Are Performance Improvement Plans Just Code For 'You Should Quit'?

Experts weigh in on whether PIPs actually help people succeed at their jobs and how to survive one.
Don't lose hope if you find out you are being put on a PIP. There's an opportunity for a successful outcome if you are proactive.
Carol Yepes via Getty Images
Don't lose hope if you find out you are being put on a PIP. There's an opportunity for a successful outcome if you are proactive.

A performance improvement plan –– or “PIP,” for short –– is never welcome news for an employee. Usually this formal document sets a deadline for when someone needs to improve on certain skills or targets, or else their employment could be jeopardized.

“It’s following a progressive discipline path. Once a company actually gets to using the words ‘performance improvement plan,’ they are making the process formal,” said Jennifer Tardy, a diversity recruitment consultant who has given PIPs in her past role as a manager. Such a move sends an alert to an employee that “if you don’t shape up, you are about to be shipped out,” she said.

“As an employee, if I’m on the receiving end of a PIP, then I should be nervous.”

Too often people hear only the “or else” portion of the message when they’re put on a PIP, but if the plan for improvement is constructed well and undertaken with a manager’s support, it is possible to survive and thrive in a company after completing one. And even when a PIP is based on bogus, subjective metrics, it’s possible to fight back and ask for clarity.

Take it from people who have been there and from a lawyer who has represented employees placed on PIPs. Here’s how to read between the lines to figure out what your company is actually saying when it tells you you’re on a PIP.

Yes, sometimes a PIP is sincere, and you can thrive after completing it successfully.

Morris E. Fischer, an employment attorney who works with people on PIPs, said the first thing he asks his clients to do is to make an honest assessment of their job performance: “Is this job over your head or not?”

“There are some jobs that are just not a right fit for somebody’s skills,” he said. In some cases, if low performance is due to a lack of training from the employer or if the job description is radically different from the reality of the role, people can use that to negotiate severance, he said.

Ellen Bailey, now a vice president of diversity and culture at Harvard Business Publishing, was an insurance company claims agent intern early in her career when she was placed on a PIP. “I thought there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t super detail-oriented,” she recalled. “And then I [was] like, it’s kind of my makeup.”

In Bailey’s case, the upsetting experience had a successful ending. After she finished her PIP, she spoke up to her manager about her better skills and interests, and he helped her transition to a marketing role in the company.

Bailey said her big regret was not being upfront sooner with her boss that the claims role was a mismatch for her skills. But the devastation she felt on being placed on a performance improvement plan initially kept her silent.

“I should have allowed for [those feelings] and then come back sooner with, ‘Hey, you know what? I think that isn’t a good fit, and here’s what would be a good fit,’” Bailey said. “It’s not all the manager. It’s not all on the employee. It needs to be a 50-50.”

A good manager will be clear on how they will support you on a PIP so that you can succeed. Tardy said one way PIPs go awry is when managers don’t want to be seen as the “bad” person and avoid conflict about delivering hard news.

“One of the biggest issues is [when] the PIP is the first time people are hearing about the performance issue or the severity of the performance issue,” she said.

For an example of straightforward transparency, Tardy shared that she once had to tell a recruiter that he needed to improve his performance on a PIP.

“I was very upfront with him,” Tardy said. “I [started] off with saying, ‘I think you are a great recruiter. And I think that you have a long career here and in recruiting, but here are some of the challenges we are having.’ I talked about the specific behaviors. I said, ‘If these aren’t fixed, then you are not going to last on this team. I am willing to help you do that.’”

The employee stayed on after completing his PIP and is now a director of recruiting, Tardy said, noting that it’s key for managers to share how they are going to help their employee succeed on a PIP, so the employee doesn’t feel like they’re on their own.

“If you actually hear your manager say, ‘Here’s how I’m going to help you do this within this amount of time,’ then you know they are interested in keeping you,” she said.

But there are many times when a PIP really is code for “We want you to quit.”

Fischer typically finds that in his experience as an employment attorney, “if you’re competent at your job, usually [the PIP is] just to get rid of you.” He said he commonly sees this in cases of employees who are older, coming back from an injury, or returning from parental or medical leave.

Companies sometimes find that they prefer to move forward with whoever temporarily replaced that employee on leave and think, ”‘Let’s just go with the other person,’ which is illegal,” Fischer said. “But that’s what’s done.”

Another red flag is when the stated goals of the PIP are unreasonable.

“If the action items are literally unachievable and highly improbable to deliver in the expected time frame, or if your boss and stakeholders aren’t offering any support for you to succeed in hitting all your to-do’s in the PIP,” then that’s a warning that the company’s intent is to push you out versus pushing you toward improvement, said Nadia De Ala, founder of Real You Leadership, a group coaching program for women of color.

“If you’re competent at your job, usually [the PIP is] just to get rid of you.”

- Morris E. Fischer, employment attorney

Take it from a California-based woman who worked as a quality assurance manager for a tech startup. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said her 90-day PIP stated that she needed to “stop sharing one-sided negative feedback.” This subjective metric was, to her, the biggest red flag that the PIP wasn’t actually designed to improve her performance. She had previously had differences of opinion with her engineering manager, but the PIP was the first time she had heard negative feedback on her performance.

When the woman asked her manager for clarification on “negative feedback,” she recalled, “he said there weren’t any specifics he could give, it was just really obvious how negative I was. And we did not have an HR department.”

Part of her PIP also included finishing tasks that the woman thought she and her manager had agreed were not immediate priorities. “I was furious. The sense of injustice was just, whew… I thought we had agreed on these things. And now you are covering that up? It’s hard for me to sit with someone going back on their word like that,” she said.

At the end of her 90-day PIP, she was let go.

Tardy noted that when people are put on PIPs to fix their personality, it’s “a moving target based on people’s opinions.” And when “someone is telling you to fix your personality, we are starting to enter biased territory. [A PIP] needs to be more concrete in talking about the specific behavior and how those specific behaviors are impacting the ability to deliver work.”

How to succeed if you’re placed on a PIP

What you see as a successful outcome to being placed on a PIP can vary, depending on whether you want to stay with the company or just show you did the best you could while you hunt for a better job opportunity.

Take your PIP as seriously as you can from the day you get it. Fischer said you should not shut down and get scared. “You have to be aggressive in your defense” by proactively going to HR and challenging any PIP goals that feel subjective, he said.

Whatever you consider to be your best-case outcome, don’t see the PIP as a sign of defeat ― see it as a tool you can leverage to get what you want.

Ask for clarity if you don’t have it.

A reasonable PIP should not leave you confused about what you need to address. If it does, you should feel empowered to ask for specifics. “It’s acceptable to say, ‘I don’t fully understand the performance issue’ or ‘Can you give me an example of when that behavior occurred?’ or ‘Can you give me examples of when you will know that this has been improved?’” Tardy said.

If your manager isn’t giving you good answers, escalate to your manager’s manager or someone in HR until you can get on the same page with someone, Tardy suggested.

“I wouldn’t escalate it saying, ‘I don’t agree with this. This is ludicrous,‘” Tardy said. “I would escalate under the premise of ‘I don’t have the clarity that I need. This is not as concrete as I need, and can somebody else give me the clarity I need so I can be successful on the other side of it?’”

De Ala shared an example of a time when she wished she had escalated her requests for more clarity. When De Ala worked for a tech sales company, her boss told her that she, along with her whole team, was being put on a 30-day “pre-performance improvement plan.”

This informal PIP had sales goals that were impossible to achieve in a tight timeline, and when De Ala asked about them, she said her boss “said he was looking for a new gig, and I should, too. So I did, but on my exit interview I was told... that my direct boss should not have framed it as a ‘pre-PIP’ and that I would have likely been fine.”

De Ala believes she should have asked more questions rather than rely on one conversation to decide to quit a job she enjoyed. “Don’t stop at your manager,” she said. “Ask People Ops questions, ask HR questions.”

Hold your manager accountable for supporting you.

A manager’s job is to help develop their team members and set them up for success. If your boss isn’t doing that while you are on a PIP, De Ala suggests asking them about it directly, with questions like “How will you support me in achieving this?”

This will “help hold your employers accountable to set you up for success and simultaneously act as a gauge on how much of an ally you have in your manager and team,” she said.

Keep a paper trail.

Fischer advised saving all work emails related to your performance and putting things in writing whenever possible. You should be keeping that feedback in some sort of file if you believe you might have a legal case of discrimination, he said.

“Even if you get no feedback, say, ‘I handed in whatever it is. Looks like I followed all your instructions. I didn’t hear anything to the contrary. Terrific working with you,‘” Fischer suggested. “And if a supervisor doesn’t respond, a fact-finder may look at that as ‘What do you want from a person? The employee did what the supervisor told her to do. The supervisor never contradicted that finding.’”

Get a lawyer involved early.

Fischer said employment lawyers familiar with PIPs “know the whole game” and can advise you on how to respond to your employer during the period of the PIP.

But Fischer said it’s critical to choose an employment attorney who understands what you do so they can be successful on your behalf. “If your lawyer doesn’t really understand your job, get a different lawyer,” he said.

Use the PIP period to see if the job is in alignment with your values.

How you are treated on a PIP can reveal a lot about how you are valued. “When you are put on a PIP, it’s really hard to feel safe again, and you might get realizations of ‘This isn’t really aligned [with my values]. If you really treat me this way, I want to be with a company that handles this better,’” De Ala said.

The California-based quality assurance manager who shared her PIP experience said that when she counsels friends on PIPs, she asks them questions about how they see the job getting better if they want to stay after it’s over.

“A lot of times we just want stability, and we’ll put up with a lot,” she said. “I do think of it as ’Here’s your opportunity to think about what you want. Are you really happy? What else is out there?’... And breaking out of that feeling of wanting that stability and the devil you know.”

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