Use a Performance Improvement Plan

Learn to craft a concrete, actionable, and measurable performance improvement plan with the help of HR.

Performance improvement plans (or PIPs, as they’re often called) are the first official notice that the company is taking steps to address a performance issue. Because they are the necessary first step before termination/separation of employment, many employees regard the PIP as the “beginning of the end” of their time at the company. It’s important to stress to the employee that the intent of the PIP is the exact opposite: to work together as a team to correct the performance problem and get them back into “good standing.”

Crafting a PIP will usually require you and your HR rep working closely together—you’ll need to write up the precise details of the PIP, such as how the performance expectations aren’t being met and some of the examples (which you should be able to pull from your notes because you’ve been documenting, documenting, documenting), for example. HR will typically fill in some details, like job description details and what-not, but it’s not unreasonable that bulk of this first step will come from you.

The PIP isn’t just a description of what the employee has missed, though; a crucial part of the PIP is the action plan, meaning the detailed set of expectations and steps the employee needs to undertake to bring their performance back up to acceptable levels. Ideally, this is something you have your employee put together—if they create it, it’s harder for them to later claim they were held to an unacceptable or unimplementable plan. Your job will be to ensure that the plan can actually work, and will get the employee back to acceptable levels of performance.

When you look at the plan, you’re looking for a couple of things:

  • The steps are concrete, actionable, and measurable. These are things that need to able to be “checked off.” “Write good code” is far too vague and full of interpretation; “Write code that has unit tests that meet at least an 80% code coverage standard” is something measurable.
  • The steps are within the employee’s control. “Never be late again” is not something entirely within the employee’s control—what happens if a major snowstorm prevents them from coming in? Or the train is late? “Provide notice ten to twenty minutes ahead of scheduled meetings if it is clear I cannot make it to the meeting” is entirely within the employee’s control.
  • The steps address the root cause of the performance problem. It’s often the case that the employee doesn’t really understand “what the big deal is” and will craft a plan that contains a number of trivial details that don’t really address the larger problem. (This is one of the reasons to pointedly ask them in one of the meetings prior to this point what they think the problem is and what issues they see it causing.)
  • There are clear success criteria. What are we looking for? If the employee’s code keeps creating bugs in stories, perhaps the criteria is “A sprint with less than 1 reported defect per story average.” You want to make the “goalposts” as clear and as objective as possible, so that everybody can agree whether the employee has met (or hasn’t met) the goals of the PIP.
  • There are time-boxed deadlines, ideally in a 1-3 month timeframe. Both you and your employee want to see this PIP go away.

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