An effective plan includes specific solutions to past, current and potential work-related issues. When an employee is involved with creating their own workplace plan, they’ll be more committed to its success.
Know your employees
Whenever an employee is asked to speak to their leader, it can create stress and anxiety. This is especially true if you have not already built a trust relationship and have come to know your employee well enough to understand their reactions. The following open-ended questions, adapted from Sabina Nawaz1, can help you learn more about an employee in a way that is less likely to feel like an interrogation:
- Where is your mind at right now? No matter what the response is — positive or negative — don’t negate their experience or move too quickly to solving a problem. Just listen, thank them for being honest, and ask for more information before moving toward a solution.
- What challenges could be addressed to make your job easier? Then brainstorm with your colleague how you can be most helpful. Ensuring people can do their jobs well is just as important as praise and rewards.
- What relationships do you most value at work? Based on their response, explore what you can do to help them deepen those connections. Perhaps people from different departments can work on a company-wide event, a cross-division initiative, or take part in virtual discussion groups.
- What would you like to learn now to help you with your current or future role? This question signals that you care about their development and want to help them achieve their aspirations.
Engage the employee in developing solutions
Workplace plans can be used to address performance issues, develop an accommodation, support a return to work or help an employee stay at work. For specific employee concerns, like conflict, grief, impairment or performance, check out the additional resources in Approaches for people leaders.
Supporting employee success is a resource that can help leaders develop an employee plan. This tool teaches leaders how to articulate job expectations, and employees how to clarify what they need to meet those expectations. Learn how to Support employee success.
A fundamental part of the process is the supporting success conversation, which includes the following questions:
- What will allow you to be successful at your job and still have energy at the end of the day?
- What will you commit to that will help you successfully manage your work and maintain your well-being?
- Are there current tasks you would like additional training or re-training on?
- How can feedback be provided to you in a positive and constructive way?
- How often would you like to receive feedback that recognizes your contribution?
- How should future issues be managed in a way that is positive and healthy for you?
- What else might you need from me or the organization to support your success at work?
- When, and how often, should we re-visit this agreement to make adjustments?
The following guidelines will help you explore these questions effectively with your employee.
Supporting success conversation guide
Question 1: What will allow you to be successful at your job and still have energy at the end of the day?
Focus on getting at all the issues that will affect the employee's ability to be productive, including:
- Start time
- Break times
- Re-training needs
- Reorientation and reintegration into the workplace, if appropriate
- Gradual increase in hours and/or days worked if stamina is an issue
- Tasks the employee is most confident about completing successfully
- Changes or modifications to tasks
- Changes or modifications to communication, including instructions, directions and feedback
- Attendance at meetings, offsite events or social events
Question 2: What will you commit to that will help you successfully manage your return to work and maintain your well-being?
Support the employee to take both control and responsibility for their own well-being at work. Encourage them to come up with ideas. Some employees have answered this question in the following ways:
- I commit to taking my lunch break rather than staying at my desk, because I know it allows me to be more productive in the afternoon.
- I won’t cry at my desk. I’ll briefly leave and compose myself and come back.
- I’ll write down instructions rather than ask for them several times.
- I won’t speak in anger. I’ll wait until I feel calm before responding.
Question 3: Are there current tasks you would like additional training or re-training on?
It can be quite stressful when someone feels they aren’t keeping up with new or evolving job requirements. By offering training or re-training, you can help eliminate some of that stress and set the employee up to be more successful.
Question 4: How can feedback be provided to you in a positive and constructive way?
To help with this question, you may want to have the employee complete the Feedback preferences form and then have a discussion about what constructive feedback looks like for them. Be sure to include the agreed approach in this plan.
Question 5: How often would you like to receive feedback that recognizes your contribution?
To help with this question, you may want to have the employee complete the Recognition preferences form and then have a discussion about what recognition looks like for them. Be sure to include the agreed approach in this plan. For more ideas, check out Recognition strategies for leaders.
Question 6: How should future issues be managed in a way that is positive and healthy for you?
This question is intended to identify how you or others can best interact with the employee in the following situations:
- When you believe the employee may be unwell.
Some leaders may be uncomfortable approaching an employee when they feel the employee may be experiencing a mental health issue. The employee may just be having a bad day. Approaching an employee will be easier for you both if they’ve already provided their preferred method in advance.
Example: An employee suggested the supervisor say, "You don’t seem yourself today. Are you okay?"
The actual words are less important than the shared understanding that you’re using them as directed by the employee to show your concern.
- When the plan isn’t being implemented in the way you and the employee agreed.
There’s usually a honeymoon period following the development of a workplace plan in which everyone is trying their best for success. There will probably come a time when a challenge comes up. Having an agreed-upon process in writing for how to address this with the employee will make it much easier to deal with when or if it happens.
Example: A workplace plan includes a bi-weekly 10-minute check-in with the supervisor to discuss how work’s going. The supervisor and the employee agree in advance that either of them could request a longer discussion if an item (work task or behaviour) wasn’t being implemented according to the plan. This helps to ensure that the 10-minute check-ins don’t become hour-long sessions on a regular basis. It also provides an opportunity for either party to review each section of the workplace plan to determine if everything is being carried out as agreed.
- When there are performance management issues.
Discussing how to give critical or corrective feedback with an employee before a problem or challenge arises sets up a dynamic for a more positive outcome.
Example: An employee asks that all critical feedback be done in a private setting and be accompanied by positive reinforcement. For more examples and information, see Performance management.
Question 7: What else might you need from me or the organization to support your success at work?
This is just to be sure that all potential and current issues are addressed. If the employee says there’s nothing else, your plan is complete. But, if they have an answer, continue to ask, “And what else might you need?” until they are able to confirm that they don’t need anything else to be able to successfully do their job.
Question 8: When, and how often, should we re-visit this agreement to make adjustments?
By setting up a schedule in advance, your plan is more likely to be successful and sustainable. In addition, regular follow-up holds both leaders and employees accountable to the plan.
Plan writing guidelines
- Ensure that goals are specific, measurable, time-specific, and workplace-related. Make the earliest goals attainable given the employee's current well-being. Add increments to allow for small victories, which are preferable to larger defeats.
Example: If the worker is in sales and falling far below standard targets, consider establishing targets that are reasonably higher than what the employee is currently achieving without immediately going to the standard.
- Use these principles even when the goals aren’t task-related.
Example: If an employee has had a difficult time managing their emotions in team meetings, but has offered to be more positive, you can help them make this goal more specific and measurable. This may include an agreement that you’ll share any critical feedback in private and only share positive feedback in group settings.
- Ensure you’re able to assess the employee's success against the established goals without room for misinterpretation.
- Give positive reinforcement or constructive feedback where warranted.
- Consider periodic reviews with employees so you can measure performance, assess workload and set priorities objectively.
You can use the Task improvement worksheet | PDF resource to address and follow up on a specific task where performance may be a concern.
You can use the Supporting employee success resource to discuss job expectations.
The following workplace plan is provided courtesy of Mindful Employer Canada.
To be most effective, the workplace plan should be written in the employee’s words. This is especially important so the employee is better able to recognize the full intent of the plan they’ve agreed to at a later date or during follow-up.
Issue: This employee was intimidating other employees, and their volatile nature, combined with rumours of mental health concerns, caused real fear among their co-workers. The employee was quite surprised when their supervisor told them about the effect on others. By being able to talk it through without any blame, the employee was able to develop a plan that addressed these issues. This plan wouldn’t have worked as well without the employee’s input and commitment.
Sample workplace plan for John Doe*
Note to reader: It’s important to understand that the employee came up with the language and the ideas in this plan. Some parts were discussed and refined if John's request wasn’t practical, but his commitment to this process came, in large part, from his involvement in the development.
Request for Workplace Plan for John Doe*
To be shared with all managers, human resources personnel and supervisors in relevant work locations within The Organization. [Note: Be transparent about who will see this document.]
This plan doesn’t supersede any employee rights, including existing company policies, collective bargaining agreements or applicable legislation. It’s developed in good faith that all parties will conform to the spirit and intent of finding a way to ensure well-being and productivity at work.
John has stated that he’s aware of the need to "prove himself" to those who felt he was aggressive or intimidating in the workplace. He’s committed to doing what is recommended by his leader to build trust.
To contribute to his success at work, John has requested the following:
- An understanding that while returning to full-time work (7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) beginning on Monday, November 21, there is a medically advised request to reduce distractions and multi-tasking wherever possible.
- Also, where possible, to restrict work to one project at a time and allow for completion of one project before assigning another.
- To receive a project plan schedule for the next three months that provides a relatively stable agenda. There is an understanding that circumstances may require this to change, but that there will be an effort to stick to it for this time frame.
- Where possible, to limit travel to Monday through Friday for the first month.
- To have a weekly 15-minute "check-in" call with the supervisor so John can go over the following:
- Current work
- Upcoming work
- Stressors, if any
- The supervisor will make the above call every Friday unless rescheduling is necessary. This call will not be performance management, but rather a way for John and the supervisor to stay connected and for the supervisor to be able to support John's success at work and clarify instructions for any work tasks. If there is another issue to address, a separate call or meeting can be set up.
- To show good faith towards this process, John will withdraw all existing grievances and complaints.
- Constructive criticism should be offered in a timely manner (close to the time of the incident) and include the following:
- References to a specific example rather than hearsay or vague comments
- A clear recommendation for alternative action
- Whenever relevant, positive feedback about work or behaviour
- In order to assist with maintaining well-being, John can take an extra hour at lunchtime, once or twice a week as needed, to attend appointments.
- This happens only if it doesn’t have a significant negative effect on any current work. In cases where it might, John will contact the manager at least 2 hours in advance of leaving on the days when he requires time away for specific appointments.
- This time will be for health appointments and will be applied to personal leave after it’s used up.
- Where work requires it, John can also arrange to come in early or leave later on these days.
- This won’t apply when John works away from the main work site.
- To accommodate a standing appointment, John can leave early every other Friday at 3:00 p.m.
- John will attend Code of Conduct training as soon as possible to understand the intent of the document and how it should affect his work behaviour.
- In order to avoid confrontational or adversarial interactions with management, John requests that the human resources director assists if a situation with a significant disagreement arises, such as performance appraisal or harassment.
John will do the following to contribute to his success and well-being at work:
- When feeling frustrated or stressed out, John will step back and avoid confrontation by taking 5 to 10 minutes away, or possibly leaving the area and applying his stress-reduction techniques.
- The supervisor has requested from John a phone call rather than an email when this type of situation arises, in order to avoid misinterpreting tone or intent.
- John will take breaks and lunch off rather than working through. He’ll take walks during break time to recharge when helpful.
- John will strive to ensure that his work is neat and tidy and always complies with the organization's standards. Where this isn’t the case, he’ll accept constructive criticism and use this feedback as positive energy to improve for the next job.
- John has said: "I would like the opportunity to make amends to any manager or employee who felt I was being aggressive." He proposes the following:
- In the boardroom, with the supervisor or another manager present, but without union representation, to have a chance to speak one-on-one to those people who may have felt that he had been aggressive.
- These individuals will be invited with the understanding that John has asked if he can share with them a way to move forward.
- These individuals will be told that they aren’t required to say anything—they only need to listen. They’re also invited to speak to the manager about it after the fact if they feel it would be helpful.
- John will say something like: "I understand that my behaviours caused people to feel uncomfortable or attacked, and I apologize. I’m working hard to change the way I interact with people, and I want to share with you a process to address my behaviour if you ever feel that way with me. If I say or do something that you think is going too far, I ask that you:
- Point out to me what I’m doing;
- Tell me how it’s affecting you or how you’re feeling about it;
- Tell me what you would prefer. I’m committing to adjusting what I’m doing.
- Even if I disagree with you, I will do what I need to do to not react emotionally. That might mean taking a few minutes or asking if we can talk about it again later.
- If you still feel I’m being too aggressive after you’ve asked me to change, then you should let the supervisor know.
- I don't expect you to put up with bad behaviour from me. I’m just asking you to give me an opportunity to prove that I have changed.
It’s important that this process doesn’t become mediation, or even the other person feeling they need to forgive John or welcome him back. This should only be a one-way communication, with the supervisor managing the process, to avoid rehashing old wounds.
To help management address future issues, John has shared that:
- Where there is a need to discuss something with him, he prefers to be approached one-on-one, unless the issue is related to a disciplinary issue.
- In the case of disciplinary issues, a union steward should be present, but having more than one manager present can be overwhelming and intimidating.
- Where there is a need to speak about an issue, he encourages the manager to say, "Hey John, let's have a casual conversation about [a work task or a behaviour]."
- It’s human nature to be defensive about criticism or judgment, but John is committed to respectfully listening to feedback without becoming confrontational, aggressive or verbally abusive. He requests the same from management.
- John is aware that sometimes his voice or size may come across as confrontational when it’s not his intention. If you feel that his behaviour is coming across this way, he has asked that you say, "Hey John, your [voice or stance, etc.] feels [intimidating or hostile]. Could you do [describe a change in behaviour that would be perceived differently] instead?"
- John has asked that he not be treated with caution. He asks that open and honest communication about his work and his behaviours be part of a respectful and ongoing relationship with management.
The above document accurately describes my request for an effective work plan:
Employee of The Organization
When mental health or addiction is a factor
Addressing issues in the workplace can be challenging and emotionally draining. If these conversations are uncomfortable for you, check out the resources under Communicating with an emotional employee. When you’ve had a difficult conversation, you can feel remarkable relief when you believe that you’ve reached a resolution. At this point, you may want to consider the matter closed. The reality, however, is that, in most circumstances, things can slip again.
- New problems can arise and old problems can resurface. We no longer avoid speaking about relapse in treatment of addiction or many mental illnesses. Instead, we plan for the healthiest approach if relapse happens. This improves the chance that a relapse is only a temporary event, rather than a roadblock to recovery. In the same way, you should consider that workplace stressors might still impact the employee.
The communication problems that might have contributed to the issues may be made again, coping strategies may not be well developed, or skills may have gotten rusty. If you turn a blind eye until the situation reaches the crisis point once again, you risk making the original issue worse and reducing trust in the process.
- Put it in writing. One approach to reducing future problems is to set down all communication in writing and confirmed by the employee. In some cases, you may even want to engage the employee in formulating the wording. This means that the employee will be more likely to recognize the intent, as well as the plan, when reviewing it at a later date.
- Set regular times for follow up. Another critical approach to reducing and resolving future problems is to set a time to follow up after any tough conversation, workplace plan, return-to-work plan, conflict resolution or accommodation. This allows you to monitor the situation and adjust as necessary to ensure sustainable success. The more complex the situation, the shorter the time frame for follow up should be. You should follow up within two weeks after implementing the plan.
- Regularly review agreed-upon measurements for success. Helping an employee develop these specific measurements during your original conversation means you’ll be able to evaluate the outcome more easily when you do follow up. You may want to ask in the original conversation, what approach the employee will take if they don’t achieve success. For example, will the employee reconsider strategy, make adjustments, or require further help or treatment?
- Prepare for challenges before they arise. By having these conversations before challenges arise, you’ll be able to have a clear plan of action that can significantly reduce stress when it’s time to act.
- Deal with potential co-worker questions before they arise. Having a discussion with the employee about how they’ll respond to questions about absences can help you avoid an uncomfortable situation. See Responding to co-worker questions for more information.
Adapted with permission from Resolving Workplace Issues (Baynton, 2011).
1. Nawaz, S. (2022, March 14). What stops people on your team from leaving? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved January 25, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2022/03/what-stops-people-on-your-team-from-leaving?