Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs): What Are They and How to Ensure You Don’t Need to Use Them

October 12, 2022 Ryan Stoltz
Performance Improvement Plans Blog

Is there anything as devastating as having to watch a talented employee leave the company?

An employee performance improvement plan (PIP) could help reduce how often that happens, but feedback and reviews can be scary words for many staff members. However, you can navigate your way through with a few examples and writing tips.

Read on to know all about PIPs and their challenging ways!

reviewing performance improvement plans

What Is a Performance Improvement Plan?

At its core, a performance improvement plan is a document that highlights the problems and roadblocks within an employee’s workflow and the possible ways to tackle them.

Benefits of employee performance improvement plans

If done right, a PIP should help employees overcome challenges in aspects related to performance, time management, attitude, and more.

Not sure? Here are some of the top benefits of a PIP:

Improves employee retention rates

Finding good workers isn’t always easy, so it’s important to keep them. And a PIP can help with that.

For example, if an employee isn’t performing, think of it as a second chance: instead of terminating someone, you can continue to evaluate their performance, as well as provide detailed documentation of what and why you think they need to change, and give them the support they need.

If they are able to get back on track, then you’ve just reduced your turnover rate and prevented talent loss!

Drives conclusive outcomes

Implementing a performance management process is perfect for maintaining a smooth workflow in the long term, but in the short term PIP could come in handy.

That’s mainly because with a PIP you’re setting an action plan for employees with clear risks and rewards. The employee becomes aware of what needs to be changed and by when – putting the power in their hands to show their skills.

Cultivates accountability

Putting an underperforming employee on a PIP can help establish a sense of accountability. It shows the staff that management cares about empowering employees, but only if they are also putting in the effort.

Sounds enticing? Well, nothing is without flaw — not even those handy PIP documents!

PIP drawbacksPIP drawbacks

Performance improvement plans have been getting intense backlash recently, and there are several valid reasons for this. So, let’s take a look at the common drawbacks to expect:

Eats up time

Some employees respond fantastically to PIPs and get on board in no time. Meanwhile, others will drag behind for a while before they understand what needs to be done. On average, you might need to put the employee under observation for 30-90 days before you can evaluate the results.

Keep in mind that while the employee is working on checking all the right boxes on the action plan, there’s a potential for them to get distracted from their regular tasks. This is particularly true when the plan is filled with vague objectives, making it difficult to accomplish completely.

Risks hostile responses

Unfortunately, not everyone responds well to constructive criticism, so there may be some employees who start exhibiting toxic workplace traits after receiving a performance improvement plan. This is even more common if they already think they have no need for a PIP. So, they could act out, hinder the workflow, or just take leave while they look for a different job.

Things might even get worse if the frustrated employee manages to bring morale down. Before you know it, the company’s performance improvement plans will have lost all credibility, making it especially important to do these right.

meeting with employee about poor performance

Why Do Some Employees Need a Plan for Improvement?

For some employees experiencing performance issues, providing verbal feedback or criticism won’t cut it. Yet, termination might be too drastic of a solution.

Rather than terminating the employee right away, you can pick a performance improvement plan over traditional reviews to guide the employee through the process.

Possible causes for an employee’s performance decline

Lots of hiccups, like low engagement or morale, can lead to a general performance decline in a work environment.

A PIP, however, documents and tracks isolated cases with specific employees, which is why PIP’s are often related to attitude and role requirements.

Here are the common culprits that could be behind the employee’s drop in performance:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Change in the skill-to-task compatibility (with new software or tools)
  • Bringing personal problems to the office
  • Need for recognition (due to leadership inadequacy or a participation-medal mentality on the employee’s part)
  • Burnout
  • Ineffective communication with teammates or superiors

Employee performance improvement plan examples

manager reviewing performance improvement plan

It can be a little tricky to understand how a simple document can tackle such big issues within the workforce. Let’s take a closer look at three performance improvement plan examples that touch on work performance, office behavior, and resource conservation.

Example 1: poor performance

Suppose you have an employee who underperforms despite having the knowledge and tenure to complete the tasks. You’d then need to narrow down the problems and devise a plan.

Goal: Boost productivity and work performance in the given period.

Objectives: Increase the number of assigned tasks without compromising the quality. Reduce distractions around the office.

Action plan: Sign up for a time-management training program to be able to take over X% more tasks daily. Use a to-do software to keep up with the deadlines, then run the delivered reports by the supervisor.

Success criteria: The number of tasks delivered at the standard quality set by the supervisor within the deadline is not less than Y%. No tasks are to be delivered late without prior notice and an acceptable excuse.

Example 2: inappropriate behavior

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with behavioral issues like anger, inappropriate jokes, or discrimination, you might have to work without clear metrics. Instead, you’ll need to rely on other HR tools as a benchmark for progress.

Here’s a good performance improvement plan example for dealing with an employee with anger management issues:

Goal: Eliminate the display of aggression in the workspace completely.

Objectives: Cut down on complaints from teammates about hostile behavior. Learn how to use effective and respectful communication techniques in the office.

Action plan: Attend and complete an anger management program. Resort to formal HR outlets to resolve problems. Report back to the supervisor with feedback and peer reviews.

Success criteria: Drops in the number of clashing incidents. Acceptable score on the report from the anger management program.

Example 3: wasting resources

In some cases, PIPs don’t deal with problems that directly relate to the quality of work. Instead, it might be a matter of how the company’s resources are being used.

For instance, you might come across an employee that misuses the computers, office supplies, or even the company car for personal purposes.

Goal: Preserve the company’s resources for the intended purposes.

Objectives: Regulating the usage of supplies within the office and monitoring employee expenses while reducing teammates’ complaints of unacceptable behavior.

Action plan: Get approval from the immediate supervisor to use company resources out of office hours and deliver a detailed report on all expenses. Organize a shared schedule with the teammates in coordination with the supervisor.

Success criteria: A drop in the employee’s expense reports by X%. No complaints from teammates about missing or constantly occupied office resources.

discussing performance improvement plan

When Should You Implement an HR PIP?

Since they come with their own set of risks and drawbacks, the last thing you want is to overuse employee performance improvement plans. Instead, it’s better to be able to tell where these tactics are actually going to be worth the cost and effort.

For instance, HR leaders might consider a PIP for an employee that used to be efficient but is currently facing a lull that could potentially threaten their place in the organization. It can also be a good option for problems that aren’t covered in the handbook.

This way, you’re empowering them with the skill sets they need to improve their own performance and overcome this hiccup, while also encouraging them to admit to the consequences of their behaviors.

The same principle of probationary action plans applies to newcomers that still haven’t caught up with the workflow but are showing promise.

Implementing an action plan for employees

One common mistake with PIPs is jumping right in, typing the formal document, and sending the email out to the underperforming employee.

While this tactic might work in some instances, it often doesn’t elicit the right message, so there’s a higher possibility of it having a low ROI if it’s interpreted as a pink slip due to the hasty delivery.

Instead, you might want to consider a few preparatory steps to smooth the way:

  • Identify the problem areas (productivity drops, low meeting attendance, etc.).
  • Gather recent data on the employee’s performance and attitude using productivity reports and feedback from immediate supervisors.
  • Compare the findings to their past performance metrics.
  • Make it a collaborative process by meeting with the employee to discuss performance issues based on the findings.
  • Set the PIP’s goals, objectives, and action plans together with tangible metrics.
  • Provide adequate resources (training sessions, mentoring, updated tools, etc.).
  • Have regular check-ins to see how the performance action plan is progressing.
  • Maintain an unbiased perspective when comparing the progress to the success criteria.
  • Recognize the effort the employee is putting into the plan of improvement.

How to write a performance improvement plan

PIPs are only as good as the language they use, which makes writing them an important task. You want to be unbiased and precise but still helpful, and that’s a tough balance to strike.

Here are a few tips and tricks for writing a successful PIP:

1. Define the “why” behind the goal

As a general rule, people react better to feedback when they understand where it is coming from.

So, let’s assume you’ve already had a check-in with the employee in question and discussed why their behavior or performance is falling short. If so, you might wonder why you still need to explain that in the PIP once again.

Well, it’s always better to put things in writing. You can even mention one or two examples of problematic behaviors preventing them from reaching their full potential so they can look back on the sheet and see how they are progressing.calendar for performance plan

2. Keep the goals measurable, specific, and realistic

More often than not, using broad language in PIP objectives won’t yield satisfactory results. For an effective PIP, you want to narrow down the scope as much as possible, outline necessary improvements, and provide a structured approach to get the employee back on track.

To keep things realistic, you can use the supervisor’s input to ground the goal and set the expected time frame for the action plan.

3. Include supporting resources

Remember that PIPs are all about revitalizing an employee, not disciplinary measures. That’s why it’s crucial for a manager to ask themselves what tools can help this staff member perform better, and then use the answer to provide a support system. Having a clear process in place is key to employee improvement.

So, if you recommend a communication training session, try to attach the necessary paperwork to sign up — better yet, refer the employee to the training department. Similarly, you can attach any additional resources or guidelines to the PIP letter to encourage the underperforming employee to jump back on track.

4. Point out the consequences

Close up the PIP by noting the possible outcomes after the PIP’s probation period is over. Write in clear terms what consequences the employee might face if they fail to meet the success criteria.

And don’t forget to include the dates of check-ins and what milestones you expect to see accomplished by then.

continuous performance management can meet expectations, provide guidance, and make employees feel good

PIP Alternatives

Instead, investing in ongoing development pays off in the long term with an 11% rise in profitability and double the retention rates. That’s because employees are more likely to be engaged and productive if employees feel they’re constantly improving on the job.

This continuous performance management tactic includes:

  • Building pathways for effective communication
  • Sharing the goals and visions across the company’s hierarchy
  • Encouraging professional and personal growth
  • Providing feedback via regular check-ins

Although all these steps take time, they can reduce the need for frequent HR PIPs. Plus, you won’t have to suffer from a monotonous routine if you use software solutions like Conversations® by Workhuman.

Use Conversations for your performance management tracking

Using tools like this ensures that your continuous performance management stays on top of hiccups before they roll up into problematic patterns.

For example, Conversations’ interface allows anyone from the workforce to pop in with updates, share thoughts through check-ins, recognize peers’ efforts, or even request feedback on their own performance.

As a manager, you’ll get to see a dashboard that’s always buzzing with analytics driven by crowdsourced feedback, which can come in handy for strategic planning!

Employee performance development plans (PDPs)

While PIPs are often painted in a negative light, PDPs are more welcomed across the board.

A PDP is more of a career map with identifiable goals and timelines. It might target similar aspects as a PIP that can help improve employee performance, but, instead of being a forced document, it’s often set by the employee in coordination with HR or the immediate supervisor.

Using performance development plans as PIP alternatives allows both the employee and manager to work together and avoid adverse employment action.

employee thinking about performance

Develop a Culture of Learning and Professional Growth

Knowing how to implement an employee performance improvement plan is a crucial skill set for any HR department. Yet, it’s more profitable to work on nurturing professional growth within the workplace.

Empower employees to own their professional development

In an engaging work culture, employees strive to create their own PDPs. All you need to do is to provide support and regular check-ins as a part of the continuous performance management program.

Train managers to coach and provide feedback

To have a steady flow of data to analyze the workforce’s growth at all times, make sure all managers know how to spot vital metrics and report their findings regularly. On the other side of the equation, they also need to be able to provide guidance whenever needed.

performance improvement divider


Let’s jump in with some common PIP HR questions:

Is a performance improvement plan considered to be disciplinary action?

Performance improvement plans aren’t disciplinary actions in themselves. Instead, they act as a fair warning with guided support to overcome work problems. However, if they fail to drive satisfactory results, they’re followed by disciplinary action that could lead to termination. [/faq_item]

How long should a performance improvement plan last?

The typical performance improvement plan lasts anywhere between 1-3 months, depending on what the action plan entails. For instance, it’s more likely to last longer if HR recommends a training course for the underperforming employee. In cases like this, the timeline could be chopped up into smaller milestones.

Should HR be present for a PIP?

Some people find it intimidating to include HR in the meeting while the supervisors and employees discuss the performance improvement plan. Yet, it can assure a smoother (and better documented) follow-up process, so it might be worth a shot. Remember to use the performance improvement plan wisely and set realistic goals for the workforce!

performance improvement divider


In conclusion, it is important to know what a Performance Improvement Plan is and how to avoid needing one.

In fact, you might want to avoid PIPs altogether and instead opt for the growing trend of PDPs.

PDPs can often be more effective than PIPs because they are less confrontational, more goal-oriented, and allow for more employee input. Employees who feel supported in their career development are more likely to be engaged and productive in their roles.

With PDPs, you’re more likely to have regular check-ins with your employees, communicate more effectively, and be proactive instead of reactive. So let’s get to it.