How performance improvement plans backfire against the workers they're supposed to help

PIPs are controversial for a reason, but they don’t have to be the kiss of death. Here’s how to navigate one.

A PIP 101 guide

Employers often rely on PIPs as a way of “covering their bases.”

Photo illustration: Unsplash; Protocol

Few terms strike as much terror into the hearts of tech workers as “PIP,” otherwise known as performance improvement plan.

In theory, PIPs are meant to help the people who are placed on them to get back on track and succeed at their jobs. In practice, they are often a box-checking mechanism for employers looking for legal protection before firing someone. According to lawyers, HR experts and tech workers that spoke to Protocol, PIPs are more often than not the kiss of death and — in the hands of the wrong manager — leave little room for employees to actually improve their performance and come out alive, even if they make a good-faith effort.

Mark Carey is a managing partner at Carey & Associates, an employment law firm based in Connecticut. In his experience, only about 5% to 10% of PIPs result in an employee staying on at the firm.

Employers often rely on PIPs as a way of “covering their bases” and preventing liability in the case that the employee sues, often on the advice of their legal counsel, according to Carey. In those cases, “these PIPs are not intended to be survivable; the employee is not going to win.” In his view, PIPs can be an effective device to “build a cause basis” and are often used in court as evidence to support the argument that there were performance issues. As a result, courts will often side with employers during litigation, he said.

Still, some experts view PIPs as an important albeit unpleasant reality of the working world. And while tricky, designing a fair one is still possible, according to Allison Rutledge-Parisi, the SVP of People at Justworks, an HR software firm. The most important thing is to make the goals realistic and concrete. Experts suggest relying on the SMART acronym: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

The experts Protocol spoke to agreed that it's unwise to terminate a worker without alerting them of their issues and giving them a chance to improve, which is the purpose of a PIP. The tricky part is the latter: actually giving that employee a true shot at improving. When it comes to that, managers should not set goals that are “too aggressive” and unfair, according to Sheeva Ghassemi-Vanni, a partner at Fenwick & West LLP who advises companies on employment matters. On the flip side, the bar also shouldn’t be too low, because that would set an unrealistic expectation of performance going forward.

‘If somebody needs to be put on a PIP, it’s because there is no recovering for them’

Emily, who requested Protocol use a pseudonym because she signed a nondisclosure agreement, was put on a PIP at the end of 2019 by her manager at a B2B SaaS company that went public in 2020.

Emily had been at the company for five years and had been promoted every year, starting as a specialist on the marketing team and ultimately moving up to marketing director in the months leading up to the PIP. “I loved this company,” she said. Immediately before the PIP, the company was purchased by another company. Emily’s boss was fired after the merger, and she was subsequently given his job, which reported to the CMO herself.

This CMO was under a lot of pressure from the new CEO “to do a ton of things fast,” things that were handled exclusively by Emily’s team. “She would put a lot of that pressure on me,” she said. Emily says she would get calls at 1 a.m. for small things, like making an edit to an ad. She says she started pushing back, insisting on spending more time testing things before implementing them. That was when she found out the CMO had started asking her direct reports to pull the trigger on things that Emily had resisted, going behind her back.

Emily requested a 1:1 meeting with the CMO, writing in an email to her, “I want to have a great working relationship with you. I’ve been having a really hard time lately. Can we have a 1:1 to talk about the chain of command? How do you see me being successful in this role? What can I do to get back on track?” Protocol reviewed this email and others provided by Emily.

“I wish I had a recording of [the meeting], because I just remember being appalled,” Emily reflected. She told Protocol that, during this meeting, the CMO told her that she was difficult to work with, that she needed to be more likable and that even the CEO — whom Emily had never directly worked with — didn’t like her. After this meeting, Emily sent a letter to the head of HR voicing her concerns and asking for advice on how to handle her deteriorating relationship with her manager. She asked that the correspondence be kept anonymous.

Emily met with that HR manager shortly afterward, and that meeting went even more poorly than her first meeting with her manager. She says the HR manager asked her, “Well, why don’t you just leave?” Emily was shocked and “devastated,” because, at that point, “my work was my life.” She started crying in the glass-walled office, thinking she was about to get fired. She explained to the HR manager that she couldn’t leave because the company had not paid out the entirety of a sum of money that was promised to her through the terms of a buyout. These remaining payments amounted to over six figures and were to be doled out in each of her paychecks over the course of the next two years. The HR manager then explained that she could probably pay her the rest as a lump sum immediately.

“I walked in trying to get help to make my job better and to be happier here, and then leaving being told that I should just leave” was upsetting and shocking, she said. After that meeting, she emailed the HR manager requesting that a formalized separation agreement be sent so that she could review it. In response, the HR manager disputed the terms that Emily said were set out, and attached a written PIP in her reply. She copied Emily’s manager, the CMO, in that email, which revealed the entire chain — including Emily’s initial email about her relationship with her manager, which she had requested remain confidential. Suddenly, it was all out there for her manager to see.

PIPs are ‘not the right tool every time’

The terms of Emily’s PIP were unusual and not performance-related: “You can’t lie, you can’t be emotional and you have to better manage conflicts with teammates.” Emily then met with her manager and the HR manager every morning for the course of the abbreviated 14-day PIP. Each morning, she says she would answer the questions, “Have you cried in any meetings? Have you been overly emotional? Have you lied? And have you gotten along with your team?”

PIPs can be the right performance management tool for certain situations, “but they’re just not the right tool every time,” according to Ghassemi-Vanni.

Where they are not a good tool, in her opinion, is for behavioral issues: say, being rude to or not getting along with a co-worker. If a PIP says, “Don’t be a jerk,” that isn’t a goal that is very objective or measurable. In those cases, Ghassemi-Vanni steers her clients toward a documented performance discussion instead, as a way to alert the employee of the issue and create a record.

The morning of the last day of her PIP, Emily met with the HR manager. Emily asked her what her next steps would be, given that it didn’t seem like they had run into any issues. “I’ve never been on better behavior” than during the course of her PIP, she said. The HR manager responded vaguely, and they agreed to meet the next day together with her manager. That day, Emily agreed to sign an NDA and in return be paid out the remainder of what she was owed, as well as receive a letter of recommendation from the CMO.

In her opinion, Emily was put on the PIP so that if she were to fail on any of the measures, the company could have an excuse to not pay out the money she was owed from the buyout. She wishes that the situation had been handled differently, that HR had “acted a bit more professionally” and helped facilitate a conversation between her and her manager. In her opinion, PIPs are “absolutely designed to get people out.” As a manager herself, she sees that “if somebody needs to be put on a PIP, it’s because there is no recovering for them.

‘They just went with her word over mine’

PIPs can frustrate workers when the terms are vague, subjective or impossible to measure. That was the case for Betsey Trudeau, a compliance specialist at Red Ventures from 2015 to 2020. She was put on a PIP at the end of 2020, when her manager said she wasn’t meeting the workload that was required of her.

Trudeau’s main issue was that the goals her manager outlined with her PIP were hard to quantify. One of them, for example, was to be a subject matter expert for the team, which she maintains that she already was. She also felt that the PIP was not done in good faith, and that it was “all done to remove me.” On the last week of her PIP, during their weekly 1:1 meeting, Trudeau’s manager told her, “It doesn’t seem like you’re going to make it.” She was discouraged because, she said, “I didn't even have my manager’s confidence that anything I’ve done has made any difference.”

Trudeau feels that the PIP was retaliatory, as it happened soon after she had gone to higher-ups on the team and asked for a promotion as well as better and more communication from her manager, who would frequently cancel their 1:1 meetings. She was denied the promotion and told that they weren’t up for consideration at midyear, despite the fact that she knew her manager had received one. Trudeau was also the only compliance specialist for her vertical, and there was a $12,000 salary difference between her title and the compliance manager role, which she felt she was performing.

In Carey’s experience, retaliatory PIPs are quite common, as high as 75% of the cases that he’s witnessed. He calls it a “designed punishment mechanism,” often issued when an employee complains about a manager. Carey thinks companies often rely on PIPs simply because it’s the default management tool, a kind of “follow the leader” approach doled out without any consideration of its effect on employee retention or corporate morale.

Trudeau asked her manager if she could be moved to a different team after the PIP was completed, at which point they said, “You have to complete the PIP, and it doesn’t look like you’re going to.” Trudeau said at that point, she had a “full-blown” panic attack, and doesn’t remember what happened. They told her afterward that she had cursed at her manager. They then agreed that she was going to take a medical leave of absence to address her stress and depression. They set up a meeting to discuss this plan the next day. At that meeting, according to Trudeau, she was instead fired.

“It was very upsetting, because I enjoyed the company I worked for, having been there for five and a half years,” she said. Trudeau was active in several employee resource groups and often volunteered to help out with audiovisuals at company events. She said she wishes they had moved her to another team, since she had a track record of working well with others and being a compliance expert prior to being assigned this manager. “They just went with her word over mine,” she said.

Red Ventures did not respond to Protocol’s request for comment.

What to do if you’ve been put on a PIP

Carey also recommends that people who’ve been placed on a PIP gather documentation to support their rebuttals. Break the PIP into its subcomponents and use facts to rebut each point, if possible. If you’re able to, it’s likely that there is “something else going on,” like gender or age bias. He also cautions clients to “not get emotional” and instead use facts to push back against any groundless claims. Even if you don’t win, it sends a signal to the company that the PIP will be challenged, giving the employee more leverage in potential severance negotiations.

As someone who has been through the process herself, the biggest piece of advice Emily has for people who’ve been placed on PIPs is to document everything. She thinks that a big reason why she was able to come out of that company with the six figure-payout she was owed was because she had documented her conversations with her manager and the HR manager over email, so that the latter had to be “held accountable for things that she said that she either didn’t mean or didn’t want people to know she said.”

How do you implement a PIP correctly?

HR experts have some tips for managers who want to conduct a PIP in good faith. For starters, the acronym itself comes with so much baggage, it’s worth considering calling it something else. “It has come to mean, ‘We’re going to fire you,’” said Rutledge-Parisi. She prefers to frame it to employees as, “We’re going to write out a plan to help you get back on track.”

At HR software firm Lattice, PIPs are instead called “performance success plans” for this very reason. According to the company’s VP of People, Dave Carhart, “a large number of people internally certainly are successful on them.”

The second tip is to make sure you do everything you can to give as much feedback and constructive criticism to the employee in question first before you resort to a PIP, Rutledge-Parisi added. The person who is put on a PIP should not be surprised about the issues that are raised in the PIP. If they are, you’re not doing your job as a manager. Think weekly 1:1s, explicit written feedback and frequent check-ins.

A PIP should never be the first step, Carhart said. The company culture should also be one where people feel “safe and empowered to give each other constructive feedback,” he said. There really should be “some level of progressive discipline” before you even get to a PIP, said Ghassemi-Vanni. “Earlier intervention is the best medicine.”

One way to guard against ever having to put someone on a PIP? Invest more in onboarding, recommended Carhart. Specifically, when an employee joins the company, write down a 30-, 60- or 90-day “success plan” for them: This is what success looks like, and these are my expectations as a manager.

PIPs don’t have to mean termination, and in fact they shouldn’t, experts agree. At Justworks, more of them lead to “true improvement” than firing, according to Rutledge-Parisi.

As to whether or not it’s possible to move past a PIP once it’s successfully completed without a bad taste in the employee’s mouth, Rutledge-Parisi said it depends on the manager’s “ability to convey support and empathy while being direct and constructive.”

Also, make sure you’re having frequent check-ins during the course of the PIP, as well as giving the employee ample time to complete it. 30 days should be the minimum amount of time for a PIP; any shorter “feels a bit fake and draconian,” she said. The PIP should be long enough for the employee to actually be able to “demonstrate progress against the things that they’re falling short on,” Carhart said.

When putting an employee on a PIP, Rutledge-Parisi recommends managers focus on “impact, not emotion,” which feels less accusatory and lowers defenses. A manager could say, “On this date and time, you did these three things, and the impact of what you did was the following. I’m sure that wasn’t your intention, but that was the impact.”

If you know that you’re going to fire someone, maybe a PIP is not the right choice, Ghassemi-Vanni said. Ask yourself: If this employee blows the PIP out of the water, would you still fire them? If the answer is yes, a PIP is not a good idea, because “legally and optically, you’re going to be in a much worse position.”

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