Performance improvement: Butteriss on human resources

The best way to deal with problem employees is to prevent the problem from developing, and the place to start is in recruitment. Taking care with each new hire is the surest guarantee the entrepreneur has that the costly and time-consuming process of dealing with problem employees can be avoided. Sometimes, however, despite all your best efforts, something starts to go wrong.

Common indicators of a performance problem include:

  • missed or unsatisfactorily completed objectives
  • missed deadlines and timetables
  • poor quality work
  • a demonstrable lack of required skills
  • unacceptable behaviour towards other people in the company or clients and suppliers

Tips and traps for managers

A brief summary of what to do and what not to do when trying to solve an employee problem:

Traps Tips
• Condone inappropriate behaviour. • Correct inappropriate behaviour.
• Act on assumptions and gossip. • Gather facts.
• Be judgemental. • Stay objective.
• Act informally. • Document all aspects of issue.
• Avoid talking problem over with employee. • Listen to the employee’s side
• Hurry through issue. • Make time for thorough assessment.


The five-step performance improvement process

Here is a five-step program to use when dealing with problem employees. The performance improvement process (PIP) is a positive process for action to correct a performance or behaviour problem with measurable performance or behaviour targets and agreed-upon time frames. PIP is not a disciplinary measure but rather a proactive way to encourage an employee to correct behaviour or to improve deteriorating performance.

The five steps of PIP are:

  1. Fact Gathering
  2. Informing the Employee about the Process
  3. Setting a Timetable for Improvement
  4. Documenting the Progress of Change
  5. Judging the Process and Choosing a Response

Step one: Fact gathering

The first step is for the manager to meet with the employee and gather as much relevant information as possible about possible causes for the work problem. Questions to ask would include the following:

  • Is the employee fully informed of the goals set for the job?
  • Does the employee have the necessary facilities and equipment to do the job?
  • Does the employee lack skills and training necessary to do the job?
  • Does the employee have difficulty with specific aspects of the company’s culture or operating rules?
  • Does the employee have difficulty with a co-worker or supervisor?
  • Are there family or personal problems affecting performance?
  • Does the employee have health problems?

A frank discussion with the employee may satisfy the manager that the problem can be solved quickly and without further intervention. It may be, for example, that standards for a position have changed and the employee has not been told, so that all that is needed is a brief review of the new standards. Perhaps a reorganization of management assignments has led to confusion about job responsibilities for this employee, and some clarification about a position’s duties will be enough to end the work problem. Or the problem might be that an employee may need additional training on a new piece of equipment or support in dealing with a family crisis.
If the manager and employee agree that the problem has been resolved, there is no need to go on with the formal process. If, however, no agreement is reached, the manager should proceed through the remaining four steps of PIP as presented below.

Step two: Informing the employee about the process

The manager decides on a course of action that would be a satisfactory corrective to the problem. Having decided on a course of action, the manager should notify the employee that a formal performance improvement process is about to begin. The employee should be told:

  • why the performance improvement process is being implemented, with specific examples provided of unacceptable behaviour and/or performance
  • how the improper behaviour and/or performance has impacted the company’s productivity
  • what specific actions the employee is expected to undertake to correct the behaviour and/or performance issue

Step three: Setting a timetable for improvement

The employee should be given not only directives about what changes in performance must be made, but also a specific timetable for making the changes.

The time frame of the performance improvement process depends on the scope of the problem. It probably should last for at least two weeks but no longer than three months. Interim target dates should be set for accomplishing specific improvements, and the manager and employee should meet on these target dates for follow-up consultations.

Step four: Documenting the progress of change

At each target date, the manager and employee should meet, and the manager should document the results of the session. A copy should be given to the employee and another placed in the employee’s file. The manager has to get evidence from colleagues and make his or her own observations to ensure that the required results are being met. These need to be reviewed on a weekly basis with the employee and noted in the employee’s file. This can be quite a tedious process, but if one is determined to be fair and to use the performance improvement process, this is a very important step.

Step five: Judging the process and choosing a response

At the end of the period set for improving performance, a manager has to choose among three options:
A. Successful Conclusion
B. Extension Required
C. Unsuccessful Conclusion

Option A. Successful Conclusion
If the employee has met the required objectives, the performance improvement process concludes, and the employee remains in his or her current role in good standing. The manager documents the successful outcome and distributes copies to the employee and to the employee’s official personnel file.

Option B. Extension Required
If the employee has not met the performance improvement objectives but has shown significant improvement in behaviour and/or performance, the process may be extended for a defined period of time. The manager documents the extension and distributes copies to the employee and the employee’s official personnel file.

Option C. Unsuccessful Conclusion
If the employee has not met the objectives and has not made significant improvement in behaviour and/or performance, the next step would be to begin the termination process. Although the manager and employee must work together if the performance improvement process is to succeed, the entrepreneur should recognize just how much of the responsibility for this process resides with management. The manager must:

  • prepare the detailed PIP and present it to the employee
  • meet the employee regularly for progress reports
  • maintain documentation
  • judge the outcome of the process
  • ensure that business needs are met throughout

It is recommended that a small business operator seek help from an HR practitioner, either in-house or an external consultant, when attempting to resolve an employee problem through a formal performance improvement process.

Copyright© 1999 by Margaret Butteriss. All rights reserved. Published byJohn Wiley& Sons Canada, Inc.


Butteriss, M. (1999).Help Wanted: The Complete Guide to Human Resources for Canadian Entrepreneurs.Toronto: John Wiley& Sons. pp.173-179

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