Performance Improvement Plans: Do they work?

Posted in : HR Updates on 25 October 2016
Olga Pollock
firmus energy
Issues covered:

A Performance Improvement Plan or ‘PIP’ is a formal process designed to support an underperforming employee with the aim of helping them improve. The process involves clearly setting out where the employee is failing, along with SMART objectives, or expected performance standards and timescales for improvement. The PIP should clearly outline the potential for dismissal should the employee fall short of these expectations.

Hardly seems motivating does it? It is difficult to imagine how such a process is conducive to performance improvement considering the pressure and scrutiny the employee is under. By the time an employee is moved onto a PIP, is it too late? Is it merely a smokescreen for getting rid of someone? And as for the employee, are they likely to spend more time looking for another job than improving their performance? I question, therefore, how often a PIP actually ends up with a high performing, fully engaged employee coming out the other side? During my career, managers were very often cynical of the effectiveness of a PIP and even if they did work, for how long?

From my research, it would seem I'm not alone in my scepticism. In his recent blog, Managing Director at Kelly Services & KellyOCG India, Kamal Karanth compares a PIP to ‘a notice to find another job rather than improving current performance. With all its good intentions, a PIP still denotes lack of trust in a person’s ability to perform the role.' (

In my experience, implementing a PIP has either ended in the employee departing from the organisation during the process or at the end. Not the ideal outcome considering that the genuine purpose of a PIP should be to improve performance.

So how do we improve performance without going down the formal PIP route if it is likely to fail anyway?

Perhaps our focus should be on the leadership capability of our managers and why performance problems were left unattended. Would you believe it's been over two decades since the BT campaign, ‘It’s Good to Talk’? This applies equally to the workplace. Regular, ongoing communication with employees should pick up on performance problems early and catch them before they escalate. After all, when we employ someone, we do so with the expectation that they have the right skills and ability to do their job in the first instance. If, after probation, they start to lapse further down the line then there must be a reason. A good manager will sit down with that employee and try to find out why. Once the problem is identified then the manager is better placed to help fix it.

In her article ‘The Truth about Performance Improvement Plans’, CEO and Founder of Human Workplace, Liz Ryan, refers to hypothetical teammate ‘Sally’: “I won’t stoop to pretending that Sally just randomly decided to act out and stop doing her work one day, because I am a rational person and no rational person would reach that conclusion. Above all, I’ll be honest with Sally. I won’t try to make her take the blame for my difficulty in dismantling whatever roadblock is in Sally’s way.”

So, ongoing feedback and support in a performance management cycle should therefore enable managers to avoid PIPs entirely. Coaching is a development technique based on the use of face-to-face discussions to enhance work performance. It can be used as a day-to-day management tool during performance conversations by trained coaches.  Coaching empowers the employee to play their part in figuring out how best to tackle any performance issues. Open-ended, unambiguous questions that start from square one should attempt to get to the root of the problem. Questions should be based around the employee’s understanding of the objectives they have to meet and what they feel is holding them back from meeting these? They should be allowed to suggest how they may overcome this roadblock. It is equally important to use active listening and keep quiet while the employee is talking.

Ideas Worth Spreading

In his TEDTalk, ‘Serious About Performance’ Dr Chris Shambrook the Psychology Consultant for the GB Rowing team makes an analogy between performance in sport and employment. Chris highlights the need for employers to define performance: ‘If we want to develop performance, let’s coach people around how to get people better at what they do, not help them to become superb at obsessing on whether they’ve got the result or not.’.

So, in summary, it's about ‘nipping problems in the bud' through good performance management, coaching and active listening. It's about determining the source of an employee's struggle.  This may be because they do not have enough clarity regarding expectations or performance standards. There may be personal or health issues at play. They may need help with competing priorities or lack skills or confidence. Perhaps they are not team players; or they lack motivation. Once you know the source of the struggle, you can take the appropriate action to address it and avoid the dreaded PIP.

This article is correct at 25/10/2016

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Olga Pollock
firmus energy

The main content of this article was provided by Olga Pollock. Contact telephone number is +44 (0)79 7389 3448 or email

View all articles by Olga Pollock