PDR seems to be making to increased anxiety, stress, and demoralisation ought to be a source of concern.
In the interval between this and the last survey that UCU conducted last spring, a number of issues remain constant. For example, the issue of the poor deign of the form comes up again. So too does the sense that the PDR process is not well aligned with the cycle of the academic year:
The timing was all wrong! Targets are set Jan-Dec but duties are allocated Sept-Aug.
The issue of the process seeming to have been introduced with little or no consensus also remains present, as does the concern that PDR is a management system that is more amenable to misuse by bullies than appraisal was.
A number of new issues have also been raised, as was to be expected in view of employees’ opportunity to reflect on PDR in practice as well as in theory. These relate to perceptions of Cardiff University as an employer, emphasis on performance not development, as shown in the following comments:
It now feels like working in a factory.
Cardiff University’s work-life balance exists only on paper.
Every development opportunity requested was refused with no further discussion or negotiation allowed.
My ideas for my development were not taken on board and I did not feel praised at all.
Comments also highlighted perceptions that the process was open to post-hoc alterations by management, with no recourse to challenge such decisions. One of these concerns the fact that reviewers are themselves subject to a review of their reviews, leading to cases where the agreement that had been reached in a PDR meeting was subsequently overturned. There is also the perception that employees from the protected characteristics groups, when allowed to contribute to the reviewing process, are not trusted to make reliable evaluations of performance. There were also suggestions that the number of employees who can be rated as achieving above expectation is capped.
A key concern highlighted is the issue of gaming the system: there is a perception that PDR measures how skilful people are in doing well at PDR and that those who work equally hard and achieve as much lose out from poor bureaucracy skills lose out from lack of belief or confidence in their own abilities or a lack of knowledge/understanding about how to ‘play’ the process There was also evidence that reviewees were inclined to set base targets rather than aspirational targets for fear of failing within the next review period.
The primary conclusion that can be drawn from analysis of the discursive and numerical data from the survey is that employees have not been persuaded that the new management system is primarily about development. While there is a range of opinion on other themes, especially those contingent upon personal relationships and not process, as outlined above, this a key concern identified from the most recent survey.
Finally, many of the comments that do not address poor morale, stress, anxiety, and bullying have to do with the disconnection between PDR and workload modelling, and the impression that the plan to fuse the two systems has, if anything, made the achievement of a reasonable work-life balance more difficult rather than easier. Independently of the references to PDR, many of the comments express concern about a culture of overwork, presentee-ism, and fear.
If Cardiff UCU is to represent members’ views accurately and fairly, it seems incumbent on the branch to continue to be critical of the process. The clearest figures to emerge from the most recent survey are that 87% of respondents thought that PDR is about managing performance and not development, and 68% felt that PDR is adversarial.