Performance improvement plans (PIP) are old tools of HR. Employees view them with a jaundiced eye: get one and get ready to get out. But you may be surprised to learn that their primary purpose is right there in the name—to improve your performance, not end your employment.
If your manager is working with HR to write a comprehensive plan that’s crafted to help you do a better job, there’s an excellent chance that their end game is to manage you back onto the team. Despite how low a PIP may make you feel, you can take steps to make the process less painful and remain employed (if the latter is what you want).
“Historically PIPs have gotten a bad rap,” said Dianna Wilusz, founder and CEO of organizational consultancy The Pendolino Group in Silicon Valley. While employees believe PIPs are solely for documenting what will ultimately become a termination, she noted, they’re more often used to reconcile a mismatch of expectations and/or perception. The “managing back in” mindset is particularly critical in technology fields where recruiting and retaining skilled employees is costly.
If you’ve had ongoing problems at work that have resulted in conversations with management, it’s possible a PIP is on the horizon. When one arrives, it’s often a real blow.
“Sometimes they really don’t see it coming and there’s poor communication between the manager and employee,” Wilusz said. “Or they know that some things needed to be worked on and thought they were making progress and then there’s a PIP that signals that sufficient progress wasn’t being made.” Whatever the cause, Wilusz stresses the importance of recipients understanding that their manager is still invested in their success.
“My first advice would be to assess the situation,” said Trish O’Brien, director of human resources at Caliper, a talent-management company in Princeton, New Jersey. She advises PIP recipients to consider everything that’s happened on the job and to read between the lines during the initial PIP meeting. While she’s frank with employees during these meetings, letting them know if she’s documenting toward either a termination or a turnaround, she acknowledges that some employers aren’t so transparent. “Asking good questions is important,” she said. “You have to know if it’s at all workable.”
Focus on what your manager is saying. If there’s a long list of behavioral complaints and you’ve been told you’re not doing the job, maybe you’re not cut out for the role. But if your manager offers up a list of communication improvements and performance recommendations, there’s a good chance they want to work things out.
Wilusz coaches her managers to anticipate shock or denial—which are normal reactions in a stressful situation—and believes that the employee should be given the opportunity to voice their thoughts about their performance: “It’s kind of like the stages of grief.” If you want to rebut aspects of the PIP, you can do so—just keep in mind that whatever you say or do must be carefully finessed. Your position on the “grief” curve is usually a good indicator of the effectiveness of prior communication between you and your manager.
If you want to stay in your current role, carefully consider how you set the stage. O’Brien suggests that, if you strongly disagree with the evaluation, you can explain (both in person and in writing) where you feel the PIP has diverged from what you perceive as reality. Remain composed while doing so; stick to the facts as you see them and avoid loaded language. You don’t want to be perceived as refusing the opportunity to improve the situation.
Ultimately, both sides must come to a point of conciliation. You have to accept management’s stipulations and be ready to make a change.
While you don’t have to greet a PIP with joyful enthusiasm, responsive employees have a much better chance of having one work out for them. Validate your employer’s concerns by acknowledging and agreeing that there are issues that need work, and be open to receiving and discussing constructive criticism. It will go a long way toward allowing you all to move forward.
Wilusz advocates approaching any performance review as if you’re all in it together. “Recognize it as a chance to get good feedback and improve your skills and abilities, as well as deepen communication between you and your manager,” she said. “If you can be open to seeing it as a way to grow and develop, it will end in a much more positive place.”