Falling Short in HR Management

An auditor of school system personnel operations pinpoints three areas where practices don’t align with mission by Jim Bastian

This assessment from the superintendent at a suburban school district in the Pacific Northwest with 2,100 employees reflects the perception many superintendents have in trying to determine the effectiveness of their district’s human resources operation.

The two fundamental questions each superintendent should ask are these:

Does the department align human resources and management practices, policies and procedures with the school district’s strategic objectives?

Is the HR department maximizing its strategic contribution to the school district?

BastianJim Bastian has performed audits on school districts' personnel systems in 21 states.

A school district’s strategic objectives typically include improving education outcomes of students, reducing costs, improving customer service and increasing productivity. While the language, emphasis and order will vary, it is difficult to imagine a district that does not strategically focus on these or related objectives.

After performing human resource audits for school districts for the past 10 years in 21 states, I have found most districts perform well in payroll and benefits administration, employee recruitment and retention, and compliance with most state and federal regulatory requirements. However, the areas where most districts struggle to align policies, procedures and practices include (1) excessive retention of poorly performing employees; (2) ineffective use of available human resources information technology; and (3) inappropriate or misaligned performance measures.

Retention Bugaboo
Most school districts have clear policies and procedures delineated in collective bargaining agreements on performance expectations and criteria for termination for cause. It is the enforcement or application of the policies where improvement opportunities usually exist. A suburban district in northern Illinois that I audited had a human resources department express pride in the district 8-9 percent annual turnover rate.

Yet if you subtract retirements, spousal relocations, long-term illness and other voluntary terminations, less than 2 percent of the turnover resulted from cause due to substandard performance or egregious conduct. I know it is difficult to terminate tenured teachers. However, if we look only at pre-tenured teachers, those in their first two years in most places (though four years in Illinois), when the district typically has considerable contractual latitude to evaluate, intervene and/or terminate employment, the numbers don’t change much.

In a sample of 20 school districts ranging in size from 600 employees to more than 20,000, the involuntary turnover rate for teachers in their first year or two was 2.8 percent. It is unlikely each of these districts was able to hire the best available applicant and have new teachers perform at or above district standards more than 97 percent of the time.

Symptoms that indicate underperforming teachers are not being identified and transitioned out of the district early in their tenure include internal transfers of teachers whom other principals do not want, minimal growth in education outcomes year over year and an ineffective performance evaluation process.

Many school districts require that internal transfers be placed first to fill openings, before outside recruiting can begin. Because of this policy, principals in one large Virginia system withheld notifying the personnel office about faculty vacancies for the next school year that they learned of in March. Instead, they began an informal recruitment process on their own or simply waited for the internal transfer period to pass. These principals would rather deal with a new hire than be required to bring on a problem teacher that another principal was trying to pass off. A spike in the number of openings announced in May and June might be a tip this is occurring.

This informal practice does not align well with district strategic objectives. The longer open positions are delayed from entering the recruitment process, the smaller the pool of top applicants, particularly in hard-to-fill positions such as special education, math and science. Personnel recruiters, hit with last-minute openings, face unnecessary urgency, which tends to increase recruitment costs and decrease efficiency.

Principals in the Virginia district who played by the rules, usually rookies, tended to end up with a disproportionate number of coasting, underperforming or otherwise recalcitrant teachers who had transferred internally. If seasoned, experienced principals have not been successful dealing with these teachers, rookie principals are even less likely to do so. This procedure reduces the incentive for principals to address these difficult management issues and facilitates problem employees just migrating around the district.

Lagging Appraisals
It is often clear from reviewing employee performance assessments and from interviews with principals that many of these teachers were identified as underperforming during their pre-tenure years. However, they were retained because the principal hoped they would improve, did not want to go through recruitment again or believed the dismissal process was too arduous and/or poorly supported by human resources to make it worth the effort.

The result of a principal not addressing substandard performance or unacceptable conduct while the window is open can mean substandard performance in the classroom for decades.

The remedy is to unflaggingly hold all district employees to rigorous performance scrutiny to the maximum degree allowable in the collective bargaining agreement; provide meaningful interventions and development opportunities when performance is substandard; and not renew the contracts of employees whose performance does not improve to acceptable levels.

Most school districts say they do this. But input from principals and teachers during interviews and focus groups, the aversion to accepting internal transfers, the ineffectiveness of the performance appraisal process and the unrealistically low turnover rate for cause suggest otherwise. While this is hard to do, few elements of human resource management have a bigger potential impact on attaining or not attaining continuous improvement in academic achievement.

Ask HR whether a principal or department head ever has sought counsel on the dismissal of a district employee for cause, only to find the employee’s last three performance evaluations rated the staff member’s performance as acceptable or higher. When we look at the aggregate scores of district employees on their performance appraisals, it is not uncommon to find 80 percent performing at “exceeds” or “far exceeds” expectations. That’s fine if the district is exceeding or far exceeding in attaining all strategic objectives. If not, the process is not effective, in alignment nor is it managed with integrity.

The cycle needs to be broken. The performance appraisal process must have integrity. This will ensure the district does not renew the contract of new hires who are not doing well and prevents principals who have failed to effectively hire, evaluate and develop teachers from simply overrating their performance so they can transfer their problem to another school.

Tech Investments
Most school districts have invested in new human resources information technology hardware and software. The purpose, of course, is to increase productivity, reduce paperwork, eliminate redundancy, reduce cycle times and improve communication. Regrettably, during audits it is unusual to find evidence that any of these sought-after results occurred. In fact, the investment in new technology often results in one or more of these areas getting worse.

A 55,000-student school district in southern California invested $380,000 in new software and related upgrades to eliminate hard copies of applications, allow principals to electronically search the candidate database, reduce data entry, and post forms, handbooks, benefits information access and frequently asked questions on the HR pages of the district’s website. The HR director assured the superintendent of significant gains in productivity for HR. Despite little net growth in the urban district’s enrollment, a reduction in HR staff has yet to materialize three years later.

The investment in new software does not automatically result in increased productivity and efficiency. Many school secretaries whom I visit with during audits admit they only use a fraction of the capabilities of the software because they don’t know how to use it and in some cases don’t know anyone in the district who does. In other cases, clerical staff prefer the old way of doing things.

At a small upstate New York district, I discovered a “black market” data economy pulled together by HR department employees who liked the old software better. They maintained a second system was justified by the need for backup and to maintain data that would not transfer with full integrity. These reasons are hogwash but go unchallenged.

This seemingly harmless practice undermines the reliability of all data and files, condemning all users to multiple collection processes, data audits, manual updates and other productivity-killing, unnecessary requirements.

Failing to maximize the use of technology is a significant impediment to productivity. It generally occurs because we did not hire staff with the necessary skills/aptitude or train them thoroughly or spell out in their job description that this was a required duty or measure their performance or communicate the objectives. In short, HR has not maximized the strategic contribution to the district in the management of these employment-related functions.

Do any of these things go on in your district? If you invested in new hardware and software but have not reduced your headcount in applicable positions, then they likely do exist and your district is not getting any discernable increase in productivity or efficiency that was used to justify making the purchase in the first place. Or just check your e-mail.

One measure of administrative productivity is the ratio of classified to certificated staff. While a wide range exists, most districts tend to have an approximately 50/50 ratio. A new investment in technology should result in your district being able to decrease the percentage of classified staff with, say, a targeted 46/54 ratio. This creates the desired situation of increasing resources allocated to the classroom without increasing the budget.

Strategic Alignment
Performance measures should align individual goals with strategic outcomes. It is unlikely that your school district’s strategic outcomes are contingent upon administrative staff being professionally attired, punctual or good team players. Yet these and similar criteria are the attributes most often incorporated into performance measures. Strategic measures might include district academic achievement, departmental cost reduction, productivity gains or other critical-to-success factors.

For example, teacher morale rarely ends up as a meas-ure of HR effectiveness, even less often in principals’ perform-ance appraisal criteria. This can be measured by teacher attitudinal surveys. However, one measure with a high correlation to morale is the number of teacher absences by school. If you don’t measure it now, get a copy of your substitute log by school for the last year or two. Before you look, guess which schools in your district have the highest absenteeism.

Chances are you picked the schools that you know intuitively have the lowest morale, and those schools weren’t hit by the flu any harder than others. What we find is that when morale at a school is low, teacher absences go up, usually a lot. If you buy into the adage that we get what we measure, then it would make sense to track this.

Why? Absenteeism is expensive. Not only are you paying twice (two teachers for the same day), but you are likely getting less learning as a result. Few teachers, principals or administrators disagree that when the regular teacher is gone, instruction and learning are significantly reduced. If your goals include reduced costs and improved academic outcomes, then one of your tactics could include reducing the number of teacher absences.

Skeptical? In one Maryland school district that employs about 2,800 staff members, the superintendent announced to the principals after the HR audit that she would be receiving a copy of the monthly substitute summary report by school, beginning in January. When she had an opportunity to review the reports, she was surprised to find that from January through June teacher absences declined from the previous year an average of 17 percent. This occurred when principals thought she would be looking at them. Imagine what might have happened if she actually had reviewed them earlier and taken action and had HR provided applicable professional development resources.

Most teacher organizations and many principals have persistently objected to quantifying performance based on student achievement, continuous improvement or other objective, quantifiable and critical-to-success performance measures. But if the most important thing a school district does is educate kids and you don’t incorporate that outcome wherever possible into compensation, performance evaluations, training/professional development, employee recognition, recruitment, retention and internal communication, the district will not be strategically aligned.

Gauging Productivity
The same objective of alignment should be used to meas-ure the HR department, with performance based on the productivity of the HR department, fiscal management, internal customer service and quality of outputs, as well as the productivity of your entire district. As mentioned earlier, if HR is instrumental in sourcing, screening, selecting, orienting, training, compensating, motivating, communicating, defining jobs and measuring performance within the district, then HR should be accountable for the outcomes of their contribution.

A common measure of productivity in human resources is the number of total employees divided by the number of HR staff. While more valid in larger school districts, this would be a contributing component to reducing the ratio of classified and certificated personnel.

Another measure of productivity used in the private sector but applicable to school districts is total revenue divided by the total number of employees. Either works if they result in meaningful discussions and actions to improve productivity and reduce these ratios.

One of the most frequently used criteria by HR departments to measure their effectiveness is employee turnover. However, this measure can be misleading, even negatively correlated to actual performance. In other words, a low turnover rate may be the result of ineffective performance management, weak policy enforcement and excessive retention of subpar performers.

There are many ways effective HR departments contribute strategically. The most vital involve vigorously identifying, upgrading or terminating underperforming employees, ensuring the maximum use of available technology by all employees, and measuring, monitoring and managing those functions most aligned with the district’s strategic objectives.

Jim Bastian is managing director of HR Audit Inc. in Brookfield, Wis. E-mail: jbastian@hraudit.com