A performance improvement plan offers employees a last chance to turn things around before termination. Here’s how to make them as useful as possible.

Putting an employee on a performance improvement plan (PIP) is uncomfortable for everyone involved. However, a well-crafted PIP can help employees save their jobs and protect employers from liability.

The key to an effective performance improvement plan is communication:

  • Before a PIP is necessary
  • When you must implement one
  • During the PIP period
  • When it’s complete

Talking with employees about performance concerns

When you have that initial chat with an employee about an area that needs improvement, it’s important to make it a real conversation. Instead of simply giving the employee a list of what they’re doing wrong and telling them to fix it, bring the issues to their attention and ask for their input.

The goal in this type of conversation is to make the employee feel comfortable asking questions or requesting additional training. You can (and should) ask the employee if there’s anything they need from you that could help them address the issues you’re raising. You can also offer resources, because the employee may not know what’s available.

After the conversation, document what you discussed with the employee, any questions and answers from the discussion and any resources that they requested or that you offered.

If you don’t see improvement after one or two of these conversations, it’s time to put the issue in writing for the employee. The goal here is to show that you’ve already verbally discussed these issues and how to solve them, but you’re still seeing the same problems. The written notice should also include your expectations for how the employee needs to improve.

Implementing a performance improvement plan

If the conversations and a written reminder to make changes don’t prompt the employee to improve their performance, it’s time to create an official performance improvement plan. The PIP should include:

  • A description of the problem or areas of concern
  • The expectations that aren’t being met
  • Previous discussions and written communication about the problem and expectations

Your document should also include a plan of action and a timeline for implementing it, as well as a clear, concise statement about potential consequences for not making the required changes.

The plan of action and timeline

Your plan should describe in detail the expectations that the employee needs to meet, such as retaining or reaching quantitative goals. For example, a salesperson’s plan might require them to make a certain number of prospect meetings or close a certain number of deals in the next 90 days.

Depending on the nature of the employee’s work and the amount of time you can give them to improve, your PIP may include a 30-, 60- or 90-day deadline. The plan of action should also specify that after that time, you’ll meet again to review progress and decide on next steps.

The statement of possible consequences

The performance improvement plan should contain a statement that if any other disciplinary action comes up while the employee is on the PIP – or if they don’t meet the expectations outlined in the PIP by the deadline given – they may face more disciplinary action(s), including termination.

Most managers are uncomfortable even talking about the possibility of termination. However, if the issues with an employee have reached the point where a performance improvement plan is needed, termination needs to be part of the document.

That’s because you want the employee to understand the potential consequences of failing to meet the plan’s requirements, and you don’t want termination to be a surprise if it becomes necessary. Clearly spelling out the possibility of termination in a PIP also helps shield your organization from claims of wrongful termination.

Dealing with employee pushback

Sometimes, employees will get upset or defensive, and they may react to the performance improvement plan in ways that are uncooperative. As a manager, it’s important to stick to the plan once you’ve presented it in most cases.

For example, if an employee disagrees with the need for a PIP, it’s best to just thank them for their feedback and let them know that this is the plan. Likewise, if the employee refuses to sign the PIP, you can note on their signature line that the employee refused to sign and include the date. The plan is valid even without their signature.

What if an employee tells you they know they can’t meet the PIP expectations? If they mention a health- or disability-related concern, you may need to step back and reevaluate the plan. Otherwise, you can ask them if they’d like to try to reach the goals in the plan or if they would like to offer their resignation.

Helping an employee succeed with a PIP

When employees succeed with a PIP, it’s almost always because there’s constant, positive communication between employee and manager. Ideally, the employee feels comfortable asking questions or requesting check-ins to make sure that they’re on the right track.

In addition to clear communication and tracking progress, offering the employee a mentor can be helpful. Working with someone who’s not their manager can free employees to ask the kinds of questions about the work that they might be embarrassed to ask their manager, and another perspective can help reinforce what they need to learn.

What comes after the performance improvement plan?

After the deadline passes, you and the employee will come back together to discuss how it went. If the employee has met the goals, they’ve turned a new leaf. You can congratulate them and encourage them to keep up the good work.

In many cases, though, the expectations are still unmet, with no sign improvement. The next step in these situations is termination.

What if the employee is progressing, but slower than the plan requires? Extending the performance improvement plan is an option – especially if you see that the employee is making a genuine effort and some progress. However, you’re not obligated to extend the plan past the deadline.

What if the outcome is mixed? Maybe the employee has improved in some areas but not others. You may want to think creatively about how to proceed. For example, if the employee’s doing a great job in some respects, can their job description be changed to be a better fit for their skills? Can the duties they don’t handle well be assigned to a different employee who’s more skilled at them or has more time to learn them?

By documenting every step before a performance improvement plan – including all key elements in the PIP – and working with employees to help them improve, you can create a better experience for your people even in a stressful situation. For more tips on dealing with employee-management challenges, download the e-book 10 must-have HR policies that no business can do without.