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  1. Blog
  2. Career Development

Performance Improvement Plans: How to Survive & Thrive

Making the best of a bad situation

Woman working on a performance improvement plan
Image courtesy of Maxim Ilyahov

What is a performance improvement plan?

A performance improvement plan (PIP) is a formal document that details where an employee is underperforming and/or what behavior needs improving. 

While the initial reactions to being put on a PIP may be anger, rejection, or uncertainty, they are not intended to be undertaken alone. Together with your manager and human resources, they are intended to serve as the roadmap that assists in getting you back on a path to success.

How do PIPs work? 

According to SHRM, if you’ve arrived at the point where a PIP has been executed, it’s been determined as the most appropriate action to help you improve. Prior to being presented to you, your manager has likely been guided by human resources to prevent bias and HR has committed to providing ongoing support to you and your manager throughout the plan period.

Why companies implement PIPs

PIPs are most often implemented when there’s been a continuous, recurring issue and shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve received regular feedback from your manager. The plan should be designed to facilitate constructive feedback and provide clarity on where your performance needs improvement.

They should not be approached from a “last resort” perspective. 

The most effective improvement plans:

  • Identify the behaviors that are contributing to low performance

  • Identify what skills and abilities are below performance standards

  • Outline specific examples and reasoning

  • Include actionable and measurable goals

  • Lay out a timeline for improvement (for example 30, 60, or 90-day periods)

  • Schedule reviews and checkpoints with your manager and HR

  • Provide resources and training to assist in your improvement

PIP controversy

A Forbes article argues performance plans should be scrapped all together because they don’t address the root cause of the performance issues and only improve performance in the short term.  

Former chief talent officer at Netflix, Patty McCord, is also not a fan of PIPs. The Netflix Culture Deck creator describes them as fundamentally dishonest and driven by fear of litigation. In short, low performers are put PIPs only to create a paper trail documenting poor achievement and they fail to actually improve performance.

Should you resign?

Not necessarily. People do complete PIPs and go on to become successful employees at the company where they completed it. But unfortunately, it isn’t a common practice for employers to keep data on what percentage of employees successfully turn around their performance. As a result, there is a reasonable, common belief that PIPs are used as a grace period for termination and a way to protect an organization from legal action (i.e., wrongful termination lawsuits). 

If you believe the PIP is being used as a vehicle to ultimately terminate you, take steps to secure employment elsewhere. In addition to updating your resume and executing your external job search, satisfy any training and development that was laid out in your plan. Doing so will strengthen your position for your next role.  

Surviving a PIP

If you believe there is a future for you at the organization, the items outlined in the plan are achievable, and they intend to help you improve your performance, strategize how to complete it successfully. Take a moment to regroup and pinpoint the internal and external factors that contributed to your declining performance.

Not all managers are skilled at recognizing gradual declines in productivity and morale, especially when those performance changes are due to personal issues that went unaddressed for a period of time and not the lack of talent or expertise. With guidance and assistance from HR, leverage this time to open the lines of communication and engage in open and honest dialogue. In instances where the organization fosters a supportive work environment, collaborating to overcome these obstacles will produce a positive outcome.

Partnering with your manager and HR to get to the root cause of your low performance is key. Again, be honest and open about what you need to improve. If you haven’t received adequate training for your role or if you require additional, more focused, or refresher training, don’t be embarrassed to say so. Likewise, if your duties and responsibilities weren’t clearly outlined or you don’t have access to the appropriate tools, make it known. 

Express you desire to remain in the organization and commit to completing the performance plan. Don’t wait until the plan is nearing an end to get started. Instead, use the allotted time provided to make the necessary improvements. Track your progress in meeting set goals, objectives and milestones. In some cases, plans are successfully completed before the end date.

Read more: What I Learned About Advocating for Myself in the Workplace

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