Performance Improvement Plans—Doing Right by Struggling Employees

A Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) can be a valuable tool in helping an employee who has gotten off track recover and recommit to performance goals. Sadly, some employers see a PIP as a means to vaccinate them from harm as they prepare to terminate an employee. This is wrong, costly, and sends the wrong message to the wider workforce. If employers truly want to use a PIP for what it is designed to accomplish, they need to adhere to the objective of improving and reintegrating an employee who is not meeting the grade.

The first step is to have an objective PIP template on file. This will prevent managers from designing them for specific employees when they are frustrated with an individual and are possibly tempted to set unreasonable performance goals. This template should be used throughout the company, so that the employer can show it is using the same performance standards company-wide.

Managers should meet with HR in advance of a meeting with the employee, both to set reasonable goals, check one’s implicit bias or frustration level, and discuss the best methods and timeline to help the employee get back on track.

For employees, notice of a PIP may come as a surprise, or something that they’ve been dreading for a while. Regardless, the key is to understand how one’s current performance is being perceived and the specifics required to improve. Ask questions. If you foresee obstacles, raise those concerns early on. If the PIP goals seem unreasonable, ask for more time to achieve them, or for specific support from management, such as extra training, or partnering with successful co-workers on projects.

Make sure you understand the plan, and then proactively ask a manager about your performance if meetings aren’t regularly scheduled. Don't assume that no news is good news. Some employers will use a PIP as a waiting game to force an employee out, knowing that it creates doubt, anxiety and uncertainty—none of which are conducive to improving the performance of anything.

Work hard to maintain a positive attitude. If you want the job, fight for it.