At a certain point, all managers are going to have to put an employee on a performance improvement plan. As nice as a manager may want to be, either through sheer lack of willingness for an employee to rectify bad behavior or maybe just an inability to learn how to do the job properly, this is going to happen. The manager will reach a point where something has to change. Ideally the employee will change their behavior and performance, but if not, its going to be the employee that is changed. Performance improvement plans can actually be incredibly helpful in helping turn a negative situation in to a positive.

Firing should not be a logical outcome

OK, lets be honest. There are a lot of bad managers and HR professionals that think a personal improvement plan is a formality to get out of the way so they can terminate someone. This is just plain wrong on so many levels. Often, unless there is an issue of gross misconduct, termination is the more expensive and time-consuming option. Sure, you may terminate an employee because they are not doing a good job, but then you need to spend time hiring someone new.

If you are lucky this takes a month or so, but its not uncommon for a hiring process to take closer to three months. Once you have identified someone, you need to wait for them to serve their notice period which is another 1-3 months. You are also likely going to end up paying a headhunting fee for the new hire as well if they are a niche skill set. Then you need time for them to learn the new job and finally become productive. Most HR research shows that replacing an employee can cause up to 9 months of lost productivity. Surely, it would make more sense to actually take a few months and train the existing person who is already doing the job, to do it better, than to go through the long drawn out process of replacing them?

Listen to the employee

At the start of the performance improvement plan, it is important to clearly document the areas of concern and exactly how you would like to see these areas improved. You need to be specific “I want you to work harder” or “I feel like you take it easy” are not examples of specific feedback. Whereas “It takes you 2 weeks to complete a report, and it takes the rest of the team 4 days” is tangible and objective feedback. Once you provide this feedback, it is incredibly important to listen to what the employee says in response.

If they tell you they do not care, then Ok, you can fire them. But more than likely they are going to explain to you exactly why it takes them twice as long. Maybe they take twice as long because they have twice as much work to do. Maybe they had never done these reports before and no one has shown them how to do them. Maybe they do not feel the reports are late as you do not specify a deadline for when you want it to be done. They might actually be able to do it in 2 days, but if you just say “hey can I get the report when you get a moment” maybe they don’t feel its important and so do not prioritize it. Employees often become disengaged when they feel they are being misunderstood, or that a manager is not meeting them halfway.

Provide support

Finally, remember to do your job as a manager and actually support your employee. Invest the time into genuinely trying to help the employee to improve. There is practically no one on this planet who magically knows how to do anything. We learnt how to walk, we learnt how to talk, how to open doors, how to cook food, how to drive, how to shower. Everything we do is learned, so unless the person is completely incapable, it is highly likely that the person is going to be able to achieve the desired results with the right understanding and support. That is your job as a manager. Not to mention the rest of the team are going to be watching how you handle the situation. If they see you as someone who will fire them for making a few mistakes, what impact do you think that will have on the morale and behavior of the rest of the team? They are not going to feel secure and more will become disengaged.

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