When you hear the words “performance improvement plan,” what comes to mind? For some, the phrase has a negative connotation involving ultimatums or the first step of a layoff. But in truth, this powerful HR tool is a way of providing useful feedback and coaching, improving performance, and investing in your employees.
Having a performance improvement plan template in place can prepare your company to approach employee performance and productivity issues quickly and effectively. It gives you the freedom to deal with concerns in a constructive way instead of jumping directly to termination.
And the end result benefits employees and organizations alike.
Here’s what we’ll cover in this guide about performance improvement plans:
- What is a performance improvement plan?
- Why use a performance improvement plan?
- When and how to use a performance improvement plan
- A performance improvement plan example
- Developing your performance improvement plan step-by-step
- Download and customize your performance improvement plan template
What is a performance improvement plan?
A performance improvement plan (PIP) is a documented process for addressing employee performance issues. A formal plan lets managers and HR partner with employees so the latter can step up to their role and keep their good standing with the company.
A PIP communicates the action or solutions that will correct the poor performance. It also includes resources for helping employees take that action, and a defined timeline for achieving the needed change.
Why you should be using a performance improvement plan
PIPs help you create a culture of learning and improvement that inspires employees and communicates your company values. Creating a plan for improvement instead of immediately letting an employee go when there are performance issues benefits both the employee and the organization.
Feedback and guidance help employees feel engaged and valued. Specific, actionable feedback also boosts morale. Employees know you’re invested in them and are willing to help them succeed, and that gives them more job satisfaction. When your employees are engaged and happy, your company profits. You decrease employee turnover, which translates into higher productivity and reduced costs.
A good plan will also help you know exactly what action to take as you work through productivity issues. A performance improvement plan intends to fix problems and close knowledge and skill gaps. If you don’t see improvement after implementing a PIP, it can be an indicator that there’s a larger training gap. It may also reveal obstacles that a straightforward plan can’t remedy. In that case, your PIP may then result in termination or some other job change like transfer or demotion.
When and how to use a performance improvement plan
The key role of HR and management is determining when a PIP is necessary. They need to decide what scenarios merit using a performance improvement plan, and then work together to implement it.
The first clue is in the title. These are situations in which performance is not measuring up to expectations but can feasibly be improved with the right resources.
Overall, PIPs are a way for companies to help their people overcome obstacles. They can be applied to any area where employees need some help to succeed — things like attendance issues, difficulty meeting deadlines, misunderstanding of job expectations, or lack of engagement.
Let’s look at a few common questions people have about when and how to use PIPs.
Q: Should we apply a PIP for all employees or just those who are underperforming?
A: PIPs are not general feedback, like a regular performance evaluation. They’re used for employees who are underperforming in some way or not meeting their objectives. A plan may involve training, but it’s different from the official employee learning and development programs your company has in place. PIPs are meant to address poor performance and not general upskilling or reskilling.
Q: Why do I need a performance improvement plan template?
A: A PIP template will guide you in creating a plan with specific steps and measurable goals. Starting with a template helps you move quickly on resolving issues. You won’t have to worry about creating a plan from scratch and potentially missing critical steps.
A template ensures consistency and guarantees that the entire plan, along with goals, outcomes, and timelines, is documented. HR can review templates created in advance to ensure they’re fair and not biased against the employee.
Q: Should I use a PIP the first time I notice an employee needs support, or should it be our last resort?
A: PIPs are targeted plans that support employees in improving performance and reaching goals. If a PIP fails, you might need to terminate the employment contract, transfer the employee to a new role, or extend the plan. To avoid jumping directly to these kinds of outcomes, try other methods to help employees first.
After a regular performance review, discuss concerns with the employee and give them the chance to respond and improve. Start by trying to understand why your employee is underperforming. They may be unaware of the problem. Or, they may just need to engage with training or other resources already available to them. Their issue may stem from personal concerns that they need time off to resolve.
If the issue is not so straightforward and you can’t remedy the concerns without intervention, it may be time to put a PIP in place.
Q: How long should a performance improvement plan last?
A: The timing depends on specifics like the company, the issue, or the employee’s role. As a rule of thumb, you can use a 30, 60, or 90-day plan.
Base the timeline on the nature of the problem you’re addressing. For example, one month might be too soon to see results in certain roles, but six months could be too much if the plan is not effective. In the latter case, you may wish to put together a three-month plan with monthly progress reports so you can see how things are progressing.
A performance improvement plan example
Imagine you manage a sales team.
The issue: Janet, one of your salespeople, hasn’t met her sales quotas for the last three months. She’s been lagging behind most of her team for the last quarter. When you talk with her about it, she admits she feels stuck. She knows she’s behind, but she doesn’t know what to do to break through to the numbers she needs.
She’s been through the same product training as all her colleagues but is having a hard time selling your latest product. Janet wants to improve, and after talking, you think that with the right resources, she can. You decide to work with HR to create a PIP.
The plan: You make a plan that involves Janet participating in an in-depth sales training course and shadowing one of her teammates on sales calls. You determine that you’ll check back in three months to see if Janet’s next quarter is more on track.
The goal: This plan gives Janet reassurance that the company will invest in her, and also provides her the resources she needs to reach her quotas. The timeline will make sure she gets through the plan and up to speed as quickly as possible.
Developing your performance improvement plan step-by-step
Knowing how to develop a PIP will prepare you to step up and address performance issues in your company before they escalate.
In Janet’s case, having a process in place allowed management to address the issue quickly and effectively. A good plan will help you know exactly how to proceed to give employees the best chance possible to succeed. You can develop a solid PIP using the following steps.
1. Determine the goals of the PIP
If you don’t define what you want to achieve, you likely won’t see the change you need. It’s important to analyze the reason for the plan and clarify what exactly needs to change to reach success.
What results should you be seeing? Can you quantify the results? Write down the specifics. These goals are the foundation of your plan.
2. Make a plan
Determine what steps will get you to success. Formal training? A new pattern of checking in regularly on certain assignments or behaviors? Your PIP should include measurable outcomes and goals that will help you reach them. You should define your timeline, as well as whether and when there’ll be any check-ins.
Don’t forget to specify what will happen when the plan is successful, as well as how you’ll proceed if the employee doesn’t achieve the goals.
3. Communicate the plan and the anticipated goals with your employee
It’s important that you sit down with the employee and clarify the purposes and the desired outcomes of the PIP. This is a collaboration, and the employee needs to understand their part of it. Share what success looks like and how the steps outlined will lead to success.
4. Implement and track the progress of your PIP
Once you’ve communicated the plan to your employee and they understand what’s expected of them and why, put the plan into action. Start working toward the specific goals and timelines set, checking in regularly to see how your employee is getting on. Uphold the timeline you set in the plan.
5. Evaluate the results and decide on the next steps
When you reach the agreed-upon deadline, determine whether the goals have been reached. Meet with the employee to discuss the results. This is why it’s important to set measurables goals in the beginning.
If your employee has reached their goals, you can retire the plan and discuss what support they need from you to maintain their success. If they haven’t met the criteria, it’s time to move to the next steps. This may mean termination or some other change to their working situation.
Download and customize your performance improvement plan template
If you’re struggling with how to write a performance improvement plan, a ready-to-use template can help. We’ve created a sample performance improvement plan you can download, customize based on your needs, and fill with your data any time you want to put a PIP in place.
Let’s use our previous example with Janet to see how our performance improvement plan template looks like:
Let’s see each section in more detail:
- Task or area of responsibility: This is the issue you have detected that the PIP aims to fix. It could be a productivity issue, a job behavior that needs to be changed, or a KPI that was missed. For example, you can mention that your employee is regularly missing deadlines or that they fail to complete their tasks successfully. Try to be as specific as possible. If there are multiple issues, it’s best to create different entries for each of them, so you can measure their improvement separately.
- Improvement: Here, describe your end goal. Again, it’s important to be specific as you’ll use this at the end of the performance improvement plan to determine whether your employee has successfully reached that goal.
- Expected outcome: This is where you’ll write down all the measurable outcomes you expect from your employee. Consider these outcomes as a guide: employees will build an action plan and try to reach those outcomes instead of having one generic target.
- Resources / Support: As mentioned, the performance improvement plan is not a way to punish employees. It’s a plan to help them improve their productivity. And to do so, it’s up to you to give them all the tools they need. In this field, write down how you’ll help them. For example, you might want to mention training programs or coaching sessions you’ll offer as part of this PIP.
It’s also important to note the timeline of the plan, including any interim check-ins. Finally, when you discuss the PIP with your employee, make sure you’re clear about what will happen next — whether your employee completes the plan successfully or not. You can either add the next steps in the performance improvement plan template or include them in an email you’ll send to your employee as a formal agreement about the PIP.
Performance improvement plans are a key piece of the puzzle of unlocking employees’ potential and helping them reach their goals and business objectives. To access this benefit, determine how you’ll implement your program and create a performance improvement plan template to get you started.
When used correctly, those plans shouldn’t pose a threat to employees or create a sense of fear and insecurity about their future in the company. Instead, they should communicate your company’s willingness to support them and create engagement.