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Performance Improvement Plans: Evaluation’s Forgotten Piece

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
October 4, 2020

We often hear employees are our most valuable resource, with the associated inference that success is the outcome of their collective activity. This suggests public sector agencies expect employees to continuously strive for outstanding performance, and the reality is that most employees do. However, public sector leader-managers must do what they can to ensure employee energies and activities are channeled in the proper direction. Performance improvement plans (PIP) can be an invaluable part of this effort.

All public sector agencies provide some form of performance evaluation, either formal or informal. Most formal performance evaluation systems are structured, with periodic discussions and written appraisals providing for on-going communications between leader-managers and employees. These exchanges serve to identify areas of employee strength, which might be leveraged in the future, and should include recommendations for potential improvement. These potential improvements need not be associated with poor performance, though certainly this should be included. Recommended improvements might also include thoughts on how to refine performance or expand upon an employee’s skill set, making them better prepared for future professional challenges. Informal systems often include the same information, but do so in a less structured manner, often relying on intermittent communications between leader-managers and employees, which might limit the performance feedback provided.

Best practices in human resources encourage both formal and informal approaches to performance evaluation, stressing these activities as critical to the needs of the organization and the employees themselves. While all evaluation systems will have their potential strengths and weaknesses, a common gap seen in many settings is the lack of a PIP. In the end, if an employee cannot perform, they might have to be reassigned or terminated. A PIP will ensure this is done only when absolutely necessary.

Performance improvement plans sometimes have a negative connotation, but this is a limited view. A PIP is a path for employees to follow to address performance concerns or to develop themselves for current or future challenges. If we compare the pursuit of effective and efficient performance to climbing a mountain with uncertain and unstable terrain, a PIP might be seen as assistance provided by leader-managers, co-workers or the organization to help someone with the ascent. If climbing as a team, we would not leave any team member unsafe and unsupported. The same goes for organizational settings—leader-managers should support employees with a PIP, doing what they might to develop employees and achieve agency success.

There are a number of reasons a PIP might not exist. The organization may lack criteria for determining effective and efficient performance, making it difficult to assess. Some leader-managers might be unwilling to document sub-optimal performance, not wishing to harm relationships with employees or hinder their future opportunities. The organization might have limited resources to provide assistance, and feeling they are not in a position to provide support, refrain from making recommendations. In other instances, leader-managers may have limited time to review employee performance or limited expertise in the employee’s role. In such instances, even if they do provide feedback, it is often general and not clearly linked to the performance of an individual employee. If employees view this as pro forma feedback, this approach might be demoralizing.

When developing a PIP, leader-managers should discuss the content with employees, especially in circumstances where the employee possesses specialized skills outside the leader-manager’s current expertise. This includes situations where the leader-manager previously performed similar work, but not recently. These discussions might yield insight into whether the challenges are related to attitudes, training or the environment, the latter including current policies, practices and systems. Understanding the challenges more completely, including any aspects beyond the employee’s control will better support the development of more effective PIPs.

When assessing organizational resources to apply in a PIP, leader-managers should always consider other employees with relevant expertise. They might be assigned to coach or mentor employees seeking to develop or refine their skills. This benefits all involved, as those coaching or mentoring will be simultaneously developing their own leadership capacities as they engage with others.

Public sector leader-managers focused on efficacy and efficiency should commit to the development of PIPs for all employees, making it part of on-going employee development, seeking performance enhancements in the pursuit of the agency mission. Remember—PIPs are not about correcting poor performance, but about continuous employee development, preparing employees to provide quality services for the community. Some key points to remember in any PIP:

  • The foundation of a PIP must be on relevant competencies for current or future roles.
  • Base the PIP on documented, individual performance.
  • Provide relevant, realistic, achievable and measurable recommendations for performance improvements.
  • Provide on-going support, both personal and professional.
  • Monitor progress in achieving the PIP, providing additional support as appropriate.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(Psych.), EFO, is a member of Capella University’s public administration core faculty. Prior to this, he served in local government for over thirty years. He is the President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA, and may be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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