Forums invite staff to voice ideas, concerns

Penn employees who get a letter requesting their presence in a meeting with the University's executive vice president need not worry. No one's in trouble, you've just been selected at random to participate in the "Forums" -- informal chats designed to let you speak your mind and suggest some improvements.

For the past year and a half, Executive Vice President John Fry has been meeting with staffers once or twice a month in the Forums.

About 20 to 25 employees are invited to the meetings, usually over lunch or coffee, and given the chance to tell Fry and his staff what they like about Penn.

And, just as importantly, what they don't like about Penn.

"They're not some formal dog-and-pony," Fry said. "The spirit of them, and what I like most about them, is they really let me know what employees think about working for Penn."

The "intimidation factor" of getting invited to a meeting with the University's EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT certainly can seem daunting, Fry said. But, he stressed that the intent of the meetings is to enhance communications -- good and bad -- with no fear of a follow-up visit from the EVP, upset from comments made at the meeting.

"People can really speak to me at the meetings," Fry said. "They're free-form conversations, off-the-record. I probably won't even know their names when they're talking about the issues or concerns they have."

The face-to-face, but sort of anonymous element of the discussions has worked well, according to Fry. "Employees have had some really good ideas," he said. "And sometimes they've had some harder things to say."

An example of staff input resulting in policy was the decision to make Jan. 2 a holiday, Fry said. It was under consideration anyway, he said, and comments in the Forums reinforced the policy makers' direction.

Another recurring staff concern is management development, according to Annie McKee, director of management development. Based on staff input, she and Fry are putting together a skills development center that will be a "significant change" in the way Penn encourages professional development, McKee said.

"We're emphasizing aspects and skills coming largely from the feedback of the staff," McKee said. "The input is very valuable to us. We're trying to find as many varied ways of communication that we can, both up and down."

Even if you're not randomly picked for a Forum, you can get a message or suggestion to the executive vice president via a special e-mail set-up for such input:

Originally published on January 28, 1998