How to Approach Tricky Performance Improvement Plans

Last updated: July 21, 2021
Estimated reading time: 5 min


When a staff member is struggling, a written performance improvement plan (PIP) can be enormously helpful in clarifying the expectations the person must meet and the actions you will take if performance doesn’t improve. (But first, make sure you’ve actually been clear about Role Expectations—the goals, duties, and approach that you use to define success in this job—and that the staff member understands what you’ve laid out. A written PIP should never be the first way your staff member hears your concerns. In fact, it should really come after a good deal of substantive feedback, inquiry, and coaching—as the final layer of formal support.)

A standard PIP assumes you have reasonably easy-to-measure expectations, opportunities to measure them, and a solid period of time to assess the person’s performance. But what do you do when that isn’t the case?

Here are some tricky PIP scenarios our clients have encountered, and suggestions for designing a responsive performance improvement plan.

Before you begin, always check your existing policies and consult your HR or legal advisors. Some organizations have employee manuals or collective bargaining agreements that commit the organization to following specific progressive discipline steps. As with any employment issue where legal issues may come into play, consider speaking with a lawyer.

Type of Situation
Approach
Example

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.

Identify some lower-stakes settings to test the skills in question.

Issue: You’re managing a major gifts director whose role requires high-level presentation skills and on-the-spot thinking. In presentations to major donors they need to be able to clearly make the case for the work, and answer questions comprehensively. Significant funding is on the line.

Action: Evaluate their skills through some joint presentations to major donors and 1-2 presentations to a lower-stakes audience.

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.

Identify and test for skills you think are contributing to the issue but don’t require significant time to unfold.

Issue: You are an academic dean and you are concerned that one of your teachers is not holding students to consistently high expectations. You know that if you wait for the results of the first interim assessment to confirm your concerns, there is a risk that the students will lose valuable learning time.

Action: Evaluate and debrief their weekly lesson plans and revisit implicit bias training and role expectations. Sit in on their class several times over the course of the PIP to observe student engagement and progress toward goals.

The problem is inconsistency or recurring cycles, where someone improves for the duration of the PIP but then performance falls off again later.

Consider the totality of the person’s performance, not just the PIP period, when determining the outcome.

Issue: Your communications associate is not handling the volume of mentions your issue is getting, resulting in missed opportunities to leverage attention for your cause and shape the public conversation. You put them on a four-week PIP about this issue last quarter and they met all expectations. Now—3 months later—this problem is recurring.

Action: Review your notes from check-ins, annual evaluations, and the prior PIP. If overall performance has been good, reinstate the PIP for another 2-4 weeks, or consider a verbal warning. If there are consistent or additional problems, follow through on the consequences you outlined during the last PIP.

There is more than one issue influencing the staff member’s ability to meet expectations (lack of follow through from other staff, unclear decision-making processes, your availability, the need for medical or family accommodations, etc.) and those issues need to be resolved before or alongside the PIP.

Get clear on the factors and focus on what’s in their sphere of control, as you work to address other issues.

Issue: Your budget analyst is not giving you timely, accurate, or helpful data to inform strategic, equitable budgeting. Based on conversations with the analyst and your own knowledge of the larger context, you know that it’s been very challenging to get accurate figures in a timely manner from the national team and field offices. You also see ways that your budget analyst could be more proactive in getting information along with opportunities to better organize and present the data they do have.

Action: Revisit expectations about managing up and sideways. Use the PIP period to develop sample emails and escalation steps the budget analyst should take to get the information they need, and co-create a template that demonstrates how they can share the information they do have in more helpful ways. Choose a reasonable timeframe to monitor follow through on these expectations and use weekly check-ins to make adjustments as needed.

The problem area isn’t in the role expectations (for instance, the person isn’t taking feedback well, is generally disorganized, or is undermining decisions after they’re made).

Determine if the issue is a must-have—and update role expectations—or an issue of values, team norms, and culture that warrants attention.

Issue: You have a campaign director who is great at the core duties in their role but you’ve heard from two other directors that they responded defensively to questions during a recent meeting and have been giving unhelpfully brief updates during team report backs. You provided direct feedback and coaching when this pattern first came up, and learned that they have historically worked in organizations where they were often the sole person driving work forward. Since then, they have canceled three of your weekly check-ins, and indicated in passing that they feel they have everything under control.

Action: Acknowledge their strengths and past experience, and clarify the values, norms, and competencies you expect of all directors: openness to feedback, collaboration, and the ability to delegate well and build rapport up, down, and sideways. Develop a PIP with time for coaching on delegation, communication, and relationship-building. Provide samples of model report backs. Schedule skip-level meetings so you gain insight on staff experience.


Check out other scenarios in our Frequently Asked Questions About Performance Problems, along with these resources in our Performance Problems series:

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