Even a well-functioning team can run into performance issues from time to time. Maybe a new hire is struggling to meet expectations, or a reliable employee is underperforming due to personal stress. Following a performance improvement process can ensure that you communicate the actionable steps an employee needs to take to succeed at their job in a way that’s fair and consistent to all of your team members.
Although performance improvement usually focuses on individual employees, it can also be used to address departmental or organizational issues.
Let’s take a look at how performance improvement works, when to use it, and how to create an effective performance improvement process.
What Is Performance Improvement?
Performance improvement is the process of delivering employee feedback in a way that clearly outlines how an underperforming employee is expected to improve. While it can overlap with other performance management tools, such as a performance review, it should focus on a specific problem, not general performance goals.
Performance improvement is usually guided by a formal document called an employee performance improvement plan (PIP). This action plan should set out a clear timeframe and have milestones that can be used to track the employee’s progress.
A performance improvement plan isn’t meant to be a punitive measure, but to empower employees to increase their skills and core competencies. An effective PIP can address the root cause of performance gaps and lead to better performance overall.
When to Use a Performance Improvement Plan
A performance improvement plan is better suited to some cases than others. It should be used when there are clear disparities in employee performance, not when there’s a sudden change in management or a shift in employee expectations. Here are three situations when you might use a PIP to address poor performance:
1. A valued employee is underperforming.
If an employee is struggling in one area, but performing well in others, a performance improvement plan can provide them with the resources they need to succeed.
This can include cases in which there’s an imbalance between “hard skills” and “soft skills.” For example, maybe an employee is at the top of their field when it comes to technical skills, but struggles with collaboration or customer interactions.
Rather than lose a valued employee, you can create a performance improvement plan to help them develop skills like teamwork or professionalism.
2. An employee is experiencing personal issues.
It’s only natural for performance to dip when an employee goes through a difficult time, such as a divorce or a mental health episode. But there comes a point when tardiness, absenteeism, and other performance issues can’t be overlooked.
You can use a performance improvement plan to help them identify the root cause of the issue and return their performance to their usual levels.
3. An employee needs more training.
Sometimes, performance issues aren’t the employee’s fault. Maybe you’ve introduced a new piece of software and one team member is having a hard time getting used to it, or a new hire didn't receive sufficient training during the onboarding process.
This doesn’t mean the employee isn’t right for the job, but it does mean they need more training and support to get there.
Performance improvement can also be used to upskill an employee in advance of a new promotion if their existing skills aren’t quite there yet.
Performance Improvement vs. Corrective Action
A performance improvement plan differs from a corrective action plan in several ways. A PIP is used to address performance gaps, while a corrective action plan is for workplace violations — such as frequent tardiness or workplace safety incidents.
A well-respected employee has fallen behind on their sales goals for the year? Consider performance improvement. If they don’t abide by the code of conduct or don’t work well with other team members, consider corrective action.
Performance improvement shouldn’t be used as a precursor to demotion or termination. If an employee receives a performance improvement plan, they should feel confident that you want to retain them as an employee, not fire them.
After all, you wouldn’t spend so much time trying to remedy the issue if you didn’t think they had a future at your organization.
Performance Improvement Best Practices
Once you’ve decided that a performance improvement process is right for the situation, follow these four steps to ensure that it’s clear, actionable, and effective:
1. Make it measurable.
A performance improvement plan should set clearly defined expectations based on the employee’s most recent performance appraisal. If the employee is struggling to meet sales goals, specify what sales targets would be considered satisfactory.
By establishing specific metrics from the get-go, you’ll be able to track an employee’s progress — and have clear evidence to point to if they don’t improve.
2. Set a timeframe.
A performance improvement plan shouldn’t be open-ended — and you shouldn’t wait until the next annual review to see if it was effective.
Consider starting out with a 30-day, 60-day, or 90-day timeframe. This timeframe gives employees an incentive to make improvements, while leaving enough time for them to seek out the training or support they need.
3. Check in regularly.
Performance improvement is a collaborative process. Think of it as an investment in an employee’s future with your company. Check in to see if they need training, mentorship, or another form of support in order to reach your performance goals.
Most importantly, reassure them that this isn’t a punitive measure, and that as long as they show sufficient improvement, they won’t be on a PIP plan forever.
4. Document the process.
Performance improvement plans aren’t always effective, and if you do need to let an employee go, a formal PIP is evidence that you did all you could to support them.
If the PIP is successful, then it demonstrates that they have room for growth and might even be a candidate for a promotion.
Use a performance improvement plan template to ensure that your PIPs contain all of the required information and meet your organizational standards.
Alternatives to Performance Improvement
A performance improvement plan can help to improve customer satisfaction and quality control by maintaining high performance standards. But a PIP shouldn’t be used to hold employees to unreasonable standards of human performance. Sometimes, it may be wise to consider other options, such as a leave of absence or an accommodation.
For example, an employee whose performance issues are related to medical or mental health conditions may be eligible for a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). An employee can use their time off to recover from any physical or mental issues that are impacting their performance.
If the employee has a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), then they may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation, such as a more accessible workspace or modified computer equipment. If that’s the case, the employer should follow the ADA interactive process rather than a performance improvement plan.
Streamline Performance Management With Cloud-Based Tools
The performance improvement process is a way to provide underperforming employees with the tools they need to address performance gaps in the workplace. A performance improvement plan should set out clear goals, have a firm end-date, and offer additional training or mentorship if that’s what the employee requires.
Pulpstream can help you streamline the performance management process with our cloud-based HR management system. By standardizing and automating performance reviews, you can ensure that performance improvement plans are applied fairly and consistently across your organization.
Plus, our self-service tools make it easy for employees to access the resources they need at every stage of the performance management process.
Contact us today to request a demo and learn more!