Difficult Discussions: Coaching an Employee Out of the Job (*Guest Post in The Student Affairs Collective*)

March 31, 2016

Difficult Employee Conversations

One challenge of being a supervisor is having to discuss performance shortcomings with employees. In some cases, you may need to coach someone out of the job. This month I wrote about the topic as a guest blogger on The Student Affairs Collective blog. To see the post in full, please click on Difficult Discussions: Coaching and Employee Out of the Job.

Special thanks to Tom Krieglstein and his team for the opportunity to discuss this issue!


Turn the Tide: Rise above Toxic, Difficult Situations in the Workplace (*Book Review*)

February 9, 2016

Turn the Tide by Dr. Kathy Obear

Dr. Kathy Obear recently published Turn the Tide: Rise Above Toxic, Difficult Situations in the Workplace, which is a resource that you can use yourself or with your staff and / or students. The book is available as a $2.99 Kindle download on Amazon.

While Dr. Obear explicitly states in the text that she herself is not a therapist, the book is essentially an illustration of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). “REBT’s basic hypothesis is that our emotions stem mainly from our beliefs, which influence the evaluations and interpretations we make of the reactions we have to life situations” (Corey, 2013, p. 268). Through the REBT process, individuals can replace ineffective ways of thinking and thereby change their emotional reactions to various situations they encounter in their life. Likewise, Dr. Obear walks the reader through a similar process in which individuals, particularly those who are having challenging times in the workplace, can shift their thoughts and reactions to more positive and proactive outcomes.

The book is organized into ten chapters: 1.) I can’t control how I react! Maybe I can; 2.) Step 1 – What pushed my buttons; 3.) Step 2 – Intrapersonal Roots; 4.) Step 3 – Making meaning: Change your story, change your reactions; 5.) Step 4 – Common physiological, emotional, and mental reactions; 6.) Step 5 – “Choosing” your intentions; 7.) Step 6 – Tools to Respond Effectively; 8.) Step 7 – The impact of our triggered reactions; 9.) Maximize our effectiveness: Focus on Self-Care and Healing Practices; and 10.) We Always Have a Choice. The book has many self-directed exercises in them, which helps the reader to explore and work through the various feelings and thoughts they may be having as a result of being in a challenging work environment. While the content of the book centers on one’s own personal reactions to the day-to-day dynamics of working with others, it does not cover the more nefarious and even illegal issues that can and do occur in the workplace, such as bullying, discrimination, harassment, and how to manage those particular situations.

I highly recommend Turn the Tide: Rise Above Toxic, Difficult Situations in the Workplace for graduate students, new professionals, and those supervisors who are responsible for developing staff training and professional development opportunities. 

Works cited:

Corey, G. (2013). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Stamford, CT: Brooks / Cole.


Relocation 101: Three Things to Consider When Job Searching Nationally (Guest post by Adrienne Boertjens)

January 5, 2016

Student Affairs Job Relocation

Job search season is right around the corner, and as colleges and universities across the country prepare their search teams for trips to the various student affairs job placement events, the time has come for aspiring graduate students, new professionals and some seasoned professionals alike to face the inevitable question: “Where do I go from here?”

When it comes to job searching in Student Affairs, career progression is the obvious primary consideration. As a field, we also talk a lot about “Institutional Fit” and how to identify an employer that aligns with your professional values, desired culture, and educational philosophy. All of these are incredibly valuable factors in the job search process, however even if you find your “dream institution” it’s important to consider geographical fit, and how adjusting to life in a different regional culture may impact your overall transition. What kind of move will both challenge and support you in your professional growth? To get started, here are a few things to consider when determining your geographical fit:

1. Consider the basics, but don’t stop there!

  • Geography: Everyone has their geographic deal-breakers, and while it’s best to minimize them when it comes to these basic considerations for job searching, some things just can’t be avoided. For some people, certain geographic regions simply don’t agree with their lifestyle, whether it’s because they can’t stand the heat of the Deep South, or because shoveling snow off their car at 7am just doesn’t sound like a good time. Either way, knowing the extremes of what you’re willing to handle is a good place to start, but shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all of your search.
  • Personal support system: When it comes to a dual-job search or considering the needs of your dependents, there are a ton of factors to consider. If you’re moving on your own or if your job is the main factor in a move, as is the case for many new grads and new professionals, it’s helpful to identify just how far you’re willing to move away from your loved ones. Thanks to technology, staying in touch with your personal support system is easier than ever, however when you live far away from the people you care about, you have to consider how far and how often you’re willing to travel to be with them. Are you willing to miss out on a holiday or two for the sake of landing your “perfect fit?” Are you prepared to shell out for a plane ticket should a family emergency arise? While we can always hope for the best when it comes to these situations, it’s good to know literally how far you’ll go for your dream job.
  • Pro-tip for aspiring graduate students: These basic considerations may be better off on the back-burner when you’re searching for graduate assistantships and choosing your graduate program. While it can be tempting to continue your studies at your undergraduate alma mater or to stay close to home, graduate school is a wonderful opportunity to step outside of your geographic comfort zone. Your graduate program is probably only 2-3 years long, and it will be over before you know it! Take advantage of this short amount of time and consider moving somewhere you normally wouldn’t live long-term. Your resume and your professional network will thank you!

2. Consider your professional networking goals. For new grads and professionals especially, growing and developing your professional network in the field of Student Affairs is a must. Now is the time to establish a strong and positive professional reputation, which can present a challenge if you’re not willing to leave the comfort of your alma mater or home state. As a Student Affairs practitioner, growing and maintaining a strong network will contribute to your own professional development and can even assist you in future job searches. On the flipside, maybe you’ve already spent some time away from your Student Affairs family or a special mentor, and you’d appreciate being within regional conferencing proximity to them. When starting a new job, having an existing professional network close by may provide a certain level of comfort and support that can make your transition easier. If maintaining close ties with your existing professional network is important to you when it comes to relocation, consider moving to a region where you’ll strike a balance between having lots of new networking opportunities, and where you’ll still feel the support of your existing professional relationships. There’s nothing like a good ol’ regional conference reunion!

3. Consider state/regional professional development/involvement opportunities. Each department in each institution is going to have a different opinion or level of financial support for their professionals’ development opportunities. Regardless of whether or not your department has the financial means to send you to a national conference each year, it’s important that you’re able to seek out your own professional development opportunities in order to continue to grow in the field. As such, consider researching state/regional professional organizations or chapters of national organizations as a way of determining whether or not there will be opportunities for you to join committees, attend conferences, network, and take charge of your own professional development outside of your place of employment.

While this list is certainly not the end-all, be-all of relocating, these are some important things to think about as you begin applying to jobs and considering where you may want to spend the next phase of your career. What are some other things that you’ve considered when making a decision to relocate? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or tweet me at @aboertjens.

Adrienne Boertjens is a Residence Director at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, and a proud alumnae of Eastern Michigan University (2015, M.A.) and Minnesota State University, Mankato (2013, B.A.). She is passionate about travel, arts and crafts and all things technology! Connect with Adrienne via email, Twitter, LinkedIn.


Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (Book Review)

January 20, 2015

Overcoming Mobbing

It is my contention that the workplace should be a place of collegiality, integrity, and respect. Unfortunately, as long as there are differences in agendas, opinions, personalities, and power there will always be conflicts at work. Some of these conflicts can become downright nasty and end up costing individuals their jobs, and more insidious, their health, well-being, and subsequently, the welfare of their families.

I came across a great resource when doing some research on workplace bullying that I thought would be helpful for Student Affairs professionals. Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014: Oxford University Press) by Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry is a must read for those professionals dealing with or attempting to prevent organizational bullying. Duffy and Sperry define “mobbing” as “a destructive social process in which individuals, groups, or organizations target a person for ridicule, humiliation, and removal from the workplace.” Mobbing is different than bullying in that it occurs en mass involving multiple workers, administrators, and managers willing to participate in unethical communication that is both written and verbal. Bullying, on the other hand, occurs when one individual, such as a supervisor alone, targets an employee.

The process of ganging up includes such behaviors as the following: workplace conflict, people taking sides, unethical communication, other aggressive and abusive acts, involvement of management or administration, elimination of the target from the workplace, and post-elimination unethical communication. Mobbing is caused by a mix of individual, group, and organizational dynamics. An example of mobbing in Student Affairs can include colleagues ganging up on someone who is in line for promotion to a senior position in their department because those individuals do not want that person to assume that role. Tactics they use include spreading false information about their performance, befriending executive decision-makers and giving inaccurate and negative reports of that person, and purposely not inviting them to informal department meetings outside of normal work hours. As a result, they do not receive the promotion, begin to come under undue scrutiny from supervisors, and ultimately leave the institution because of the abuse.

Given the highly bureaucratic and politically-charged nature of higher education institutions, it only stands to reason that mobbing can and does occur within colleges and universities. Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying is a great primer that administrators in Student Affairs departments can use to facilitate discussion on how to create and nurture a “mobbing-free” environment. While it is unreasonable to think that colleges and universities are the bastions of collegiality and civility, we as Student Affairs administrators should ultimately work toward that goal, particularly as we serve as role models to our students.

What are some strategies that you feel should be used in order to create a “mobbing-free” workplace in Student Affairs?


The Things We Dread: Evaluations (Guest post by Sinclair P. Ceasar)

December 29, 2014

Staff Evaluations

You both sit down to the table for a chat. Well, it’s more formal than a chat. Your employee looks at you with wide eyes. At present, they are more attentive than they are at staff meetings, and you feel pressure to say everything with a smile – even if the information is negative at times. Why do we have to go through this? Aren’t they self-aware enough to know how they’re doing at their own job? You refocus your attention on the mid-year evaluation before you and begin.

Evaluations Can Be an Ordeal

Many of us are gearing up for mid-year evaluations with our supervisors, our staff members, and ourselves. We tell ourselves we won’t get lost in the rubrics and number valuations, but at some point we trip up during the evaluation process especially when we appraise our own employees. For me, most the anxiety around assessing my staff stems from me not wanting to hurt feelings or turn staff off from the work they do. At the end of the day, I’ve hired competent individuals who work to improve the lives of students. Alas, those same individuals are imperfect and need coaching, mentoring, and feedback.

Feedback with a Purpose

At some point in my career, I decided to view one-on-one meetings as opportunities for improvement and relationship building, rather than just simple check-ins with my staff. Reframing my meetings changed my line of questioning. I became more interested in the life of my employees outside of work. I wanted to know about how their interpersonal relationships were with their teammates. And I questioned their thought processes when reviewing situations they’d dealt with since our last meeting. I wanted to affirm their decision making skills and let them know where they could improve as well. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric said to “make every meeting an appraisal.” Sure, I could have a staff that dreads criticism each time they enter my office. Or, I could have a team that values my perspectives because they know my intentions are to build and strengthen instead of belittle and weaken.

By the time we reach evaluation season, my staff is knowledgeable about their progress and areas of growth. The formal appraisal meeting becomes a space to exclusively converse about what they need to do to take their positions to the next level. We focus on actionable steps and end the meeting with goals and deadlines. The result: we have an account of their progress, written steps to better performance, and an entire evaluation packet to help me keep them accountable throughout the next half of the semester.

Putting it All Together

Here are 3 ways you can kick up your staff evaluations and make them less scary and more meaningful:

1. Show them how what they do matters – One section of my evaluation focused on interpersonal relationships. This section contained phrases like: staff member effectively communicates with others and staff member updates supervisor in a timely fashion. On the surface, these could seem like basic outcomes to measure, but I went beyond simply saying how well my employee did in those areas, and I came prepared with examples for each line of feedback I wrote. I also had an overall explanation of why we evaluated employees on interpersonal relationships in the first place and how it connected with our departmental goals. You want to know why your boss wants you to do something, and your staff wants to know the importantance and impact of their jobs.

2. Nothing should be a surprise- Your mid-year evaluations may be anxiety filled no matter what you do, but none of the feedback you provide should blindside your staff. Do yourself a favor and take 5-10 minutes during each one-on-one meeting to provide an informal appraisal. It will make your mid-year evaluation run smoothly, and you and your staff member will be on the same page.

3. Make the numbers work for you – We used a numbering system at one of my institutions in the way that “1” meant you were weak in an area and “5” meant you excelled. Once, I told my staff that no one would get above a “3” because they were all new, and it wasn’t realistic to have an exceptional staff member at that point. This was a huge mistake. I received backlash from staff members who felt this wasn’t fair and expressed how they excelled in some areas. Word to the wise: make sure the number system make sense, is objective, and is used fairly.

I’m curious to know what your best practices are.

Does your staff find evaluations to be refreshing and helpful? What changes have you made to your process in the past years? What are some challenges you face as a supervisor when it comes to appraising your staff? Please feel free to comment below.

Sinclair P. Ceasar has six years of experience with Residence Life, New Student Orientation, First Year Programming, and Service Learning. He is currently an Assistant Director of Residence Life at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, and enjoys dancing, running 5K’s, and being a foodie in his leisure time. Follow him on twitter @sceasar1020.

* Graphic courtesy of Sigurd Decroos


10 Difficult Lessons I Learned in Student Affairs

December 22, 2014

Difficult Lessons in Student Affairs

Having been in Student Affairs for a long time now, I have met many fantastic and inspiring professionals from all over the world. I have learned many wonderful things, which have made me a better higher education professional (and person!) Some of those lessons, however, have been difficult ones and actually have made me an even more dedicated and resolved Student Affairs professional.

Here are the 10 Difficult Lessons I Learned in Student Affairs:

1. Not Everyone Values Student Development – Just like employees in any other industry besides higher education, everyone has different goals and motivations for doing what they do. The same is true for employees in higher education. While it may seem bizarre to a Student Affairs professional that a college professional would not be interested in student development, some see the study and practice of student development as frivolous and not worthy of attention or resources.

2. The Grass Isn’t Always Greener at Other Institutions – Student lifers rank up there with professional athletes that are traded from team to team when it comes to transitioning from one institution to another. Various reasons, include seeking a better salary, more responsibility, or to be closer to family. Some staffers have the impression that the path a new school is lined with gold. What they can come to find out is that their new situation may not be any better than from where they just came. While there are some places that may be better than others, all colleges and universities have problems, which is something to keep in mind when looking for a new place to work.

3. Most Staff Are Not Trained in Leadership & Supervision – I find that many colleagues at other institutions share their frustration with their institution’s leadership. Frustrations range from having supervisors with challenging personalities and those who provide unclear direction to others who are “buddy-buddy” with select employees or who are downright abusive. Unfortunately, most supervisors in all fields never had any formal education or training in supervising people. Many supervisors learn from previous poor role models and can apply behaviors of stereotypical archetypes of leaders they see on TV and in movies (i.e., coach, military officer, entrepreneur, politician, etc.)

4. Most Faculty & Staff Could Care Less about Student Development Theory – Years ago, I once had an engineering professor at a social event ask me what exactly I was learning in my higher education doctoral program. He was actually perplexed that an academic program like this actually existed. While student development theory is only a small part of a higher ed doctoral program, it helps to inform our practice and should be the basis for how we operate. However, most faculty and staff have never heard of Astin, Kuh, Tinto, Pascarella, and / or Terenzini nor put any credence into the study of students’ time at college.

5. For Some, It’s Just For a Paycheck – For most of us, it is our career and our passion. For others, working at a college or university is simply a job. While some of us are inspired and enthusiastic about our careers, others find it an end to a means.

6. Student Affairs is Seen as the “Icing on the Cake” – In particularly  difficult times with a fragile enrollment environment and the increasing costs associated with a college education, student affairs can be viewed as a luxury. When it’s time to make budget cuts, extracurricular activities are an easy target.

7. Professional Development Can Be Seen as a Glorified “Vacation” – One year I was not permitted to attend the ACPA Convention and was told, “You have already been to one of those” as if it was like going to some amusement park. Now granted, I have seen many professional staffers blow off sessions at conferences and go site-seeing in the host city, but for the vast majority of us, off-site professional development opportunities are for continuous improvement, collaboration, education, and networking.

8. Politics Can Supersede Student Development –  In the 15 years I have been a student affairs professional, I have seen university politics that have been antithetical to the spirit of student development or learning (or simple ethics to be honest). I recently read an excellent blog post called The Dirty Secret of Student Affairs by Christian Cho, which specifically speaks to this dynamic. While politics definitely has its place in colleges and universities, they can also be disconcerting for new and eager student affairs professionals.

9. “Cronyism” & Nepotism Is Pervasive – While some may call it networking, others consider it nepotism and cronyism.  Cronyism is the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority without proper regard to their qualifications. Likewise, nepotism is the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs. A related practice is the pejorative “inbreeding,” in which an institution only hires those that have graduated from there. This can be challenging and frustrating especially for new professionals looking to advance their careers.

10. The Most Logical Decisions Are Not Always Made – Like any bureaucratic organization, colleges and universities have multiple layers of decision-makers with varying degrees of authority. Additionally, those decision-makers come with different agendas, opinions, and experiences from one another. Given those dynamics, the decision-making process can end up having a mind of its own.

The intent behind this post is not to discourage or frighten graduate students nor to kowtow to experienced professionals. Conversely, I hope to inspire new and veteran student affairs staffers to create a better university environment and experience for both employees and students.

Please share some of the difficult lessons you have learned from your time in Student Affairs.


Surviving Political Game-Playing in Student Affairs

November 5, 2014

Political Game-Playing in Student Affairs

The culture of working in higher education is fraught with conflict, varied personalities, and institution-wide politics. Navigating the political waters of a college or university can be a daunting and, oftentimes, frustrating process. While working in Student Affairs can be a very rewarding experience, it can also be very challenging. Although we’re all in the business of educating students, there are always competing priorities, limited resources, and personal agendas, which creates a chessboard of politics throughout each of our institutions.

When I use the term “game-playing,” I mean it in the negative sense in which individuals use the political landscape of the institution (most times unethically) to further their own agenda to the detriment of others. This is much different than being politically savvy and knowing how to develop relationships and collaborate with others in order to accomplish the goals of your department.

Here are a few examples to better illustrate political game-playing:

  • Unnecessarily carbon copying someone’s supervisor on an email to stir the waters to potentially get them in hot water
  • Planting student “spies” to dig up dirt and  tattletale back
  • Purposely befriending someone’s supervisor on a personal level in order to “conveniently” drop criticisms about that person
  • Sending anonymous communications to the president’s office with untrue allegations about a staffer’s conduct

Despite these type of dynamics, there are many strategies you can use to stay above negative political game-playing, particularly within Student Affairs.

Surround Yourself with Positive Allies – Misery loves company. Negativity and naysayers will certainly bring you down so spend your time with as many positive colleagues as possible. Befriend and partner with those who further the mission and vision of the institution rather than those who attempt to control, demotivate, and sabotage.

Concentrate on Your Students & the Work – Political game-playing takes a lot of time and energy so keep your efforts focused on the primary reason for your being there: the students. Concentrate on developing and educating the students you serve rather than getting involved with needless drama. While doing well can definitely attract undue criticism from jealous colleagues, you can always be confident that you are doing your job and contributing to solutions and not problems.

Don’t Fight Battles That Aren’t Yours to Fight – One of the easiest ways to avoid political game-playing is by only concerning yourself with those projects and tasks that are directly under your purview. Getting involved in issues that simply do not pertain to you opens up the door for undue criticism and potentially making yourself into a political target. The majority of us in Student Affairs do not have tenure so we cannot do and say as we please without potential political consequences. Please understand that I am not dismissing your need to become involved in those issues related to social justice, particularly in regards to the health, safety, and well-being of our students.

Stay Away from Troublemakers – Similar to surrounding yourself with positive allies, keep clear of those individuals who are known to cause trouble and do not seem to have many positive allies of their own. These folks are easy to spot: arguing simply for argument’s sake, lying, pawning work onto others, spreading rumors, and sabotaging projects. As they say, you are the company you keep so spending time with troublemakers can mark you as one yourself.

Don’t Squabble for Kudos – Over the years I have seen many colleagues become nasty people and attempt to stab each other in the back in order to get a pat on the back from the higher up’s. Clambering for kudos always seems to lead to trouble. There’s nothing wrong with being humble and enjoying your accomplishments privately; nobody likes the “teacher’s pet.” Granted, we all want to be recognized for our hard work, but don’t let personal pride become a source of unneeded conflict.

Don’t Compromise Your Values – Most importantly, don’t EVER compromise your values. A majority of the time, political game-playing is going to be unethical, offensive, disgraceful, and in some cases, simply illegal. If you find yourself in a position in which you are often finding yourself having to question directives because of  unethical or illegal practices, seek advice from your human resource department or even an attorney. In a worse case scenario, find another place to work. Yes, I know this is easier said than done, but you want to position yourself at a place that upholds its own mission, vision, values, and fosters your professional integrity.


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