HR Blog

Performance Improvement Plans: Using Carrots Instead of Sticks

06/01/2017 | Dee Yingst

Performance Improvement Plans: Using Carrots Instead of Sticks

Disciplinary actions are full of tension; they can create hard feelings and sometimes they just plain don't work.  Is there an alternative when you have an otherwise good employee who just needs a little…..redirection?

One way you can try to change that stick into a carrot is by trading that disciplinary action for a Performance Improvement Plan.

Consider this: I once had a situation with an overall well-skilled manager; he was efficient, creative, and reliable (among other good qualities).  He also (ahem) had trouble expressing frustration to his team appropriately. We talked to him and to his staff and the consensus was: he is great manager who just needs some help in this one area.  So instead of just "writing him up" (the stick) we offered him an opportunity to learn how to change his behavior via a Performance Improvement Plan (the carrot). The message was, we're not here to punish you; we're here to help you improve.

So how do you compose a Performance Improvement Plan? The first thing I recommend is to start with a statement of what the employee's job is and why it matters. This statement should answer the question of how their job fits into the overall mission of the organization. (If you're struggling with this step, you may have bigger issues than the performance of one employee, but that's a topic for a different day.)

If you can't answer why the job matters then how do you expect the employee to appreciate their role and want to do it well??

For instance: maybe your company does appliance service/repair and you're having an issue with the person who answers the phone (we'll call this person the service advisor).  Your statement might start off by saying: Many of the customers who call us are already stressed; not just because their appliance isn't working but also because they've missed or are going to be late to work, are late to pick up their kids, etc and when they call us they are looking for help. It is very important that the voice they hear is a helpful one and not one more stressor. Your greeting, tone of voice, and your answers to questions can make all the difference in that customer's experience with our company. 

Always be sure you set the expectation for the behavior and at level the employee's performance is, relative to that expectation.

Next you want to explain, in the context of the action you're trying to correct, what the ideal behavior is and how that differs from what the employee did. This is not the time for lectures or chastising – simply a statement. Keep it direct and simple. Using our example you might say:  As the first customer contact with our company, it is imperative that service advisors are courteous, calm and helpful. The demeanor of this interaction will likely set the tone for the entire experience a customer has with us; we expect this to be as positive an interaction as possible. We have received feedback surveys (see attached) telling us that on multiple occasions your tone and demeanor did not meet our standards. You could list specifics here if you like; for instance you might list a specific action the employee took and what they should have done instead.

Be ready to actively help the employee improve; telling them what to do without giving them the tools to succeed defeats the purpose of the plan.

Next, lay out the steps that the employee needs to take in order to go from where they are to where they need to be. Be sure to include any support or assistance that is available to the employee: retraining, classes, assistance from the EAP (which is particularly valuable in cases where the conflict is interpersonal), etc. Some of these will likely be subjective (be more aware of your tone) but some need to be concrete like, participate in xxx training class, if you're using the EAP you might say, contact the EAP within 48 hours and follow their recommendations, participate in weekly coaching with senior representatives, etc. Whatever it is you are putting into place to help this employee improve their performance.

Make sure you tell the employee how and how often their performance will be measured and the expectation for completion.

Finally, lay out the timing and how you to plan to measure the progress. In our example, maybe it's a weekly review of feedback surveys and an expectation of receiving at least "satisfactory" on xx percentage, it just depends on the goal. So how long do you allow for the behavior to change?? Well, I don't often go beyond a 30 or 60-day plan. It depends on how much you need the employee to accomplish and how far from the desired behavior the current situation happens to be.  I'm not convinced there's a "magic" time period.

Should disciplinary actions always be made into improvement plans? No. Do these plans always work? No.

There are times when the employee is well aware of the appropriate action and makes a different choice. In those cases, a verbal or written warning (or worse) may be appropriate. I've had ones that went really well and others that were epic failures. It happens.

Remember that manager I told you about? It took a little time, but he improved steadily.  He had good days and less-than-awesome days but overall the process worked well. Chalk one up for the carrot!