How to respond to a PIP

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Q: I was recently put on a PIP, a performance improvement plan.  This was a surprise and I was shocked that my manager gave me some very harsh feedback.  In my last company, there were progressive discipline steps.  If there was a performance problem, first you were given verbal feedback, then a verbal warning, then a written warning.  Very few were terminated.  All of a sudden, I received a PIP last week and was told that my job was “on the line.”  What is your experience with PIPs?

A: A PIP, a performance improvement plan, is typically a written document, which outlines current performance concerns compared to performance expectations.  Companies address performance issues in a variety of ways.  It sounds like you are probably and “at-will” employee, which means that you are can leave your employer at any time and they can also end the employment relationship at any time.  Employees who are members of unions are often required to follow a specific process, described in the collective bargaining agreement.  Most of us in the US are “at-will” employees.  In 2019, about 90% of all US employees were “at will.”

Assuming you are not a member of a union, then your employer has a lot of flexibility with respect to how they manage performance.  All employers must be mindful of federal and state laws with respect to how they address employee performance concerns.  Some employers have a progressive discipline process, much like they had at your former employer.  Others are more casual.  Some employers have language in their handbook that they can skip some steps in the disciplinary process and move to a PIP, a written warning, a suspension or a termination depending upon the concern.  As an example, many employers will terminate an employee immediately if an employee engages in a physical altercation with another employee.  However, sometimes if the performance concern is about accuracy, reliability, improving a skill or selling more, a PIP is a communication tool which can send a strong message to the employee to improve in one or more areas.

I am not sure how you received the PIP, but I am hoping it was delivered in a face-to-face meeting, if that was possible.  If you have concerns or do not understand the expectations, you should ask to meet with your manager again.  Sometimes when an employee is given a PIP (especially with little advance notice), the information can feel overwhelming.  Approach the meeting in a professional way, and try to focus on listening vs. responding defensively.  Takes notes.  Ask for examples, if they are not given.  Be careful of your body language.  You want to send the message that you are listening, you understand and you want to improve in the areas that have been identified.  You may not agree with all the feedback.  If you feel like this feedback is inaccurate, you can summarize your response in a document and ask that it be included in your employee file.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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