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Alan O'Neill: 'Performance plan meetings are nothing to fear'

Engaging constructively with staff can iron out performance issues and deliver a healthier workplace


The purpose of a PIP is to agree improvement in an employee's performance or behaviour (stock photo)

The purpose of a PIP is to agree improvement in an employee's performance or behaviour (stock photo)

The purpose of a PIP is to agree improvement in an employee's performance or behaviour (stock photo)

Over the past two weeks, I wrote about disgruntled employees. In the first week, I outlined a scenario where the employee's negative demeanour in work was self-inflicted, and I offered some ideas to self-correct and get back on track.

Then, last week, I indicated how the organisation can also be the cause of performance issues, and I proposed a simple framework called the willing-and-able table.

This is designed to discourage employers from making sweeping judgements about their people and to be specific about improvement plans.

This week, I will expand further on how to conduct a performance improvement plan (PIP) meeting. The purpose of a PIP is to agree improvement in an employee's performance or behaviour. This is set against a two-way communication of expectations and issues that critically affect the organisation's - and therefore the employee's - present and future performance.

When conducted effectively, it should result in a high level of acceptance of the issue, and agreement for improvement.

How to Conduct a pip Meeting:

1. Prepare

Good preparation is key to the success of this meeting. Before the meeting, start by reminding yourself that the purpose is to agree performance improvement and build the employee up, not to knock them down. Check what expectations you have previously agreed with this person and then be clear on the actual performance or behaviour issue you are unhappy with.

Collect some examples to support your gap analysis. Then and only then, plan the actual meeting in terms of having evidence to hand, and the other resources you'll need, such as documents, reports, etc. Anticipate the employee's likely response to feedback and what questions they might ask. Then plan the meeting logistics.

Usually, these meetings are held between manager and immediate team member, thereby making the conversation very specific.

It provides more opportunity for quality discussion, clarification, two-way feedback and improved action planning. However, if you anticipate that this will be a tricky meeting, consult with your human resources advisers beforehand.

2. Set the scene

Open the meeting with a carefully considered statement that sets out the purpose of it and how it will flow, e.g. "John, I want to have a chat with you today about how you're getting on with your colleagues." (Notice that you haven't yet given your opinion or feedback. You have just set the scene).

Be mindful of your own personal impact. How do you want to come across? Friendly or stern? In control? How you hold yourself, your eye contact, facial expressions and the tone of your voice will all contribute to that impact.

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3. Discuss performance/behaviour issue

Having opened with a reference to the performance issue and before you give your own opinion, ask the employee to give their opinion first. They will usually be honest and acknowledge that there is an issue. If they don't, then you will have to give feedback.

When giving feedback, deliver it in a balanced way. Focus on the issue, not personality.

Start with a positive, e.g. "John, you have been an important member of this team, but I've noticed recently that you're having difficulty with some of your colleagues, particularly in the way that you exclude them."

Then ask the employee for their opinion. Be prepared to give an example to prove your point. And also be prepared to illustrate the gap between what is expected (or agreed in the past) and their actual performance. Even if the employee volunteers that an issue does exist, you still need to state it. They need to hear you saying the words. Be sure to highlight the organisational and wider team impact of this performance issue, and that it can't continue.

4. Explore

If you move too quickly to an improvement plan, you may miss some important causal factors. Having put the issue out there, explore the causes of it. Probe for reasons why, using open-ended questions. The employee will inevitably respond from their own perspective and may have some blind spots or perhaps blame others.

You may need to challenge their thinking and get them to consider what role they have played in causing the problem. Watch out for issues that are within the employee's own control or, indeed, may be organisational issues.

In other words, be prepared to receive feedback about something you have or haven't done.

5. Agree

Set new objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable and relevant with time-milestones (Smart). Link them to the objectives of the organisation and the employee's own job role. If relevant, check what support is needed from you or the organisation and agree to that if you can. Be careful not to fall into the trap of you taking the action and the employee getting off the hook.

6. Summarise

Summarise all that has been agreed and try to end the meeting on a positive note. Reiterate how their actions will be monitored, what support you will give and when this will be reviewed.

7. Follow up

Monitor progress and fulfil any promises you have made. When you see positive progress, be sure to acknowledge that and give feedback.

The Last Word

Everywhere I go, I find people management is the single toughest skill that managers are challenged with. I can't tell you how many cups of coffee I've had with sincere managers who want to do the right thing by their people. Here are the five tips I have scribbled on more napkins than I can count: tell me what you expect of me; give me the opportunity and the resources to perform; give me guidance when I need it; give me feedback on my effort; reward me for my contribution.

See this list as a great charter for good employer/employee relations.

Alan O'Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to www.kara.ie

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