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How to establish a performance improvement plan

Feb 19, 2018 Kate Lopaze

How to establish a performance improvement plan

One of the biggest challenges of working in Human Resources can be the role that you play in employee struggles and difficulties: poor performance reviews, disciplinary action, conflicts between employee and manager, etc. It can feel like you’re caught in the middle—you’re not necessarily the employee or the manager, but you’re there to represent both their interests and those of the company, so your role is a delicate one. Part of that role is facilitating performance improvement plans (PIPs) to help struggling employees get back on track in their jobs.

Why use a performance improvement plan?

A PIP is a tool at HR’s disposal to help restore a worsening situation. Maybe the employee has chronic difficulties with his or her role, or maybe there was an incident that has shaken his or her manager’s confidence in their job performance. A PIP is a chance to say, “Okay, this situation is not great, but there’s potential to turn things around.” It’s a formal document and process, acknowledged by the employee and his or her manager, that there are certain steps that the employee needs to complete before his or her performance is stabilized. It’s important to note that a PIP is not necessarily a last stop on the way to firing an employee. Instead, look at it as a way to acknowledge that performance has been poor, but that there are ways to move on with clearer expectations from all involved. It can help ensure that the employee is receiving the resources he or she needs to do the job, if that support was lacking before and contributed to mistakes or poor performance.

What is HR’s role in creating a PIP?

The Human Resources role can vary according to the size and type of company, but there are some baseline issues you can expect to address as an HR manager:
  • Documenting circumstances—why the employee is being placed on a PIP, what the manager’s concerns are, what the employee’s response is, and any other factors that need to be made clear
  • Ensuring that the employee knows his or her rights in the situation
  • Providing information or resources that the employee needs to succeed under the PIP, such as training or company policy
  • Supporting the manager in implementing the PIP for the employee
  • Developing an action plan for both the manager and the employee
The HR role is one of support and guidance, and making sure that all parties are engaged in the process of making the work situation better for all involved. 

What’s included in a PIP?

The PIP is not meant to be an accusatory tool, piling on to scare or intimidate the employee into improving, or else. Rather, it’s a way to get everything in writing and make sure that everyone is clear on expectations moving forward—particularly if there are consequences if the employee does not meet particular benchmarks. A PIP should include:
  • Written documentation of the problematic behavior or performance issue
  • A specific description of the expectations for the employee’s performance
  • A list of the resources that will be provided to the employee to improve performance
  • An explicit follow-up plan, including timeframes, a schedule of meetings with the employee, or other milestones set between the manager and employee
  • Consequences for failure to meet the benchmarks in the plan, if applicable
There may not be a one-size-fits-all PIP for your HR department. As the HR rep, you’re part of a collaborative process so it’s important to make sure that the PIP you’re developing is applicable to the particular situation and allows for input by both the manager and employee as well.

Best practices for implementing a PIP

As you know, part of your role in HR is helping to defuse tense workplace situations with proactive steps and productive solutions. The employee probably isn’t happy (hence the issues), the manager isn’t happy to have to deal with this, and no one wants to be told they’re not doing well. Navigating an unhappy situation while trying to put a mechanism in place to get things back on track is challenging, no question. Here are some best practices you should consider as you create a PIP.
  • Be clear, in writing, about the behavior or performance that merits the PIP.
  • Provide specific examples of each type of behavior or poor performance.
  • Create a dialogue about potential reasons for the behavior or poor performance. Give the employee an opportunity to express his or her understanding of the issue and of the performance expectations.
  • Create a written improvement plan with specific, measurable goals for the employee to meet on a clear timeline. Make sure to include any consequences that may happen if the employee fails to meet particular benchmarks, if applicable.
  • Set up a time to meet with the employee or manager to review the employee’s progress along the way.
  • If at all possible, use an automation system to track performance and ease your way into a PIP implementation plan
Remember, the goal here is growth—not punishment. You want everyone involved to feel comfortable with the plan moving forward. And ideally, the plan will help address the underlying issues that caused the poor performance in the first place.

How to approach a PIP with an employee

Implementing a PIP can be a touchy situation—the employee is likely feeling embarrassed that things have gotten to this point and could be emotional or defensive. Here are some things you can do to help make the plan implementation easier on everyone.
  • Let them know you’re in their corner. The employee may feel overwhelmed, so the idea that someone has their best interests at heart during a tough time can help.
  • Get the employee’s perspective on the issue. Let them explain where they think things went wrong and see if they have a different perspective on what the expectations were, whether they were lacking in resources, etc. It’s possible the employee has a different interpretation of how or why things went wrong, and it’s important to get both sides.
  • Balance the negative with some positive. Let the employee know what he or she is doing well, instead of hitting the negative over and over.
  • Don’t be vague or ambiguous. Provide clear examples of the problematic behavior, as well as the next steps needed to correct the issue. Also be clear about the impact of his or her behavior or poor performance.
  • Give constructive feedback. Saying “this is unacceptable,” or “just be better,” without offering potential solutions or next steps is unlikely to help the employee correct the issue. Give recommendations about how they can improve. He or she already knows that she has to improve, but may not be clear on how to approach it.
  • Make time to meet with the employee. Make sure he or she feels supported throughout the process. It’s not enough to say, “Okay, here’s the plan, do this.” Checking in can help ensure that a) progress is happening, and b) the employee understands what’s expected at every step.
One thing to remember is that PIPs are not a magic fix for work disasters or poor performance. They’re a tool you can offer to your employees as a way to right the ship before it sinks and before someone loses a job or the company suffers further consequences from the poor performance. As long as everything is clearly defined (the source of the problem, the consequences of the problem, and the specific plan for remedying the problem) and you work closely with employees and managers to implement it, it can be one of the most effective and successful tools you have for turning around poor performance. A bit of optimism and a lot of careful documentation can go a long way in ensuring employee success, even after a failure.

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