Performance Improvement Plans: Everything You Need to Know

Performance Improvement Plans: Everything You Need to Know

What is a PIP?

Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) are formal documents that outline specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals that are set to rectify the negative performance of underperforming employees. The PIP also outlines the resources and support that will be provided to the employees to help them achieve these goals. A performance improvement plan is the last option after informal coaching and feedback have failed to address the employee's performance gaps.

Performance improvement plans are focused on developing the individual rather than penalizing them. Through performance improvement plans, individuals who are struggling with work but want to succeed can get specialized and focused support from their manager. Successful performance improvement plans are denoted by completed supplementary training, more check-ins with the manager

When to use a PIP?


Before implementing a PIP, employers should attempt to address the employee's performance issues through other means, such as providing regular feedback, identifying the root cause, addressing possible workload and resource issues, and addressing personal or external factors. However, if the employee's performance does not improve after all other interventions, performance improvement plans may be necessary. Below is a list of specific situations where performance improvement plans may be used.

  1. When an employee's performance continually falls short of expectations. This could involve missing deadlines and producing poor-quality work.

  2. When an employee lacks a specific skill or expertise that prevents them from efficiently completing their work tasks, an employee, for example, may require training in specific areas affecting their work performance.

  3. When an employee's behavior is interfering with their ability to perform their job duties. This could include disruptive behavior, insubordination, or absenteeism.

What should a performance improvement plan include?

1. Clearly Defined Challenges

Performance improvement plans should include a summary of employee's performance concerns. According to McKinsey's forward program, a clearly defined problem leads to breakthrough solutions. This means that the employee's specific performance issues that need improvement should be clearly pointed out.

Performance improvement plans should also include past examples of the employee's behavior or work product that demonstrates their underperformance so that the employees are well-informed about where they are going wrong. This will help employees form personal goals that will combat their weaknesses. When drafting performance improvement plans, it is important to avoid personal attacks or generalizations and focus only on objective performance-related issues.

2. SMART Development Goals

The next step is to establish clear and specific solution goals that address the identified performance concerns. The goals should follow the SMART principle as indicated above. Measurable goals give room to the assessment of progress. Realistic goals motivate the employee to see through their performance improvement plans. Development goals within performance improvement plants should be relevant to the employee's job duties and should be aligned with the company's goals. This will ensure that the company does not waste resources on things that are not relevant to it. Moreover, the employee will feel the need to participate in the performance improvement plans since they have a direct impact on their job.

3. Timeline for Improvement

Performance improvement plans should include a start and end date. The time frame between the two should be realistic. The time frame should also be divided into manageable milestones, given that the employee will still need to perform their work duties at most times. Milestones can also assist in tracking the progress of the employee. When determining timelines, the seriousness of the performance concerns and the employee's current capacity should be taken into consideration. This ensures that realistic deadlines are put in place. Adult learning, in its nature, should allow flexibility because a lot of other circumstances can come in the way; performance improvement plans should be of no difference.

4. Resources and Support

When developing performance improvement plans, it is important to identify the resources that are provided to the employee to assist their improvement. In addition, the employees should also be supported through coaching and mentoring. The availability of resources for the performance improvement plans and the process for accessing them should be communicated. Resources provided to the employees should be relevant to their improvement plans and their needs.

5. Consequences for Failure to Meet Goals

The performance improvement plans should clearly outline the measures that will be taken if employees fail to meet their goals. Measures can range from further training to employment termination, depending on the organization. This way, employees will know how serious the program is and can also put effort into meeting their goals. Measures taken if one does not complete their performance improvement plans should be proportionate to the seriousness of the performance concerns. The consequences should be communicated throughout the performance improvement plan process.

6. Documentation

Last but not least, the performance improvement plans should be documented. A documented plan enables progress tracking.

Related: How To Develop A Performance Improvement Plan

Benefits of using PIPs

  1. Improved Employee Performance: Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) give a formal framework for addressing and resolving employee performance issues. PIPs can help employees identify and solve performance deficiencies by defining clear goals, providing resources, and evaluating progress, resulting in overall performance improvement.

  2. Employer Effort record: PIPs serve as a record of the employer's efforts to address employee performance. This evidence might be critical in shielding the employer from legal obligation if they need to fire an employee due to poor performance.

  3. Lower Turnover Costs: PIPs can lower the risk of employee turnover by assisting employees in improving their performance. Employee replacement can be costly in terms of lost productivity as well as recruitment and training costs.

  4. Improved Communication and Transparency: PIPs encourage businesses and employees to communicate openly and transparently. Regular check-in meetings and specific feedback aid in the development of a collaborative approach to performance improvement.

  5. Employee Development and Progress: Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) can act as a catalyst for employee development and progress. PIPs can inspire employees to take ownership of their performance and seek possibilities for advancement by providing constructive comments and highlighting areas for improvement.

  6. Fairness and Consistency: Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) offer a fair and consistent approach to addressing performance issues. Employers can prevent claims of bias or unfair treatment by using the same process for all employees.

Challenges of using PIPs

  1. Demoralization and Emotional Impact: For employees, PIPs can be an unpleasant and disheartening experience. Being put on PIP can have a tremendous influence on their morale, motivation, and self-esteem. Underperformance stigma and the fear of imminent termination can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and decreased job satisfaction.
  2. Subjective Evaluation and Measuring Progress: Evaluating employee performance can be subjective and context-dependent, making it difficult to measure progress toward the PIP goals objectively. This subjectivity may result in conflicts between the company and employees regarding the assessment of progress, thereby compromising the PIP's effectiveness.
  3. Time Commitment and Resource Allocation: Implementing a PIP necessitates a major investment of time and resources from both the business and the employee. The company must set aside time to document performance issues, create SMART goals, provide tools, and have regular check-in meetings. The employee must also devote time to training, coaching, and putting agreed-upon improvement initiatives into action.
  4. Power Dynamics and Communication Barriers: An employer-employee power imbalance might stifle free and honest communication during the PIP process. Employees may be scared or afraid to raise their concerns or seek explanations, potentially impeding their capacity to participate in the PIP process fully.
  5. Addressing Root Causes and Fundamental Issues: PIPs sometimes focus on addressing immediate performance difficulties rather than diving into the fundamental causes of underperformance. A PIP may not fully address factors such as personal concerns, a lack of training, or an inappropriate work environment, limiting its usefulness in attaining long-term progress.
  6. Possibility of Legal Issues and Bias: PIPs can be legally sensitive, and businesses must exercise caution to avoid discriminatory practices or unjust employee treatment. PIPs, if not properly implemented, can be used as an excuse for termination, perhaps resulting in legal problems.

Related: Performance Management Goals: What you need to know

Implementing Performance Improvement Plans Effectively

Step 1: Gather Evidence and Document Performance Concerns

  1. Collect Performance Data: Gather comprehensive documentation of the employee's performance issues, including performance evaluations, attendance records, written or verbal feedback, and witness accounts.

  2. Identify Specific Behaviors or Results: Clearly define the specific performance concerns that need improvement.

  3. Quantify the Impact: Assess the impact of the performance concerns on the employee's job duties, team performance, and overall company objectives. Quantify the negative impact wherever possible to demonstrate the severity of the issues.

Step 2: Prepare for a Performance Review Meeting

  1. Schedule a Formal Meeting: Schedule a private meeting with the employee to discuss their performance concerns. Inform them of the meeting's purpose and allow them time to prepare.

  2. Prepare an Agenda: Outline the topics to be discussed during the meeting, including the specific performance concerns, the proposed PIP, and the expectations for improvement.

  3. Anticipate Employee Reactions: Consider the employee's potential reactions to the meeting and prepare responses to address their concerns or questions empathetically. Be prepared to handle defensive behavior or resistance constructively.

Step 3: Conduct a Performance Review Meeting

  1. Introduce the Purpose: Clearly state the purpose of the meeting and explain that you need to address some performance concerns.

  2. Emphasize Support: Reiterate your commitment to helping the employee improve and assure them that the PIP is intended to support their development. Express your belief in their potential for success.

  3. Present Performance Concerns: Clearly explain the specific performance concerns, providing concrete examples of behavior or work product that demonstrates underperformance. Use objective language and avoid personal attacks.

  4. Listen to Employee's Perspective: Allow the employee to express their perspective, concerns, and any potential mitigating factors. Listen actively and without interruption. Show empathy and understanding towards their viewpoint.

Step 4: Develop SMART Goals for Improvement

  1. Collaborate with Employee: Work with the employee to establish SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goals for improvement. Encourage their input and participation in the goal-setting process.

  2. Address Specific Concerns: Ensure each goal directly addresses a specific performance concern and provides a clear path to improvement. Tailor the goals to the employee's individual needs and capabilities.

  3. Set Measurable Targets: Define measurable targets for each goal, allowing for objective assessment of progress. Quantify the targets whenever possible to establish clear benchmarks for improvement.

  4. Consider Employee's Capabilities: Set achievable goals that align with the employee's capabilities, experience, and available resources. Consider their workload and any potential limitations.

  5. Establish Realistic Timelines: Set realistic timelines for achieving each goal, considering the complexity of the performance issues, the employee's workload, and the availability of resources. Avoid setting unrealistic expectations that could lead to discouragement.

Step 5: Create a Formal PIP Document

  1. Outline the Performance Concerns: Summarize the specific performance concerns that need improvement, using objective language and avoiding personal attacks.

  2. State SMART Goals: Clearly list the SMART goals for improvement, including measurable targets and timelines. Provide a detailed description of the expected behavior or work product for each goal.

  3. Define Resources and Support: Outline the resources and support that will be provided to the employee to assist their improvement. Specify any training, coaching, or additional resources that will be available.

  4. Specify Consequences: Clearly state the consequences for failing to meet the goals of the PIP. Outline the potential disciplinary actions that may be taken if the employee's performance does not improve.

  5. Obtain Signatures: Have the employee and their supervisor sign the PIP to acknowledge their agreement and commitment to the plan. Ensure both parties understand their roles and responsibilities.

Step 6: Implement and Monitor the PIP

  1. Schedule Regular Check-Ins: Conduct regular check-in meetings with the employee to assess progress, provide feedback, and adjust the PIP if necessary. Schedule these meetings at regular intervals to maintain momentum.

  2. Track Progress Against Goals: Monitor the employee's progress towards achieving the SMART goals. Use objective measures to assess improvement, such as performance metrics, feedback from colleagues, or supervisor observations.

  3. Provide Ongoing Support: Offer ongoing support, resources, and coaching to assist the employee's improvement efforts. Provide regular feedback, address any challenges, and celebrate successes.

  4. Document Progress and Communication: Keep detailed records of check-in meetings, feedback provided, and any adjustments.

Tips for effective PIP implementation 

Determine the underlying causes

The first step is to determine the issues that are leading to an employee's underperformance. The effectiveness of the performance improvement plan process is dependent on the employee's comprehension of their areas of improvement need. This can include well-detailed instruction, as well as encouragement and support. A lack of productivity is not always the result of being lazy; it may also occur from an employee not knowing how to use tools or resources properly or from distractions at work that prevent them from completing their work. Recognizing that there are several factors, sometimes unrelated to the employee, that affect an employee's output and caliber of work is a crucial component of an organization's employee appreciation program.

Communicate with the employee first

According to a study by Reflektive, over 85% of employees would quit if they believed their performance assessment was unfair. It is, therefore, important to ensure that you communicate with an employee before going the PIP route to ensure fairness. You should sit down with the employee and go over the situation as your initial course of action. The approach you use in this case will entirely depend on the disparity, but in general, you want to portray a PIP as a useful instrument for personal development. Both sides benefit when there is a positive attitude throughout the process. PIPs should be viewed as opportunities to advance your employee's career rather than as punishments that could put a stop to it.

Give the required training and resources

According to LinkedIn research from 2019, 94% of workers "would stay at a company longer if it simply invested in helping them learn." It is, therefore, crucial to provide employees with the necessary resources to excel when implementing a performance improvement plan. It is only right that you provide your staff with the tools and time they need to expand their skill set if you want them to. Make sure your staff members have access to the resources they need to accomplish their goals and don't have to go out and find them on their own when creating an employee performance improvement plan. It can be more instruction, but it could also just be more time to learn a new ability. Remember that the likelihood is that they will become even more irate and turn towards failure if you expect them to do better given the time and resources they already have (and already struggle with).

Make the consequences clear

It's crucial to keep a positive mindset when creating an effective employee performance improvement plan, as described above. However, it's also critical to ensure that the worker is aware that there will be clear consequences if their performance doesn't improve. At the very beginning of the PIP process, there must be consequences that are predetermined and clear.

Related: How To Fix Your Performance Management System

Performance improvement plan policy

A performance improvement policy is a document that describes the steps an organization takes when an employee's performance falls short of expectations. It clarifies for managers and staff what is expected of them in performance evaluations, as well as the connection between employee termination and performance improvement reviews. This guarantees that workers are aware of the expectations of their jobs and carry them out to the best of their abilities. Here are key elements typically found in a Performance Improvement Plan policy:

It should include, but not limited to, the following:

1. Overview and Purpose

Emphasize that the PIP is a tool for improvement rather than a punitive punishment in your clear statement of the policy's goal.

2. Scope

Describe the circumstances that can lead to the commencement of a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), such as consistently poor performance, specific incidents, or missed performance targets. Describe the steps involved in initiating a PIP, who can start it (supervisor, manager, HR, etc.), and the situations in which it can be initiated.

3. Documentation and Assessment

Indicate which records—such as performance reviews, particular occurrences or other proof of performance problems—are needed to start a PIP. Describe the standards by which performance will be judged.

4. Ways of Communication

Specify the employee's method of learning about the PIP, including who will tell them about it and when and where the meeting will be held.

5. Components of the Plan

Describe in detail the components of the Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), including defined performance standards, quantifiable objectives, timelines, and any tools or assistance offered to facilitate the employee's improvement.

6. Employee Input 

Describe the ways in which staff members can contribute to the PIP, for example, by explaining their comprehension of the difficulties, offering explanations for performance shortcomings, or putting forth different approaches to improvement.

7. Monitoring and Feedback

Explain the performance monitoring and feedback mechanisms that will be in place during the PIP period. Regular check-ins, progress reports, and feedback sessions could all fall under this category.

8. Consequences

Describe the consequences, including any possible disciplinary measures, for not meeting the PIP objectives.

9. Review and Update

Establish timeframes for assessing the PIP and maybe updating it in accordance with developments.

Related: Key Performance Indicators Dashboard: What You Need to Know

How to Avoid Needing a Performance Improvement Plan

Performance improvement plans shouldn't be an organization's first choice for resolving performance problems, even if they are undoubtedly preferable to doing nothing and waiting for a worker to fail. PIPs frequently have a negative impact on team morale. It is preferable to take the initiative to support staff members in succeeding in their jobs.

According to Workleap's Statistics on the importance of employee feedback, 65% of employees are keen on receiving more feedback as long as it's useful and constructive. It is, therefore, important for managers to provide regular feedback to employees to avoid even needing a formal procedure such as a performance improvement plan in the first place.

When is a performance improvement plan needed?

Performance Improvement Plans are most effective when an employee is experiencing challenges in their work. Supervisors need to be able to recognize the warning indications of a low-performing worker. A PIP is worthwhile to try if you believe an employee can resolve their performance-related problems. Ultimately, what matters is not only what they bring to your particular job but also their capacity to be a dependable worker who can fulfil expectations at many workplaces. The following are instances when you might need to make use of a performance improvement plan:

  • When an individual has a track record of being a top performer but has recently displayed an unusual pattern of poor performance.

  • When an employee regularly acts rudely toward clients or customers

  • An employee constantly misses deadlines

  • If an employee violates office safety policies

  • When an employee frequently arrives late for work

  • When an employee consistently disregards clear and reasonable instructions

  • If an employee performs poorly in a small number of areas but well in the majority of them.

  • When an employee is going through personal issues that could have impacted their performance.

  • When there is no adequate performance improvement plan in your employee handbook

It is crucial to bear in mind that behavioral or misconduct-related issues are not as suitable for a performance development plan because they do not reflect an employee's poor performance in their work. An employee's performance may also be impacted by a personal issue that has nothing to do with their education or experience. If so, a performance improvement plan might not be as beneficial to the worker but rather give them authorized leave or mental health support.

Does PIP lead to termination?

A PIP's purpose is to promote an employee's professional development, not to serve as a reason for termination. However, dismissing may be taken into consideration if an employee does not show noticeable improvements during the PIP period. Usually, the last resort is to be dismissed if you don't accomplish the desired results in the time frame given to you.

PIPs can be used against an employee even if they can be a helpful tool for solving issues. They may appear to be only a means of postponing the inevitable, the final step before firing someone. Before implementing a Performance Improve Plan for an employee, management ought to think about how realistic the worker seems to be in solving their problems. A Performance Improvement Plan may even be the first formal action taken by certain employers prior to terminating an employee. However, this is an example of a purpose that has been misunderstood, as this isn't the way or the reason that an employer ought to adopt a performance improvement plan.

Ultimately, performance improvement plans can be a great formal tool for assisting managers in dealing with poor performance, and they also build an accountability culture within the organization. Organizations can improve their outcomes and retain their top talent by developing effective performance improvement plans. You can make PIPs useful and effective for your organization by following the guidelines provided in this article.

Chido Madzogo & Tiffany Maruva
This article was written by Chido Madzogo & a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd

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