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Performance Improvement Plans, or PIPs, tend to be one of the most veiled “secrets” that Human Resources keeps… it’s the bad, secretive “tool” that all employees dread. But that’s not what PIPs are supposed to be, and hopefully sharing some transparency will help you figure out what to do when you are heading down the PIP path.

Performance Improvement Plans Unveiled

PIPs were originally created by Human Resources professionals as a way to “properly” work an employee out of an organization. In a lawyer-happy environment, it is increasingly difficult to fire someone without the employee having some sort of claim of wrong-doing. So, HR being the over-concerned citizens that we are, figured out a loophole – tell people they are on notice and hope that they leave the company. That was several years ago – we have moved past that (in most cases).

But that is not the intent of PIP – not in an ethical company, at least.

A Performance Improvement Plan is just that – a very clear document that explicitly explains where there are real or perceived gaps in performance, and specific steps that the employee needs to take and milestones he/she needs to meet, to be at the expected level of performance. PIPs, when done properly, are actually a tool for the employee. With the information and guidance provided in the PIP, employees know exactly what needs to be addressed and how to succeed at their job, and ultimately stay employed.

Another thing to note is that some companies use PIPs as an absolute last resort. PIPs should never be a surprise to the employee – you should have had several conversations with your manager and even HR before an actual plan is presented to you. If you haven’t had any previous conversations, I would recommend scheduling some time with HR to discuss why the plan is such a surprise.

PIPs are not easy for HR or the manager to deliver, manage and employ. The amount of work that it takes to prepare a fair document with specific milestones and achievement levels, coupled with the ongoing documentation and meetings – PIPs are a huge pain in the a$! for all parties involved. And this plays into your favor.

And the most important thing for you to remember if you are presented with a PIP, is that you know exactly what you need to do, to deliver expectations. You are part of the process – and you should absolutely ensure that the expectations and timelines provided are attainable and not above “normal expectations.”

Basics of a PIP

Your PIP will have a strict timeline attached to it. They usually come in increments of 30, 60 or 90 days with 90 days being the most common option. And if you are the person being presented a PIP, requesting a 90 day timeline gives you more time to show consistent results. However, know that being under the microscope of a PIP for any length of time can be stressful, so be sure you are ready to be a superstar during your PIP timeframe.

A PIP of 30 days is unusually short, but can be instituted if the actions you are doing are causing the company harm, and/or if it needs immediate attention. Of all of the 30 day PIPs I have seen, about 85% of them have been extended for an additional 30 days – but this is not an option everywhere.

Your previous dates/conversations of performance improvement needs should be provided. This is a best practice, but not always adhered to. I would suggest requesting this information to be included if it is not – you want to be very clear and understand when and how the performance gap issues have been provided to you.

The areas that need improvement should be defined – specifically what you are doing incorrectly, and what success looks like. And success needs to be clearly defined as SMART goals – They are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. You will know clearly what you need to do, what you need to improve, how you need to do it better, and when you need to do it by.

And because we are talking about an HR document, there will also be some legalese in there about termination of employment if you are not successfully meeting standards, before, during and after the PIP. You are then asked to sign a copy and your manager will be asked to sign it as well.

Your Responsibilities (as the employee on the PIP)

Listen closely – YOUR SUCCESS ON A PIP IS 100% RELIANT ON WHAT YOU, ALONE DO. Got that? So it is up to you to drive the PIP bus and make sure that you are always keeping your attention and focus on meeting the set-forth expectations of the PIP. You are also responsible for reaching out to your manager, HR, or other colleagues to help you achieve success on the plan.

No one cares about your career as much as you do – so do not rely on your manager to “help you” through the process. Your effort and your commitment are being evaluated, so even if you think you do not need anyone else’s input, as for it. They may have additional resources available that you are not aware of, and they will be on your team when your PIP is at completion.

Do not freak out! A PIP is not meant to be a huge black mark of death, in fact, it’s kinda the opposite – you will now know exactly what you should be focusing on and how to keep your job. The gray area has been erased and it should be crystal clear.

Do not waste any time on your PIP sulking or fighting the “fairness” of it all. If you do have concerns, be sure to bring them up professionally and appropriately, but do not lash out about the process – it’s your perceived performance gap that got you in that place, so you can use those same efforts to pull yourself out of it.

People are not talking about you – well, let me rephrase that: in a truly professional work environment, the only people who will be aware of your PIP are your direct manager and HR. Your colleagues will not know about the situation and they will not be privy to your “under-performance.” I suggest you keep the details under wraps unless you need to partner with someone for a specific area of need. PIPs are not meant to ostracize you or make you feel bad about your performance, simply – they are there to help you succeed.

Sample PIP

Every company has a different form, but here is an example so you can see what you can expect, should you ever be in the position of being on a PIP.

Download a Sample PIP Template