For many chairs and deans, one of the most challenging parts of the job is supervising disciplinary and/or corrective actions for faculty and staff. It can be a highly emotionally charged process for both the facilitator of the disciplinary/corrective action plan (fCAP) and the recipient of the disciplinary/corrective action (rCAP). This article explores reflections about my own growth through engaging with the process of disciplinary/corrective action plans (CAPs).
Policy and Documentation
CAPs have developed my ability to utilize university policies and procedures and to document carefully. While this has been a sharp learning curve for me, the efficiency I have developed has been a worthwhile time investment. Local policies continue to develop in response to national trends and new interpretations of law, the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, the use of social media to implement change, and increased awareness of the cost of incivility. These compounding trends have led to a reevaluation of the university’s liability if it does not address potentially controversial, unethical or even illegal behavior by faculty and staff. The Great Resignation has also led many academic leaders to consider the cost of losing promising or exemplary faculty if we do not address conduct issues that may have previously been tolerated and left unaddressed in any formal way. Each of these factors have encouraged me to learn our policies/procedures, identify existing gaps, and utilize policy in my communication with the rCAP. Fortunately, our wonderful General Counsel welcomed feedback and provided guidance on best practices on CAP communication.
I have realized that many policies and procedures must be updated and evaluated regularly, just like syllabi. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate, most syllabi were one page. Today, my syllabi are about eight pages in length, and like most faculty, I update them every semester. Why? Beyond university policy changes that must be incorporated as well as pedagogical reasons, I identified gaps when I learned of gray areas or loopholes that students discovered in either my own or another instructor’s syllabi. Twenty years ago, when I started teaching, I truly could not have imagined some of the items now in my syllabi; they simply would not have occurred to me. For example, I did not imagine that I would have to tell students not to utilize the many sites that offer to write their papers. Policy is the same, as I identify gaps and communicate the gaps to the university and college offices that oversee our policies.
I also learned that it was critical to communicate policy/procedure to the rCAP from the initial notice of the CAP. I found it helpful to include the policy/procedure number and content. I then indicate with as much specificity as possible how they have violated the particular policy/procedure using behavior-based language. For example, instead of saying you are “rude” or “unprofessional,” I will state “during the faculty meetings and program meetings on [specific date], you spoke over your peers multiple times even when asked to stop, yelled at peers, and called them derogatory names.” Emphasizing the behavior as opposed to the person results in a greater likelihood that the person can receive the information.
Documentation begins prior to the warning being issued and should continue through successful resolution, escalation of corrective action, or legal action. A few tips to consider include the following:
- Keep a spreadsheet that you can easily find that lists the individual’s name, specific behavior, who was present for the conversation/event, and date/context of the behavior. We often hear things before it reaches the point of a CAP and with just a few pieces of information, we have a much easier time writing the notice.
- Keep a folder or drive dedicated to these types of issues. I keep a folder that contains all related emails, all documents that have been exchanged, all assignments/trainings sent to and completed by the rCAP, and periodic summaries.
- Utilize consistent file naming. I use a file name that includes the rCAP’s initials, the word ‘CAP’, the type of document (email, assignment, etc.) and the date_time. This helps me to easily locate the information if there is a preservation of evidence notification or if I need to find something quickly during a meeting with the rCAP.
- Produce periodic summaries, e.g. a weekly or monthly update. Briefly include a broad overview of the training the person has completed, the progress that has been made, and continued areas of growth. I also note any specific incidents that occurred that violate the CAP and action items.
I don’t have to do this alone. Actually, I shouldn’t. Colleagues in Human Resources, the Provost’s office, and the General Counsel can assist in policy implementation and decisions about the CAP. Likewise, there are numerous resources across campus that can assist in curating/developing the materials for the CAP. I have reached out to our technology offices to assist staff with performance deficiencies and they provided a list of upcoming trainings. Our Center for Faculty Excellence provided a list of upcoming pedagogy workshops as I was developing training for faculty needing improvement in pedagogy.
Many universities have subscriptions to training resources such as LinkedIn Learning, National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, and Academic Impressions. There are also numerous resources published on the internet. I recommend keeping a list of what has been assigned and its source for future trainings and to include in future notices of CAPs as examples of the training.
Professionally, I believe that I have been an asset to the Dean’s office, as my supervision of the CAPs in the college allows the Dean to focus on broader initiatives. It also helps rCAPs to be comfortable in sharing their experiences with me knowing that the Dean evaluates them and handles grievances and appeals.
Leveraging Realistic Positivity
It has been essential for me to remember that I must start from a place of positive intent so that I can encourage professional development and growth in the rCAP. In order to be truly effective, I have to focus on promotion of positive behavior as opposed to adopting a disciplinary or punitive approach. It is also critical that I assume positive intent on the part of the rCAP. We often automatically assume the violated conduct expectations is due to disrespect, incivility, or rudeness. I have to engage in reflective decision making by setting aside my assumptions, listening to the rCAP, and asking clarifying questions. When I have assumed positive intent, I have learned that many of the faculty and staff meant well and did not understand what they were doing and how it was received. While this is not always true, it has helped to begin a meaningful and less combative discussion. Both of these allow me to more effectively facilitate the progress of the rCAP as I serve as an advocate for the rCAP and the people with whom they interact.
It is often difficult to start with positive intent as CAPS generally begin with challenging circumstances leading to the negative evaluation of the rCAP, which makes it all too easy to presume the person’s negative intent and willful violation of policy. Psychologists would call this a fundamental attribution error, in which we perceive others’ behaviors as being internally motivated and ignore situational components. I have been surprised by how often the rCAP had no idea that their words or actions violated policy and/or was harmful to others. While their reactions to discovering this information have been variable, if the rCAP believes that the facilitator is committed to their success and wants to a resource, shares similar values, and is focused on growth rather than punishment, then the rCAP is more likely to meaningfully engage in the plans for improvement. Assuming positive intent does not mean that I am soft in my approach. If the person continues to engage in inappropriate behavior, I immediately address it and firmly state that our focus is on development and growth. In my training, I encourage the rCAP to also practice self-awareness and perspective taking; indeed, some rCAPs have become the greatest proponents for their professional growth as they become more aware.
Because it is normal for the rCAP to be defensive initially, I make a point not to take that defensiveness personally. Within academia, much of our identity is shaped by our sense of having expertise and intelligence and we are driven by a desire for success. Learning that you are perceived as less than successful is extremely difficult to process. A notice of a CAP challenges the rCAPS’s sense of self identity and may produce cognitive dissonance, both of which lead to negative emotions. In order to manage these emotions, the rCAP may engage in a variety of cognitive biases and errors in order to manage their self-image. One of the most common responses is the use of ad hominem attacks during which the rCAP verbally attacks the person rather than addressing the argument. This can be seen when the rCAP argues that you cannot possibly understand the situation as you are not intelligent enough to comprehend the issues. Confirmation bias also occurs when the rCAP attends only to information that supports their beliefs about themselves such as the one thank you email they received three years ago. In addition, the rCAP may argue that their concerning behavior occurred due to external factors such as too many demanding students while others’ behavior is due to personal attributes such as vindictiveness. These and many other cognitive and social biases may be present in the rCAP’s response.
It is important for me to listen empathetically. People need to feel heard; if the rCAP’s relationships with peers have been impacted, others may have simply stopped listening. After genuinely listening, I can then emphasize the need to focus on the future, taking positive steps to gain skills to maximize strengths and achieve goals in productive ways. In my experience, the person who makes progress in the CAP tends to develop more willingness to consider others’ perspectives and becomes more self-aware of strengths and areas for growth.
I find it important to celebrate the rCAP’s successes as well as my own. As rCAPs have advanced in their training, I send a hand-written card acknowledging the hard work of making change, specifically noting areas or instances of improvement. I also like to send email updates to the rCAP’s Chair and the Dean informing them of how the rCAP has been meaningfully engaging in the training and acknowledging their success. Small recognitions of success assure the rCAP that their success matters and is noted. I believe that it also communicates that growth is a process in which there are multiple points of success. Finally, I also encourage the rCAP to treat themselves as a way to celebrate their success.
I have learned to celebrate success in the process, regardless of the outcome. Being able to participate in the process with genuine openness and empathy is a success even if the person does not progress toward the specific goals for the CAP. I attempt to remind myself of the significance of the difficult work that I am conducting not only in developing or gathering content, but also in the often emotionally challenging work of CAPs.
Responsibilities of the fCAP
Last but not least, I must take care of myself. We often hear how self-care is important, but academia often doesn’t create opportunities for self-care. As Chairs and Deans, this lack of time for our own development and reflection becomes challenging because our days are generally not our own. I have learned I have to ensure that I find that time when facilitating CAPs. I know that utilizing my training in positive psychology during these sessions is important, but it requires that my working memory be at full capacity. Sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, and poor nutritional habits negatively impact working memory which contributes to my ability to deploy attentional resources, emotionally regulate, and engage in intentional decision making. I try to schedule CAPs on a single day. The night before, I make sure that I get plenty of rest. In the morning, I take a walk and play with my animals. This helps me to be refreshed and approach the day from a place of positive intent. I also don’t schedule other high demand meetings on that day. My Dean encourages me to take a break after the last CAP of the day. I would encourage you to identify things you love and incorporate those into the days in which you have these difficult meetings.
Success for the rCAP is not up to me. It is still difficult for me not to internalize others’ choices if that person elects not to engage in the CAP. Growing up, I heard the saying, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.” CAPs have been some of the clearest examples of this adage. Personally, I struggle with this as a cognitive psychologist, because I make a point to engage in self-awareness and perspective-taking regularly. I constantly consider my cognitive biases, schemas, and beliefs as well as how they are similar to, different from, and impact others.
I know that I genuinely want all of the rCAPs I work with to be successful. I say this without qualifications. I have learned that they have to want to be successful as well, which starts by acknowledging there is a need to change. I can provide a training that follows all of the best practices, but it is ultimately up to the person. This is a relief and a frustration. My job is not to fix people, but instead to provide opportunities to gain knowledge and skills that will ultimately benefit others as well as the rCAP. The rCAP must decide that the knowledge and skills are needed and beneficial. Demonstrating how what they learn connects to their values and goals can help with this revelation. Others may not be able to reconcile the need for change and their identity. I focus on maintaining a growth mindset, believing that we all have the potential for change, but recognizing that it may be harder for some than others.
As a faculty member and even as an academic leader, I never imagined that I would be responsible for CAPs for the college. I am continually learning to approach these trainings as an opportunity for me to personally develop my own skills. I have also come to view these as an opportunity to contribute to others’ professional development, positively impacting the experiences of others in the university.