The Five Pitfalls of Performance Improvement Planning

What’s your gut reaction when you hear the dreaded term Performance Improvement Plan? Or even worse - the chipper acronym, PIP? If you’re like most people – employee or manager - you might cringe and think, waste of time, guess I’m fired, administrative nightmare, HR BS.

I’m an optimist, and not surprisingly, a believer that the PIP process can truly help employees do what it says: improve an employee’s performance. When done right, a PIP can help a company make an informed decision about whether the employee’s performance is salvageable, or if it’s time to part ways. And from the employee’s point of view, it ideally paints a clear picture of management’s expectations so that the employee can decide to go all-in to improve, or to polish up the resume and consider other options - with a little runway to figure it out.

With that in mind, here are 5 common pitfalls of performance improvement planning - and some ideas for management about how to avoid them.

Waiting until it’s an emergency. If the employee’s performance is hurting the business (or if they’re making everyone crazy), it’s probably already too late. Try to keep your antennae up and watch for indications that someone is either disengaged or simply doesn’t have the skills. Along those lines, PIPs should never come as a surprise. Keep the lines of communication open, and give your employee the benefit of clear expectations and realistic goals.

Assuming failure. There’s nothing worse than sitting across from an employee and delivering a plan that’s ostensibly for their improvement, while not feeling genuine about its potential for success. You’ll know it, and they’ll know it - which will make it feel like a mere formality on the road to getting fired. If you’ve already decided that the employee won’t succeed and cannot stay with the company, take the time to challenge that assumption. Have you really been clear about the severity of the situation? Are you being fair? Have you given the employee enough chances to improve? Assuming failure or putting an unrealistic PIP in place can have legal implications, too.

Being Heartless. Even if failure seems likely, don’t forget to be human. Treat everyone how you’d like to be treated (yes, even those you’ve gotten pretty sick of). Once you’ve set out on a fair path and have a PIP in place, do the things you said you’d do. Don’t ditch weekly check-in appointments. Be fully present in those meetings. Don’t treat the employee like a social pariah - include them in formal and informal company social outings. And definitely don’t tell people who don’t need to know that they’re on a plan. It’s impossible to recover from gossip about that. Assume this will succeed and give them a real chance.

And if it’s clear midway through the plan that they’re not going to make it, there’s no need to prolong the agony - if your HR business partner insists on letting the plan go to day 90, you’ll still want to discuss how you’ll manage the employee’s remaining time on the plan.

Having too much heart. It’s easy to “nice” your way out of having to give a tough message, but it doesn’t help anyone. For example, it’s tempting to move a problem employee by transferring to another team versus going through the whole PIP process. But in the end, if you haven’t addressed the performance problem before the transfer, it turns out to be the opposite of a nice thing to do. The employee goes through onboarding pains again and likely has the same problems after a few months. The receiving manager gets a frustrated employee with fundamental performance problems. Doesn’t help your credibility as a leader either.

It’s hard to address performance problems head-on - especially those that are subjective, like the way someone doesn’t get along with the team. But you’re ultimately helping the business and the individual if you find the balance between being too kind and doing the right thing in a kind way.

Not phoning a(n HR) friend. It’s admirable to take ownership of performance managing and coaching your employees. But if it has gone past coaching, and into the realm of the employee’s performance putting their job (or your company) at risk, it really is time to partner with HR. You’ll only frustrate yourself if you get to the point where you just want to call HR to rush to terminate someone. Rushing to take action pretty much never flies, so you might as well chat with HR early and often.

I’ve seen PIPs result in employees staying with a company, and truly improving their performance, as often as not. But sometimes, you end up having to make that tough call at the end of the PIP. Either way, I hope these tips help you along the way.

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written by Deb Feldman, Principal Consultant