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Identifying and acting on poor performance with Performance Improvement Plans

Performance improvement plans are exactly the sort of procedures you would ideally never have to implement as a business leader. But whether like them or not, there will come a point when an individual working for your company will underperform. Instead of acting rashly, or just hoping that the bad spell will pass, you should have a clear idea of what to do.

Identifying poor performance

That said, it is not always that easy to recognise when someone’s performance has gone hay-wire. In fact, in the majority of cases, poor performance appears slowly and takes a while to be noticed. The little things that build up are often far easier to excuse than the sudden, blatant instances of failure or unprofessional behaviour. In the long-run however, both can be just as severe.

Though they are rarer, obvious and sudden signs of poor performance at work are far simpler to call out and give feedback on. If someone is sat at their desk not working or is rude during a meeting, you can easily flag what it is that they have done wrong.

But when it comes to the slower, more gradual type of poor performance, you cannot solely rely on your own judgment. As the founder or business owner, you will often be somewhat detached from the day to day operations of the company. For this reason, it is very likely that your team will be quicker and more effective at identifying poor performance than you. Make sure you listen to any issues that are raised and ask questions of someone’s close colleagues if you begin to suspect that they are underperforming.

The other way to evaluate employee performance is by looking at the numbers. Where possible, compare different members of your team based on their differing levels of output. It is easy for someone to look busy when they are not and it is also possible for someone’s more reserved attitude to belie the hard work and positive contributions they are making to your business. Data can often provide the insights that are otherwise hard to grasp.

Ensuring improvement

Once you are fairly sure that an employee could be doing more than they currently are, you have to act fast. This is easier said than done—almost every instance of failed personnel management at Charlie HR could probably have been averted by simply acting quicker.

Give thorough feedback to the underperforming employee before you set up any sort of official procedure. Though the conversation will be uncomfortable for both parties, it needs to happen and will be respected by the employee in the long run. Be clear and communicate openly what it is that you are concerned about. This avoids any nasty shocks and helps to send the message that you are actually looking to help them improve their professional performance. All too often employees will feel that an improvement plan is just a code-word for them getting fired.

Build a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)

You are now ready to look at how to build a performance improvement plan. Make the process feel formal so that it is taken seriously—do not soften the blow of negative feedback too much, otherwise the employee will be less likely to correct their behaviour.

The plan should include all of the feedback on the employee’s performance to date. This should be compiled from your own observations, the employee’s team members’ observations as well as the employee’s own reflections. Make sure you always have these concerns written down on paper or in a shared document, as this makes them much easier to refer back to. Have the employee write as much of the performance plan as possible in order to allow them to feel more invested in the process.

The plan should be built around several key milestones and actions. Make it crystal clear what needs to be achieved as well as when this needs to be achieved by. The wording has to be precise so that there is no room for disagreement at the end of the process. Use dates for the milestones and stick to that precise timeline. Give the employee every opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns ahead of time. Last minute excuses or confusion over what was meant to happen will only be painful for both sides.

While the target is that the employee can just continue in their role with an improved and more productive attitude, you will also have to spell out exactly what you expect to happen if the criteria you have set out are not met. It could be that they are moved to a different department, a less important role or that they lose their place in the company altogether. Whatever it is, just make sure they know before they agree to be placed on the plan.

While you have now seen how to create a performance improvement plan, be aware that in order for any of the above to be effective and to actually have any chance of working, you personally need to believe that the employee in question has the capabilities to turn around their performance. If you do not actually think that they can improve, then there is no point in instituting a performance improvement plan. In order to succeed, the employee will want to know that you have faith in them, so do your best to both offer and show support throughout the process.