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The theory of performance improvement plans is that they are a step a manager can take when an employee is not meeting the expectations of their role, and the manager is considering whether or not to terminate employment. Supposedly, the plan – and the employee’s willingness to embrace the agreement and make changes in their work – might lead to the individual becoming sufficiently productive again. If not, the individual can be nudged (or elbowed) out of the organization.

It’s theory, because managers rarely use them, and if they do, usually expect nothing will change. As a result, most of us have no clue how to properly construct a performance improvement plan.

Lara Hogan, who coaches managers, took a deep dive into this knotty issue on her blog, starting with why you might want to try a performance improvement plan. There’s obvious value in writing down what’s expected of a person in a certain role, particularly because that individual might not recognize he or she needs to perform differently or that they’re not meeting expectations. In that vein, feedback usually comes piecemeal and the employee may not understand the extent of the problem. The plan also forces the manager to stop using fuzzy language and be clear.

“Writing down role expectations – and feedback about missed expectations – in a shared place that can be referred back to later is one of the most fair things we can do as managers,” she says.

But she still has concerns, notably that the typical performance improvement plan doesn’t give the individual new tools, training or support. It also doesn’t change their role in a way that helps them more effectively contribute to the organization. So it doesn’t really give them any assistance and may in fact just be stringing them along to some conclusion the company has planned or will later figure out.

She recommends starting by determining whether a performance improvement plan stands a chance of being effective:

  • Ask yourself, “Do I believe this person will be able to meet these expectations within 30 days, and consistently thereafter?” If the answer is no, consider whether instead of a performance improvement plan you should terminate their employment with a healthy severance package or if it’s possible to find a new role for them within the organization where they might flourish.
  • If you’re confident the employee could begin meeting these expectations within 30 days – or you’re still unsure – ask yourself, “What haven’t I stated clearly/bluntly yet to this person about what I expect in this role?” Even if you’ve said these things before, she argues there is always something that you can newly state or try to explain differently for your direct report. But you need to identify that to make this effort worthwhile.
  • Now meet with the individual, stating the gap between their work and what’s expected in their role. This will include, of course, what you identified in the previous step. You are trying to share it as clearly as possible to gauge if this new information or greater clarity might change things.
  • After you’ve had the conversation – or at the end of it, if that feels appropriate – ask the individual, “What’s in the way of meeting these expectations?”

This is intended to see if the individual recognizes the importance of meeting these expectations or disagrees with what has been stated. It also can indicate if they have the resources to achieve the success you are aiming for. For example, they may not have the time, or the process may be too unwieldy in an organization where other permissions and accommodations are needed.

You now need to deal with what has been unearthed. If the direct report doesn’t agree on its importance, you must explain how it fits with things they care about or simply dig in and stress it’s a requirement of the role. If you don’t have a shared understanding of the expectations, you need to spend more time clarifying the role, trying to provide other examples that might illuminate it better.

“Don’t be afraid to be extremely direct in this conversation; you can be blunt and clear without being a jerk,” Ms. Hogan says. If they lack the resources to make the change, you can work with them to find a solution – for example, a workaround if they are hampered by not receiving timely information from elsewhere – or just tell them it’s their responsibility to find the resources.

If you decide to write the performance improvement plan – again, that’s only being done because you feel the person can change – Ms. Hogan advises you to make sure it’s measurable and has clear time boundaries. Also make sure it is written in a straightforward manner – not softened to meet this employee’s weaknesses or hardened with expectations beyond what’s normally required.

These are always tricky situations. Often our desire is to avoid getting into a performance improvement plan and just accept or ignore poor performance. But Ms. Hogan offers a path that is realistic about the possibility of success – indeed, not letting you go ahead unless success is possible – and an approach that is fair-minded.


  • Gallup research found that two to three days in the office resulted in the best outcomes for employee engagement, well-being, reduced job hunting and burnout. Outcomes were actually worse on those factors for those working five days in the office – even after controlling for variation in job type.
  • Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried argues the ideal number of people for a team is two. Big teams slow things down and expand the surface area of discontent. Just like how work expands to fill the time available, work expands to fill the team available. Small teams are faster and his company just moved from three- to two-person development teams for greater effectiveness.
  • Toxic bosses teach you to be yourself, observes executive coach Dan Rockwell. At some point you stop trying to please them as you don’t care what they think, and stop pleasing others as well, realizing you need to be yourself.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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