Uncharted Waters

May 16 2016   9:48AM GMT

The PiP Gambit

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman


Are performance improvement plans (PiP) a gambit to shuffle people out the front door, or are they actually there to help people?

I just finished the new Dan Lyons book, Disrupted, while on a plane flight to Seattle. The book seems equal parts entering a new environment with a terrible attitude, and the bad aspects of every startup I have ever worked for. This isn’t a book review, though. In one part of the book, Dan talks about the ups and downs (mostly downs) of being put on a performance improvement plan. This reminded me of a story about PiPs that happened to an old friend while we were working together in 2008.

My friend had left a fairly high profile software company in Houston to take this job, and after about 6 months managed to get me brought in for an interview. I got the job. We never worked directly together, the company had distinct product groups and generally the team members didn’t move around. My friend consistently does well on reviews, and rightly so, he was good. But about 6 months into my tenure there, he got a new boss. They never did click.

The two of them had weekly one on one meetings where the new manager would describe my friends shortcomings as an employee — never fast enough, why didn’t you find this bug, why did you say that during the last planning meeting. This is a weekly occurrence till he is put on a performance improvement plan. We talked about it with co workers and couldn’t figure out what was happening. HR deferred to the manager and was generally of no help.


To improve his performance, he started working longer hours; coming in at 7am and leaving at 6. Overtime that would of course never be compensated for, but now he might have  a chance to accomplish the superhuman amount of work being demanded. The PiP checkin didn’t go well. My friend wasn’t working hard enough and the manager would use anything he did against him. The check in after that, my friend turned in his two weeks notice to his manager. The manager was shocked and thought they were friends and didn’t understand why he wanted to leave.

He experience, and what Lyons describes in his book, are strikingly similar. A new boss comes in and there is a personality conflict, the boss makes an appearance of helping but no amount of effort on the part of the employee can possibly satisfy that problem. The employee is just circling the toilet till the get moved to a different, probably less prestigious division of the company, leaves voluntary, or gets forced out.

My data set here is clearly small, I have the one example I watched happen over a period of 6 months, and the story from a Lyons book that may not be verifiable and contains who knows how much hyperbole. What I see though, is that performance improvement plans are never about helping the employee or the potential for improving performance. The PiP is a tightrope for that person to walk. Do everything your manager asks of you, and don’t forget to bring a present on their birthday, and you are rewarded with more time on the tightrope. Do one thing wrong, or even be in the vicinity of something going wrong so you  are associated with it, and you fall to your death. Not actual death, but a temporary career death where finding a new job is impossibly hard because you were just fired. The performance improvement plan is a tool to help people build a case against you. Any little thing, like not being at your desk at 830am, could be reason enough to say performance didn’t improve enough.

Having seen it happen now, my reaction would be to immediately start job hunting. Accept that the end is in sight, and even if you did manage to satisfy this manager, it would be through never ending acts of pleading and you’d always be wondering if what you were doing was enough to avoid the trapdoor. I like to think that most companies aren’t like this, that maybe some really do want to help the employee get better and contribute in a reasonable way. But, when the politics are clear, abandon ship.

2  Comments on this Post

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  • DanPan
    I'm sorry your friend had to go through what sounds like a horrible experience. I've had to administer three PIPs in the past seven years and would count them all successes. Two resulted in improvements (and continued employment to this day) and one resulted in the individual "pursuing other opportunities". The instigating circumstances were all different, so there were no predetermined outcomes.

    Before HR and I resort a PIP, we do our best to ensure the employee understands the gap between their performance and our expectations and to motivate the employee to take responsibility to close that gap. If we have to write a PIP, we work very hard to define achievable goals with reasonable deadlines. We then meet weekly to discuss progress and adjust the plan to account for circumstances. My company has always been an "at-will" employer, so a PIP is in no way a weapon that must wielded to remove undesirable staff. In my experience, it's a tool to help an employee change, like an exercise plan administered by a personal trainer. But any tool can be mis-used, so I'm not surprised that in other places a PIP is a shortening of Pink slip.
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  • DukeGanote

    What I've witnessed is that PIP appears "out of the blue" as CYA for the management team; PIP really means "Prune Inconvenient Personnel" -- leave on your own or get fired "for cause".


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