Could you be accused of over-enthusiastic use of Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs)?

We often hear about employees being put on improvement performance plans. Sometimes the same employee has repeatedly been put on an improvement plan with no apparent improvement in between plans and no expectation that anything will be different this time around.

Sometimes there is no clear understanding by either manager or employee of what will happen if performance does not improve across the time scale of the plan.

Sometimes so many issues are thrown into one plan that the employee doesn’t even try to do what’s being asked or know where to start.

Sometimes performance improvement plans read as mini disciplinary letters with the clear intention of encouraging the employee to resign…

Performance improvement plan

Why have a performance improvement plan?

Performance improvement plans are not just there so you can tell the world you are doing something, even though you have no expectation that the performance will improve at all.

Any plan put in place should have a clear purpose, be understood and accepted by the employee and be well managed by the manager. All plans should have clear next steps if the plan is not followed or achieved.

Great performance management is critical for:

  • Other employees believing that you (and other managers) know what you are doing, that you are competent at your job. Top flight employees do not stay in a workplace where low performance is tolerated or unmanaged.
  • Working to move out of the team/organisation those employees who drag down the quality and productivity of everyone else. Who wants to work extra hard simply because some are under performing?
  • Under performing employees to be given a fair chance to improve and be clear in where they are falling short. This is about showing all staff respect and providing support where that will be valued and useful.
  • Ensuring you/the organisation cannot be sued if you ultimately dismiss for poor performance. Any unfair dismissal claim could easily cost your organisation £20-30K in legal fees, potentially a lot more.
  • High productivity, high quality, regular innovation and great customer service. None of these things can be delivered by a team that prides itself on how little effort it needs to put in and how much it can get away with!

Performance management legal requirements

To be able to formally manage performance, the law requires you to support, coach, and develop your employee to give them the best chance of succeeding. If after you have done this, no change has occurred, you’re then able to issue the employee with a formal warning.

However severe the performance issue is, it’s expected that you will work through the warnings, (first, second, final, dismissal) one by one. For example, you can’t choose to start at ‘final warning’ as you might do for misconduct.

Gross Incompetence is the exception to this rule.

Is it really performance you’re managing?

To maintain the integrity of the performance improvement plan system, you need to be really clear about what aspect of performance is currently sub-par.

In recent weeks, we had a conversation with someone who had three people on performance improvement plans.

  1. The first was due to regular late arrival at work and taking unauthorised breaks during the working day.
  2. The second was due to their disinterest in their work, and as a result, their low productivity and poor quality of their work.
  3. The third related to their poor communication skills, which meant that they didn’t always ask for help when it was needed or share critical information as required or play a ‘full role’ as a team member.

Let’s look at these one by one:

1. Regular late attendance and taking unauthorised breaks during the day.

If late attendance was caused by a failure to get up early enough amid a general ‘can’t be bothered approach to life’, rather than something such as a disability then, in reality, the employee does not need to be on a performance improvement plan. They just need one simple letter saying something along the lines of ‘we love you to bits but please get to work on time or you will face disciplinary action for misconduct’. A PIP in this situation will over complicate what you need and give the impression this is something they may consider working towards, with you providing support along the way. Lateness may cause reduced performance but it’s not a ‘poor performance’ issue. It’s misconduct. Being late is in their control and requires no training or coaching for improvement.

2. The second relates to someone’s laissez-faire approach that has resulted in poor output and low productivity.

Errors had been made that then took time to rectify and that could have been avoided, had they bothered to check what they were sending out. Again, why does this person need a performance improvement plan? If someone has a poor attitude to their work, that is entirely on them. What training can you give them that will change their attitude? None. Changing their attitude is a personal choice and either this employee makes a different choice and stays employed or continues as is, but potentially loses their job. This kind of behaviour needs a letter setting out what might happen if they don’t choose differently and your expectations that changes will be made immediately. A PIP is not needed.

3. The third situation related to this person’s communication skills.

Potentially here a PIP may be needed. But let’s be really sensible about this. It did appear that some of the issues related to an extrovert being frustrated with an introvert who, in their view, was not communicating enough. We have to be very careful not to expect others to be just like us. It’s okay to have differences in the workplace, as differences often create value and strength in the team. What’s really helpful in workplaces is more patience and tolerance of people who are different to us. Half the world are introverts and are some of our best employees. Quieter or lower levels of communication are often more than made up by a higher quality of output, attention to detail and productivity.

There may be grounds for a PIP around effective communication or assertiveness skills, if you want to encourage someone to ask for help more often or better understand when more communication is necessary. A conversation would be needed to properly assess development need.

However, more realistically if you value this employee, coaching is probably a better solution than a PIP which indicates the person is an under performer. A poor/under performer is different to someone who simply needs to develop their personal or career skills. Currently they may not be performing at the correct level, but they are not an ‘under performer’. 

What is the alternative?

Often a better way of achieving small changes and helping team members become more effective is coaching. Not formal coaching, as in 90 min blocks set up once a month for 6 months, but lots of short ‘fly by’ 5 and 10 minute on the job coaching sessions to nudge them in the right direction. “I see you are doing that… talk me through how you reached that decision”, “so, what did you learn as a result of having to resolve that dispute…” etc.

Coaching avoids the inevitable demotivation or disengagement of an otherwise good employee that arises when the employee is given an improvement plan.

Formal performance management vs misconduct management

Formal plans are valuable when you’re working through a performance management procedure and where what you’re talking about, is genuinely poor performance that can be improved through training, coaching, supervision, or more time to get up to speed.

Performance improvement plans are not necessary where you are talking about personal choices, attitude. These are all acts of potential misconduct that would be managed through a misconduct management procedure and not a performance management procedure. They are also not appropriate when you’re tempted to want someone, as in our first example above, to become a ‘mini me’. That is just self-indulgent.


If you remove attitude issues, we suspect you could reduce the number of performance improvement plans in your business by 90%. How much time would that save? Misconduct is not a dirty word and calling misconduct ‘misconduct,’ rather than fudging it and calling it poor performance, will save you hundreds upon hundreds of management hours a year. Now that is what we call a ‘bonus’!


How Jaluch can help…

Coaching, live-online, or face to face training:

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Disclaimer: The information contained within this article is for general guidance only and represents our understanding of employment and associated law and employee relations issues as at the date of publication. Jaluch Limited, or any of its directors or employees, cannot be held responsible for any action or inaction taken in reliance upon the contents. Specific advice should be sought on all individual matters.



Helen Jamieson

Jaluch MD

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