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What Tiger Woods Can Teach HR About Using Performance Improvement Plans to Salvage Struggling Employees

Last weekend’s Ryder Cup notwithstanding, Tiger Woods has made an impressive comeback by winning the PGA Tour Championship in September. The win was Tiger’s 80th victory on the PGA tour but his first since 2013 after a long hiatus from golf. Tiger’s return to the game illustrates several important lessons for employers who are dealing with an employee whose performance has started to decline.

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First, don’t count an employee out too soon. Tiger Woods’ personal struggles hurt his public persona, and his multiple back surgeries led many to believe that he would never play golf again. Fortunately, his hard work and dedication to his recovery, and his game, proved the naysayers wrong. In the employment setting, it can be tempting to allow your frustrations toward an employee’s unsatisfactory performance to cause you to give up on the employee’s prospects for improvement too soon. Before you head to the clubhouse, however, consider giving the employee a fighting chance to own up to his or her failings and move beyond them.  Often, the best way to do that is by placing the employee on a performance improvement plan, or PIP.

Second, don’t set the employee up for failure by making the PIP period too short. It took Tiger Woods five years and four back surgeries before he won another PGA tournament. While no one’s advocating giving employees that much time to improve, a two-week PIP is generally unreasonably short, unless you are trying to gauge whether the employee has the motivation to improve a specific, concrete responsibility (such as showing up to work on time). As a rule of thumb, many PIPs are 90 days long, but each situation is different. More or less time may be appropriate, depending on the circumstances.

Third, use objective metrics to evaluate whether an employee has successfully completed the PIP. Of course, for Tiger Woods to prove that he is once again a contender, he has to win at golf, a game with an established set of rules and expectations. Likewise, when implementing a performance improvement plan, you should identify specific goals and milestones setting forth your expectations and giving the employee a roadmap to stay on course, avoid traps, and sink the winning shot.

Lastly, don’t forget to yell, “FORE!” if the employee is on dangerous ground or is headed for the bunker. Once an employee is placed on a PIP, follow-up with the employee regularly and provide feedback on whether the employee’s game is up to par. By the time golfers reach the 18th hole, they generally have a good idea of where they stand in the rankings. Similarly, it should never come as a shock when an employee is terminated for failing to successfully complete a PIP. Let the employee know if you are not seeing the desired changes in his or her job performance, work product, or attitude. If the employee’s game is off course, be a good caddie and communicate that to the employee and, of course, be sure to document the employee’s progress, or lack of progress. In fact, you should document every interaction you have with an employee on a PIP to create a record that will support any adverse personnel action that may occur down the road.

A lot of time, effort and, yes, money goes into recruiting, hiring, and training employees. As employers, you owe it to yourselves (and your employees) to help them succeed.  Effectively using performance improvement plans can be an invaluable tool to help you determine whether an employee is primed for a comeback. In addition, you’ll have the added benefit of a well-documented history of employee performance to support your next move, whatever it might be.