Performance Improvement Plans: When, Why, How (and If??)

As we were reviewing the agenda for a scheduled coaching call last week, a client shared a recent event in which a volunteer spoke rudely and inappropriately to a client. As we explored potential next steps, one team member asked about a Performance Improvement Plan for volunteers.
Performance Improvement Plans: When, Why, How (and If??)
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As we were reviewing the agenda for a scheduled coaching call last week, a client shared a recent event in which a volunteer spoke rudely and inappropriately to a client. The volunteer’s behavior was counter to the expectations shared in training, not to mention the values of respect and inclusion that the organization embraces. As we explored potential next steps, one team member asked about a Performance Improvement Plan for volunteers.

At VQ, we always advocate for doing everything possible to prevent poor performance through comprehensive position descriptions, careful screening, clear expectation setting, thoughtful training, and ongoing feedback. However, upon occasion, even those established practices aren’t enough, and an individual’s behavior strays beyond the acceptable. Of course, behavior such as stealing from an organization or threatening the safety of staff, volunteers, clients, or the public are grounds for immediate dismissal. Yet, there is a lot of room between such flagrant offences and a minor coachable moment. In this situation, a Performance Improvement Plan is worth considering.

What is a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)?

A PIP is simply a formal process to address performance issues through collaborative planning between a volunteer and the supporting supervisor. The PIP documents the desired change and the mutual commitment to actions and supports (e.g., training, coaching, job aids, or other resources) designed to achieve it, while also outlining the steps to be taken, timeline, and accountability process.

As noted by Christina Pavlou in her article on performance improvement plans:

A good plan will also help you know exactly what action to take as you work through productivity issues. A performance improvement plan intends to fix problems and close knowledge and skill gaps. If you don’t see improvement after implementing a PIP, it can be an indicator that there’s a larger training gap. It may also reveal obstacles that a straightforward plan can’t remedy. In that case, your PIP may then result in termination or some other [position] change like transfer or demotion.

As Pavlou notes, by developing a PIP, other issues may become clear, such as gaps in training. Addressing those gaps can help not only the volunteer in question, but others as well. Yet, a PIP is should not be used as a standard training assessment, nor should it be used for regular evaluations. For standard evaluations or leadership development, other tools are useful—such as VQ’s Individual Volunteer Plan (IVP). PIPs are appropriate when addressing poor performance or significant gaps in skills and should not be the first effort to improve performance. But, if regular evaluations and coaching or uptraining is insufficient, a PIP may be the answer.  

How can you implement a PIP?

In response to the coaching call, we researched PIPs and then developed one specifically for volunteers, now downloadable from our website. To implement it, simply follow these steps.

  1. Describe the action or behavior needing improvement in clear detail.
  2. Describe the corrective action or improvement that is required and how progress will be measured. Be specific with timeline and expectations.
  3. Set follow dates for progress reviews.
  4. Include signatures of the volunteer and supervisor.
  5. Then, provide updates to the PIP at each scheduled progress review.

While it is certainly best to avoid the need for PIPs through screening, expectation setting, and ongoing feedback, if the need arises to provide more structured improvements and accountability, the PIP can be the path to success for everyone involved.

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