Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) are powerful leadership tools. Just not indefinitely so.

Having an employee on a PIP can be a bit of a high-wire act for a manager, and employee, both. So how do you know when it’s time to, not meaning to mix metaphors, fish or cut bait?

Scenario: Mark is a nice enough guy, but his performance had been consistently lackluster. He’s failed to meet important deadlines. When he did meet them, the quality of his work was substandard. And, worst of all, he was seemingly totally unaware that he wasn’t meeting even the minimum requirements of the job, notwithstanding several informal ‘feedback’ sessions you had with him. As a result, you had no choice but to start him on a formal Performance Improvement Plan, or PIP.

The Employee Performance Improvement Process

As you likely know, most PIPs have several discrete steps, as defined by company policy:

  • Step 0: Informal Feedback Sessions – While it can be argued that such interactions are not really part of the ‘formal’ PIP process, in that a PIP cannot begin without them having happen, I’m including them as a prerequisite of the process beginning.
  • Step 1: Oral Warning – The point here is that you want the employee to know, in no uncertain terms, that: (a) his/her performance has become problematic; (b) why it is so problematic; (c) what, specifically, must happen to adequately address the matter; and (d) if the individual does not (or cannot) demonstrate immediate and significant improvement in the area(s) you’ve articulated, further disciplinary actions will likely result. That this is called an ‘oral’ warning is a bit misleading in that it should always include a memo to the employee, his/her file, your boss, and HR regarding the initiation of a formal PIP.
  • Step 2: (First) Written Warning – This step both reminds the employee that s/he has either failed to demonstrate the necessary improvements you articulated in your Oral Warning and informal counseling (or failed to sustain whatever improvements were made) AND that by failing to do so, s/he is putting his/her continued employment at increasing risk.
  • Step 3 (Final) Written Warning – This steps reiterates the performance issues at hand, how the necessary improvements have still not been achieved, or sustained, and that this lapse in ability (or judgment) is now negatively impacting the his/her coworkers and the department or work group. (Sidebar: Framing the individual’s performance problem(s) as affecting more than just his/her own performance is key.) As such, continued inability (or inattention) to making (or sustaining) the required performances improvements will likely lead to further disciplinary actions up to and including termination.
  • Step 4 Termination – This doesn’t mean that the employee is a bad person, or an incapable person; it just means that s/he has not been able to meet the minimum requirements of the job, and, as such, can no longer be allowed to stay in that role. (In most cases this means that a permanent separation from the company is the only viable option for that employee, although prior to this step many employees seek, and are granted, transfers into other areas or positions more in keeping with their skills, abilities, and interests.)

When the Message is Properly Received and Acted Upon

The steps of the formal PIP are what they are and, if done right, by time you’ve taken an employee to Step 4, there are really no surprises as to what’s about to happen. And I say good – the person can now get on with his/her life and find a job more suited to his/her particular skills and abilities. But what if someone actually IS able to improve enough to meet those minimum requirements?

Justifying to your boss, and HR, that it’s time to take the person OFF of their PIP can be challenging so be sure to consider the following when crafting your rationale:

  • Improvement Factors – There are two sides to this coin:
    • validation of the positive/presence of What irrefutable evidence (quants, metrics, statistics, and other hard/soft data trends, etc.) can you provide that validates the newfound presence of the very performance improvements you were seeking to create?
    • validation of the non-negative/absence of What irrefutable evidence (quants, metrics, statistics, and other hard/soft data trends, etc.) can you provide that validates the newfound absence of the very performance problems you were seeking to eliminate?
  • Sustainability Factors – Again, there are two sides to this, as well:
    • validation of the positive/presence of What irrefutable evidence (quants, metrics, statistics, and other hard/soft data trends, etc.) can you provide that validates that the necessary performance improvements you were seeking to create have not only occurred but have been sustained for a meaningful period of time?
    • validation of the non-negative/absence of What irrefutable evidence (quants, metrics, statistics, and other hard/soft data trends, etc.) can you provide that validates that no backsliding has occurred and that there are no impediments to the employee’s continued focus, process, and transparency in preventing future backsliding from occurring?
  • Ongoing Managerial Attentiveness – Yes, it’s the employee’s job to sustain his/her improved level of performance, but you have responsibilities, here, as well:
    • How will you, as the employee’s immediate supervisor, keep tabs on things to insure no backsliding?
    • How will you, as the employee’s immediate supervisor, respond should any backsliding (real or perceived) become evident?
    • How will you, as the employee’s immediate supervisor, hold yourself accountable to insure that you respond to any backsliding (real or perceived) in a respectful, meaningful, and rapid manner?

If you have good answers to these questions, it’s likely time that the employee be taken of his/her PIP, and that you’ll be able to gain the necessary support from your boss, and HR, to do so.

But whatever you do, don’t let a PIP linger, unnecessarily – don’t leave the person in limbo, in abeyance, in Siberia! It’s your job to either take them to the next step or stand down – not to let a PIP drag on for yet another quarter because of you’re inattention. Anything less That’s neither fair to them, nor to their coworkers. So let your employee know that it is his/her responsibility to provide that irrefutable evidence to you – and that if, for whatever reason, s/he cannot (or does not), then it will almost certainly guarantee the the next step of the disciplinary process being taken.

Again, be clear that it is the employees’ job to prove to you that your message was properly received and acted upon. If they fail to do so, it’s on them, not you.

A-minus vs. B-plus Motivations

So let’s say you are provided with the irrefutable evidence you requested, are able to convince your boss and HR to agree with your recommendation, and step someone down off the PIP. Now what?

Since some employees are motivated more by a well-timed pat on the back and others more by being reminded that there’s still more left to do, knowing, in advance, which approach better inspires this employee (and each of your employees, for that matter) is key.

By the way, all that last point to whether an employee is currently on a PIP, has recently rolled off one, or has always been productive, solid, contributor. Why? Because when it comes to leading others, it’s in your best interest to help everyone do as well as they possibly can. And the fewer people up, there, on that tight rope, the better.

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