Performance Improvement Plans: What Are They, and When Should You Use Them?
The internet is filled with articles claiming that Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) are essentially a joke. That they are designed to “improve” nothing, but are actually meant to signal to everyone involved that this employee is going to be fired. Many commentators, including employers and executives, view PIPs as a simple CYA. That is, a document, that the employee signs, that they employer can later use to prove the employee was fired for his or her own failings, and not due to any discrimination or retaliation by the employer.
In order to determine when you, as a business owner or HR manager, should implement a PIP, you need to think first about your goals.
Assuming you genuinely want to help your employee improve, you should recognize that a PIP is a drastic step that will be met with dread. Have you spoken to the employee informally first? Do not simply rely on the reports of the employee’s supervisors before presenting the employee with even the possibility of a PIP. If you speak to the employee one-on-one, you may find out that there are reasons for the performance problems that can be fixed short of a PIP. Maybe the employee does not have the tools or technology needed to perform to expectations. Maybe the expectations are unrealistic. Maybe the employee has one skill set, but was placed in the “wrong” role, one that requires skills outside the employee’s expertise. Maybe the employee has a health problem and requires time off or an adjusted schedule to address it.
In short, do what you can to find out the causes before resorting to a PIP. It may be that the solution is much simpler. If you’ve tried the informal route with no results, a PIP may be in order. A typical PIP has the following basic elements: (1) statement of the areas in which the employee has failed to meet expectations; (2) a plan of action for improvement in those areas; and (3) a timeline.
The most useful PIPs are the ones that include the most detail. PIP’s should not be “cookie cutter” copy and paste exercises. For example, an action item that says “employee will keep supervisor informed of progress” is much less helpful than “employee will update supervisor in an email by the close of business each day on progress made on each outstanding assignment that day, with an estimated completion date for each.” And a timeline should have interim dates for meetings, updates, and other milestones, as opposed to simply an “end date” by which the employee must correct the identified issues.
Most importantly, the first element – the expectations and the performance gaps – should be set out in as much detail as possible. Even if your intentions are good, employees will be suspicious of vaguely-phrased expectations as a “set up” for termination. Including that level of detail, of course, requires a full discussion with the employee up front, and a brainstorming of ideas, with agreement from the employee and supervisor on what steps would lead to improvement.
PIPs can work to improve employees’ performance. But they must be handled carefully and with attention to the specific circumstances of each situation.
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