People Management 2. Performance Plans: Communicating Your Specific Expectations

A performance plan lets you communicate your specific expectations for a worker in a particular job at a particular point in time.

What Is a Performance Plan?

A performance plan describes the results that a worker should achieve during an appraisal period. The appraisal period is the period during which the worker is expected to achieve the intended results. It usually lasts between six months (for newer workers) and one year (for more experienced workers).

Another term for the results stated in the performance plan is objectives. These objectives (called performance objectives) are expressed in observable measurable terms—as tangibly as possible, without being so specific that the plan cannot accommodate changes arising after the plan is set.

The objectives described in the performance plan should directly relate to the responsibilities described in the job description. Because these objectives are intended to guide or manage the worker’s efforts during the appraisal period, a performance plan is called management by objectives.

The performance plan is formally written, but presented in a face-to-face meeting with the worker (even for workers who work at different locations than their managers).

To be most effective, the performance plan should be given as early as possible in the appraisal period. That is, if the appraisal period runs from the beginning of November in one year to the end of October in the next, the manager and employee should prepare a performance plan within the first month of the appraisal period (by the end of November).

Purpose of a Performance Plan

The performance plan serves several purposes. They include:

  • Observable, measurable goals (called objectives) to guide workers
  • A tool that a manager can use to provide workers with intermediate feedback and assess their performance at the end of the appraisal period

Although most organizations only require that managers prepare performance plans for permanent employees, many managers also prepare performance plans for long-term contractors (those who will work four or more months). The performance plan allows a manager to clarify expectations for these temporary employees, increase the likelihood of their success, and enhance their feelings about the work experience.

Format of a Performance Plan

A performance plan has three to four sections, including the following.

Main performance objectives Supporting objectives or comments Priority
Describe, in general terms, the primary work product Name specific work products. Also mention any relevant business constraints affecting this work and on which the worker will be evaluated. 1 (high) or 2 (low)
Describe, in general terms, supplemental assignments Name specific one-time and ongoing assignments and committee responsibilities
Describe, in general terms, responsibilities for team work Describe specific observable and measurable outcomes of good team work  
Describe expectations for maintaining technical qualifications Describe the level of technical knowledge that the worker is expected to attain during the appraisal period.  

Example of a Performance Plan for a Technical Writer

Main performance objectives Supporting Objectives and Comments Priority
Design, write, and produce user’s guides and other information about BC’s products.  Design, write, and produce the BC Series 300 User’s Guide.Design, write, and produce the BC Series 300 General Information Manual.

Design, write, and produce the BC System 300 online help system.

Produce all projects within the negotiated schedule and budget.

Contribute on department oversight committees as requested  Note that projects might be added or changed during the course of this review period.Serve on the editorial standards committee.

Serve on other departmental committees and handle other department assignments as requested.

Maintain good working relationships with technical groups  Take initiative in informing management of the progress of all projects.Contribute to the department’s knowledge base.

Negotiate changes in project scope with technical departments only after clearing those changes with management in the technical communication department.

Expand your base of skills with the product and in technical communication Attain level 4 certification in the use of the BC Series 300. (Level 4 indicates that you can install and tailor this system, and troubleshoot common problems.)Keep abreast of developments in publishing systems.

Keep abreast of developments in e-commerce technology.


Process for Writing a Performance Plan

Ideally, a performance plan is mutually negotiated between a manager and an employee at the beginning of an appraisal period. However, managers typically take most of the initiative with newer employees, who usually do not have experience with the performance planning process.

  1. Determine the length of the appraisal period (the period of time that the objectives address). Usually, the appraisal period is six months for workers who have been in a position for less than one year and one year for all other workers. Note, however, that companies usually have guidelines on this.
  2. Prepare notes for the plan.
    1. Identify the key “deliverables” that the employee should produce. Some of these might be ongoing, others may be one-time products. (Try not to list more than four or five.)
    2. After identifying the deliverables, identify two to four related responsibilities.
    3. Within categories, identify:

Ongoing responsibilities to the business, such as keeping within 2 percent of an assigned budget. Each member of the organization has ongoing responsibilities to the business, but they vary based on the person’s job).

One-time responsibilities.

  1. Identify ongoing responsibilities to co-workers, such as maintaining cooperative relationships and developing information sources. (Each member of the organization has ongoing responsibilities to co-workers, but they vary based on the person’s job.)
  2. For each key area (the two you identified in step 2, as well as the ones named in steps 3 and 4), identify at least three criteria that you will use to assess performance.
  3. Altogether you should have three or four key areas of responsibility, including business and work relationships.
  4. Identify the priority (1 or 2) of each of the three or four areas.


If you are writing a performance plan for a less experienced worker, you would most likely identify this list of deliverables on your own.

If you are writing one for a more experienced worker, you should meet in person with the worker and develop the list together.

  1. Draft the performance plan.
  2. Review the plan to make sure that you have:

Included only three or four key areas with specific responsibilities in each.

Described all responsibilities in observable and measurable terms.

  1. Check the plan.

Assess whether the worker can perform each of the responsibilities stated with the current skills and knowledge.

Identify training and mentoring needed, or adjust the responsibilities.

Assess whether the worker has the equipment and financial resources to perform the responsibilities in the performance plan. If not, either develop a plan to acquire these resources or adjust the plan.

  1. In an in-person conversation, meet with the worker to review the completed plan and reach agreement on it. Note that the worker might request some adjustments. Once both of you agree to the plan, sign it and place it in the worker’s personnel folder.

Issues in Writing a Performance Plan

  • The tone of the performance plan should be positive. After reading it, workers should ideally feel that they can achieve the goals and that, in doing so, they will have used their skills in a meaningful way.
  • To emphasize the positive:
  • State expectations in terms of observable and measurable products or outcomes, rather than broad but unmeasureable goals. For example, rather than state “develop technical knowledge of our products” describe what the worker should be able to do (such as install and customize the information without assistance).
  • Avoid value words, such as “excellent” and “quality.” The definitions of these terms vary among individuals. Because definitions differ, the expectation the employee assumes might differ from the one that the manager has.

© Copyright 1998, 2001, 2010, 2011, 2012. Saul Carliner. All rights reserved.  If sharing or excerpting, should be properly cited.


About idmodelsandprocesses

Exploring, reporting, teaching, and advising on learning and communication for the workplace and consumers.
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