Performance Improvement Plans

Angela Livingston
Angela Livingston
What can you do when a previously great employee has stopped performing beautifully or your new hire just isn’t stacking up to your hopes? Read on for all the tips and advice you need to write, deliver and close a solid performance improvement plan (PIP).

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What Is a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)?

A performance improvement plan (PIP) is a written and employee signed document that outlines

  1. The exact nature of the employee’s underperformance
  2. Clear and distinct qualitative measures the employee should aim for to close the plan successfully
  3. The tools, resources, training, suggestions, etc. that the company, team, HR professional and/or manager will provide to support the employee toward improving their performance.

A PIP is not a means of firing people. A PIP is designed to be exactly what it is called — a plan to help an employee improve their performance and thus continue a long and happy tenure at the company.

Understand that most managers come with the best intentions but perhaps not the best executed performance management. Most employees will think they are being fired when you set the meeting to deliver the PIP. Therefore, these can be a highly disruptive and contentious tool to employ. That does not mean they are not worth pursuing.

Each PIP should be an attempt to save that employee’s job, but you may have to play the therapist to get everyone to participate fully. Even when you deliver a PIP, employees are often convinced that it is simply a paperwork process that will result in their termination. You’ll have to work hard to help employees through a variety of states: anger, denial, lack of confidence, confusion, etc. Managers may need your shoulder to cry on while they move through what is often a frustrating and painful experience for them as well as the employee. This is one area of HR where you have to be persistent about your intentions to be helpful, so strap on your emotional intelligence toolkit and get busy!

Why Is a Performance Improvement Plan Important?

All too often, a manager contacts HR to ask how to fire an employee without ever discussing the underperformance with HR or the employee. Not all managers disappoint this way, but we know that 80-90% of managers neglect regular feedback and more than 33% of employees want more regular feedback.

If you can help managers avoid getting to the point of a PIP, do so! Proactive prodding of managers about the performance of their team can be a great place to start because everything about a PIP comes down to communication between the employee and manager, between the manager and HR and between HR and the employee.

At its core, the PIP is a communication tool. PIPs are an important tool for providing these three things to the employee, manager and company:

  1. Progressive Discipline. If your company participates in progressive discipline, then it is likely your company has a policy about using PIPs as well. The primary idea of progressive discipline is to give people a chance to change.
  2. Clarity. A well-written PIP will make clear
    • What the expectations are
    • What the measurements of success are
    • Where performance is subpar
    • When discussions about subpar performance have been held previously
    • What help is available to the employee
  3. Documentation. A PIP should never be used as a tool to fire someone slowly or as a means of “managing someone out.” But there is always a likelihood that your employee will be unsuccessful and be let go or become angry or disillusioned and resign. In either case, the need for documentation increases for an unemployment insurance case and/or a wrongful termination suit or even allegations of harassment or discrimination.

When Should an Organization Implement a Performance Improvement Plan?

A PIP is different from a final written warning, but they are sometimes confused because both come with threat of termination for cause. A final written warning would be for violations of the code of conduct, ethics or a specific grievous violation. A PIP is issued specifically to improve performance that has been lagging for some time. A PIP is adjacent to discipline but is not exactly the same. In some cases, less serious items that would normally be covered under discipline are incorporated into a PIP that is needed for additional performance issues.

Here are a few examples of when you would use discipline versus a PIP:

Issue Discipline PIP
Theft X
Inaccuracy X
Threatening behavior X
Dress code X X (with other issues)
Attendance X X (with other issues)
Not following processes X
Poor stakeholder management X

How Can an Organization Implement a Performance Improvement Plan?

Implementing a PIP is a long process. Often it can take a week or more to prepare and deliver a PIP to an employee. The PIP itself generally will run 30-90 days. It can be difficult for a manager to persevere through a long PIP after most often suffering in silence a long time before coming to HR. Again, you’ll need your emotional intelligence (and probably your patience, too) to best support the manager and employee in these situations.

Step 1: Identifying the need for a PIP and documentation of underperformance and coaching

You’ll need to work with the manager to understand the exact nature and the duration of these concerns. Some companies require a certain number of documented coaching conversations to occur before moving to a PIP. Don’t let the policy blind you to what a reasonable person would think. If the required number of conversations were held and documented and were of sufficient quality and depth, but they were all held in one week, then it may still be too soon to issue a PIP. This will depend on the nature of the concern and to some degree your company’s culture. To help you through this step, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Does the nature of the issue apply more to progressive discipline or a performance improvement plan?
  2. How long has it been an issue?
  3. How long ago did the manager first coach the employee (clearly indicating that performance was not meeting expectations)?
  4. How many times has the employee been coached for this?
  5. Who all has coached the employee for this? (Sometimes you will find out that coaching on the spot has happened with peers of the manager issuing the PIP or sometimes their upper management has participated in coaching conversations.)
  6. Does it seem like a reasonable person (or a jury of your peers) would think that the company had adequately notified the employee of the deficiency in their performance and provided adequate time and tools for the employee to implement sustained change?
  7. Are there other steps that could be taken prior to initiating a PIP?
    • Sometimes a heart to heart talk with upper management can help an employee see the issue and accept help.
    • Other times preparing a PIP but leaving out the threat of termination and having only the manager issue the PIP in a less formal setting can be more successful and less overwhelming for the employee. Sometimes this is called an informal PIP or sometimes it’s considered the last step before moving to a formal PIP.

Step 2: Create a Case File

If you feel like it is justified to proceed, then start building your case file. A PIP is an employment action and should eventually be reviewed with other case files to identify themes and potential adverse actions (unintentional disrimination that still need to be rectified). You are creating a record that needs to be kept.

Advise the manager on the nature of a PIP, what it will contain and their necessary inputs (or have them write the first draft for you). Make sure they understand the PIP process and the different possible outcomes.

If you’re not ready to move to a PIP yet, help the manager understand what actions they need to take and where those actions will lead. Perhaps the issue is better suited to a written warning rather than a PIP or perhaps you just need the manager to give the employee one more concise and clear conversation and a week or two to see improvements before finally initiating a PIP.

Step 3: Identify Key Areas for Improvement

Often a manager will be so frustrated by the time they discuss what to do about the employee they will vent for a while before you can calm them into helping you categorize the complaints into addressable themes.

Note that not everything an employee does wrong or less that excellently should be included in a PIP. This is not the time to throw in the kitchen sink. Identify no more than three or four themes to address because even three or four can be overwhelming to the employee.

Additionally, the more requests you include in a PIP, the longer its duration so that there is a reasonable deadline for addressing concerns. Get the manager to focus on the biggest issues and to let the rest go for now. You can include things that might normally be progressive discipline if they are ongoing concerns and not too egregious, but this is definitely an area where simplicity is best.

Step 4: Identify Precise Measures for Each Area of Improvement

These need to be SMART goals. At the end of the PIP, include easily identifiable yes or no metrics indicating whether the goal was attained or not. There is no room for ambiguity or subjective review on these items.

That does not mean the goals have to be one time only tasks for the employee to accomplish. Here are a few examples where the timeframe in the SMART goal is the end date of the PIP:

  • Adhere to the specified work schedule beginning tomorrow. Deviations from this schedule must follow the documented process for missed work and late arrival/early departure.
    (You’ll need to define the schedule in the PIP for this.)
  • Achieve and maintain 85% accuracy in all work, including timeliness and completeness. (i.e. Everything that comes in late, incomplete, or with errors counts against the math of getting to 85% accuracy.)
  • Take notes in meetings and refer to notes prior to beginning tasks to ensure adherence to process, instruction and stated parameters and expectations.
  • Review process ABC-123 within 3 business days. Successfully pass the certification for process ABC-123 within 2 weeks from the date of this plan. Fully adhere to this process in all activities that pertain to process ABC-123.

Step 5: Identify Support Tools for Each Measure of Improvement

This is arguably the written element that will make or break your PIP. This part should include training on any policies or processes the employee is having trouble with. Sometimes this is when you find out that the employee was never trained because there is no existing training material.

Utilize in-house learning during this step as well. This learning is often prepaid and can be a small investment that may help shift mindset slightly if specific and well chosen courses are identified for the employee with an invitation to seek out whatever else they think might assist them.

You can provide links to articles that may spark ideas or new approaches for the employee. Mentoring or coaching from outside the direct manager could be appropriate as well depending on how you can arrange things confidentially. Sometimes by the time HR hears about the problem, the relationship between manager and employee is so deteriorated that the employee cannot hear any feedback, positive or negative.

Be clear about the ways the employee can rely on team members and leadership to be supportive through this process. Specifics count here! Saying, “I’m available” is not the same as saying, “I want to know if you feel overwhelmed, confused, upset, etc. Come talk to me as soon as this comes up.” And even that is not the same as saying, “When you have your next upcoming meeting with a client, let’s strategize your approach together.”

Whatever methods of support you offer, be clear about what (if anything) is mandatory and what is recommended. Be prepared to talk through why they were selected for a PIP in case it isn’t obvious to the employee (who may be in denial about their performance). Be able to articulate the “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) component beyond the idea that the PIP might save their job. That isn’t usually a compelling argument to an employee that feels insulted, threatened and unvalued.

Step 6: Determine a Reasonable Deadline

What you do not want is to have this plan reviewed in court during a wrongful termination suit and realize that you only gave the employee two weeks to accomplish what was really a three-month project. Always remember that while it is uncommon to have a PIP turn into a lawsuit it is always possible. Be sure you give the employee a fair chance to improve and that the manager is not using the PIP as a tool to fire someone (even unconsciously).

Also beware of setting a deadline that is unnecessarily long. Generally PIPs are designed to take 30, 60 or 90 days to complete. There’s typically no need to string it out to six months, which would just be painful to the business and likely to the employee as well. At a certain point, if you aren’t seeing improvement by then, you aren’t going to see it at all. Additionally, giving an unnecessary long timeline can encourage people to think they can procrastinate and end up underachieving.

If there is no improvement happening, consider expediting the review date if you are comfortable with proceeding to termination immediately at that time.

This is an area where advocating for the employee while remaining firm in the necessity for the employee to meet expectations is crucial.

Step 7: Sanity Check and Approvals

If you have an HR Manager, HR Director, etc. or an HR peer in another part of your business, leverage their detachment from the situation to review the document. As mentioned above, a PIP can generate a lawsuit, so having someone that is not close to the situation but that is known to maintain both confidentiality and subjectivity is quite helpful. They can help you refine your measurements, clarify your expectations, brainstorm additional support options, double check the fine print if you aren’t using an existing template, spell check and advise on the timeline.

Additionally, your organization will likely have a procedure for gaining approval for a PIP because it is an “employment action,” and that means that someone might end up terminated voluntarily or involuntarily, they might be excluded from development opportunities and training, etc. The concern is that employment actions are opportunities for adverse impact (meaning unintentional discrimination) and/or lawsuits. Due to the risk and impact of a negative outcome, typically more approval will be needed than a single HR professional and the employee’s manager. Approvals may go up the chain of command for both HR and the employee’s management line. Additionally, some companies may include a legal review, involvement from the ethics department, a site manager’s approval, etc.

Step 8: Manager Preparation

A good delivery will be predicated on solid preparation of the manager. Make no mistake: the manager delivers the PIP to their employee. Your function as HR is to ensure the conversation stays calm, focused and clear.

It is recommended that you prepare the manager:

  • With talking points or a script
  • By discussing the kinds of likely responses an employee may have and how to address each
  • By discussing safety and what to do if situations arise (from threatening a lawsuit to throwing a stapler)
  • By recommending managers opt for slacks over a skirt or dress, wear flats or loafers over heels, wear short earrings, and wear their hair up or back to aid them in the unlikely event of a violence
  • By listening while they talk through their frustrations because they know they can’t say what they want to say to the employee and you are their safe space to get it out of their system
  • By reassuring the manager that they have provided all the guidance and coaching necessary and that going forward with a PIP is in the best interest of everyone involved

Often, even with all of that, many managers will not sleep the night before delivery from the stress and anxiety it causes them.

Step 9: Delivery

For safety reasons, it is best practice to give the employee appropriate notice that the manager wishes to speak with them (be clear if an in-person meeting is expected) so they can make any necessary arrangements (especially if they often work offsite but you want to meet in person, etc.). However, if too much time elapses between the manager telling the employee about the meeting and holding the meeting, then it both increases anxiety in the employee and can provide unnecessary opportunity for a violent response from the employee.

When the manager advises the employee of the meeting, it is generally best to keep the purpose of the meeting vague. Safety protocols at your workplace will determine where this meeting is held, the seating arrangements and possibly other elements.

If the meeting location is different from “normal” meetings (e.g. in a conference room that has a panic button or is near security instead of in the manager’s office), then getting the employee to that location without creating too much suspicion can be tricky. There are two methods for accomplishing this:

  1. Tell the employee where the meeting is but give no indication of the agenda or attendees and arrive at least 15 minutes early.
  2. HR arrives at least 15 minutes early. Manager meets the employee at the typical meeting location but informs them that there’s a venue change and walks the employee to the new location (often in awkward silence, so prepare the manager for that).

Why show up early? Like any difficult conversation, you’ll want to be sure that you are prepared for the conversation mentally and emotionally first. If the manager is meeting you there early, they may be looking for last minute tips or reassurance, especially if they are not seasoned at delivering PIPs. You may also want to check in with security prior to the employee arriving to confirm clarity around the possible risks and exactly what you want security to do or not do. Depending on the situation, you may wish to remove unnecessary objects from the room to decrease the odds of them becoming thrown projectiles.

During the delivery conversation, listen carefully for cues that the manager may have inadvertently not given you the whole story, that an accommodation may be needed, that FMLA or a leave of absence may be needed, etc. Ensure the employee understands why you as HR are involved in the conversation, the details of the conversation and that you are available if they want to talk.

Watch the employee’s body language closely. They may express or forcibly repress many different emotional responses that can provide potential insight for later conversation with the employee if needed. However, even more important is watching the employee carefully for indications that they may be about to make a sudden movement. Unfortunately, you are going to be the first one to notice if the employee is about to lunge across the table at the manager or you or do something worse. Keep your eyes on the employee because that fraction of a second could be critical to you or the manager.

Your PIP should always include a place for the employee to sign indicating that the PIP has been explained to them (from cause and purpose to future possibility of termination). If the employee refuses to sign, you should notate on the PIP that the employee refused to sign and then both you and the manager should sign and date your notation. An employee that refuses to sign indicates a higher likelihood of litigation, so be prepared. It is also advisable to send the PIP to the employee with clear indication that even though they refused to sign, the company is still holding them accountable to successfully completing the PIP. Do so through trackable means such as read receipts on emails, overnight or courier delivery with proof of delivery, certified return receipt mail, etc. Do not count on the employee to sign for an envelope. Delivery services that are required to get a signature will attempt to redeliver multiple times before returning the undelivered envelope to you, which is not helpful and takes several days.

If anything unusual happens during the delivery conversation, such as threats, allegations, aggressiveness or violence, self-identification of substance abuse, accommodations requests (even if not explicit), FMLA requests (even if not explicit), etc. create a note to file or similar memo to go in the employee’s file with the signed PIP explaining what happened and what actions will follow. Be sure to sign and date. Ask the manager to do the same based on what they remember. It is imperative that you do this as soon as possible while the memory is fresh.

Pro Tip: Coach the manager to never use the acronym “PIP” with the employee at any time. By consciously making the effort to say “performance improvement plan,” you may have a psychological effect on the employee that reiterates your belief that they really can improve. By shortening to “PIP” in the employee’s presence, you give up that opportunity and can inadvertently imply that the employee is worth less of your time and effort to help or imply that the PIP is simply a punitive tool to belittle the employee before firing them.

Pro Tip: Schedule the review date meeting between HR, the manager and the employee immediately after the delivery meeting, and tell the employee that you’ll be setting up that meeting before concluding the delivery meeting. This helps set the deadline in the employee’s mind and may help avoid procrastination or denial. For those that have absenteeism issues, it can be useful for this date to be established well in advance and to reiterate that the meeting will be in person (if applicable). Hybrid workers with absenteeism issues have a tendency to pretend they didn’t realize the appointment wasn’t virtual. The denial seems to lead them to believe they will not be terminated if they do not show up for the meeting or if they call into the meeting.

Pro Tip: Ensure the manager (or you, if necessary) reviews everything covered in the delivery meeting in detail and recap for the employee who may be overwhelmed. Ask questions of the employee but don’t expect clear responses in all cases. Note the purpose of the PIP very clearly for the employee and review the suggested support. Make sure you express that, given what the company understands of the situation, these specific recommendations were made, but if the employee has any other suggestions on support they need they should bring it up as soon as possible. Ask questions about where the employee wants to see their career go and what areas they feel they need to grow in to get there. Asking these kinds of questions can sometimes unearth deep misunderstandings that have been in place for a long time about things as fundamental as the essential elements of the current role and the reason for the manager’s expectations.

Step 10: Check-ins Between HR and the Manager

There’s no such thing as overcommunication during a PIP. If performance drops instead of improving, you as HR need to be told about it the day it happens so that you can monitor the situation. This is especially true in shorter plans like 30-day PIPs.

To facilitate regular communication between the manager and HR, consider setting up appointments every two weeks throughout the PIP before it is even delivered, but make sure the manager understands you need to hear from them more often than this if anything goes awry.

Set an appointment with the manager at the halfway point (for longer PIPs), two weeks prior to the review date and one week prior to the conclusion of the PIP to determine if the PIP will be a success or failure. Often the employee’s performance on the last few deadlines and projects means the final decision takes place in the last week or so of the PIP. Regardless of the outcome, you’ll want plenty of time to plan and prepare for the concluding review meeting with the employee (and termination if necessary).

Step 11: Check-ins with the Employee

It is key that the manager communicates with the employee throughout a PIP. The employee needs explicit guidance on how well they are performing almost in real time. Consider instructing managers to complete a weekly check-in with the employee over the course of the PIP. Ask the manager to document the conversation by sending a recap email to the employee after each check-in. Have the manager ask the employee the following questions:

  1. How are you doing?
    • Frustrated or not, managers may need to be reminded that this employee is a human being and that logic and emotion often mix, doubly so when under profound stress.
    • Employees that open up about medical or mental stress or other issues can then be provided resources to help them manage those concerns so they can better cope at work. Be sure managers know to loop you in if this occurs.
  2. How is your workload?
    • Explicitly remind the employee that their only real task is to see to the items in the PIP. Don’t let them become overloaded and then overwhelmed.
    • Anything else that they do not feel they can complete in a timely, accurate and complete manner should be turned over to the manager immediately for reassignment or reprioritization.
  3. Review each item in the PIP — status, suggestions, questions, etc.
    • This should include clear coaching on:
      1. Each expectation of the manager as listed on the PIP
      2. Performance of the employee on each item listed on the PIP
      3. The gap between these expectations or lack thereof (give positive feedback for success!)
      4. Tools or suggestions for improving performance against any individual task
    • Ask explicitly if the employee has any questions about any of the expectations, status of tasks or how to be successful.
    • If there is a reasonable justification, a PIP may be extended and deadlines within it can be extended.
    • If deadlines get extended,  HR should supply a supplemental document for signature that defines the changes. This provides assurance to the employee that the manager cannot change the PIP on a whim or forget the changes they agreed to. Remember, employees are going to be skeptical of your willingness to be helpful most of the time.
  4. Which support methods have you tried out?
    • How helpful did you find them?
    • Have you changed anything in your work processes or approach based on these?
    • Do you have any areas you feel you could use assistance to help you be successful in this performance improvement plan?
    • How can I help you?
    • Do you have any obstacles keeping you from being successful?
    • Do you feel like you want to speak with HR or my next level manager?

Sadly, too often these recap emails will end up becoming the documentation that justifies a termination, but you simply cannot go on with that thought process. In the same way a predator smells fear, an employee will know if you don’t believe in them. Never let a PIP become a check the box exercise.

Step 12: Determine the Success or Failure and Next Steps

There are three possible outcomes for PIP:

  1. Success. The employee has demonstrated enough improvement against the measures that the PIP can be concluded successfully. Hold a meeting with all parties on the review date indicated in the PIP and congratulate the employee on their achievement. Be sure to make clear that the PIP lays out the minimum expectations for the role, so continued performance at this level is expected. Failure to maintain this level of achievement could result in termination without further coaching, PIPs, etc. But try to keep the meeting optimistic.
  2. Extension. Sometimes something happens that means you need to extend the PIP by a couple weeks or perhaps a month. It could be something specific like a certification test isn’t available at the time required to demonstrate capability in the role. Other times the measures were clear but the manager cannot decide if there was enough success across all of the measures and needs more observation to make a decision. Other times something just doesn’t happen the way it is supposed to and the manager and HR both drop the ball and leave the employee unsupported or without communication. Clearly this should be avoided.
  3. Unsuccessful. Enough of the measures failed to declare the PIP a failure. This will result in termination, so follow all normal termination procedures for approval, documentation and security as appropriate. You’ll hold a meeting with you, the manager and the employee on the review date stated in the PIP. This meeting will begin with a review of the PIP indicating clearly which measures were not met successfully. Transition into a termination after the employee understands why the PIP is considered unsuccessful.

Your PIP template should include a place to notate which outcome is being taken and a place for the employee to sign. In other cases, companies will use a separate template from the original PIP to notate the outcome and include space for the employee to sign.

Step 13: PIP Review Meeting (Potentially to Include Termination)

If the PIP is unsuccessful, the manager is likely to be more nervous about this meeting than the delivery. Provide the manager with talking points or a script of suggested wording to support them and help them avoid risk by wording things poorly. Preparation for this meeting, like the delivery meeting, should include a review of personal safety and a discussion with security as well if available. Like any termination, it is best conveyed in person and as quickly as possible while not curtailing points to help the employee understand why they are being let go.

Examples of Performance Improvement Plans

Many PIP examples and templates are available for free online. As these are often long documents, this section will specify the areas you want to consider including in your own PIP template.

Written Introduction

This component opens the form in a letter type of format that is perhaps more accessible or acceptable to the employee than just being handed a list or table of their shortcomings.

Most notably, this section should include information about the concerns the company has with their performance, the duration of the concerning behaviors and the specific dates that the employee was coached on the concerns.

This is an excellent place in the form to dedicate the company to assisting the employee in regaining their prior level of excellence.

Themes of Concerns

This list is often presented as a column in a table. For each column, feel free to title the theme and then go into more detail about what that means. This is meant to show the employee precisely what they are not doing, not doing well or doing that they should not be doing. Being specific in this area can be helpful for employees that disagree that their performance is subpar.

An example would be:

Attendance (the theme of the concern)

The company has noticed that you tend to miss Monday shifts, leave early on Friday shifts and take extended unapproved lunch breaks. In the last 2 months, you have missed 5 out of 8 Mondays, left at least 30 minutes early on 3 Fridays and been late returning from lunch 12 times.

Measurements of Success

This section or column should provide clear statements that can be quantitatively measured as successful or not for each theme. Ideally these will be in the format of a SMART goal, though the timeline may simply be the length of the PIP.

An example would be:

Your schedule is detailed below, including breaks. You are expected to arrive on time, return from breaks on time and work your entire scheduled shift.

Deviations from the set schedule should follow the documented process attached to this document. Notable process elements include:

  • Personal leave requests should be made in writing no less than 24 hours in advance and require manager approval.
  • In the event you are too ill or injured to work, you must advise your manager at least 2 hours prior to your scheduled start time whether you need to arrive late or miss an entire shift.
  • If you become ill at work and need to leave early, you must first notify your manager or management line of your immediate need to leave early.

Tools and Support

This section demonstrates the company’s willingness to support their employees. Consider what tools you can provide that will help them be successful.

An example would be:

The health and wellbeing of our team members is important to <the company>. We advise that if you are having difficulty with your health and it is impacting your ability to work, that you speak confidentially with HR to understand what benefits may be available to you. HR can recommend resources to help you as well.

If you find that you need assistance remaining organized and this is contributing to difficulty in meeting your schedule, please connect with our administrative assistant who can help you order office supplies like daily planners or white boards or can advise on electronic tools such as Outlook.

Projects or Finite Tasks

Sometimes it is appropriate to have one time tasks or projects included as a part of the PIP. This most commonly occurs when there will be mandatory retraining, mandatory review of specs or processes or a long-term request that has not been actioned by the employee despite multiple requests for completion.

Review Date

The date the PIP review will take place (the meeting with HR, manager, and employee) should be clearly noted on the PIP for the employee’s reference.

Company Response to Failure to Improve

How you word this should be in line with your company values. While taking a legalistic tone generally does not imbue employees with a great desire to lean in, it is recommended that legal counsel provide guidance and/or review the language included in your company’s PIP template. It should be clear, no matter how you phrase it that:

  • Failure to immediately improve performance can result in escalation of the PIP review date (i.e. the company does not have to wait for the review to fire the employee if they don’t show improvement quickly or if they start performing worse).
    • Even if you don’t plan to do this, it is an important concept to include because if you have an employee that starts coming in for an hour a day or committing outright sabotage, then you have a clear path to terminate quickly.
    • It should be a very rare occurrence to escalate the review date.
  • Failure to improve immediately and sustain improvement can result in discipline up to and including termination.
    • It is important to give the company options to manage cases individually and not apply a blanket response to everyone who is failing a PIP regardless of circumstances.
  • The PIP does not constitute an employment contract that would invalidate the at-will nature of the employment relationship.
  • Successful completion of the PIP constitutes the new minimum level of acceptable performance. Failure to sustain this level of performance can result in further discipline or termination without additional PIP, coaching, notice, etc.
    • This precludes an employee pulling it together for a 30-day PIP and going right back to their old issues in the next month.
    • Your company will decide the appropriate length of time for “look back” should future concerns arise with this same employee. It could be 12 months or longer.

Signature and Acknowledgement

Include some language that indicates that signing the PIP means that the employee has received a copy and it has been reviewed with them. It does not necessarily mean the employee agrees with everything it states.

Make sure there is room for the printed name (so you can read who it belongs to and file appropriately), signature and date.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Performance Improvement Plans

What can go wrong with a performance improvement plan?
Unfortunately, quite a lot can go wrong with a PIP. It is paramount that personal safety is discussed with the manager who will help deliver the plan as well as with any security teams you might have at your disposal. You’ll want to discuss some worst case scenarios and plans to mitigate those risks in advance as well as ensuring the manager knows exactly what to do in the event of violence. There’s also a variety of negative outcomes that do not involve violence but should be discussed as well, such as someone who quits “on the spot” by walking out. Another reason to discuss negative outcomes with the manager and security is because there is a threat of sabotage or intellectual property (IP) theft. Some employees decide immediately that they will quit but use the long timeframe of a PIP to secure another position first. These employees can be highly disruptive or subdued in their responses, so this is not indicative of a risk of sabotage or theft. Lawsuits and allegations of discrimination or harassment are also potential negative fallouts of issuing a PIP. Be sure to mitigate this risk by clearly understanding everything the manager tells you about the situation and by documenting, listening for flags from the employee, following up on allegations immediately and coaching the manager on proper responses to various possible employee reactions. All of these are reasons it is crucial to break past the denial the employee may have about their underperformance and to be certain the manager has had reasonable expectations that are not being met and has discussed the gap between performance and expectation multiple times explicitly before issuing a PIP.
Does a performance improvement plan mean that the employee will eventually be fired?
Absolutely not. A performance improvement plan will generally not be successful if HR and the manager are not fully supportive of the employee and their capability to improve. In those cases where one or both do not truly believe the employee can improve, then odds are that this belief will become a “self-fulfilling prophecy” and the employee will fail to achieve the desired improvement. What will ideally happen is that the employee will face the facts presented about their performance and latch on to the clear definitions of success and tools to help them get there. The employee will “lean in” and do anything in their power to raise their performance level fast.
Angela Livingston
Angela Livingston

Angela Livingston, SHRM-CP, MBA has nearly a decade of HR experience in high regulated, high tech companies that are Federal Contractors and supported people in other states. She’s worked for an international company with ~20K US employees that did a lot of immigration work, and she’s worked for a company with ~3500 US employees that doesn’t support work visas. One constant is that she’s always working with people empathetically with an eye on integrity.

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What is People Management Software?

People management software sounds important, but what exactly does that mean? Does your business need it? What businesses benefit most? All these questions and more are answered as we dive into the fascinating world of people management software and determine what’s best for your company.

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The Ultimate Guide on How to Manage Employees in a Small Business

The Ultimate Guide on How to Manage Employees in a Small Business

When it comes to running a small business, we know that managing employees is often one of the most difficult tasks. People are complicated, and finding a way to keep your employees happy and productive can be challenging. This article shares specific advice for what you can do in the three phases of the employee lifecycle to get the most out of each employee.

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