I Was Just Placed on a PIP–What Can I Do?

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Our office of employment attorneys serves both employers and employees. That means we have helped employers place workers on PIPs, short for “Performance Improvement Plans,” when necessary. We have also counseled employees who have been put on a PIP on how to best respond. This post will offer some of my top tips for doing just that.

A PIP is a tool used to identify an employee’s performance deficiencies and the necessary steps the employee must take toward improvement to maintain employment and avoid being fired. Employees are usually provided a certain deadline by which the requirements of the PIP must be met, often 30 or 60 days. A PIP, therefore, typically acts as a final written warning, and is usually issued only after an employee has been informed on several occasions of performance deficiencies or other concerns that are impeding the business’s functioning.

When Do Employers Use PIPs?

There are certainly circumstances where a PIP is warranted. If an employee has been late numerous times, in contravention of company policy, and has been instructed to show up to work punctually but continues a tardy spree, a PIP might be warranted. If a sales employee is consistently missing sales goals, despite being given sufficient resources and training to achieve them, that might also be cause for a PIP. In these instances, an employer is being courteous by providing one last opportunity for the employee to avoid termination.

Other times, however, PIPs are not warranted, and can even be vehicles for employer misconduct or retaliation. Employers sometimes use PIPs to “paper” an employee’s file to make it look as though the employee has committed some workplace infraction or has demonstrated poor performance that can be used to justify a forthcoming termination.

We’ve seen employees, for example, with a known need for accommodation (of a medical issue, for instance) be placed on a PIP so the employer can avoid the burden of an upcoming leave from work. We’ve also seen employees who lodge good-faith internal complaints be branded a “troublemaker” and placed on a PIP as a way to rid the organization of a whistleblower.

Targeting employees in this manner is unethical and possibly violative of state and federal statutes prohibiting retaliation. This behavior also has broader negative implications for an employer’s culture: it reduces trust and morale among a business’s workers who witness their co-worker being targeted improperly.

You’ve Got Your PIP in Hand…Now What?

If you are facing the unfortunate circumstance of being placed on a PIP, there are a few things you can do. Of course, if the PIP is warranted, work hard to fulfill the requirements and get your employment back on track. It’s possible your employer is using the PIP in good faith and sincerely wants you, and ultimately the company, to succeed.

However, if the PIP is unjustified, if the requirements seem unfairly out of reach, or if the requirements are too subjective and unclear, you should take action. Talking with your supervisor and human resources might help. But most importantly, you must respond to the PIP in writing. Objecting to an unwarranted or unattainable PIP can sometimes help delay a termination and allow you to have a voice in negotiating the terms under which you will leave your job. In rare exceptions, a written response can even help you stay employed.

How to Respond to a PIP

When reacting to a PIP, direct your written response to your manager and human resources. There are several components you should strive to include in a written reply. Specifically, make sure that your communication addresses these 3 key issues.

1. Correct Misstatements of Fact

If the PIP simply mischaracterizes reality, call this out in a respectful and professional manner–and back it up with supporting data. For example, perhaps your PIP states that you have failed to achieve your sales numbers for the last 3 quarters, but that’s not true and you can prove it. Make note of this in your response, as well as the particular metrics that are at issue. Have records on hand supporting your performance (or even consider attaching them) to help back up your claims.

Now, perhaps it is true that you have not met your sales numbers, but most of your team has failed to achieve sales goals for the last 3 quarters, and your alleged performance problems are really more general problems within the organization or your industry at large. Include these key data points in your response. They provide context that shows you are not simply failing to hit goals due to poor performance. You can formally object to the use of the PIP and request to be taken off of the plan. And if your co-workers with similar performance are receiving additional assistance, request that you receive it, too.

2. Ensure the Objectives Are Realistic

Further, evaluate the performance objectives contained in the PIP and demand measurable, realistic goals. Otherwise the PIP is merely an illusion that the company is providing you a path toward rehabilitation. In reality, the vagueness in the objectives can simply be used to support termination down the road.

Are the PIP’s goals concrete and attainable? Or are they obscure and subjective? Consider this performance objective: “Obtain 3 new sales leads per day.” It is direct and easily measured. Conversely, consider this performance objective: “Have positive interactions with team members.” This metric is unclear, almost impossible to measure, and totally subjective. There is no evident way to calculate the positivity of an interaction.

Sometimes a PIP is directed at behaviors that are difficult to measure objectively, such as attitude or conflicts within the workplace, and this is appropriate, but perhaps the metrics are not. For example, an employee may be placed on a PIP for communicating with co-workers in a disrespectful manner, causing tension and morale issues in the workplace. These issues may very well be real, but difficult to address in a measurable manner.

In these situations, its best to work with your manager to more clearly articulate objectives together. Rather than being required to “have positive interactions,” you could instead read a book about communication in the workplace (e.g., Crucial Conversations) and meet with your manager or coach to discuss implementation of the lessons. Ultimately, you will have to discern whether these critiques and goals are being included in good faith in response to a problem or if they are simply being used as a smokescreen to usher you out of the workplace.

3. Consider What Else Could Be at Play

Finally, consider the overall context of the PIP and notify your employer if you believe factors other than your performance have led to your placement on the performance plan.

Take into account your performance evaluations prior to the PIP. If you’ve always shown performance that meets or exceeds expectations, note that in your written response.

Also, consider the timing of the PIP: did you recently return from medical or parental leave? Did you make a complaint to your supervisor or HR? If so, the PIP could be retaliatory.

Think about what’s happening at your company more broadly as well. For example, is the company in cost-elimination mode? At times, we have seen companies attempt to find some cause for termination to reduce costs: employer plans may provide benefits to employees who are laid off, but not to employees who are fired for performance-related reasons. A PIP can provide an employer with a paper trail to make it appear as though performance was the reason for termination, instead of a reduction in force, thereby appearing to absolve the company of its duty to provide a separating employee with benefits.

Note in your written response all of these non-performance-based reasons that you believe may have motivated your placement on the PIP.

The bad news about PIPs is that, with very few exceptions, they are the beginning of the end of your employment. But the good news is that you can have a voice that maintains your integrity, accurately reflects your work performance, and might even save your job.

Interested in learning more? Christina has recorded a video on how to best respond to a PIP that can be viewed here.