Performance Improvement Plans: A Comprehensive Guide

Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) are structured tools used by managers to help underperforming employees. The primary goal of a PIP is to give the employee every possible chance to succeed in the role. It ensures expectations were clearly set and provides support, facilitating measurable improvement in an employee’s performance and aligning them to the company’s standards and expectations. It also helps with the guilt of, “did I do enough to help them?”

In small business, managers sometimes use a PIP to protect against any legal action should they be looking to replace an employee. This is wrong headed, not just because it probably won’t help in that circumstance (we’re not lawyers, just telling you what we’ve heard), but because if you’ve already decided that the person can’t perform, forcing them to jump through these hoops only to further prove their level of incompetence seems cruel and unusual. This could also significantly harm their confidence when they go to look for their next role. No need to kick them on the way out the door.

A company will often outline its progressive discipline policy in the employee handbook. This typically follows a pattern of a verbal warning, then a written warning, and then a final warning. A PIP is employed to formalize the verbal feedback previously delivered when discussion alone hasn’t resulted in improvement.

What’s In A PIP?

The document (yes, it must be written, not just a discussion) outlines specific areas where an employee’s performance is lacking and provides clear, achievable goals for improvement within a set timeframe. It typically includes:

  • Specific performance issues that need attention.
  • Expected performance standards that the employee must meet.
  • Actionable steps for the employee to take to improve.
  • Support and resources available to the employee during the PIP period.
  • Regular check-ins to monitor progress.
  • Consequences if the performance does not improve.

When Should They Be Used?

PIPs should be used when an employee’s performance consistently fails to meet the required standards. Situations that may warrant a PIP include:

  • Persistent errors in work tasks.
  • Failure to meet deadlines or targets.
  • Inadequate skill level for the role.
  • Behavioral issues that affect team dynamics or productivity.

What Should Be Done Beforehand?

Because PIPs are formal and tend to land with considerable weight, it’s crucial to ensure that the employee has received:

  • Clear expectations about their role and performance standards.
  • Feedback on their performance issues.
  • Opportunities to ask questions and clarify doubts.

What Are Some Common Pitfalls?

Implementing a PIP can be challenging and common pitfalls include:

  • Lack of clarity: Vague goals and expectations can lead to confusion and further underperformance.
  • Insufficient support: Failing to provide the necessary resources and guidance can hinder the employee’s ability to improve.
  • Negative framing: Positioning the PIP as a punitive measure rather than a developmental opportunity can demotivate the employee.
  • Inadequate follow-up: Without regular check-ins, employees may feel abandoned and progress may stall.

Ideal Outcomes

The ideal outcome of a PIP is a win-win situation where the employee’s performance improves to meet the company’s standards. Successful PIPs result in:

  • Enhanced performance: The employee addresses the issues and meets or exceeds expectations.
  • Professional growth: The employee develops new skills and competencies.
  • Better engagement: The employee feels more connected and committed to their work.
  • Positive team dynamics: Improved performance and behavior positively affect the team.

If you don’t set clear expectations, it’s tough for people to meet them. Performance improvement plans are valuable tools for helping employees overcome performance hurdles. When used correctly, they can lead to significant improvements in performance, benefiting both the employee and the organization. It’s essential to approach PIPs with a supportive mindset, clear communication, and a commitment to the employee’s development.

Bellrock offers business leaders a unique perspective on managing employee performance. Our purpose is to unleash potential, developing life-long relationships and raving fans. To talk about how PIPs can work for your organization, reach out – we’re here to help! If you found this article valuable, don’t be stingy. Share.

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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