I don’t know a single leader who enjoys dealing with employee performance issues. Few things are more frustrating in a business setting than an employee who is either not performing or who has behavioral issues. It is an area where experience doesn’t really make it easier.
Yet, every leader, at some point or another, has an employee they have to coach and discipline.
Progressive disciplinary policies are common among organizations of all sizes. Most employee performance issues do not warrant immediate termination so policies are put in place to give employees an opportunity to improve. These policies vary but they usually have multiple steps that could include verbal warnings, performance improvement plans, written warnings, suspension, and eventual termination.
Out of all steps I believe the performance improvement plan may be the most crucial. If done well, and early, a performance improvement plan can map out the exact performance or behavior that the employer is not happy with, outline the behavior that is expected and give the employee a clear path to improvement. Unfortunately many performance improvement plans fall short of being worth the paper they are written on.
Here are our guidelines for performance improvement plans that we think actually help improve performance.
The biggest mistake leaders make when trying to improve performance is waiting too long. The longer poor performance or bad behavior goes on, the harder it is to fix. By the time the employee is told about the issue, the leader is so frustrated they have no patience left to try to help the employee overcome. All employee issues should be dealt with as soon as they creep up. For this reason we recommend employees receive verbal coaching as often as the opportunity allows. In weekly one on ones or regular performance meetings, employees should be cautioned about any issue that may create problems down the road if they continue.
Then, after that same issue has been coached on multiple occasions, it’s time to get serious. If regular performance discussions are happening, the time between first coaching and performance plan should be relatively short.
The second biggest mistake that leaders make when delivering performance improvement plans is only delivering half the plan – the employee portion. Leaders sit an employee down, tell them what they are doing wrong, tell them to fix it and ask them to sign the form. This leaves the employee feeling as though they are on their own and probably have one foot out the door so why bother even trying.
A complete performance improvement plan follows this outline:
Description, with recent examples, of undesired behavior.
Description of desired behavior.
Why desired behavior is important to the business.
How leader is going to help employee improve.
Milestones to improvement.
Next steps and check in dates.
Consequences for not improving.
Employee opportunity to comment.
The piece in italics is the most crucial. Hopefully all leaders want employees to improve. If so, they should be willing to do their part to help employees turn the issue around. Including this in the documentation provides accountability for the leader to ensure they are offering support and assistance as needed.
Discussing performance issues with employees really is an art form. I’m not convinced there is only one right way to do it. I think it depends on the employee/leader relationship, the communication style of both and the egregiousness of the issue to be discussed. Here’s what I do think should be consistent regardless of style – preparation. Nothing is worse for an employee than feeling like they have just been the victim of a drive by where their leader vomited a bunch of bad news on them and then left.
Leaders should take time to think about the personality of the employee and how they will best receive the information. They should think about framing their words in a way that the employee will be able to hear and understand what is being communicated while, and this is key, being motivated to fix it. The discussion should take as long as is needed for the employee to walk out of the room focused on the issue at hand and understanding what they need to do to fix it.
Dealing with performance issues is a necessary task for most leaders. They are best dealt with swiftly and directly before they grow into something larger than they ever needed to be. Done correctly, they can often steer employees onto a better path, and if they don’t, at least the leader can say they tried to help and the onus for failure lies with the employee.