What to do with underachievers?
Our decision to move to semester contracts stemmed from the frustration that many supervisors of paraprofessional staff share: how do you contend with the handful of resident assistants who simply are not doing their jobs? At the conference, heads nodded in agreement as we talked about the time and energy that we spend goading some staff members into fulfilling only the basic requirements of their jobs. We try our best to catch them up to speed and provide them with extra training and support they need to succeed, but in the end they simply don’t show improvement. In professional staff meetings, we sometimes joked that things would be easier if we had semester contracts. In December, anyone who wasn’t performing well would be asked to leave. It seemed like a simple solution to an on-going problem, and eventually the joking gave way to some serious consideration about the other benefits that went along with semester contracts.
Not renewing someone’s contract for reasons of poor performance is an appealing solution from an administrator’s perspective. Semester contracts can be equally appealing form a student perspective. Imagine that you’ve entered into a yearlong contract and, after a few months of doing the job, you find that it wasn’t what you expected. Many student leaders simply won’t quit doing a job, even if they’re not doing it well. Oftentimes, with the spring semester looming ahead, these RAs return from break with less energy for the position than they had in the fall. Semester contracts provide an “out” for students who recognize that being an RA was not a good fit.
Yearlong contracts can also deter some student leaders from exploring the resident assistant job. Unlike leadership positions in clubs and student organizations, at most schools the RA position comes with a contract that spans the entire academic year. Moving to semester contracts can increase your RA applicant pool by attracting a new crowd of student leaders who may be very interested in trying a RA position for one semester.
A final benefit to semester contracts at Franklin & Marshall College is tied to our president’s new study abroad initiative of having every student complete an off-campus study experience before graduating. Staying tied to yearlong contracts placed us at odds with our own study abroad program, since both offices were competing for participation from upper class students. Each year, many of our RA candidates removed themselves from the applicant pool to participate in a fall study abroad program, or in anticipation of a spring experience. With the advent of semester contracts and some marketing, we let our applicants know that they could do both.
Adjustments we had to make
Once we decided to move to semester contracts, our professional staff spent quite a bit of time mapping out our semester and talking about what adjustments would need to be made.
Our most significant change involved adjusting our staff evaluation period. With yearlong contracts, our department had always conducted staff evaluations (which consist of self evaluations, supervisory evaluations, peer evaluations and a needs improvement plan) after Thanksgiving break. A move to semester contracts meant some necessary timeline changes to help struggling staffers improve their performance. Faced with the possibility of releasing a staff member from her or his contract in December, we thought it important to provide resident assistants with ample opportunity and support to make legitimate changes in their performance. Experience also told us that working with challenged RAs to make improvements and then sending them home for a month (during which we’re not expecting them to work on their performance) was not conducive to solid, overall improvement. With yearlong contracts and late evaluation periods, many of our struggling resident assistants were returning from winter break performing at a level similar to where they had started before their evaluation. In the end, we decided to move our evaluation period from late November to mid-October. This provided supervisors of RAs nearly two months to help their RAs improve their performance.
If you decide you’re not going to renew someone’s contract, you need a strong candidate pool from which to select new RAs. One benefit for us is that our department has a history of employing excellent alternate RAs to fill vacancies. During RA selection, our department reviews our entire candidate pool and hires everyone who is a qualified candidate. Our resident directors then staff their buildings from the hire pool, and any remaining candidates are offered alternate positions. Opening the doors for people to leave at semester, however, was uncharted territory and we wanted to make sure we had a larger-than-normal pool of applicants. Rather than starting our Resident Assistant selection process in January, we moved our timeline forward and began our new staff recruiting process in early November. A small change to our on-line application asked candidates if they would like to be considered for positions during the spring 2004 semester, should we have any openings.
A final adjustment involved our winter training schedule. For our department, winter training traditionally served as a vehicle for filling gaps that hadn’t been covered during August training, addressing issues that had presented challenges to the staff during the fall semester and reenergizing staff. Placing new staff members into the mix meant that we would need to find clever ways of revisiting some of the basics of the job without providing redundant training to our returning staff. This was achieved by running concurrent training sessions in which new RAs learned the basics of the position while returners revisited some challenge areas. By incorporating peer-learning structures into our training, we taught our new staff members about the resident assistant position, while giving our returners a chance to brush up on the job through teaching. Peer teaching allowed us to cover areas such as staff manual review, duty responsibilities and floor meeting facilitation in a relaxed, one-on-one setting. Finally, all supervisors met with newly hired resident assistants on a weekly (versus bi-weekly) basis for the first half of the semester and assessed special training needs that new RAs needed.
From an administrative angle, a second set of contracts needed to be generated and signed, as well as a new set of payroll sheets, but those tasks were easily accomplished during a fifteen-minute session during winter training.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of semester contracts is that some people actually took advantage of the opportunity and left their positions in December. Three of the RAs who left are currently participating in study abroad programs. Two of our RAs decided the position was not a good fit for them and opted not to return. In all cases, exiting RAs finished the fall semester with strong, positive performance and prepared their residents for a smooth transition to a new resident assistant. Overall, fewer than 10% of our staff took advantage of the semester contract option, which is no more or less than a typical year for our department.
Either as a result of changing our selection or moving to semester contracts, our applicant pool increased significantly from last year. When our application deadline passed, we had collected over 90 new and returner applications for our 45 available positions, a 25% increase in our applicant pool from the year before. As of last week, we’ve offered alternate RA positions to approximately 15 students and filled our 45 resident assistant positions.
An unexpected outcome involved the two RAs who told us that they would only be staying for fall semester. These students were interested in the leadership position, but let us know early on that they wanted to pursue other options during the spring semester. Both RAs enjoyed the position so much in the fall that they decided to remain on staff for spring semester. One of them is now exploring career options in higher education administration as a result of her experience in residential programs.
Our resident directors reported that they felt more confident in making decisions to confront their RAs about performance issues, citing the fact that they had spent nearly two months (rather than two weeks) working to help poor performers improve. As mentioned earlier, resident directors also reported an increase in positive job performance from RAs who decided to leave in December.
Inevitably, people express concerns when I tell them about semester contracts. The most common concern involves the possible disruption that can occur when a resident assistant leaves her or his floor. Doesn’t replacing a RA have a negative impact on the floor? When we initiated our conversation about moving to semester contracts, we started with the assumption that we would be eliminating RAs who were not doing their jobs well. From our perspective, the impact of a resident assistant who is not doing their job well can be far more disruptive (and sometimes dangerous) than placing someone new in the position. Our resident directors have reported positive changes on floors where new RAs have stepped in mid-year, including an increase in programming, positive involvement from residents and an overall increase in community activity.
Another concern involves running a full-fledged staff selection process during the fall semester to fill anticipated vacancies. Although this may be a necessity, a pool of alternate RAs can be used to fill positions. Starting our selection process in November provides us with plenty of time to review applications, interview candidates and ultimately fill our two remaining vacancies. With some early planning, running a selective group process for a handful of candidates would not present a problem.
Finding new ways to hold staff accountable and improve the overall performance and morale of your staff can be a challenging process. Moving to semester contracts presented us with some unanticipated challenges, as well as benefits that were both expected and unforeseen. Overall the transition to semester contracts has been both smooth and rewarding for our department. As I encounter colleagues at conferences throughout the year, I’m sure that some will be asking me why Franklin & Marshall College moved to semester contracts. At this point in the year, having seen the benefits of semester contracts, I’m inclined to ask them why they haven’t made the transition.
Submitted by Kurt Doan, Associate Drector of Residential Programs, Franklin and Marshall College