How to Create Performance Improvement Plans That Get Results

Learn how erformance improvement plans help employees improve their work

by Amanda Cross - August 5, 2022

Every day, companies are dealing with performance management problems. Managing employees becomes challenging, especially as the headcount grows. In an ideal world, employees have several opportunities to correct performance, from weekly one-on-ones to employee reviews. If issues continue, employees are placed on a performance improvement plan. Let’s dive into what these plans are and how you can create a plan that drives results for your business.

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What Is an Employee Performance Improvement Plan?

Unfortunately, employee performance doesn’t always meet the expectations you have for your staff members. Companies utilize employee performance improvement plans (PIPs) to help team members improve their work.

PIPs are a formal list of actions employees must take to boost their performance in alignment with the team member’s expectations. Employees are put on an improvement plan after a specific and documented lack of performance is met. The formal action plan typically takes collaboration from the employee, their manager, and a representative from the HR team.

When Should You Create a PIP?

You’ve been noticing that one of your employees hasn’t been meeting their usual standards of performance. Maybe they’re making more mistakes than usual, or they’re not meeting their deadlines. You’ve talked to them about it, and they say they understand what needs to be done to improve. But after a few weeks, there’s still no improvement. Now you’re wondering if it’s time to create an improvement plan.

It’s important to know when to use a PIP. Setting specific actions and goals in an improvement plan should never be your first step. Employees won’t always perform as you want them to because life happens, and sometimes things are out of their control.

As an HR professional, you likely have PIPs in your toolkit as a way to help struggling employees get back on track. But when should you actually create a PIP? Here are three situations when a PIP may be warranted.

The Employee has Repeatedly Failed to Meet Expectations

If an employee has been warned about their subpar performance on multiple occasions but has failed to make any lasting improvements, it may be time to create a PIP. This will give the employee a structured plan to follow with specific goals and timelines for improvement. Without this level of structure and guidance, the employee is likely to continue struggling and falling short of expectations.

The Employee’s Performance is impacting other employees or the company as a whole

When an individual’s poor performance is having a negative impact on those around them or on the company as a whole, it’s time to take action. Not only is this situation unfair to everyone else involved, but it could also lead to legal problems down the road if the situation is not addressed properly. A PIP can help nip these issues in the bud by getting the employee back on track before things spiral out of control.

The Employee’s Performance Has Decreased Sharply and Unexpectedly

If an employee who generally performs well suddenly starts struggling, it may be due to extenuating circumstances such as personal difficulties or health problems. In these cases, a PIP can provide much-needed support and guidance during what is undoubtedly a difficult time for the individual. Additionally, this type of PIP can help prevent long-term performance issues by addressing the problem early on.

Here are a few more questions to consider before putting an employee on an improvement plan:

  • Has the employee been made aware of their poor performance?
  • Is there data or documentation to warrant an improvement plan?
  • Have you given them specific feedback about what needs to be improved?
  • Have you provided resources that could help them improve?
  • Have you given them time to improve on their own?
  • Does the employee want to go through the improvement process?
  • Is the employee going through anything personally that might jeopardize their current abilities? (For example, caregiving duties or a personal health issue.)

If you answered yes to all of the above, then it’s time to create a PIP.

What Are Best Practices For PIPs?

Once you’ve decided that a PIP is necessary, it’s important to create one that will actually help the employee improve their performance. It’s essential to take your time when crafting these documents. You are building this plan to boost employee and team performance. Here are some best practices you can use to construct your PIP:

1. Create Performance Plan Boundaries

Before you go through an employee performance improvement plan, you need to have boundaries or established rules around creating one. For example, missing your goals one quarter isn’t always justification for being put on an improvement plan. Your company must have a standardized practice for creating a performance improvement plan to ensure PIPs aren’t used to discriminate or retaliate.

You may not need to standardize across departments, but the experience needs to feel that way. Some departments get results monthly, while others get results quarterly. It’s necessary to determine when missed performance becomes a PIP problem.

2. Create a Clear Set of Goals

Once an employee is ready to be put on a performance improvement plan, it’s time to create a clear strategy they can follow.

As you are building your plan, documentation will be your friend. Build your PIP based on SMART goals. Everything must be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Your plan shouldn’t be too generic or unreachable. Employees should know what to do to get out of probation at work. Give them an exact timeframe because being on a plan indefinitely isn’t helpful. The other side of an improvement plan should be getting off probation or being terminated. Employees need to know when they are getting close to that date.

3. Clearly Communicate What’s At Stake

Outline consequences for failing to meet the goals of the PIP. These consequences could range from additional coaching and mentoring to being placed on probation or even being terminated. However, it’s important to make sure that these consequences are aligned with your company’s policies and procedures.

4. Provide Support For Your Employee

One mistake companies often make is abandoning employees once they get on an improvement plan. The goal of an improvement plan shouldn’t be to terminate a team member. It should be making improvements to keep team members. Making employees do everything on their own won’t work. Instead, encourage employees to connect, ask questions, and get your support. Of course, you can’t do the work for them, but lending a supportive ear is critical to creating performance plans that get results.

5. Follow Up With the Employee

The follow-up process is critical to the performance improvement plan. Employees should receive a written copy of the PIP and have regular meetings with HR and managers while on an improvement plan. Set aside time to meet during your weekly one-on-ones. HR can set up a monthly meeting to ensure employees are making progress. If possible, create a follow-up schedule and bake it into the formal PIP. Employees are free to come for help any time, but formal follow-up gives them a dedicated time to ask for assistance.

During these meetings, it’s critical to ask about progress. For example:

  • Does the employee have any doubts about getting work done on time?
  • What is the employee doing to ensure they have time to meet their PIP goals?
  • Is procrastination taking over?
  • How can you support them?

By asking the right questions, you can get a sense of how the process is going so you can prepare for the next steps.

6. Make A Plan For Next Steps

Losing a team member can be challenging, even if that person wasn’t holding up their end of the employment bargain. It’s unlikely that an employee was completely dropping the ball. There will likely be tasks that you need to move to other team members while you search for a replacement.

How can you ensure employees have a smooth transition?

  • Get a list of the current responsibilities of any employees on a PIP.
  • Create a cross-training program to share responsibilities across the organization.
  • Ensure all employees document how to do their job duties and add instructions to a centralized location.
  • Consider necessary and optional tasks. Is there anything that can be put on hold or easily outsourced?
  • Adjust your performance expectations as employees get used to working while short-staffed.

What Should Your Company Include in PIPs?

Are you ready to build your performance plan template? Here are some items you should include when creating a plan: 

  • Plan start and end dates
  • Description of the performance failure(s)
  • Goals behind the performance improvement plan
  • Goal success criteria
  • Employee support available
  • Follow-up plan with HR or manager
  • Consequences of failing the employee PIP

How Should You Approach an Employee About Performance Improvment?

Presenting an employee performance improvement plan is the most crucial part of the process. A PIP should never feel like an ambush. Instead, employees should see this event coming.

Next, you must present this in a one-on-one experience or small group. Human resources may need to team up with a manager to explain this, but keep the group small so the employee doesn’t feel attacked. 

Last, the plan should always be written down. The facts of the employee’s performance matter; writing it down helps everyone stick to those truths. Having everything written down also makes it easy for the employee to review and follow along during the meeting.

How Long Should an Employee Be On a PIP?

Performance improvement plans vary in length. Employee PIPs are often 30, 60, 90, or 120 days. You want to give employees enough time to do the tasks and give yourself a better understanding of their current performance. At the same time, you don’t want to hold an underperforming employee on your staff for too long. You’ll probably find the most value in 60-90 days as an employer.

What If An Employee Doesn’t Want To Sign A PIP?

If you’ve gotten to a point where signing a PIP makes sense, it needs to happen. Without the PIP, the employee isn’t meeting workplace expectations. Employees who don’t sign PIPs may need disciplinary action, or you may have to terminate that working relationship. You might decide to sit down with the employee to get further information. Is there a particular reason they don’t want to sign the document? Can you further negotiate and ensure the document makes sense for all parties? If the document makes sense and is legally sound, but the employee doesn’t want to sign, it is likely time to start the termination process.

Improving Employee Performance With an Action Plan

Creating a PIP for an employee is never easy. It can feel daunting for HR and management when employees aren’t meeting expectations, especially employees who did the work in the past. However, crafting a formal action plan can help you build a stronger team. 

At GoCo, we love to help companies take better control of the workplace. We give HR teams the tools they need to handle tasks like onboarding, performance management, benefits, and more. Take a tour of GoCo and see how we can help your team excel.

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