The problem with Performance Improvement Plans


It’s possible that some people have been misdiagnosing performance issues.

If a highly spirited colleague comes into work in a funk, do you automatically assume it has something to do with you? Usually you might theorise that their foul mood is a personal drama; perhaps they had car troubles on their way to work. What you don’t assume is that they are fundamentally a different person from the day before.

This might sound obvious, but the latter assumption is being made every day when it comes to employee performance. 

Imagine this scenario. A business owner has had the same receptionist working for them since their organisation’s founding. Then her performance drops, and without considering other options the business owner figures it might be time to dismiss them from their role. 

Mark Shaw FCPHR, CEO of NEOS HR, knows this because the scenario above is actually a client case that he took on.

“The boss wanted to fire the receptionist; she was causing a huge amount of problems for the business,” says Shaw.

“I said to the boss, ‘When did the performance issues start?’ and they said, ‘About six months ago.’ So for ‘X’ years their performance has been fine and suddenly it dropped. I guaranteed this leader it wasn’t a performance issue, but an engagement issue.”

Shaw sees leaders making this misdiagnosis all the time.

“If someone has been able to do their job for, say, six months. That means they’re capable. If their performance starts slipping at the nine month mark, I’ll put money on the table that it’s an engagement issue. And I’ll rarely lose.”

Does HR use PIPs as a shield?

When an employee is consistently underperforming, it’s common practice to place them on a performance improvement plan (PIP). As HRM has previously reported, poorly planned PIPs can end up backfiring on an organisation and leaving employers out of pocket, but they certainly have a place in the HR toolkit, it’s just important they’re utilised strategically.

Shaw doesn’t take issue with PIPs per se, he just thinks HR and organisations reach for them as a default response when, in his opinion, more often than not the employee’s issue isn’t about performance at all.

“I’m not critical of the people who come out of university and then have senior management say to them, ‘Just fire them’ and then think that a PIP is the way to do that. That’s what they’ve been taught,” he says. 

“But I think we’re 20-40 years out of date with how we manage people. And would you buy a brand new car that was built on 40 year old technology? Would you want to go and get surgery done by a doctor who was using 40 year old technology and techniques? Why should we be doing it with people management?”

If someone is having genuine performance issues, this is likely to happen early on in the employment relationship – and that’s what probation periods are for. But if genuine performance issues are happening outside of the probation period, Shaw says by all means, but them on a PIP.

“My criticism is that nine times out of 10 it’s not that the person can’t do their job, it’s that they’re choosing not to do their job. And if it is disengagement, how on earth are you going to fix the problem by saying, ‘pull your socks up and perform better’?”

He also makes an interesting point that many of employees who’ve ever been placed on a PIP might agree with.

“Anecdotal evidence will tell you that performance improvement plans are, broadly speaking, seen as a way of protecting an organisation before they sack someone,” says Shaw. “A lot of people feel like they’re being set up to fail.”

Whether that’s true or not is something that needs to be assessed on a case by case basis. But here’s some of that anecdotal evidence Shaw was referring to:

  • In a separate Forbes article, CEO of Acceleration Partners, Robert Glazer, says “The real reason many companies use PIPs is not because leaders think they will resolve problems, but because they think documenting the employee’s failures will protect them from a lawsuit” and “In most cases, PIPs are really used just to buy time before making a personnel change; create a paper trail for legal purposes; or address minor, surface-level issues.”
  • And in a blog post on Medium, an employee who was placed on a PIP says, they are “all about managers covering their own ass. It’s yet another thing we toss over to HR as “their domain” and somehow still attempt to ‘empower Human Resources’ despite the fact that they’re now shepherding an employee right out the door.

If the public perception of PIPs is that they’re little more than a tool to protect the business and punish the employee, isn’t it time we reassessed our approach? Shaw thinks so.

His main gripe is that PIPs focus on an adversarial model when really, it should all be about problem-solving, he says. He suggests the following.

  •  Find the root cause of the issue and establish the facts
  • After this, determine if it’s really an issue. Sometimes the issue is caused by a conflict of personalities or the manager might be problematic, so it’s worth doing some digging and gathering any evidence you’ll need to present to the employee.
  • Articulate the problem and present the evidence. It’s not about being adversarial. Give them the chance to respond.
  • Ask the employee(s) to help you to solve the problem.

“It’s about engaging them to help you fix your problem without just telling them to clean up their act and do better.”

This shift in thinking is ever so slight. Think of poor performance as a symptom of a disease. Rather than treating the symptom, scratch at the surface by asking the right kinds of questions to properly diagnose the problem and come up with an effective solution.


Identifying disengaged staff and knowing how to get them back on track requires a skilled HR professional at the helm. AHRI’s certification program ensures participants are receiving up-to-date training around HR best practice. Find out more.


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Adam
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Adam

Great point of view, especially the perspective of staff performing fine during probation (showing that they are capable of performing the role), then declining either suddenly or over time. It’s easy to offboard someone during probation if they cannot perform the role. As stated, there might be more to it if the performance isn’t up to the same standard further down the track. Most organisations will look at the staff member and assume that they cannot do the job, while they have most likely proven in the past that they can. Instead, organisations need to look inwardly at their employee… Read more »

John Adams
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John Adams

This is a valid point of view. However, despite it having it’s origins in something the company might (or might not) be doing, engagement can only come from the employee. And regardless of whether the culture is terrible, or the manager is bad, or the systems and processes are inefficient, the company is still entitled to tell the previously performing employee that they are no longer meeting expectations. A good PIP is always two ways. This is what we expect and where you’re not getting there, and what sort of help do you think from us to get there. Sometimes… Read more »

Mark Shaw
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Mark Shaw

John. You capture my argument in your comment that a PIP should be about a conversation that says ‘This is what we expect and where you’re not getting there, and what sort of help do you think from us to get there?’ If the person is dis-engaged, I’d argue they do not want help from us (the manager/organisation etc) to get there. While I agree that our industrial regime is adversarial instead of unitary, for over 20 years PRP’s have a 100% success at demonstrating ‘reasonable management action in a reasonable way’ or a unitary solution. As Kate concluded in… Read more »

Christine
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Christine

6 months of probation is long enough to determine weather a staff can perform or not. But after probation, the performance drop, it means that there is something wrong with the engagement. if the staff is not capable, the staff cant perform well within the probation. The company need to find out what happen to the staff and try to counsel the staff or the manager so that the issue can be solved as soon as possible as low performance will decrease the efficiency and effectiveness of the production.

Mark Shaw
Guest
Mark Shaw

Christine. I agree 6 months of probation is long enough to determine weather a staff can perform or not. My argument is that where counselling the staff member or manager does not solve the problem, turn to a re-engagement process rather than a performance improvement plan. You get better results and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the production.

More on HRM

The problem with Performance Improvement Plans


It’s possible that some people have been misdiagnosing performance issues.

If a highly spirited colleague comes into work in a funk, do you automatically assume it has something to do with you? Usually you might theorise that their foul mood is a personal drama; perhaps they had car troubles on their way to work. What you don’t assume is that they are fundamentally a different person from the day before.

This might sound obvious, but the latter assumption is being made every day when it comes to employee performance. 

Imagine this scenario. A business owner has had the same receptionist working for them since their organisation’s founding. Then her performance drops, and without considering other options the business owner figures it might be time to dismiss them from their role. 

Mark Shaw FCPHR, CEO of NEOS HR, knows this because the scenario above is actually a client case that he took on.

“The boss wanted to fire the receptionist; she was causing a huge amount of problems for the business,” says Shaw.

“I said to the boss, ‘When did the performance issues start?’ and they said, ‘About six months ago.’ So for ‘X’ years their performance has been fine and suddenly it dropped. I guaranteed this leader it wasn’t a performance issue, but an engagement issue.”

Shaw sees leaders making this misdiagnosis all the time.

“If someone has been able to do their job for, say, six months. That means they’re capable. If their performance starts slipping at the nine month mark, I’ll put money on the table that it’s an engagement issue. And I’ll rarely lose.”

Does HR use PIPs as a shield?

When an employee is consistently underperforming, it’s common practice to place them on a performance improvement plan (PIP). As HRM has previously reported, poorly planned PIPs can end up backfiring on an organisation and leaving employers out of pocket, but they certainly have a place in the HR toolkit, it’s just important they’re utilised strategically.

Shaw doesn’t take issue with PIPs per se, he just thinks HR and organisations reach for them as a default response when, in his opinion, more often than not the employee’s issue isn’t about performance at all.

“I’m not critical of the people who come out of university and then have senior management say to them, ‘Just fire them’ and then think that a PIP is the way to do that. That’s what they’ve been taught,” he says. 

“But I think we’re 20-40 years out of date with how we manage people. And would you buy a brand new car that was built on 40 year old technology? Would you want to go and get surgery done by a doctor who was using 40 year old technology and techniques? Why should we be doing it with people management?”

If someone is having genuine performance issues, this is likely to happen early on in the employment relationship – and that’s what probation periods are for. But if genuine performance issues are happening outside of the probation period, Shaw says by all means, but them on a PIP.

“My criticism is that nine times out of 10 it’s not that the person can’t do their job, it’s that they’re choosing not to do their job. And if it is disengagement, how on earth are you going to fix the problem by saying, ‘pull your socks up and perform better’?”

He also makes an interesting point that many of employees who’ve ever been placed on a PIP might agree with.

“Anecdotal evidence will tell you that performance improvement plans are, broadly speaking, seen as a way of protecting an organisation before they sack someone,” says Shaw. “A lot of people feel like they’re being set up to fail.”

Whether that’s true or not is something that needs to be assessed on a case by case basis. But here’s some of that anecdotal evidence Shaw was referring to:

  • In a separate Forbes article, CEO of Acceleration Partners, Robert Glazer, says “The real reason many companies use PIPs is not because leaders think they will resolve problems, but because they think documenting the employee’s failures will protect them from a lawsuit” and “In most cases, PIPs are really used just to buy time before making a personnel change; create a paper trail for legal purposes; or address minor, surface-level issues.”
  • And in a blog post on Medium, an employee who was placed on a PIP says, they are “all about managers covering their own ass. It’s yet another thing we toss over to HR as “their domain” and somehow still attempt to ‘empower Human Resources’ despite the fact that they’re now shepherding an employee right out the door.

If the public perception of PIPs is that they’re little more than a tool to protect the business and punish the employee, isn’t it time we reassessed our approach? Shaw thinks so.

His main gripe is that PIPs focus on an adversarial model when really, it should all be about problem-solving, he says. He suggests the following.

  •  Find the root cause of the issue and establish the facts
  • After this, determine if it’s really an issue. Sometimes the issue is caused by a conflict of personalities or the manager might be problematic, so it’s worth doing some digging and gathering any evidence you’ll need to present to the employee.
  • Articulate the problem and present the evidence. It’s not about being adversarial. Give them the chance to respond.
  • Ask the employee(s) to help you to solve the problem.

“It’s about engaging them to help you fix your problem without just telling them to clean up their act and do better.”

This shift in thinking is ever so slight. Think of poor performance as a symptom of a disease. Rather than treating the symptom, scratch at the surface by asking the right kinds of questions to properly diagnose the problem and come up with an effective solution.


Identifying disengaged staff and knowing how to get them back on track requires a skilled HR professional at the helm. AHRI’s certification program ensures participants are receiving up-to-date training around HR best practice. Find out more.


7
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Adam
Guest
Adam

Great point of view, especially the perspective of staff performing fine during probation (showing that they are capable of performing the role), then declining either suddenly or over time. It’s easy to offboard someone during probation if they cannot perform the role. As stated, there might be more to it if the performance isn’t up to the same standard further down the track. Most organisations will look at the staff member and assume that they cannot do the job, while they have most likely proven in the past that they can. Instead, organisations need to look inwardly at their employee… Read more »

John Adams
Guest
John Adams

This is a valid point of view. However, despite it having it’s origins in something the company might (or might not) be doing, engagement can only come from the employee. And regardless of whether the culture is terrible, or the manager is bad, or the systems and processes are inefficient, the company is still entitled to tell the previously performing employee that they are no longer meeting expectations. A good PIP is always two ways. This is what we expect and where you’re not getting there, and what sort of help do you think from us to get there. Sometimes… Read more »

Mark Shaw
Guest
Mark Shaw

John. You capture my argument in your comment that a PIP should be about a conversation that says ‘This is what we expect and where you’re not getting there, and what sort of help do you think from us to get there?’ If the person is dis-engaged, I’d argue they do not want help from us (the manager/organisation etc) to get there. While I agree that our industrial regime is adversarial instead of unitary, for over 20 years PRP’s have a 100% success at demonstrating ‘reasonable management action in a reasonable way’ or a unitary solution. As Kate concluded in… Read more »

Christine
Guest
Christine

6 months of probation is long enough to determine weather a staff can perform or not. But after probation, the performance drop, it means that there is something wrong with the engagement. if the staff is not capable, the staff cant perform well within the probation. The company need to find out what happen to the staff and try to counsel the staff or the manager so that the issue can be solved as soon as possible as low performance will decrease the efficiency and effectiveness of the production.

Mark Shaw
Guest
Mark Shaw

Christine. I agree 6 months of probation is long enough to determine weather a staff can perform or not. My argument is that where counselling the staff member or manager does not solve the problem, turn to a re-engagement process rather than a performance improvement plan. You get better results and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the production.

More on HRM