“Should I create a Performance Improvement Plan for my direct report?”
There’s lots to be said (and felt) about Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs); they’re often a step that a company takes when an employee is not meeting the expectations of their role, and their manager (or the company) is considering whether or not to terminate this person’s employment.
I’m oversimplifying here, but you can think of a PIP as explicit documentation about what a person needs to do differently within a specific timeframe, both to make sure there’s clarity and a shared understanding between them and the manager/company. If the employee is ultimately fired, a PIP also creates a paper trail, should the employee bring a lawsuit about their termination.
Often there’s a template that HR will suggest a manager use to draft the PIP, ensuring it outlines behaviors that the employee needs to demonstrate to their manager, (again, within a certain timeline).
If you’ve ever been on a PIP, you might have seen it as a signal that you’re about to be fired.
It’s not always the case that a PIP results in termination; I’ve definitely seen the PIP process help someone finally receive a clear articulation of what they need to do differently, which led to them adjusting their approach and getting the support they need to be successful! But because of how it’s traditionally used, PIPs are one of the most common HR processes I’ve seen that leave folks feeling unfairly treated by their managers and the company.
So what do you do, as a manager, when your own manager or HR rep suggests that you create a PIP for your underperforming direct report?
Why might you create a PIP?
I have… a lot of complicated feelings about PIPs.
Documenting feedback around missed expectations is, of course, important, because:
There’s obvious value in writing down what’s expected of a person in a particular role; that’s why we have job descriptions and career ladders! And depending upon how these frameworks work at your organization, it can be helpful to further contextualize the responsibilities of a general role/level to your report’s specific situation.
A person might not recognize that they need to behave differently, or that they’re not meeting expectations. So it’s crucial for managers to clearly, directly, and fairly give them a heads-up about the behavior gap.
Sometimes, performance feedback has already been given to someone, but it was in a piecemeal way over a stretch of time. So succinctly collecting all of the crucial feedback in one place might be the first time that they’re seeing everything put together. It might be a shock to them, but it’s really important to see the narrative that has developed about their performance, perhaps unbeknownst to them.
It’s unfair to use fuzzy language when your direct report is missing the mark. It’s also unfair to *only* use your mouthwords when giving essential feedback, and then expect that person to recall what was said going forward.
Writing down role expectations—and feedback about missed expectations—in a shared place that can be referred back to later is one of the most fair things we can do as managers.
So why do I have complicated feelings about PIPs? Here’s what usually makes me concerned when I hear a manager (or their HR rep) is considering creating a PIP. It’s complicated, and here’s why:
While a PIP restates role expectations and gives the employee a heads up that they need to behave differently, the typical PIP doesn’t give them new tools, training, or support, nor does it change their role, etc. So if a manager (or a company) doesn’t believe a person will be able to meet role expectations, then creating a PIP won’t help them—it’ll unkindly string them along through a weeks-long process with a destination only known to those delivering the PIP.
A PIP helps the company (it’ll be documentation, if needed, for future inquiries from the legal department) but it doesn’t really change the situation for the employee. That said, a PIP will give the employee a heads up that termination of their employment is on the table, and signal that they might want to start looking for a new role, if they don’t feel like they can meet expectations in their current one.
There can be problematic knock-on effects from PIPs that deserve their own post. For example, receiving a PIP changes other leaders’ perceptions of that employee, and this can have lasting effects on their ability to make progress in their career.
Is there a case when a PIP does help an employee? Sure: if a person hasn’t received a clear signal (or hasn’t recognized) that they’re missing baseline role expectations, then writing a PIP can be that neon-red, flashing sign that they need to change their behavior.
So today, I want to offer you a step-by-step approach if you’re faced with the “to PIP, or not to PIP?” question as a manager. My goal is to help you navigate this process in a way that’s as fair as possible to your direct report, while recognizing that HR may require you to create one regardless of whether or not it could actually change the situation.
PIP Decision Framework
When you’re faced with the question of whether or not to create a PIP, follow these steps:
Ask yourself, “Do I believe this person will be able to meet these expectations within 30 days, and consistently thereafter?” If the answer is “no”, consider terminating their employment with a healthy severance package, or finding a new role for them within the organization where they could be more successful.
If you’re confident this person could begin meeting these expectations within 30 days—or if you’re just not sure yet—your next step is to brainstorm privately with the prompt, “What haven't I stated clearly/bluntly yet to this person about what I expect of someone in this role?”
It’s your job as a manager to succinctly and directly communicate the expectations of a role, and do the same when you see crucial gaps in someone’s performance of that role. Even if you’ve said these things to them before, there is always *something* that you can newly state or try to explain/describe differently for your direct report.
Meet with your report. State (or reiterate) the gap between their work and what’s expected in their role (including anything you identified in step #2) as clearly as possible, to see if the new information/clarity/reframe changes things.
After you’ve had the conversation in step #3—or at the end of that conversation, if it feels appropriate—ask your report, “What's in the way of meeting these expectations?”
With this question, your goal is to figure out:
- Does this person see the importance of meeting these expectations?
- Do we see these expectations differently/disagree on what they mean or look like?
- Do they not have the resources required to meet the expectations? (Are they lacking time? Clarity? Answers from stakeholders?)
Depending on how the “What’s in the way?” conversation goes, you’ll decide to create a PIP or not.
If your report doesn’t see the importance of meeting these expectations:
Use the feedback equation to underscore why this behavior change is relevant to the things they care about.
Acknowledge that while you might disagree with each other about the importance of this behavior change, it’s a requirement of this role.
If they continue to disagree on the importance of an expectation, restate that this behavior/outcome is expected of a person in their role, and you need them to meet that expectation. If they continue to disagree, and you believe that they are capable of meeting this expectation, you might create a PIP as one final attempt to communicate the importance of them meeting this expectation.
If you and your report don’t have a shared understanding of these expectations:
Spend more time clarifying their role requirements with them. You might need to use different examples, identify new signals of what success looks like in the role, ask coaching questions to help them connect their own dots, etc. Don’t be afraid to be extremely direct in this conversation; you can be blunt and clear without being a jerk. Employ the variety of tools in your manager toolbox to try to gain that shared understanding of what’s expected.
If you gain a shared understanding of the baseline requirements of the role, but your direct report still disagrees on the importance of a particular responsibility, revisit the section above, “If your report doesn’t see the importance of meeting these expectations”.
After you spend more time clarifying the expectations, you might revisit existing shared role documentation (job description, career ladder, etc.) and see where it needs to be updated or edited. Your goal is to create more clarity for *everybody* in that role about what’s expected of them, and what success looks like.
If they don’t have the resources to meet these expectations:
Partner with your report and HR to see if you can create (reasonable) accommodations for them. (For example, if someone is being blocked from getting timely information that’s necessary to do their job, I would partner with my report to figure out a workaround, or I’ll directly step in to get them what they need.)
Or, clearly state that it is their responsibility in this role to develop/find those resources. (For example, it’s their responsibility to respond to questions via chat from their stakeholders within a certain timeframe during common work hours, or find a backup to take over if they need to step away from their computer.)
If you choose to create a PIP
If you decide writing a PIP is the best next step for your employee (or if you’re required to write one by HR, your manager, etc.), make sure that the contents of the PIP are measurable and time-bound. A PIP is about communicating the importance of meeting a particular expectation, and making sure it’s possible that you and your direct report can both objectively see whether or not they’re meeting those expectations in n days/weeks.
After you write the first draft, re-read it to see if these are things you expect of anybody in this role, or if these are unique expectations you have for this specific person. I’ve seen drafts of PIPs where the manager has softened the expectations (like if the role requires writing a report every week, the manager wrote “deliver a report at least every other week” in the PIP). I’ve also seen managers refer to expectations beyond what’s normally required in the role (like a requirement to “present your findings to the VP” when the standard expectation of the role is to simply create a dashboard). The document should describe measurable, time-bound expectations that match what’s expected of anybody in this role.
PIPs are a complex tool that each organization approaches and utilizes differently. As someone’s manager, you do have agency to push back on what HR is asking you to do, ask for more time to give your report clear and specific feedback, suggest tweaks to the process, advocate for an alternative (like immediate termination with a severance package that supports the employee with pay and health insurance for a few months), etc. Your efforts may or may not change the path forward, but I believe it’s worth it to optimize for fairness to your employee during this really tough process while recognizing your responsibility as a manager.