In my experience, performance improvement plans (PIPs) have a lousy return on investment. On rare occasions, they're useful in fending off an employee claim of wrongful termination. However, in terms of the stated purpose—performance improvement—the returns are often dismal. Sometimes there's improvement but it isn't sustained, and a "PIP cycle" sets in. Other times, the PIP just makes things worse.
Most PIPs are formalistic, negative, adversarial documents. They specify only what's wrong with the employee. They're blame-oriented, punishment-oriented and often accompanied by threatening language such as "will subject you to further disciplinary action, up to and including discharge."
Another problem: The written PIP document usually replaces a real-time, human-to-human exchange. "Read and sign this" is not a dialogue. And research has shown that we react more negatively to written words than to spoken ones.
A Better Way to Go
I'm not suggesting that problematic employee behavior or performance be overlooked. Quite the contrary. It's the manner in which you address the problem that makes the difference. Here are five rules:
- Don't procrastinate. Otherwise, you may unwittingly be cementing problematic behavior. If your goal is to truly improve the person's performance, you want to make the person aware of deficiencies as soon as possible, and definitely in time to improve the behavior.
- Don't substitute written communication for real-time verbal communication, whether virtual or in person. Employ active listening techniques, especially "confront, then question." Listen to ensure you understand what the employee believes may be contributing to the problem. That can help to avoid assumptions and miscommunications, which can often lead to performance concerns.
- Replace your disciplinary forms with the "Same Day Summary." Following the discussion, send the employee a document listing the key takeaways from the actual discussion.
- Emphasize "feedforward" versus feedback. Studies have shown that the word "feedback" triggers a threat recognition response; the employee immediately senses an attack coming. By contrast, feedforward (a term first coined by Marshall Goldsmith) focuses on a better future. Instead of "further tardiness will not be tolerated," try, "For you to continue in your position, we need to have confidence that you will be here every workday at 8 a.m." Instead of "unsatisfactory performance," say, "This is the performance standard we must have for a person in your position." Use "We expect your commitment to our core values, which include treating everyone with respect at all times" instead of "Quit being a jerk." Remember that the employee can't change what's already happened, but the individual can make better choices in the future. Feedforward creates the framework for this to happen constructively and proactively.
- Don't treat a PIP as a magic pill. Without check-ins, follow-ups and follow throughs, the PIP is not likely to stick. Even if you've seen the necessary improvement, don't say to yourself, "Mission accomplished." Instead, schedule periodic check-ins on your calendar.
"I love the feedforward concept!" said Megan Wakefield, HR director for Jazzercise in Carlsbad, Calif. "My preference is to lead with do's versus don'ts. For example, 'Do communicate quickly' versus 'Don't procrastinate.' "
Paul Jones, chief people officer at USANA Health Sciences in Salt Lake City, echoes Wakefield's emphasis on feedforward. "Rewriting the dialogue as shown in this article is squarely on target and critical for successful performance improvement."
In addition to discussing expectations for the employee, Colleen McManus, a senior HR executive with the state of Arizona, likes to include in the PIP a statement of what the supervisor will do to support the employee's efforts. "For example, if there is an expectation for the employee to complete several hours of training, I would add a statement that I will support the employee's completion of the training by ensuring they have the financial resources, if applicable, and the ability to take the necessary time away from regular job responsibilities.
"Ultimately, I want the employee to know we're truly supportive of the ability to improve and succeed."
This approach also aligns with what CEOs desire from HR. They're not interested in box-checking compliance. Rather, it's "clarity, accountability and continuous improvement to follow the organization's agreed-to management processes and expected behaviors," said Alan Mulally, former Ford Motor Co. CEO and subject of the book American Icon (Currency, 2021). "Feedforward is foundational to delivering high-performance, working-together cultures and value creation for all the stakeholders!"
Added Scott Parson, west division president for CRH Americas Materials: "Early in my career, I learned a timeless lesson from renowned behavioral scientist, Aubrey Daniels. He taught me that business is behavior. Coupling the feedforward approach with positive do's versus negative don'ts is the best way to bring out desired behavior and the best in people."
For the HR professional, discipline and discharge are part and parcel of the career path. Learn how to do it right. Then teach and coach your managers on how to do it right. You'll be doing them, the organization and yourself a great favor.
"When HR gets out of the business of defensive protectionism and more into the work of truly building and developing people," USANA's Jones said, "HR's value to organizations will truly be strengthened."