HR Management & Compliance

How to Write an Effective Performance Improvement Plan

If you’ve ever had employees who were struggling in their role, you’ve probably considered your options. It’s a sticky situation to be in. You could let them go, creating a huge headache of turnover time and costs; you could retain them at their current capacity, leaving you feeling frustrated and the role unfulfilled; or you could implement a performance improvement plan.

A performance improvement plan is a clear document that lays out how employees need to increase their job performance to stay at the company. It also gives specific goals and timelines so they know exactly what is expected of them. They’re meant as an employee retention tool, not a fear-mongerer, but performance improvement plans tend to give employees anxiety—they are sometimes seen as the first step toward getting fired and are a clear indicator the  employees have a great deal to improve. But they should be viewed as an opportunity. A well-crafted performance improvement plan tells employees your company wants to keep them around, wants them to succeed, and wants everyone to be on the same page.

Do performance improvement plans actually work? The data suggests they aren’t as effective as managers hope. Ninety percent of performance improvement plans lead to an employee exiting the business. That means the majority of plans fail at what they set out to do. If your goal is to keep an employee on board, you need to make sure your performance improvement plan is transparent, clear, and goal-oriented.

So how do you create a performance improvement plan that actually leads to improved performance?

Recognize the Goal of the Performance Improvement Plan

At the beginning of your meeting, make it clear why you’re crafting a plan and what its goal is. If you wanted to just fire someone, you would—you want employees to improve, and you want to retain them. So, reminding employees of that fact can start things off on the right foot and let them know they aren’t necessarily on the chopping block.

You also want to provide direct reasons as to why you’ve decided this is a necessary step. Have actual data to back up your claims; if an employee is way behind in sales, provide numbers to demonstrate that. If there have been a lot of complaints from other employees, provide specific examples. If workers haven’t been able to deliver on product promises, remind them of why they were hired, and share where they fell short. This isn’t to hammer employees or make them feel terrible; it’s to prove the point that this plan is really necessary and to get them invested in its creation and success.

Furthermore, performance improvement plans shouldn’t be a surprise—before employees are put on a plan, you should have already raised your concerns in one-on-one meetings and evaluations.

Identify Your Role in the Problem

As a manager, you have a role to play in your employees’ success. If they aren’t living up to expectations, it’s not 100% on their shoulders—perhaps they weren’t coached well, weren’t given enough feedback, or were given too much responsibility. Take some time to self-reflect and identify ways you need to improve as a manager, and make that clear. You can bring in other managers, as well, depending on your role and the employee’s role. This can even be part of the performance improvement plan.

Invite Employee Input

You likely have ideas on how you want your employees to improve, but they may have some, as well. In fact, they may have barriers to their work that you’re completely unaware of. Employee participation in a performance improvement plan is essential to its success. The plan should not be a decree or a speech; it should be a conversation that takes in multiple perspectives and ideas. Make sure employees have some concrete time to brainstorm how they got to this point and any ideas they have in terms of how to get out.

Make Clear, Concrete Goals

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably familiar with the concept of SMART goals. Goals should be:

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

An example of a not-so-great goal: Sell more product.

An example of a SMART goal: Increase sales twofold by end of year.

Well-written goals will also have steps that can be taken to achieve them. The old saying “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” implies that large goals need to be conquered with small steps. Handing someone the goal of increase sales twofold is like handing them an elephant. Incorporating action steps like attending sales seminars, shadowing a more experienced salesperson, and role-playing with the sales team can help someone achieve the goal of more sales. Also make sure to include a section with specific resources, training, or education employees can use to help them grow their skills and achieve their goals.

Have Regular Check-Ins

Lastly, you don’t want to hand someone a performance improvement plan with a wave and a “See you next year!” Performance improvement plans should include regular check-ins that allow employees to get a grasp on where they are and adjust course if needed. One-on-one meetings with their manager or an HR representative will help them know if they’re improving according to their plan. The plan should also include what’s going to happen after the plan—how often will they be checked in on? Whom can they go to with questions? What are the next steps? What happens if they don’t meet their goals? Don’t leave employees guessing; transparency is key to an effective performance improvement plan.

Claire Swinarski is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.

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