Getting Away from a Check-the-Box Improvement Plan

When a staff member is struggling, a written performance improvement plan (PIP) can be enormously helpful in laying out the expectations the person must meet and the consequences of failing to meet those expectations. We’ve found that in a surprising number of cases, it’s only when a written PIP is in place that staff members realize how serious their managers’ concerns are. In roughly a third of the cases we’ve seen, staff members have been able to turn around their performance.

The typical improvement plan follows what we’ve come to think of as the “checkbox” format: in essence, the manager lays out a series of expectations and says “if you are able to check these boxes, then you can continue in your role.” This approach not only gives struggling employees clear areas to focus on, but also can be empowering by giving them control over their fate on the job (“if I do X, Y, and Z, then I will be able to stay.”)

In our work with clients, though, we’ve realized that the standard “checkbox” improvement plan brings downsides as well. In particular, managers may be unduly ceding their discretion and the need for them to make a judgment call at the end of the improvement plan. In some cases, we have advised clients to try an alternative to the checkbox improvement plan, one where the manager says in essence: “Here are the areas in which I need to see improvement, here is what improved performance would look like, and here are the consequences if you don’t meet that bar. I will support you in doing the best you can in these areas, and at the end of the day I will need to make a judgment call about whether your performance rises to the level we need, or whether I believe we need to make a change and look at others for the role.”

In other words, in this kind of improvement plan, you as the manager are transparent with the staff member about the fact that you will be exercising some judgment at the end of the PIP process – and that while the PIP represents your best attempt to describe what you’re looking to see, you’ll evaluate the totality of the staff member’s performance and make a judgment call about whether you would be able to get better results with someone else in the role.

You might see this come up in situations where…

  • The skills in question are core to the job but can’t be easily tested in the trial context of a PIP because the work is so high-stakes. For instance, if you’re working with a major gifts director who needs to make solo presentations to major donors, a standard PIP might be tricky because the work is so high stakes. Instead, you might say that you’ll judge the person’s work in some lower-stakes settings (such as by doing some joint presentations or presentations to lower-stakes audiences) and then will have to decide whether you’ve seen enough progress to feel good about moving forward with that person remaining in the role.
  • Timing is a complicating factor, such as when the person is responsible for the success of work that happens in long cycles and you need to decide whether to enter a new cycle. Examples of this kind of cycle might include an academic year or a campaign cycle, where once the person starts the cycle it is undesirable to change midstream. In this kind of situation, you might create a PIP that covers the period where the person is planning for the next year or cycle, or driving some smaller projects, but at the end of that process you’d need to decide whether to roll the dice on another full cycle with the person in the role. (You might frame that as, “Ideally I’d give you a chance to prove yourself by doing it again – but I can’t let another whole year go by and have us miss our mark. That means I’m going to see how you do over the next month and determine whether I see enough of a change that I’m comfortable that you’ll operate differently enough next year.”)
  • The qualities in question are tough to capture with measurable benchmarks, like writing ability or judgment. For example, if you’re working with an outreach manager who is struggling to build relationships with activists, you might say, “This plan describes the elements of your work that I’m going to look at, like activists’ receptiveness to our requests and engagement in your region. These elements can be hard to capture quantitatively, so I want to be transparent that at end of this period, I’ll need to make a decision about the level of improvement you’ve shown and how that stacks up against what we need and whether an alternative might make more sense for us.”
  • There’s a broad spectrum of what performance in the role looks like, and the person might be able to achieve “pretty good” performance, but you suspect you could get to “great” with someone else. (Or relatedly, in defining the bar for the purpose of a PIP, you might feel like you have to be at least somewhat realistic in considering the skills of the person currently in the role, when in fact you want to bring things to a much higher level.) For instance, if you’re working with an assistant who needs to handle a very high volume of work, you might say, “This plan is my best attempt to describe what great performance in this role looks like, but because this work doesn’t fit neatly into a structure where we can say ‘do X items per day,’ at the end of the process some of my judgment will be about comparing how you’re doing with my sense of how others might do.”

Of course, you don’t want the staff member to feel in the dark about how you’ll be evaluating their work, so be sure you’ve also explained as fully as you can what high performance in the role looks like.

And we want to stress: all of this should be genuine. This isn’t about just finding a defensible process to use to remove a staff member from your team; you should be sincerely open to the possibility that you’ll be convinced during the PIP process that the person should remain on your team. (Alternately, if you’re already sure that you do want to remove the person from your team, you might consider a coaching out conversation instead.)

The key, though, is that by explicitly retaining discretion in evaluating how things go, you won’t mislead the staff member about possible outcomes and are more likely to feel free at the end of the process to make a decision that’s truly about what your team needs, rather than what just looking at what boxes were checked off.


Legal Note: Some organizations have employee manuals that commit the organization to following specific progressive discipline steps. A good progressive discipline policy will leave you the freedom to use approaches like the one above (here’s a sample policy that we like), but be sure that you know what yours says before proceeding. The same applies to the PIP itself; be sure it doesn’t commit you to an if-X-then-Y scenario if that’s not your intention. And as with any tricky employment issue where legal issues may come into play, if you’re worried you should speak with a lawyer.