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Do Employee Improvement Plans Really Work?

August 8, 2009
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We have all been there before. You have a low performing employee on the team and everyone knows it – including your “C or D” employee. They just hope you won’t notice. In your heart you believe you can help this individual and you keep hoping you will see signs of improvement. I have been there myself. If you are like me you want to give the individual every chance to succeed, but at some point you know in your heart it’s time to make a change. You have witnessed the pattern and things are definitely not improving.

Now what?

If there has been a consistent level of non-performance it’s time to consider drafting an “Employee Improvement Plan” to give specific measurable expectations the employee must achieve to remain with the organization. I have learned a lot from many of the HR professionals I have worked with over the years and the one consistent piece of advice in dealing with a non-performer is documentation. Let’s face it – we live in a very litigious society and you and the organization are well served by having detailed documentation on any employee that you place on a performance plan. This includes written warnings, employee reviews with details of what was discussed, expectations that were set and the employee’s actual performance against those expectations.

Once you get the green light from HR (and legal in some situations) you need to initiate the plan. The plan has to be clear about your expectations of the individual, measureable in terms of what needs to be accomplished and the timetable for completing each milestone. The plan also needs to outline how he or she can succeed after achieving the goals and objectives as well as the consequences of failure – which ultimately could include termination.

I have personally seen performance plans work well as a coaching tool to help employees step up their performance and remain a productive employee for years. One on one communications with a team member on their performance is critical to the employee, the organization and to you the leader of the team. Unfortunately, in some cases, placing someone on a performance plan may drive them to leave the organization – which can also be a good thing.

Setting the right expectations up front with a detailed job description and having regular performance reviews can go a long way in minimizing the need to put an employee on a 90 day tight-rope to keep their job. Deal with non-performing employees quickly and you will have a much more productive team of high performers to help you achieve the success you desire.



Joe: Thanks. Your point on the lack of training for managers and executives on coaching and mentoring is the rule and not the exception. A simple written document outlining goals and expectations and a score for each metric is not that hard to implement and measure on a regular basis. If it's not measured - nothing gets done or improves. The trouble is that very few managers and executives invest enough time in their most important asset - their people.

I really enjoyed and appreciate this post. The topic is central to management and the links you choose were extremely on point. I especially liked the first one, "Culture for the A Players" (link title: your "C or D" employee)

The concept that one-on-ones, feedback, and coaching are weekly obligations of an effective manager to their employees was clear as well, i.e. all of their directs, not just those in trouble.

The majority of managers that I know have never been adequately taught or coached on these behaviors. It's a self-perpetuating model that contributes to the need for Employee Improvement Plans, because the fabric of the basic relationship between the superior and subordinate can become so weak. 

The practice of flattening an organization, so that one superior has a dozen directs makes effective management as defined here impossible.  That's closely related to the issue of the cultural requirements necessary to have predominantly "A" players on your team.  Here's how they said that in the first link you provided, Tim:

The transition from an “A”, “B”, and “C” player paradigm to an “A” and “B” one will almost always
include a cultural shift in order to accommodate the different level of needs required by the majority.
As the company shifts away from focusing primarily on “C” players to focusing primarily on “A” and
“B” players the hierarchy level at which the collective company’s need is at is raised.

In addition to reading about these topic, or as an alternative, I recommend listening to the following podcasts:

There are at least a dozen VPs and directors that I have shared this link with who continue to express their gratitude for my small act of kindness.

Since you started your post with a relevant cartoon,
here's one that highlights another hysterical behavior in executive management: