All Student Employees are Equal…but Some are More Equal than Others

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A favorite part of my job as a campus recreation facilities director is working with student employees. They energize and challenge me daily—in a good way. But, as in all places of business, employees may not always perform according to expectations, so clearly stated employee policies and disciplinary processes are needed.

Last spring I met with my graduate assistants and facility supervisors to discuss our employee disciplinary policy. Our goal was to devise a plan that everyone felt was consistent and fair. Our graduate assistants suggested using a point system, where employees would accumulate points based upon the type of infraction. For example, an unexcused missed shift would be worth more points than a dress code violation. Disciplinary meetings would be held if employees accumulated a certain number of points, and if an employee accumulated 10 points, they would be fired.

I had never used a point system before, but I was willing to give this a try. My student leaders seemed to really like the idea, and it looked like many other campus recreation departments within the NIRSA community employed variations of the point system as well.

We have been using the point system for less than one semester. My graduate assistants like it. My supervisors like it.

I do not like it. Here’s why:

  1. It is based on the assumption that all employees are equal.

Our mission is to provide a safe, clean, welcoming environment for our campus community that encourages participation in our programs and services. We hire staff who can help us fulfill this mission. As new employees become more familiar with their job duties and responsibilities, it becomes obvious that some workers contribute more towards fulfillment of our mission than others. Some employees are super friendly and helpful to our patrons, take initiative to do chores and help other staff members with various job duties, and display high interest and enthusiasm for their job. Other employees are minimally engaged with their job.

Now, imagine that both employees have been late to work a couple of times. According to the point system, they should both be given the same amount of points, and they could both be in danger of being fired. But one employee brings so much more to the department than the other employee. Why should they be judged as equals on a disciplinary point scale?

  1. Disciplinary write-ups can be inconsistent.

It is clear that an employee who is late, or who misses a deadline, should receive a write-up. It is less clear if, or when, an employee should be written up for poor job performance. We have 15 supervisors who work various shifts, and they all may perceive and address employee job performance differently. For example, one supervisor may choose to give verbal corrective feedback to a student employee who may not have been as attentive towards a patron as they should have been, while another supervisor in the same situation may perceive the employee’s behavior as completely unacceptable, and may have submitted a write-up form. This semester, of the 70 student employees on staff, 23 have been written up for a total of 35 infractions—but only 2 write-ups were for poor job performance. It is conceivable that an employee could demonstrate poor job performance on several different shifts, and receive verbal corrective feedback on all of them without receiving one write-up. Yet the employee who usually demonstrates a commitment to our mission, but who may have missed a deadline, will have accumulated points from a write-up. In this case, the point system has captured a minor infraction, while a more egregious behavior problem has gone unreported.

  1. It leaves little room for critical thinking and interpersonal communication.

We are all human. I would much rather discuss employee infractions on an individual basis than be tied to a point system. I have heard more than one person say that an employee who accumulates 10 points is a bad employee and deserves to be fired. That may be true in some, possibly most, situations. However, a point system does not account for intangibles, such as personal struggles, academic rigors, and overall attitude and desire to improve. I would hate to fire the one person who should have been saved, just because they reached the magic number.

So where do we go from here? I will be meeting soon with our student leaders and graduate assistants to talk about this system. Maybe with some tweaking, the point system can still be useful, particularly as an indication of the need for intervention. But we cannot continue to have termination dictated by a system that assigns the same values to all employees, regardless of their personal circumstances and contributions to our department. The point system was originally created in an effort to be fair, consistent, and treat everyone the same, but the bottom line is this: some employees are more equal than others.

How do you handle student employee discipline problems?

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