Competency-Based Performance Appraisals: Improving Performance Evaluations of School Nutrition Managers and Assistants/Technicians
Evelina W. Cross, PhD, RD; Amelia Estepa Asperin, PhD; Mary Frances Nettles, PhD, RD
The purpose of the research was to develop a competency-based performance appraisal resource for evaluating school nutrition (SN) managers and assistants/technicians.
A two-phased process was used to develop the competency-based performance appraisal resource for SN managers and assistants/technicians. In Phase I, draft performance appraisal forms and an accompanying guide were developed based on structured interview responses from expert panels of SN directors and managers, competencies for effective SN professionals identified in previous research, and sample forms submitted by SN professionals. After expert panel review, Phase II involved a panel of SN professionals and state agency personnel in a directed review in which standard evaluative questions guided panel members in assessing the documents for clarity and relevance to SN job functions.
Results indicated that effective performance appraisal forms should have (1) criteria clearly defining expected performance, (2) a rating scale appropriately reflecting criteria, (3) clear instructions, (4) a user-friendly format, (5) space for comments, and (6) a plan for improvement. An accompanying guide should include basic information on the performance appraisal process.
Assessment by expert and review panels ensured that the performance appraisal forms developed in this study were tailored to the specific competencies identified by research as fundamental to the job responsibilities of SN managers and assistants/technicians. Reviewers indicated that the guide contained appropriate information that it is useful and comprehensible to SN practitioners at all levels of responsibility and experience.
Applications to Child Nutrition Professionals
The competency-based performance appraisal resource provides a universal platform for evaluation relevant to SN programs across the nation. It may be used for individual learning, employee training and orientation, and as a general reference for SN staff. The performance appraisal forms may be used to evaluate current performance, develop improvement goals for SN managers and assistants/technicians, assist with developing or modifying existing appraisal forms, and augment district-mandated forms to focus appraisal more closely on SN activities.
The Competencies, Knowledge, and Skills of Effective School Nutrition Managers (Cater & Carr, 2006) and the Competencies, Knowledge, and Skills of Effective School Nutrition Assistants/Technicians (Nettles & Carr, 2006) developed by the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI) provide a roadmap for administrators, school nutrition (SN) supervisors, and SN managers to evaluate job performance using standards applicable to the tasks performed in SN programs. This project developed appraisal instruments based on the competencies, knowledge, and skills needed for effective performance. The instruments offer evaluators and employees a common understanding of expectations for satisfactory performance and opportunities for improvement.
Performance appraisal is a distinct and formal management function assessing an employee’s performance during a specified period of time (Byers, Shanklin, & Hoover, 1994; Spears & Gregoire, 2007). It is a continuous process (Mondy, Noe, & Premeaux, 2002; Painter, 2003) involving formal written evaluation of work performance, verbal interview, and informal, unscheduled feedback throughout the appraisal period (Byers, et al., 1994; Painter, 2003). Using the appropriate performance appraisal process and forms will facilitate effective assessment that contributes to achieving organizational goals.
Evaluating performance is essential for program improvement and the professional growth of staff. It provides feedback to the employee, measures employee performance, tracks growth, identifies areas for further improvement, and provides suggestions for meeting operational goals and standards (Byers, et al., 1994; Spears & Gregoire, 2007). Results of performance appraisals provide a basis for personnel decisions such as job assignments, salary recommendations, promotions, disciplinary actions, and organizational rewards (Chandra, 2006). Performance appraisals can also assist in identifying training needs and facilitate communication between employees and supervisors (Byers, et al., 1994; Hansen, 2005). As such, criteria used for appraisal should be measurable, clearly stated, and reflective of work-related behavior specific to the responsibilities of the employee (Byers, et al., 1994; Mondy, et al., 2002; Spears & Gregoire, 2007).
Competent work performance depends on employees having the requisite knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The Competencies, Knowledge, and Skills of Effective School Nutrition Managers (Cater & Carr, 2006) and Competencies, Knowledge, and Skills of Effective School Nutrition Assistants/Technicians (Nettles & Carr, 2006) developed by the National Food Service Management Institute, Applied Research Division (NFSMI, ARD) provide comprehensive overviews that define the job responsibilities of managers or assistants/technicians within the local SN operation. These categories serve as an umbrella for all job responsibilities that occur on a daily, weekly, seasonal, or yearly basis. Twelve functional areas define the SN manager’s responsibilities: Nutrition and Menu Planning; Program Accountability; Sanitation, Safety, and Security; Equipment Use and Care; Procurement; Food Production; Food Acceptability; Service; Financial Management and Record Keeping; Marketing; Personnel Management; and Professional Development (Cater & Carr, 2004). The six functional areas that describe the job of the SN assistant/technician are Food Production; Sanitation, Safety, and Security; Customer Service; Program Regulations and Accountability; Equipment Use and Care; and Professional Excellence (Nettles & Carr, 2006).
SN directors generally must comply with school district policies for performance appraisal schedules. In many SN programs, the performance appraisal form is mandated by the school district administration. In others, the SN program utilizes an appraisal form focused specifically on the tasks and responsibilities of SN staff. The SN-specific performance criteria used in conjunction with more general employee evaluation forms, contribute to a more focused and objective review of performance. In the absence of a structured system of appraisal, work performance will be judged informally and arbitrarily (McNamara, 1997). A structured appraisal system facilitates fair, defensible, and accurate evaluation (McNamara, 1997; Neuhauser, 2005). Thus, the purpose of the research was to develop a resource composed of a guide and competency-based performance appraisal forms for evaluating SN managers and assistants/technicians.
A two-phased process was used to develop the competency-based performance appraisal resource for SN managers and assistants/technicians. In Phase I, draft performance appraisal forms and an accompanying guide were developed based on a summary of responses from expert panels of SN professionals, competencies for effective SN professionals identified in previous research, and sample forms submitted by SN professionals. After expert panel review, Phase II involved a panel of SN professionals and state agency personnel in a directed review of the documents.
In Phase I, five SN directors served on an expert panel that addressed performance appraisals for SN managers, while five directors and managers focused on an appraisal form for assistants/technicians. Each expert panel member was engaged in a structured telephone interview that explored the components, format elements, and preferred rating scale needed for effective performance appraisal forms. Both panels were asked to provide input on the content for a guide to accompany the performance appraisal forms.
In addition, the Competencies, Knowledge, and Skills of Effective School Nutrition Managers (Cater & Carr, 2006) and Competencies, Knowledge, and Skills of Effective School Nutrition Assistants/Technicians (Nettles & Carr, 2006) were used in developing the performance appraisal tools for SN managers and assistant/technicians. Sample appraisal forms shared by expert panel members and SN practitioners on Mealtalk (an electronic mailing list hosted by the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA]) aided development of the appraisal forms.
Two versions of each performance appraisal form were drafted for SN managers and assistants/technicians; a long and a short form. Version 1 (long form) included a separate table for each functional area. Each table was divided into four columns, Below Standard (rating 1), Standard (ratings 2-4), Exceeds Standard (rating 5), and Not Applicable (N/A). Table 1 provides definitions for these rating categories. Competencies within the functional areas were used as the criteria for standard performance for managers. Performance standards for the assistants/technicians were more detailed and provided specific examples connected to each competency and performance rating. Examples of non-compliance to standards denoted a “Below Standard” rating, while commendable performance denoted an “Exceeds Standard” rating. These guiding statements were imbedded within the table under the corresponding column. Space for comments was provided at the bottom of each functional area. Version 2 (short form) was composed only of one table, with seven columns. The first column indicated the functional area, followed by the numerical ratings 1 through 5, then N/A. Space for comments was provided under the numerical ratings. Performance criteria were provided on a separate document to which the evaluator can refer.
Table 1. Description of Rating Scale for Competency-Based Performance Appraisals for School Nutrition Managers and Assistants/Technicians
Staff member fails to perform the minimum requirements of the
job and immediate improvement is necessary
Area of Growtha
Standards for all competencies are met but performance is
weak or inconsistent; improvement is needed in a specific
Performs all job requirements satisfactorily
Area of Strength
Meets all job requirements and performs above standard for
a specific competency
Consistently surpasses job standards to improve personal
performance and advance the school nutrition program
Performance is not observed or the competency is not
a responsibility of the position
a Based on Expert Panel feedback, this was changed to Needs Improvement for the final documents.
Detailed instructions, an overview of the appraisal process, and an improvement plan were provided for all versions. The improvement plan was designed to guide the identification of competencies to improve, key actions, measurement, resources needed, and time frame for achieving improvement targets for each functional area. Space was provided for the staff member and evaluator to sign and date the documents. Both versions emphasized that the employee signature did not signify his or her agreement or disagreement, but that the evaluation was discussed with the employee.
Drafts of the performance appraisal resource were sent to expert panel members who were asked to evaluate the forms for ease of use, appropriateness of language used, comprehensiveness of criteria, suitability of rating scale, length, and formatting. The accompanying guide was evaluated for conciseness, clarity, verbiage, organization, and ease of use and understanding. The performance appraisal resource was revised using the results of this evaluation.
In Phase II, state agency child nutrition administrators were asked to recommend exemplary SN directors and state agency personnel with experience in human resource management to participate as reviewers for the project. A review panel of nine SN directors and four state agency personnel received a packet containing the revised documents, directed review instruments, and a postage-paid return envelope. The panel members were asked to use the directed review instruments to conduct an evaluation of the performance appraisal forms and guide. Return of the completed evaluations signified consent to participate in the study. All comments, trends, and recommendations were utilized to finalize the performance appraisal resource.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Characteristics of Expert and Review Panel Participants
The expert panel (N=10) and review panel (N=8) members represented the Western, Midwest, Southeast, and Southwest USDA regions. Their job titles included director, manager, assistant superintendent, and state agency staff member. Student enrollment in the districts in which they practiced ranged from less than 2,799 to 65,000 or greater students, with the majority (71%) overseeing programs with less than 20,000 students. Most have been employed in SN programs for more than ten years (58%) and have held their current position at least six years. The majority (85%) completed baccalaureate degrees, six (46%) of whom have completed at least a Master’s degree. Credentials and certifications included School Nutrition Association (SNA) School Nutrition Specialist credentialed (62%), State Department of Education certified (46%), SNA certified (39%), and Registered Dietitian (15%).
Structured Telephone Interviews
Expert panel members stated that effective performance appraisals should have criteria that clearly define expected performance and a rating scale that appropriately reflects the criteria. The use of language readily comprehensible to both employee and evaluator was emphasized. A plan for improvement was considered essential, as was an uncomplicated format with categories and sections highlighted in bold print. Bulleted items, easily readable font, and space for comments were deemed significant. Most panel members stated that brevity was an important characteristic since the evaluator often must evaluate many employees; thus ease of use and length were important factors in the performance appraisal process. The form should facilitate an appraisal that is fair and objective since the evaluation should be a tool to help SN staff improve. All agreed that it is a means of providing feedback to reinforce expectations and also to empower the SN staff member when planning improvement. Because the results of appraisals could be used for promotion, reward, and other employment decisions, it also is important for litigation documentation.
Expert panel members indicated that a performance appraisal guide should include basic information on the process to follow when conducting a performance appraisal. An explanation of the job expectations, criteria for quality of performance, and evaluation scale should be included. Panel members suggested that the following topics be included in the guide: frequency of monitoring, examples of what to look for and avoid in performing the appraisal, examples of how evaluators can assist the employee in meeting job expectations, legal aspects of appraisals, and examples of words and phrases to use or avoid. Preferably, examples given should be specific to SN programs. Members agreed that the effectiveness and comprehensiveness of the guide superseded any length considerations.
Expert Panel Evaluation of Performance Appraisal Forms and Guide
Seven of the ten expert panel members reviewed and returned their evaluation of the draft performance appraisal forms and guide. The respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the forms provided an accurate description of the SN manager’s and assistants/technician’s responsibilities and that the instructions were clear and complete. Panel members preferred Version 1 because it was easier to relate the numerical rating to the corresponding performance criteria, without having to refer to a separate document. Because the expert panel indicated that the longer form was more usable than the short form, Version 1 was adopted for use and Version 2 was deleted from the project. It was suggested that the rating “Area of Growth” be changed to “Needs Improvement.” The panel indicated that the plan for improvement was too complicated and that a streamlined form will be more useful. In general, the respondents felt the form was a strong beginning effort but needed further refinement.
All expert panel members agreed or strongly agreed that the guide presented topics useful to SN personnel and was an effective supplement to the performance appraisal forms. In particular, several members commented that the guide presented useful information, especially for new SN managers and directors.
Review Panel Evaluation of Performance Appraisal Forms and Guide
Review panel participants agreed that the Performance Appraisal Form for School Nutrition Managers provided an accurate description of the job responsibilities. Reviewers underscored the reality that SN programs across the nation are different and not every manager is assigned all the responsibilities listed in the competencies. Several reviewers suggested that behaviors such as promptness, attendance, and attitude be addressed in the evaluation forms. The majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the form was appropriate for use in the SN setting. Likewise, the review panel considered the Performance Appraisal Form for School Nutrition Assistants/Technicians a useful and effective tool which clearly defines realistic performance requirements for tasks typically performed by SN assistants/technicians. As suggested for the performance appraisal for managers, work behaviors such as promptness and reliable attendance should be added to the performance appraisal form. Several comments addressed specific wording preferences to improve clarity of the performance criteria and the improvement plan.
All review panel members agreed or strongly agreed that the guide presented an inclusive overview of the performance appraisal process and provided specific direction for evaluating job performance. Reviewers agreed or strongly agreed that the information was presented in a concise, organized, and logical sequence with enough detail to clarify the topic/issue. All expert and review panel participants indicated that the resource is useful to SN directors and managers and that it facilitates the evaluation of employee performance. One reviewer, however, suggested that the guide underline the need for following district employee policies as these appraisal forms are implemented in their districts. Minimal editorial changes were made prior to finalizing the resource.
CONCLUSIONS AND APPLICATION
Evaluating performance is essential for the growth of SN staff and the improvement of the SN program. Using the appropriate performance appraisal forms and following a standardized process for all staff members will facilitate effective assessment that contributes to achieving organizational goals. The expert panels indicated that an effective performance appraisal form should have (1) criteria clearly defining expected performance, (2) rating scale appropriately reflecting criteria, (3) clear instructions, (4) a user-friendly format, (5) space for comments, and (6) a plan for improvement.
The forms and guide developed in this study were revised and formatted as a Web-based resource. The introduction to the resource provides an overview of the methodology used to develop the guide and appraisal forms. The body of the resource was divided into three sections: Section 1: Performance Appraisal Process; Section 2: Performance Appraisal Form for School Nutrition Managers; and Section 3: Performance Appraisal Form for School Nutrition Assistants/Technicians.
Section 1is a comprehensive, reader-friendly guide to conducting the performance appraisal in the SN setting. The guide provides an overview of the goals and objectives of the performance appraisal as well as suggestions for the frequency of conducting appraisals. A brief description of the performance appraisal forms leads into the discussion of the performance appraisal process. Pointers for conducting the performance appraisal are provided, as well as a summary of common challenges faced by evaluators and techniques for addressing these challenges. A list of additional resources is provided for evaluators who would like to learn more about the appraisal process and materials used to develop the resource.
The performance appraisal forms (Sections 2 and 3) contained in the resource were tailored to the specific competencies identified by research and practitioners as fundamental and central to the job expectations of SN managers and for assistants/technicians. The Performance Appraisal Form for School Nutrition Managers addresses the twelve functional areas identified by the NFSMI as needed for effective and efficient functioning. The Performance Appraisal Form for School Nutrition Assistants/Technicians addresses the six functional areas of effective performance by SN assistants/technicians. Each performance appraisal form was composed of an instruction page, rating pages, and the Performance Improvement Plan. Clear, positive language comprehensible to both supervisor and employee provides specific instructions for use and completion of the appraisals. The instructions included objectives for the performance appraisal and a description of the rating scale. Both the SN Manager and the SN Assistant/Technician performance appraisal forms use a five-point scale, ranging from 1 (Below Standard) to 5 (Exceeds Standard) for each functional area (Figures 1 and 2). A mark of N/A (Not Applicable) is given when the performance criterion is not a responsibility of the staff member being evaluated. Instructions for computing the overall rating were provided, as well as spaces for evaluator and employee signatures. A concise, goal-oriented, and easy to use Performance Improvement Plan template was included and was designed as a supplementary document to the performance appraisal form. The template includes space for the evaluator and staff member to identify key actions, measurement, resources needed, time frame, and priority for achieving improvement targets.
Figure 1. Excerpt from Performance Appraisal Form for School Nutrition Managers
Figure 2. Excerpt from Performance Appraisal Form for School Nutrition Assistants/Technicians
The competency-based performance appraisal resource provides a universal platform for evaluation relevant to SN programs of all types and sizes across the nation. The performance appraisal forms were designed to address the fundamental roles of SN managers and assistants/technicians, but can be modified to meet the specific appraisal needs of the local SN program. The performance appraisal forms for SN managers and assistants/technicians may be used to evaluate current performance and develop improvement goals, assist with developing or modifying existing appraisal forms, and augment district-mandated forms to focus appraisal more closely on SN activities. The SN-specific standards, used in conjunction with more general staff member evaluation forms, contribute to a more focused and objective performance appraisal.
The performance appraisal resource may be used as a general reference, as well as for individual learning, employee training, and as a component of departmental orientation. The resource can be viewed in its entirety in a downloadable format through the NFSMI Web site (http://nfsmi-web01.nfsmi.olemiss.edu/documentLibraryFiles/PDF%5C20081124111144.pdf). The appraisal forms are also available for download as separate files on the Web site.
Recommendations for Further Research
The performance appraisal resource was developed utilizing expert advice from a small number of practicing professionals. The experienced SN practitioners identified many essential factors to consider when developing performance appraisals. To validate effectiveness, the appraisal forms should be tested in SN programs of varying types and sizes. Further research could strengthen the validity of the forms developed and offer additional insights into the appraisal process. Additional and related avenues of research might seek to:
- Implement and evaluate a Web-based evaluation system for SN programs using the developed materials;
- Examine district administrators’ and school principals’ knowledge and attitude toward competency-based performance appraisal forms; and
- Investigate district administrators’ and school principals’ evaluation of the developed materials.
This manuscript has been produced by the National Food Service Management Institute – Applied Research Division, located at The University of Southern Mississippi with headquarters at The University of Mississippi. Funding for the Institute has been provided with federal funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service to The University of Mississippi. The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The University of Mississippi or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.
The information provided in this manuscript is the result of independent research produced by NFSMI and is not necessarily in accordance with U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) policy. FNS is the federal agency responsible for all federal domestic child nutrition programs including the National School Lunch Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, and the Summer Food Service Program. Individuals are encouraged to contact their local child nutrition program sponsor and/or their Child Nutrition State Agency should there appear to be a conflict with the information contained herein, and any state or federal policy that governs the associated Child Nutrition Program. For more information on the federal Child Nutrition Programs please visit www.fns.usda.gov/cnd.
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Cross is Professor Emeritus at Louisiana State University and a private food and nutrition consultant to the Louisiana and Mississippi Departments of Education and the National Food Service Management Institute. She lives in Brandon, Mississippi.Asperin is Assistant Professor for the Department of Apparel, Design, & Hospitality Management at North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND. Nettles is a Research Scientist at the Applied Research Division of the National Food Service Management Institute located at the University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS.