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How to Respond to a Performance Improvement Plan

Ah, the dreaded PIP.

Performance improvement plans (PIPs) can feel scary. They have a (not entirely unearned) reputation for being the first step on the road to an eventual firing. And sometimes managers do implement PIPs solely to appease HR by ensuring that they made every last effort to make a given employee successful before terminating that employee.

But not always.

The lurid, doomsday stories about PIPs get traction in workplace mythology because they have a dramatic and sometimes tragic arc that draws us in. But for every story about someone getting put on a PIP and shown the door three months later, there's another story—albeit a less spellbinding one—about someone turning their performance around, keeping their job, and going on to be quite uneventfully happy at work.

So if you're put on a performance improvement plan, do not despair. Here's what to do instead.

First, what's a performance improvement plan?

A PIP is a formal document, usually drafted by your direct manager and someone from your company's HR team, that identifies issues with your performance at work and defines specific desired outcomes that would indicate that those issues were fixed, along with the repercussions (which may include termination or demotion) if those issues are not fixed. A good PIP also goes into detail about how those outcomes will be accomplished or measured.

For instance, if you regularly show up late to scheduled client meetings, which makes your company look bad to clients and puts more pressure on the rest of your team, your PIP might highlight that as an issue. It would state not only what you'd need to do, like "be on time to every client meeting over an 8-week period," but also how everyone will know whether that's happening or not, like "[your name here] will send a brief post-meeting summary to [your direct manager's name here] confirming that they were on time and sharing takeaways."

If your manager is a good one, a PIP will only come into play for issues you and your manager have already talked about and that you're still struggling with. A PIP shouldn't catch you off guard. It should be a distillation of practical next steps to help you make progress on things you and your manager both acknowledge that you have been struggling with.

How to respond to a performance improvement plan.

1. Don't panic. Many, many employees have been put on PIPs and come out on the other side, still very much gainfully employed and actually better off for having had dedicated support to work on key weaknesses. If you come out of a meeting with your manager with a PIP in hand, take a deep breath. Be kind to yourself in the day or so immediately following the news. Get some sleep, eat something healthy, go for a walk, talk it through with a friend. And then show up to work focused and ready.

2. Take charge of your progress. Your manager and HR rep will draft your PIP, but make sure you take an active role in implementing it. That doesn't look like arguing with them over wording, but it does look like asking clarifying questions to make sure you understand their expectations and suggesting granular next steps for tracking your progress (like weekly check-ins or asking for feedback from your peers as well as your manager). Show that you're taking this seriously and that you can be relied on.

3. Identify root causes. You were hired for this role because you're qualified for it, right? So what has happened between your hiring and now? It's unlikely that your personality changed or your abilities regressed. Did your manager's expectations of you change? Have you been given fewer resources to produce the same amount of work? Are you struggling with something outside of work that is impacting the way you show up as an employee? Take the time to reflect on what's really going on, and then share it candidly—and not aggressively—with your manager at your next PIP check-in. Done well, this kind of reflection will show that you're taking the PIP seriously and are committed to being the excellent employee they hired you to be.

4. Ask for help. If you're struggling to do something well that a coworker seems to have down pat, there's absolutely no shame in asking them for advice. And go beyond your peers, too; for instance, if lack of expertise is one of the root causes of your underperformance, you can ask your HR rep if there are training programs you can participate in.

5. If all seems lost, start looking around. If you read the four points of advice prior to this and scoffed at every one of them, unable to visualize your boss treating you with empathy or your company's HR team responding positively to your proactive efforts, consider whether this is a job you want to stay in. If you're struggling with a toxic culture or toxic boss, maybe a PIP is a blessing in disguise that can motivate you to start actively networking and looking for a new role. Just make sure you understand what it is about this job that fell short of your expectations so that you find yourself in a better environment next time.

Moving forward

Remember that a PIP doesn't have to be a doomsday signal. If your manager thought you were a bad employee, they would just fire you. A PIP means that you are, in fact, a good employee, with plenty of potential worth investing in, and that you're just struggling at one point in time with a gap in performance. That performance could be due to you (lack of motivation or issues outside of work), to your manager (lack of guidance, expectations, or resources), or to your HR department (lack of training or support). Having you, your manager, and HR all in sync on what you need to be successful in your role can be exactly what you need to turn your situation around and really enjoy and flourish in your role.

If your PIP does end in your departure, maybe that's for the best. If your company, despite having chosen you from a long list of other candidates to fill a role, can't find a way to help you succeed in it, that may reveal much more about their training and management quality than it does about your potential. Go forth and find a new role that lets you shine.


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