How to Implement Effective Performance Improvement Plans

Are you thinking of putting a team member on a performance improvement plan? Before you move forward, have you assessed their situation thoroughly? Considering these practices can help you mitigate risk and improve communication throughout your organization.
Verity International
November 20, 2019

We had a chance to sit down with employment lawyer Zaheer Lakhani to discuss the positive impacts that effective communication and constructive feedback can have on team members in addressing performance issues. We’ll also share steps that employers can take if these initial conversations do not yield the desired result.

Performance management is an ongoing process of identifying goals, measuring progress, and supporting the development of team members to meet the organization’s objectives.  This process starts the moment a new team member joins the organization and continues throughout their employment journey. The relationship between the employer and team member is based on establishing trust. The manager needs to start from a position of trusting the team member to do their best, and the team member needs to trust that their manager will provide them with ongoing support and feedback.

Analyzing the situation

There are times where a team member’s performance does not meet the acceptable standards, such as:

  • When the rate of mistakes is unacceptably high
  • When goals and objectives are continuously missed; or
  • When a team member’s relationship with others is not at the level required to collaborate effectively

Poor performance can be a result of many different factors. Before you take formal steps toward addressing the issue, take time to fully assess the causes. Consider if the team member:

  • Knows and understands their goals, as well as expectations for how to collaborate and work with others
  • Has been given proper support to complete their tasks effectively (e.g., software, training materials)
  • Has been given realistic timelines to achieve their objectives
  • Believes that they have the resources they need and their manager’s support to handle obstacles

Showing empathy

There may be cases where team members who performed well in the past are not showing the same level of performance today. It’s important to evaluate these cases with an empathetic lens before moving forward with a formal performance improvement plan (PIP).  Approaching the team member’s situation with empathy can help leaders to truly connect with their team members and collaborate on how to move forward together in a more constructive way. Take a moment to consider if your team member is being impacted by the following factors:

Are there other issues affecting the team member at work or outside of work?

Often, issues such as caregiving responsibilities, changes in the team member’s life, or even hidden disabilities can alter the way people perform at work. Assess the situation carefully and schedule some time to talk to your team member. Your goal for this meeting should be to come up with solutions on how you can support the person in achieving their goals; for example, suggesting some time off or working from home as an option.

Has the team member’s workload changed?

Did this team member get assigned to a new project, or several new tasks that require different skills? If so, chances are, they might be feeling overwhelmed. Meet with your team member and ask if they require extra resources, additional help from others, or clarity on objectives to help them move forward.

Questions such as these may help you to identify the root causes of low performance and take steps to support the team member in making a change before implementing a formal PIP.

Implementing the PIP

If significant performance issues persist, and you are ready to implement a formal PIP for your team member, it’s advisable to plan your conversation with them. Be clear on what you want to accomplish in the conversation. For performance issues, the team member should be given clear direction, with supporting documentation, on what they need to improve and strategies for how this can be accomplished. The following tips can be helpful for framing your conversation:

  • Ensure the team member understands the gap between their current performance and what is needed
  • Outline a clear path for the individual to improve their performance
  • Outline the consequences if the team member’s performance does not improve
  • Set a timeline for improving performance (Note: this timeline must be reasonable and defensible if challenged)

The PIP should not be used to threaten team members into doing their jobs effectively or to discriminate against them. The purpose of a PIP is to provide structure for performance improvement and to help team members pursue their objectives more effectively. If you find that your end goal is to use a PIP simply for the purpose of terminating a team member rather than as a mechanism to assist them to improve, be wary that such an approach could result in litigation and costly damage awards. Proper procedure should be followed with the right HR personnel to drive that conversation as it relates to performance managing a member of your team.

Zaheer Lakhani is a partner at Bandhu Lakhani Campea LLP, a boutique employment law firm located in Oakville, Ontario that specializes in employment and labour law. Zaheer advises and represents employers in a variety of areas such as human rights, including disability and accommodation; wrongful dismissal claims; employment standards compliance and litigation, and general strategic HR advice.

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