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5 Parts of a Performance Improvement Plan for Production Problems

A collections clerk’s productivity is not acceptable, and her work requires constant rechecking for accuracy. A hospital orderly delivers wet wheelchairs without cleaning them first and fails to deliver bottled water as instructed.

In both cases, the manager had outlined performance expectations. In both cases, the employee failed to live up to those expectations, despite prior notifications that a change would be required to maintain their employment.

HR expert and author of 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, Paul Falcone, isn’t new to creating performance improvement plans for production problems. These are some of the most common friction points between managers and employees in the workplace.

Oftentimes, managers have two choices:

  1. Avoid the problem altogether, give a passing performance grade, and become more frustrated
  2. Prepare a structured and clear performance improvement plan that gives the employee a second chance at success

The Performance Improvement Plan is a huge part of Falcone’s model correction notice. There are five key elements in the improvement plan (outlined below) for an employee whose work is falling short of your standard.

Example Incident: Production problems at the hospital

On Thursday, September 24, Dorothy Epifanio, RN, asked Frank (employee) to pick up some wheelchairs from downstairs. He brought the chairs to the OR, but the chairs were wet and covered with pine needles as a result of the rain. Frank, however, did not clean the chairs and prepare them for use as required in his job description. As a result, the RNs themselves were forced to clean and prepare the chairs to transport patients.

On Tuesday, September 22, RN Gail Niceguy paged his manager because he was out of bottled water. The nurse needed water for patients’ oral hygiene. She asked Frank to bring a bottle back on an empty stretcher from Wing B as he returned from delivering a patient. He responded to this coworker by saying, “I’m not a slave, and it’s not in my job description.” He returned later without the bottle, and his manager was paged by the nurse, who wished to file a complaint against him. His behavior in these two instances violated hospital standards of performance and conduct.

5-Part Performance Improvement Plan

Here’s the performance improvement plan Paul would write for this particular employee who is demonstrating production problems.

1. Measurable/Tangible Improvement Goals

For progressive discipline to work, it has to have a concrete outcome. That outcome may take the form of increased production numbers, decreased errors, improved interpersonal communications, or a tardiness-free attendance record. This is a measurable outcome for Frank, our hospital orderly:

Frank, I expect you to provide excellent customer service to patients and coworkers at all times. I expect you to follow verbal directives and adhere to the duties outlined in your job description. I expect you never again to insult a coworker by stating that you’re “not a slave.” I also expect you never again to tell a coworker that something is “not in your job description.” If indeed you feel that you are being asked to do something that is not your responsibility, you are to contact me immediately.

Notice that each of these statements includes the phrase I expect . . . Remember that under the rules of workplace due process, you are obliged to inform the employee of what he has to do in order to correct his problematic performance. This statement should be written in a constructive manner so that it can clearly establish what is expected of the employee in terms of future behavior. By doing so, it demonstrates that you are communicating with the employee to help him succeed on the job.

2. Training or Special Direction to Be Provided

Whenever possible, it’s best to address a problem with positive tools as opposed to negative methods. Training is therefore a better alternative than punishment. This important section of the correction notice further documents your attempts to help the employee succeed on her job. Even if discipline must be administered in the form of a warning, it should still be delivered hand in hand with training and other affirmative employer efforts. Keep in mind as well that training is the glue that binds people to a company: Everyone likes learning new things and developing new skills. And training, more than anything, helps people reinvent their jobs in light of their companies’ changing needs. Although motivation is internal and not external, nothing drives an employee to renewed commitment more than being challenged and stimulated by a new learning curve. Here is what you might include as special direction for Frank to improve his performance on the job:

On February 26, 2017, June 28, 2016, and March 31, 2015, you and all other orderlies received special written performance expectations to clarify your role and responsibilities. Among these instructions are the following:

  • You are expected to have a gurney ready for a patient before the patient is transported.
  • You are expected to follow directions and instructions from the team leaders/RNs.
  • Be a team player and support the entire team.

You are to reread these memos as you will be held accountable for the performance expectations described in them. You are also to review your job description for the same reason.

Note, however, that the goal here is not to burden yourself or the company with being responsible for assuring the employee’s success. Instead, shift the responsibility to the employee to research the necessary workshops, read the appropriate policies, and otherwise follow up with you regarding his progress. And here’s why: In a typical wrongful termination lawsuit, the judge will ask what the company, as a good corporate citizen, did to help the employee improve. If the company created hurdles for itself by promising one-on-one training time or outside workshops that it never ended up offering, then the burden is on the company for not following through and acting irresponsibly. In comparison, if the company provided opportunities to the employee that he never took advantage of or followed up on, then the worker comes across as the irresponsible party.

3. Interim Performance Evaluation Necessary

The interim performance evaluation is an interesting concept. When you’re challenged in court for wrongful discharge, the arbitrator, judge, or plaintiff’s attorney will look at the totality of events leading up to your former employee’s termination. Disciplinary write-ups alone won’t tell the whole story.

Is this a confrontational meeting? Yes. The employee will sense that you are thoroughly and carefully going about documenting her performance transgressions. Still, you may be doing the individual a big favor by identifying performance areas that require immediate improvement for her own job security and for the good of her career. It’s tough but fair. And it holds the employee to exacting standards that keep you in control of the situation. This process will ensure congruity with your disciplinary write-ups. The end result will be progressive disciplinary notices plus an unacceptable performance evaluation: just the kind of consistency you need to make a termination stick if necessary.

When a long-term employee suddenly spirals downward in performance, you may want to issue an interim performance evaluation to break the chain of previous positive evaluations. If there is inconsistency between an employee’s annual performance evaluations and progressive disciplinary notices, the ambiguity may be interpreted against your company when you try to support your decision to terminate. You normally won’t have to perform an interim evaluation unless you are dealing with a more senior employee with a very positive history of performance evaluations whose performance has recently nosedived. However, a long, productive work history evidenced by a collection of positive annual reviews may indicate that the current problem stems from something you haven’t identified. In Frank’s case, an interim performance evaluation would not be necessary because he doesn’t have seniority or a positive history of performance.

4. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

EAPs are highly recommended because they are one of the most effective “hidden” benefits available today. According to the Department of Labor, up to 12 million people nationwide—8 percent of all employees—use illicit drugs while working; an additional 13 million full-time workers, or 8 percent of the U.S. workforce, are heavy drinkers. The costs to you are obvious: Absenteeism, increased accidents resulting from compromised safety, theft, lower productivity, and lower morale contribute to losses estimated in excess of $30 billion annually. How can an EAP help? EAPs provide confidential professional support for employees and their families to help them solve problems that affect their work performance and personal lives. Through an EAP, your employees can voluntarily get help before their personal problems become job performance problems. Your company will benefit directly by reducing your insurance claims, minimizing unauthorized absenteeism, and allowing your managers to focus on productivity and performance—not personal counseling.

The premium cost of an EAP typically ranges from $1 to $2 per employee per month for a core program. (It can cost more, however, depending on the benefit level that you choose, and the addition of work-life and wellness programs typically adds $0.25 to $1.00 per employee per month on top of the EAP cost.) So if your company has 200 employees, the EAP could cost you between $200 and $400 a month. If you’ve got 20,000 employees, you’d have to negotiate a volume discount!

In addition, you’ll have the option of making formal referrals (as opposed to voluntary referrals) when an employee’s performance or behavior disrupts the workplace. For example, if you’ve got an employee who keeps blowing up at coworkers or verbally harassing subordinates, then you can firmly request that the employee attend an EAP assessment session that you set up. You would inform the intake counselor of the nature of the problem, and the EAP practitioner would then specifically address those issues in the evaluation. Neither form of referral—voluntary or formal—should be mandatory.

Here’s the language Paul would use for his write-up to Frank:

Our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider, Prime Behavioral Health Group, can be confidentially reached to assist you at (800) 555-5555. This is strictly voluntary. A booklet regarding the EAP’s services is available from Human Resources.

The employee always has the choice of attending. The only difference is that with a formal referral, you become involved in the process. You discuss your perception of the work performance problem on the front end and receive limited feedback about the employee’s attendance, compliance, and prognosis via the employee’s signed release.

5. Employee's Personal Improvement Plan Input and Suggestions

A key part of the overall performance improvement plan is the individual’s personal input into the process. In the age of the knowledge worker, where the value of intellectual capital far outweighs the value of machinery, formulas, or any other assets, it becomes critical to have an educated workforce buy into your plans. That’s what open book management and motivation theory are all about. And it’s what enlightened leadership thrives on. An appeal to your workers to join with you in fixing problems is the ultimate goal of the entire disciplinary process. By showing your commitment to making employees successful and proving to them that they’re still part of the team, you provide them with recognition and open communication even when the relationship is strained. Little else need be said about your values and priorities in terms of respecting employees and treating them with dignity. Besides, it’s just the right thing to do.

Don’t be surprised, though, if not all employees accept your olive branch. Some people just can’t get past the insult of being disciplined; others simply won’t be committed enough to invest themselves in the process. Once again, however, should you be challenged by an arbitrator regarding your efforts to willfully rehabilitate a worker, you’ll more readily pass the test. Simply put, if this section of the write-up is left blank, it reflects poorly on the employee. Like other sections of the write-up, this section shifts the responsibility for success or failure to the individual and away from your organization.

Paul Falcone

Paul Falcone is an HR executive who has held senior-level positions with Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and City of Hope. A long-time contributor to HR Magazine, he is the author of many bestselling books, including 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. He lives in Los Angeles.

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