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Taking the PIP? Some concerns about appraisal, line management and performance improvement plans

We have had several requests for help from members related to distressing or difficult appraisal conversations, the use of Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) and, sadly the return of ‘protected conversations’ where staff are encouraged to leave the University. We are especially concerned to hear that PIPs are being very badly used in some areas.

PIPs have received some very bad press:

If your boss really wanted to improve your performance, he or she would sit down with you and talk to you like a friend or a coach. They’d say, “Something is getting in your way on the job. Let’s figure it out! You are awesome and I know we can work through this.

Although a Pip is often presented as a tool to assist you in your performance, you should be under no illusions about its secondary purpose. If you don’t improve, it will give your employer evidence that they have followed correct procedure, otherwise they may be at risk of a claim for unfair dismissal.

Sadly it seems that sometimes PIPs are being introduced here in these very negative and damaging ways. We remind members that all staff at level 4 and above have additional employment protections and rights under our Statutes and Ordinances. Ordinance 3.6 referring to capability says that informal action may be taken to make staff aware of standards expected, and agree a way forward – “including supervision counselling or mentoring, It may include reviewing duties and responsibilities etc”. Importantly this should also include the provision of appropriate training or development opportunities.

It is our understanding that PIPs are being used as the informal stage of the capability procedure. Unfortunately in some areas, we know that these are being introduced in appraisal conversations in ways that members find unhelpful and distressing. Sometimes the appraisal is the first time a member of staff is alerted to a problem with their work or behaviour – this should not happen. We are clear that appraisal and capability procedures need to be kept separate (i.e appraisal must not be used as the informal part of the capability process). Moreover, good management is predicated on regular meetings and conversations, not a once a year form filling exercise, and managers should therefore be supporting their staff all year round.

PIPs, like appraisal, should not be a negative experience. Used well, a PIP may be a helpful part of a positive managerial relationship and can provide structure and support. But, if your manager genuinely wants your performance to improve, they should provide you with support to achieve the improvements. They should agree SMART objectives and a realistic timeframe. Managers should help you to identify a mentor and development opportunities to directly address the objectives within the PIP. The PIP should not interfere with your annual appraisal (for example being on a PIP should not mean that the staff member automatically scores as ‘unsatisfactory’ against their individual or global objectives).

Tips for engaging with PIPs
1. Is the assessment of performance correct? What is the evidence of poor behaviour or performance?
2. Is the PIP a well-structured plan for addressing problems? Are there SMART objectives (e.g. to draft a paper, submit a grant, to address a behaviour in meetings, but NOT actions that are outside the control of the individual e.g. to publish in a 4* journal, to win a grant of a pre-specified value).  We encourage members to note what is said in the meeting and document any conversations that you have with your line manager or HR about your PIP.  If you disagree with the objectives or comments you should raise your concerns with your line manager in writing.
3. Make sure you get proper training and the support to succeed – this may include workload reallocation, dedicated time, formal training, counselling, coaching and/or supervision.
4. Above all, ensure that a reasonable time frame is set to address the issues identified.

And for managers

5. Carefully check if there are personal or health issues that may be affecting the employee’s performance – managers need training in dealing with mental health and stress themselves and for the team members.

6. Seek guidance and support too – HR should review the plan with a focus on removing any bias against the employee. Managers need to be aware of gender and racial bias and how this can affect their interactions with staff. Insecure managers may feel threatened by some employees and PIPs should not be used in these situations.

7. Take care to inform the staff member that the PIP could lead to formal capability processes which in turn could lead to dismissal.  If you can, tell them how you plan to help them avoid this outcome.

Your branch casework team will review the current cases we have related to appraisal and PIPs and take our collective concerns to the senior management. If you are experiencing difficulties please contact Amanda.

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