How do you help struggling employees without blowing their confidence and shattering their self-belief when they need improvement? It’s a dilemma many managers have to face. One of the most common ways to address performance issues before they become more widespread and detrimental is through performance reviews, but the typical way of doing things might not be so effective. A Gallup survey found that a scant 14 percent of employees strongly agreed that performance reviews inspired them to do better. Even more distressing is the study that found traditional performance reviews can even lead to worse performance about a third of the time.
Clearly, a different solution for getting employees to do better is needed. One such approach involves the crafting of a performance improvement plan (PIP). These plans help deal with performance issues and create a roadmap for employees to follow as they seek to improve their skills and become high-functioning team members.
In this article, learn what a performance improvement plan is, when one is necessary, and what every plan should include.
- Only 14 percent of workers strongly agree that performance reviews motivate them to improve.
- A Gallup survey shows only half of workers know what’s expected of them.
- 95 percent of managers show dissatisfaction with performance reviews run by their organizations.
- Managers must be genuine in their desire to help an employee improve.
- A performance improvement plan should set clear goals and expectations, offer sufficient support, establish a firm deadline, and involve the employee every step of the way.
What Is a Performance Improvement Plan?
A performance improvement plan is a detailed and recorded plan of action that shows where an employee has fallen short, what steps they need to take to improve, and the goals they must reach by a specified deadline.
Improvement plans of this type are meant to guide struggling employees to ensure they can remain with the organization and helpfully contribute to projects. Some may view a performance improvement plan almost like a game plan or roadmap, helping employees reach a destination by improving their skills and increasing work efficiency.
While a manager may follow a performance improvement plan template, each performance plan should be unique to the employee. Some employees may require a highly detailed plan with dozens of steps to put them on the right track. Others may only need a few goals to remember as they progress.
However they approach it, managers should work with the employee to craft the performance improvement plan and later submit it to human resources for record keeping. Should the designated deadline come and employee performance has not improved, the plan should be referenced so further actions can be taken.
When a Performance Improvement Plan Is Necessary
If you have an employee who is underperforming, that doesn’t always mean a performance improvement plan is necessary. Some managers may see the plan as just another step toward firing an employee, which would indicate there is no genuine effort to help the employee improve. A performance improvement plan should only be used when it becomes clear that additional steps and strategies will help someone stay with the organization.
Some of the following points may indicate a performance improvement plan is unnecessary:
- Temporary performance decline: An employee may be a strong worker, but a manager may notice a decline in their work. If the performance issues are only recent, they may indicate something outside of work may be affecting the employee’s job. Health problems, family troubles, and more may be to blame, which would rule out the need for a plan, at least for now.
- Tension between employee and manager: Sometimes an employee and manager will have personal issues with each other. In this situation, a performance improvement plan will do little to remedy the problem. The two individuals will instead need to work out their issues another way.
- Problems with being unqualified: A performance problem might stem from the fact that the employee doesn’t have the qualifications or skills necessary for the job in the first place. The employee might be a victim of the Peter Principle, or they might be taking on responsibilities they were never hired to do. While it’s possible to prescribe training through a performance improvement plan, if the employee is fully out of their depth, a plan likely isn’t the solution.
- Significant behavioral issues: Some behavioral problems warrant termination rather than using a performance improvement plan. This includes if the employee has committed a crime, such as theft, violence, or harassment. A zero-tolerance policy means the employee doesn’t get a second chance.
What a Performance Improvement Plan Should Include
1. Employee Involvement
If a manager and organization are sincere in helping the employee improve, they must involve the employee in their own plan. This requires having a conversation with them where you hash out all the details of the plan. By doing this, the employee takes ownership of their own development and improvement. They won’t be able to claim that they didn’t know about something or felt blindsided by a requirement or standard.
When crafting the PIP with the employee, ask questions to get at the heart of why they may be underperforming. Talk about what they would like to accomplish at the company. Let them have a say in their goals and the strategies used to reach them. A performance improvement plan should be a team effort, one where everyone is invested in success.
2. Clear Expectations
There’s a possibility that the employee who needs to improve their performance is unaware of the expectations for their position. A performance improvement plan should establish what those expectations are, including the specific responsibilities and duties for their job. Leave no room for misunderstandings. Write them down and make them part of the PIP. Only by setting expectations clearly can you talk to the employee about where they are falling short. Considering that Gallup found that only half of employees actually knew what was expected of them, outlining those expectations goes a long way toward improving performances across the board.
3. Realistic and Specific Goals
If the takeaway from your conversation with the employee is that they just need to improve their performance, then the meeting was a waste. A PIP needs to include very specific goals for the employee to achieve in a selected timeframe. When setting goals, make sure to keep them focused on the employee’s performance. While performance may tie into other metrics the organization cares about, only set goals for things the employee can control. Goal setting for a PIP should also center on short-term goals.
4. Resources and Support
With the correct goals in mind, you can also determine what resources the employee will need to achieve success. This is, again, something that should be discussed with the employee as you meet with them. Let them share what they think they’ll need, and if you and the organization can provide it, make sure it gets to them. For example, if it’s determined they need to take a training course, set them up with all the resources they’ll need.
5. Consequences of Failure
An additional part of the performance improvement plan should include the possible consequences the employee might face if they don’t succeed. These consequences can be something along the lines of the need for additional correction or a revised PIP. Or they might be something more serious, such as the possibility of termination. Whatever the consequences, the employee must understand the situation and what will happen if they don’t meet expectations.
6. Firm Milestones and Deadlines
“Everyone needs time to change and maybe learn or acquire new skills,” says Joseph Weintraub, coauthor of The Coaching Manager: Developing Top Talent in Business and a professor of management and organizational behavior at Babson College. Having said that, a performance plan shouldn’t be something that goes on for years. Every PIP should have a deadline whereby the employee must show that specific improvements have been made.
A plan without an endpoint provides no way for the employee to manage and scale their efforts. Additionally, a performance improvement plan should include milestones along the way. These milestones not only help managers gauge progress, but they provide extra motivation for the employee.
7. Regular Check-Ins
The performance improvement plan should also include a schedule that shows when the manager will have a check-in with the employee. The frequency of these check-ins will depend on the needs of both the manager and the employee. They may happen as often as once a week, or they could be more spread out than that depending on how much guidance and observation you feel the employee needs. Regular check-ins keep the employee accountable and allow more opportunities for 360-degree feedback.
Additional Items and Tips to Keep in Mind
- The performance plan should always provide a fair and unbiased evaluation of the employee.
- Don’t look at the PIP as a disciplinary action but rather as an opportunity to help the employee grow.
- Be open to refining and revising the plan. No performance improvement plan is perfect from the very start.
- Recognize the progress the employee makes as they follow the plan.
- Ensure the plan and your discussions with the employee remain confidential.
Performance Improvement Plan Example
While each PIP should be tailored toward the employee needing improvement, the following example will help give you an idea of what a performance plan looks like.
Employee: David Smith
Manager: Adam Miller
Issue: David has shown a clear pattern of failing to turn his projects in on time. This not only delays the launch of those projects but it negatively affects his team members, who often have to wait for him to catch up. The problem has also had an impact on overall team morale and chemistry.
Goal: Complete all projects and tasks on time over the next three months.
Objectives: To boost performance and productivity, David will ensure that all the projects he works on will be delivered at or before their specified deadlines.
Action: David will look at each project and write down the steps needed to complete them. He will then determine how much time he requires to do each step. Adam Miller will work with him in creating these steps and provide him with the additional resources he needs.
Check-Ins: Every Monday at 10:00 a.m. to review the previous week and go over what needs to happen the coming week.
Metrics: Number of projects completed on time. The employee’s work will also be checked for quality.
Performance Improvement Plans Don’t Just Benefit Employees
The CEO and co-founder of Glint, Jim Barnett, put it simply: “The annual performance review is dead.” Many organizations want to move away from the typical review process. Research from CEB Global found that 95 percent of managers were dissatisfied with how their companies conducted performance reviews. Waiting for a performance review often means waiting too long to fix the problem. A performance improvement plan then becomes a necessary alternative to what has been a struggling strategy.
These performance plans aren’t just for an underperforming employee. They can benefit the entire organization as well. PIPs can improve your work culture, leading to increased employee retention. They can improve overall communication and save the company money as employees begin to perform better. And as employees see their work recognized and rewarded, they’ll be more engaged in their jobs.
A policy of using performance improvement plans can help motivate employees. Check out the following article for other motivation tips: 7 Work Motivation Tips to Decrease Disengagement.
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