“How can I, as an HR professional, help managers improve employee performance?”

Question: Dear Alan: I have been intrigued by the questions you receive, and your answers, about the mis-use of Performance Improvement Plans.

As someone who for years has prided herself for being a good people-manager, and who now serves as HR Director in an organization characterized for many years by extremely poor personnel management and systems, I am pleased to say we are making progress, but it is slow nevertheless. 

I wonder if you have any approaches you would suggest our using as an alternative to PIP’s when an employee isn’t effectively performing a job, and maybe hasn’t for a long time, but it was never made clear, much less documented?  And where the managers in place are still not very competent at developing employees, giving frequent, honest feedback, etc?

What advice should I be giving those managers about how to proceed? What conversation would you have with an employee under such circumstances?

Thanks for any suggestions you may have.

         New York, New York

Answer: Dear Gail, Thank you for your very thoughtful inquiry. I don’t say it enough, but many Human Resources professionals are honest, caring, thoughtful people, trying to do their best to enhance the daily experiences of the employees they serve. I have many Human Resources clients, and many of them are among my favorite clients.

Your letter was so thoughtful, and truly inspiring, I had planned to devote an entire monthly newsletter to it. But each time I read it, I told myself, “You should respond soon.” So, here is my response.

I view Performance Improvement Plans as I do the proverbial “knife”: in the hands of a surgeon, it can save a life; in the hands of a mugger, it can take a life. It all depends on for what purpose it is used, and how it is used.  I don’t think Performance Improvement Plans need to be replaced, or given a different name; they just need to be true to their purpose, and carried out in good faith.

To be true to their name, Performance Improvement Plans should have as their purpose one thing: the improvement of performance. However, so many Performance Improvement Plans say, in effect this: “Improve within sixty days or you may be fired.” Surely, that is not a motivational message. Surely, the purpose of that message is not to improve performance, unless people believe that threat of firing is the way to inspire performance improvement. I do not, and never will.  And I can’t believe anyone really thinks that is the best way to improve an employee’s performance.

A better message would be “We want to invest time, effort and resources into making you a more productive, successful – and eventually promotable – employee.” Now, that sounds a bit more “motivating,” and more likely to start to process of improvement off to a good start. It surely is not likely to make an employee lose sleep, as the usual message does.

Surely, most employees given a PIP are employees found to be deficient in one or more of their job responsibilities. And surely, are not a “reward” for these employees. But the message given, the presentation made, should be consistent with the true intent of the process: not to “humiliate, intimidate and infuriate,” as I often say, but to “initiate, integrate and motivate” the employee to Improve his or her Performance with the help of the Plan.  

From there, the Performance Improvement Plan should be designed to improve performance. To do so, should lay out the perceived strengths of the employee, and the perceived weaknesses of the employee, and the measures, time, effort and resources that will be devoted to the Improvement. Of course, the employee has to “buy into” the entire idea. An employee who does not want to improve, after being told that certain deficiencies are perceived, and given an honest opportunity to improve in those areas, should be engaged in a frank discussion about why he or she has no desire to improve, perhaps offered a lower position as to responsibilities, and if even that fails, told that – without a desire to work out the perceived deficiencies – the only other alternative would be to seek employment elsewhere.    

Elements of a Performance Improvement Plan that is truly intended to improve performance would likely include: (a) coaching, (b) mentoring, (c) courses or instruction, and (d) materials to view or read.

Elements of a Performance Improvement Plan that is truly intended to measure performance improvement would likely include: (a) identified goals, (b) measurable metrics of improvement, (c) objective people used to measure improvement, (d) reasonable timetables, (e) continual feedback, and (f) a person or person in charge of the process who will – himself or herself – be held personally accountable for unexplained failure to improve the employee’s performance, despite the investment of considerable time, effort and resources.

We see none of these in most Performance Improvement Plans.

Yes, I believe Human Resources representatives should be held personally accountable for the failure of a Performance Improve Plan, just as Finance professionals are held accountable for failure of the budgeting process, and Sales professionals are held accountable for slumping sales. Why not? I am convinced that, for any effort to be successful, all participants must have “equal skin in the game.” As my mother taught me, “Only with accountability do we see responsibility.” I have always been puzzled why Managers keep their jobs after Employees fail Performance Improvement Plans? Wasn’t it a mutual failure? Indeed, isn’t the Manager the one with the responsibility to “manage?”

What I have described for you is not the Performance Improvement Plans I hear about, and help people deal with. If this was, I think we would have more productive organizations, more profitable businesses, and greater prosperity all around.

In fact, I would not be surprised if you or other HR professionals might be saying to yourselves while you are reading this, “Oh, now I understand – Al Sklover thinks that a Performance Improvement Plan is really intended to improve performance. Someone should tell him that it is intended to give ‘Warning of Probable Termination,’ or even ‘Paper Trail for Termination.’” If I am correct in anticipating what people might be saying to themselves, then I would only remind those people that “Warning of Probable Termination” or “Paper Trail for Termination” should be what they call the process. Even if so named, that process should be equivalent to what we call in law “due process,” which really means “minimally fair process,” and should include (a) a clear notice of the error or transgressions, (b) a clear notice of the people making the allegations, (c) an opportunity to refute the allegations, (d) open, honest discussion, (e) a neutral decisionmaker, and (f) an honest appeal process.  

We see none of these in most Performance Improvement Plans.

Call me an idealist. But “Performance Improvement” is the idea behind the “Plans.” If that is what they are, let us focus on just that: “Performance Improvement.”  Not “Termination if you do not make me happy in 60 days, without me telling you what makes me happy.”

That seems a lot closer to what we do see in most Performance Improvement Plans.

Hope that helps. And I hope that you can excuse some of my cynicism on this topic. I would love to hear back from you – and every other HR reader of our blog – to read your “take” on my ideas for Performance Improvement Plans.

Thanks for writing in. I hope you’ll tell others – especially other Human Resources professionals on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media – about our blog site.

       Best, Al Sklover   

© 2010 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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