Creating a Performance Improvement Plan: Role for HR, Supervisors

PIPs sometimes a prelude to firing; other times a chance for rehabilitation

By Joan Mooney Jan 12, 2016

HR often works in consultation with a supervisor to draw up a performance improvement plan (PIP) for an underperforming employee. But where should the supervisor’s responsibilities for the PIP end, and the HR department’s responsibilities begin? Or is writing a PIP a collaborative process from start to finish?

Ongoing Conversations About Performance

This scenario may be all too familiar to HR managers: A supervisor says she needs help drawing up a PIP for an underperforming employee. She’s on the verge of firing the worker but wants to give him one more chance.

The HR manager asks: “Have you made your expectations clear and documented them? Have you made it clear to the employee that his performance isn’t measuring up to expectations?” But it turns out that conversations between the supervisor and employee have been informal, and the documentation minimal.

“It puts HR leaders in a tough spot,” said Bruce Tulgan, CEO of Rainmaker Thinking, a management research, training and consulting firm in New Haven, Conn.

Added Ken Alexander, president of Garland, Texas-based Partners for People Management, who acts as an HR specialist for small and midsize companies: “Hopefully, [the supervisor is] giving feedback to the employee on a regular basis.” But 80 to 90 percent of managers are not doing that, he said.

“You want times, amounts and numbers,” said Alexander. For instance, if an employee is often late to work, the supervisor should talk to her, remind her that tardiness is not acceptable and mention the arrival time on the days she was late. Written documentation of the late arrivals and of the conversation with the employee is crucial, he said.

When consulting with supervisors on a PIP, HR should always look at the employee’s performance appraisal, said Alexander. “Sometimes managers aren’t honest with the performance appraisal,” he said. “They will give somebody a ‘satisfactory’ rating when [the employee has] problems.” 

Writing Up the PIP

Ideally, the supervisor and HR should collaborate to create the PIP together, said workplace author and consultant Alexandra Levit, though that’s not commonly done. At a minimum, “it should be mutually agreed upon, with clear goals.”

HR may be involved in other ways.

HR often has PIP templates available (see SHRM’s template here), and HR can help a supervisor adapt these templates to the employee’s duties. Specificity in PIPs is important.

For instance, “Instead of putting ‘Improve trust’ as a goal, put ‘Schedule biweekly conversations with peers to talk about shared concerns,’ ” said Richard Covington, manager of Learning and Organizational Development at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville, a hospital with 8,000 employees.

“Appropriate things to measure in a PIP are specific, concrete actions in the control of the individual, related to his or her tasks and responsibilities,” Tulgan said. “For every task, list concrete responsibilities. You can create time budgets, a list of guidelines and requirements for each concrete action.”

HR can also watch for possible policy violations or legal problems, checking to make sure that there’s no medical problem or disability, for instance, that is causing the employee to underperform, added Katy Solar, human resource director of Public School District #1 in Minot, N.D. 

Presenting the PIP

Traditionally, both the supervisor and HR have presented the PIP to the employee. But more recently, the supervisor alone will present the PIP, Levit said.

“There’s certainly a strong trend to have managers taking more control of performance management in general,” Tulgan agreed. “Managers should be able to handle that on their own. [But] when punitive consequences are attached, it’s a good idea to have a third party” as a witness.

“PIP” is a dreaded acronym for many employees. When a supervisor presents an employee with a PIP, the employee may say, “Does this mean I’m going to get fired?”

It is true that at some organizations, the PIP is used as a disciplinary document. Other organizations, however, prefer not to treat the PIP as a punitive measure.

“We don’t want the acronym ‘PIP’ to be scary; we want it to be viewed as an opportunity for an employee and their supervisor to work together for growth,” Solar said.

This is where HR can play a constructive role in training supervisors. HR should teach supervisors to say to employees, “I’m going to help you get better,” Tulgan said. “Your performance is sufficiently problematic that we’re documenting it. If it does not improve in these defined ways, your job is in jeopardy.”

Kathleen Armitage is director of organizational development at Metropolitan Jewish Health System (MJHS) in Brooklyn, NY. Her organization of nearly 2,000 employees is in the middle of a four-year transition from using PIPs as a disciplinary tool to using them as a performance improvement tool. The managers she works with have been trained on how to help employees who are struggling with their job responsibilities.

Both Solar and Armitage are convinced the more collaborative approach is crucial for employee retention. When Armitage started at MJHS eight years ago, there was a problem with turnover, and that was HR’s selling point for making the change. “If you’re hard-line disciplinarians, you’re not going to keep people in that organization,” said Armitage.

In sparsely populated Minot, there are more jobs than employees, so retention is critical, said Solar. She encourages HR managers and workers’ supervisors to do all they can to keep an employee they feel is capable of improving and to tell the employee, “The reason why we’re spending all this time visiting with you is so we can help you improve.” 

The goal of a PIP is to have the employee engaged in his or her own rehabilitation, said Kristen Irey, manager of the human resource program at Peirce College in Philadelphia. HR needs to tell the supervisor, “If you just hand [the employee] this document, maybe they’ll follow it, maybe not.” But if the supervisor follows a process with well-defined, written goals and sets up regular check-in meetings, then the employee is invested.

Joan Mooney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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