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Susan M. Heathfield

Is a PIP the First Step in Firing an Employee?

By August 13, 2012

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Interested in performance improvement plans? PIPs are a popular topic with readers because so many organizations do them wrong and use them for all of the wrong reasons. I receive many questions from readers in email and when a question might interest other readers, I share them. Can you add to my advice from your experience?

Reader Question:

In terms of Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs), how does a manager do them? Is it appropriate for the manager to go "fishing" for feedback from other managers about the person on the PIP?

For example, if someone is serving their client group, and is put on a PIP, how does the manager find out if building trust has improved for the person on the PIP without asking each week for feedback from the client group? Is this the right procedure?

Also, in your experience, do PIP's really work? Or are they usually just a start of a paper trail to build up legal defense to fire someone? I am a fellow human resources professional and I have not had experience administering PIPs before and I don't know if my boss is doing them right?

My Response:

Yes, I have seen PIPs succeed many times and sometimes they don't succeed, too. With motivated employees who went astray, it is as if you finally got their attention. I sometimes liken a PIP to hitting someone up side their head with a two by four since no other performance coaching seemed to be working. (Really, I'm a non-violent person.)

Following a successful PIP, the key for the manager is vigilance. You cannot allow the employee to slip back into the performance that earned him or her the PIP in the first place. I never do a second PIP because, at some point, our adult employees need to take responsibility for his or her own performance and success. (To be honest, I don't really like to do them the first time because of the manager's and the Human Resources staff time they take for development and feedback. And, one more time, these are adults. Right?)

To answer the next part of your question, it is appropriate for a manager to confidentially solicit employee feedback or improvement from another manager, as long as that manager is the customer of the employee's service. Feedback from another manager is also appropriate if the second manager directs part of the employee's work or a team on which the employee participates. It is not appropriate to solicit performance feedback from employees, unless the solicitation is part of an informal or formal 360 feedback process.

A PIP is often the start of paperwork that will eventually result in employment termination. That should not be the goal of the PIP although I suspect, in many organizations, it is. With this potential in mind, however, you need to make sure that:

  • the goals are completely relevant to the job,
  • enough detail exists to enable the employee to succeed,
  • as much as possible, the goals are measurable, or if not measurable, the expected outcomes are described in such a way that the manager, HR and the employee can agree whether they were reached or not.

Meet with the employee every couple of weeks to discuss progress. Document all follow-up meetings and progress - or lack thereof. If you see little progress occurring despite these best efforts, it's time to consider firing the employee.

Perhaps readers will add to what I have suggested from their experience. Please respond in comments.

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January 23, 2009 at 2:01 pm
(1) Shawn says:

Such a timely post.

A PIP should never be the first step toward kicking an employee out the door. Nor should a PIP be the first ‘official notification’ that an employee’s performance needs improvement. A PIP is a formal plan (preceded by a documented verbal/written reminder) that there is a problem. It is enacted only after there has been a discussion with the employee. Yes, as you state, it can be a whack with a 2X4, but sometimes that’s what it takes.

The intent is to actually get the employee’s attention and put some tools in place to help him/her succeed. If the employee does not respond, then it is best that they leave the organization to find another place to be successful.

January 26, 2009 at 5:38 am
(2) Bob says:

PIP is our 3rd stage in the progressive discipline process – which aligns with most textbooks. After verbal and written counseling, the next stage is PIP – fourth stage is termination. The PIP works well – about half of the employees succeed – and are given a letter saying that they completed their PIP successfully. The othe half are termed – and it eliminates the element of surprise. Using the PIP forces managers to take action they might not normally take with employees who are not measuring up – these managers allow their employees to go for months at below standard performance. By using PIPs, there is a process that results in action – by addressing performance issues in a logical and consistent manner.

January 29, 2009 at 4:25 pm
(3) Keith H. says:

PIPs are great as long as the supervisors buy into them as well. It becomes similar to management by objectives (MBO) in that the supervisor must set SMART goals in concert with the employee and then MUST monitor the success or failure of the employee to attain the (mutually set) goals over time, including being able to sit down and modify the goals with the employee needed. It’s a process for improvement, not a goal in and of itself. Our problem is supervisors being too busy to really monitor and help when and as needed. By having the ee and supervisor work together on the goals, the goals become more realistic for the ee, since they have participated in the goal setting. Doing it WITH us, not having it done TO them. Spending the time on this as a team is less expensive both monitarily and morale-wise than term-and-rehire.

January 30, 2009 at 8:50 am
(4) Ellen says:

I was personally targeted with a PIP and felt that my employer was trying to get rid of me rather than help me to succeed. Honestly in that particular company everyone knew that once you were put on a PIP it was the beginning of the end. I had worked at this company for 16 years and had advanced from a secretary to a high level manager. I am a creative, out-of-the-box, over-achiever and management didn’t like my style; though in my position, I got results. It was a very painful experience and I got a lawyer and we settled out of court. The entire process was humiliating and degrading. And as you said, we are adults and I felt like I was being treated like a child. That was over a year ago and I am still dealing with self-esteem issues…

July 20, 2010 at 1:02 pm
(5) Ronnie says:

As Ellen mentions, my former Fortune 500 company also uses the PIP as the beginning of the end, a paper trail. Regardless of how well you complete the plan, there is nothing you can do, no specifics are ever given. Once your boss makes up his/her mind to let you go, its over and HR supports management, not employees. It was extremely humiliating since I was a very well respected professional for over 15 yrs with no incidences. I too had to settle with an attorney since they only offered me 2 weeks pay after close to 2 decades of loyal service. It is very clear that they have been pushing out women over 45 yrs of age and replacing them with 20 somethings. Yet without a lawsuit nothing will ever happen to them and they will continue doing what they want.

August 3, 2010 at 7:20 am
(6) James says:

I was subject to a totally unjustified PIP last year basically because I did not want to sleep with the director of the department. This director pushed my manager and dotted-line manager to do a PIP while hiding behind the scenes. It was awful. For a start it was full of questionable criticism and all sorts of unjustified/non-existent “performance issues” but when you are in that situation there’s very little you can do. My advice is do not fight it go with the flow and “turn things around”. Being a top performer and probably the best performing employee in my whole team/department it was really a shocking experience.

It was clearly the beginning of the end or at least that was the idea. After several months of close “performance monitoring” it was concluded that I had “resolved” all my “performance” issues (there were never there in the first place!). I believe my manager had some integrity left and realised it was totally unjustified although I did have to carefully suggest to her the reasons behind it (I was never told that the director had prompted the whole thing but it was easy to guess!).

I believe morale and integrity prevailed and they marked my PIP as completed successfully. However, I have now this in my HR record forever and my career progression possibilities have been damaged permanently.

My advice if you are a Manager having to do a PIP is only do this if there’s a real issue, a serious issue. Keep your integrity and do not do this if you are asked to do it just to complete a trail of paperwork to get rid of someone. Only address real and serious performance issues and do not let anyone pressure you. FYI the above happened in London in a quite well know company.

May 21, 2012 at 6:11 pm
(7) Bob says:

I am in the process of being put on a PIP. I am not sure what to expect. All I can tell you that in no way did I have any incling that there was a problem. I accepted a new role in this company after having been a contractor for a couple of years in another department. The supervisor I had was someone who was a customer of mine in a previous job who really liked my follow through and performance. After spending a year and half in this role, my supervisor had me reassigned to another section within his department. I have the same role as when I left. Five months later, I received my performance feedback from my new supervisor and was told that I was being put on a PIP. He told me he did not agree with it but it was being pushed by my previous manager who is ultimately his boss. The crazy thing is I have always been a top performer and did not receive any written feedback that there was ever an issue. Now I am heading towards the PIP process, and believe me, it is humiliating.

June 2, 2012 at 11:11 pm
(8) Diana says:

Can you be put on a pip without any counseling or any write ups? I’m an hourly assistant manager. Until 3 weeks ago, I thought I was doing a great job! I was also told by my manager several times I was doing a great job. I got my yearly review and guess what? I was put on a pip! Can someone explain to me if this is legal? (It’s not illegal. But, it’s terribly poor practice. No employee should ever be put on a PIP without lots of coaching, counseling, and warning. The PIP is usually the last chance opportunity for the employer to communicate with the employee and the goal should be improvement. Go to HR or ask your manager for clarification. If you can afford to lose your job over a pissed off manager, go to his boss.)

August 14, 2012 at 10:47 pm
(9) Less says:

I, too, was on a PIP, as an employee for a Fortune 500 company. No warning it was coming and was verbally told that I had satisfied all of the conditions and had cleared this phase.

Then had confidence issues from the PIP, confided in my manager and felt that he avoided me after this, the few interactions we did have, it felt like he thought everything I did was wrong. Then got walked out the door.

Very confusing to go from being a top employee to getting an out of the blue PIP, to resolving it, and then being walked out!

November 29, 2012 at 10:49 pm
(10) joy says:

I can totally understand. I was hired by a fortune 500 and was put on a plan within my first year! I hardly had time to get my foot in the door. However, I really wanted to prove myself and had always been very successful, so I excelled in my sales and actually went over my quota for the year! Guess what? I got fired anyway. They stated it was for non-performance… The funny thing is, I had made a compaint about another co-worker harassing me, then the next week I was fired. I had met all of the performance “requirements” (which were basically outlined so that I could make the quota) which I exceeded. I was devastated to say the least! I am in depression, lost my medical insurance and me and my husband were under a doctor’s care at the time. The company never even paid me what they owed me in commissions either- I finally decided to hire an attorney. Not much more I can do. Hopefully I will get justice.

December 24, 2012 at 3:14 pm
(11) joy says:

Follow up on my last comment… I did get an attorney who later discovered that not only was I terminated “illegally”, but he found a total of 12 complaints that he recently filed against my employer! Sexual Harassment, Sexual Discrimination, Retalliation, Wrongful Terrmination; waiting time penalties, Failure to provide wage statements, accurate wage statements, Failure to pay disputed wages, and unfair business practices and conversion!! After reading the complaint, I was in tears. I must say, I am starting to feel as if there is a light at the end of a long long dark tunnel!! I did get a very good attorney who has extensive experience dealing with fortune 500. Good luck to you all – I will keep you posted.

January 6, 2013 at 11:05 pm
(12) Lynn says:

I have not been put on a PIP yet, however I was just informed by my supervisor that I will be getting my yearly review next week and my guess is that this is the road it is going down, “PIP”. I have 15 years of successful employment as a corporate executive with stellar reviews, work ethics and over achiever. Now I work for a bully boss who has to always have a target, unfortunately it is now me. I have worked for this company for one year now having left a very good job where I was very happy, however this new company offered me an opportunity to advance. Since I have worked for this company my supervisor has terminated 3 employees, all very good workers. My boss is 15 years younger than me with a VP title and prefers to hire younger people. She is extremely disrespectful to me, even in the presence of other employees and has gone up to 3 weeks without communicating with me, hence zero direction. The kicker to all of this is that at the start of my employment she shared information about our CEO (her direct boss) and his wife that was nothing but very ugly gossip and defaming. I recently reminded her about this, based on a conversation we were having, to let her know it is incorrect, etc… She has since treated me worse than ever, even to the point of lying and saying that I am difficult to manage. This has been the worse year of my working career and yes, I am looking for new employment.

January 11, 2013 at 1:01 am
(13) Connie says:

Wouldn’t it be simpler if the human resources department reviewed the management styles of these managers that are using lots of PIPs.

Human resources can encourage the uptake of realistic goal setting and performance development plans.

Feedback indicated that Management by objectives and SMART goal setting are not the same as a PIP.

A PIP is something where an employee is singled out. In most of the examples provided in the feedback, the employee is singled out, not due to lack of good performance, but rather due to being targeted because some manager does not want them to remain in an organisation.

It would be interesting to find out if it is IR or HR that is supporting PIPs rather than access equity and team goal setting.

January 21, 2013 at 2:58 am
(14) Jane B. says:

My PIP story. The first and only time I had this suggested to me was immediately after I (naively) went to HR to complain that my manager was harassing me. The story, which is actually interesting, is that my 50+ year old psychotic manager had a crush on a 21 year old intern. She suspected me of talking with him too much and pulled me into a conference room and, while not physically touching me, backed me into a corner and brought her face a few inches from mine and proceeded to shout threats at me to stay away from this intern. I left the room shocked and crying and went to the bathroom to gather myself. There I encountered a fellow employee whom I didn’t know (I had only been at this job for two weeks) but I blurted out my experience and she shook her head and basically hinted at this being common behavior for this woman. So anyway, HR’s solution was a PIP, oh and also a series of training courses for me to learn how to better work with management. Luckily I saw it as a setup and resigned, but really should have sued. Sorry, I sort of went off topic, but this is what I think of every time I hear the letters PIP.

January 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm
(15) discriminated employee fec says:

Yes-it is writing on a wall. I worked for a fed agency and was the most productive employee. After 8 years I was put on PIP for no reason. The racist management acted after I applied for a position in the department. They did every thing to make me quit-ridiculing, harassment, retaliation, racial discrimination and what not. I was the only employee who was subjected to minute wise monitoring and had to report every thing on an hourly, daily, weekly and monthly negative evaluation. The work I did was appreciated by many customers. Unfortunately management was racist and biased and did every thing to put me down. The PIP was based on false allegations and a good retaliatory and discriminatory tool. It worked according to their plan and discriminatory motives and made them happy to fulfill and practice their racial and discriminatory motives. All the management and HR coordinated in this coercive action. I feel ashamed that I came to work for this racist office in the first place, funded by tax payers money. I am well over 100% sure that PIP is a
discriminatory tool and a way of taking out a hard working employee for a racist management.

February 22, 2013 at 8:27 pm
(16) 918QBN says:

In Maywood, PIPs were used all the time by administration when they retaliated against employees. The chief of police and his henchmen would use PIPs, then terminate the officer, and bring in “their” guys to lucrative paying positions. Yes, a PIP shouldn’t be used as a firing method. But unfortunately it is.

February 24, 2013 at 1:44 pm
(17) Emma says:

I need to put an employee on a PIP in the next week or so. My boss is now insisting that I go on sales calls with this employee during this time. Doesn’t this sound like a dicey situation? Not only am I traveling with a person who may or may not take the PIP to mean “I’m being pushed out” but who could also use anything said on these trips against myself or the company?

I’ve put two people on PIPs during my time with the company. I genuinely do it in an attempt to help the employee. I ended up being able to keep both people which was great. I know this is not always the case, but I feel it’s my job as a manager to try and fix the situation if I can. I just feel that traveling with the employee while this is going on may be awkward, particularly because everyone assumes they’re about to be fired…..thoughts?

April 16, 2013 at 1:34 pm
(18) Patricia says:

I have found PIPs to be helpful as a formal step in improving areas of performance that were being ignored, even after coaching and counseling had occurred.
Frankly, creating and administering a PIP is time consuming and takes effort to write, deliver, and then provide appropriate follow up with a final written notice whether the PIP has been completed successfully or not.
There are much easier ways to amass documentation to fire a low performing employee. PIPs are generally used when you sincerely believe the employee can be brought to the point of performing the job well.
It is interesting that some responded that they were put on a PIP even though they hadn’t done anything wrong, the PIP was a total surprise, there was no other notice given, etc. If the PIP were in fact being used to document failed performance to justify termination, their reasoning seems illogical because the employee could have been terminated for such poor performance immediately rather than being put on a PIP and dragging it out over time.
However, I realize that if these issues occurred in states that are not Right to Work, or if a labor union was involved, the additional effort and paper trail may have been necessary to prove reasons for firing.
Sadly, I have seen wonderful people lose their jobs because they could not perform the job as was expected. They may have been high performers in other companies, under other supervisors, or in different situations, but rarely have I ever seen a PIP created just to fire someone without any reason.

May 28, 2013 at 1:17 pm
(19) Dadedi says:

Patricia (18) above is absolutely wrong. PIPS are used when the supervisor can’t prove the employee is under-performing. Most PIPs are used in situations where someone is performing well. I am a clear example. My supervisor put me on one and fired me. I can prove that she wanted to keep me but the only reason why she put me on a PIP was because someone told her, I was looking for employment elsewhere. Interestingly, I was only leaving the job because the other offer was 19k more than my past position. Otherwise, I liked everything about the place including her. This is what happened. We had a great working relationship, I knew she was unstable. She came back from vacation and we had a good chat. In fact she was so excited to see me. Then within the fraction of a hour, someone shared with her that I had interviewed for a position at work. It was not really an interview, it was more like an offer from the other company, because we discussed salary. But they wanted to still talk to my supervisor. Within an hour of being friendly to me, she met me in the hallway and uttered the words, “How can you do this to me?” I tried to talk to her and she said she was not talking. I said fine. She avoided me the next day and then a day later, she called me into the office and started off by saying that I was a top performer – blah blah blah and then she told me that she was forced to give me a PIP to try and justify my position in the face of impending cuts. So I thought, fair enough and asked her repeatedly if she would recommend me for jobs. She said yes. Anyway, I was gullible and sat there for another month, waiting for the other company to go through with their offer. They did after three weeks, they sent her a form to fill out. She sent the form back, only confirming my dates of employment and not saying anything else. Anyway, needless to say, a week later (exactly a month since the PIP) she fired me!

May 28, 2013 at 1:18 pm
(20) dadedi says:

….. so as I was saying…The reason cited by my boss was “Performance issues.” A PIP is an abuse of power in most cases. They are used by cowards that do not want their employees to develop and grow. If I were in her position, I would actually support an employee looking to move to greener pastures. Why do what she did? Why tell someone he is a top performer which you and he already knows then turn around and say the person is not a top performer? I have not heard back from the other organization, I am still holding out hope but I am confused.

June 4, 2013 at 12:54 pm
(21) Rishav says:

All need to understand is that an employee, if placed under PIP, is given an exceptionally sensitive and critical project to execute, which is being awaited with baited breath.

If such a situation is arising, what does it mean?

August 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm
(22) Romney says:

just completed my 7th year in the company last month. I from scale of 1-5 I received 3, 4 and 5′s, a pretty good evaluation and received my merit increase. On the employee feedback section, I questioned a few comments. When I turned it in to my supervisor, two other administrators questioned me. They wanted to know why I had attached those questions. I said I thought that was my right to be able to ask there. Long story short, a week latter I received a meeting invite to talk to my manager, an administrator and our program director. It felt like an ambush from the beginning, I was told we were meeting to discuss my performance? Remember I had just received my evaluation a week prior. They started to say things like we hear you are not working well with others, some of my traveling got questioned, and the worst one was that I was not keeping my manager informed on my day to day work? Now that got me by surprise. I am one of the managers for my unit and feel that my supervisors retaliated because I questioned some scores. We do have a corporate office and I do not know if I should take it up above my director to CEO? What can I do? If they retaliated on evaluation will they retaliate if I go to corporate?

August 4, 2013 at 1:22 pm
(23) Susan Heathfield says:

Without knowing more about the situation including the nature of your comments, etc. this is a tough call. It depends on your workplace. It sounds as if the second meeting was with your boss and that person’s boss, so my recommended first step, which is to go to your boss’s boss, seems already unavailable as an option. When you take it above their heads, you always risk retaliation and hard feelings. Retaliation is the fastest rising EEOC lawsuit currently because companies don’t learn and they don’t control all of the actions of individual, clueless employees.

I would certainly document each step that you experience including new performance comments outside the review, and call on any witnesses you may have. But, if you go above their heads, be prepared to lose your job – maybe not now – but sometime. You might consider talking to your boss’s boss to say that you feel retaliated against. You can also talk with an attorney to see what your options are. Other thoughts, anyone?

October 2, 2013 at 9:10 am
(24) Lil says:

I’ve just been put on PIP. I completely agree PIP is a way to justify the termination of someone without a real good reason. My boss has always monitored me very closely and everything I did was always wrong, unsatisfactory and non-compliant. Every week I had to set goals when all I was really doing was simply administrative tasks. Even when the task was done, he would somehow describe it as though it was not done. He would point out the parts he was not happy about and because he didn’t like perhaps 10% of the work, he would say because of this 10% the whole task was not done. Everything was completely unsatisfactory and nothing I did ever met “targets”. He has been completely unreasonable in his judgment of my work and I do not expect his judgment to relax with thsi PIP.

October 12, 2013 at 12:26 pm
(25) mareha says:

I have been told that I will be placed on a PIP because of absenteeism. My absences were caused by health issues. Health issues that aggravated due to being forced to perform a task that gets me sick. When I was placed in that position I told my supervisor that I couldn’t perform that task because it cause me to get really ill. She didn’t believed, I struggle for a year in that position. My health deteriorated very much, I lost thousands of dollars in wages due to leave without pay(LWP). Next year I am ratified in the same position. I spoke to my supervisor again, told her I didn’t want to repeat last years experience. I wrote to the director of personnel, who was aware of the situation and ask her to be transfer. They didn’t, they assigned me in the same position and they modified my schedule, so I end up performing the task that gets me sick even more. Two weeks in that position, I fainted and bumped my head against some furniture. I had a headache for many days and the doctors order me to go back to work in two weeks. I forward HR and my supervisor with doctors notes and all the paper work pertinent to the matter. While being in leave I received a letter saying that I would be placed on a PIP due to absenteeism. How can this be? I did everything possible to prevent being absent, I asked them to transfer me, they saw me getting sick at work, I even fainted at work before, because they forced me to perform that task that got me sick. I told from the first moment I was assigned to that position that I had a condition that prevented me from performing such a task. Nobody wanted to hear me. If I request medical leave, I will be without a salary, without health insurance, not able to work anywhere else, I have o support my family. Where are their legal bases for a PIP in this situation? What are my rights

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