Turning the tables on PIP: how to make performance improvement work for you

Jul 26, 2022 - updated Apr 24, 2023

5 mins

Turning the tables on PIP: how to make performance improvement work for you
Kaila Caldwell

Freelance writer and translator

Out of all the acronyms of the corporate world, “PIP” may be the most abhorred by workers. While performance improvement plans are essentially an HR tool to get struggling employees back on track, they’re often perceived as early notice of your impending dismissal.

But while some companies do indeed leverage PIPs as a box-checking instrument for justifying firings, they can also be a sincere attempt by companies to improve workers’ performance by investing time and resources into their development. In either case, don’t panic: If you’ve been served with a PIP, there are several tactics you can deploy to come out ahead.

Hold on, what is a performance improvement plan

The definition

Simply put, the PIP is a tool for an employee who is either underperforming or having behavioral issues. The review period is meant to give you concrete and measurable ways to turn your performance around.

The process

The process differs from employer to employer, yet some general procedures are typically followed. Malcolm, an HR Senior Representative with 10 years of experience in the consumer processed goods industry, says that it’s a joint effort between your manager and HR. Throughout the review — which usually runs for one to three months – there will be continued communication to make sure the expectations are being met. But if a PIP is such a dreaded process, you might ask, do I have to sign a performance improvement plan?; well, Malcolm stresses the importance of getting onboard. “If the employee refuses to sign the document, it might result in their employment ending because they refuse to acknowledge that there is a performance problem.*” So rather than fighting your manager’s decision, it might be better to focus your energies on preparing for what’s to come.

How to respond to a performance improvement plan

Keep calm and work on

Don’t panic; Malcolm explains that the “reason for the PIP should be that all other avenues of performance improvement have been exhausted.” However, that doesn’t mean — like many employees assume — that a performance review is the first step out the company door. The fact that you haven’t met certain expectations doesn’t indicate that you suck at your job. Actually, being put on a PIP could even be embraced as something positive as the company views you as a valuable employee and believes your performance issue can be fixed.

Am I being fired?

That being said, it’s true that some companies do use PIPs to provide the necessary documentation for an impending firing. You might notice this if the performance goals seem impossible to meet or are simply not measurable If you suspect this may be the case, remember there are supposed to be procedures to prevent this behavior.

Malcolm says your manager should have been carefully vetted by a legal representative, an employee relations specialist, or a higher HR authority. This is to “ensure there has been fair and consistent management of the employee in question, including consistent application of rules and expectations, documentation of multiple attempts to coach or correct the employee’s behavior, and failure on the part of the employee to improve their performance.” Another critical factor in this vetting, Malcolm points out, is to ensure there is no discriminatory or biased behavior on the part of HR or the employee’s manager.

How to survive a performance improvement plan

I will survive!

But even if you suspect your PIP might be a preamble to dismissal, there are ways to fight back and turn the situation around. Michael, who has worked as an IT Engineer for over 20 years, applied a series of techniques to fight against his ‘unachievable’ PIPs. I ensured they only gave me SMART objectives,” he says. This stands for objectives that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. This tool allows you to prove, measurably, that you are hitting your marks. Michael also suggests that if you are given work that relies on someone else, then ensure the other person gives you weekly status reports on their progress so you can match their work. Another tip from Michael is constant documentation. “If any goal was not met at the end of each week, I required them to inform me, in writing, how I should meet that goal,” he says.

But, how do I handle the stress?

This period can be overwhelming, especially if you feel like you were unjustly put on a PIP. As such, it’s normal to feel nervous or even angry; no one likes to be confronted with their shortcomings, be those real or perceived. But staying cool and collected during this period is crucial to your success. Vicki Salemi, a career expert, author, and keynote speaker, says you need to take it one day at a time to avoid feeling overwhelmed. “For stress levels, sleep and nutrition are important, as are outlets such as mental health counseling, yoga, meditation, sports, and anything that the person feels can be beneficial to their mental health during this stressful time.” Setting up routines also reduces stress: Make sure you start and end every day with a calming activity — it will give you the chance to start the next day fresh.

It’s also important to feel in control. Salemi suggests setting mini-goals that are achievable in one day to boost your confidence Ideally, these goals should be relevant to the PIP so you can see and feel your daily achievements. If you think that the PIP was set with unachievable goals, Salemi recommends taking back control by looking for a new job externally.

Another key point is, as always, communication. One of the most significant factors in failing your PIP is poor rapport between you and your manager. For example, Salemi says that if the PIP isn’t going as planned despite your strong efforts, then maybe there aren’t enough resources for you internally. Maybe your work depends on another department, and they are slowing you down. If so, Salemi suggests looping in your boss: It is essential to “communicate to your manager some obstacles and how they can work together toward solutions.”If you feel there is a lack of communication, then it is up to you to reach out and express your dismay with how things are going.

What does the future look like?

If you’ve tapped all your resources and you’re still falling behind on your measurable goals, then perhaps this employer or industry just isn’t the right fit for you. You must consider whatever it is in your current role that makes it hard for you to succeed: Is it about company culture, or is it the industry itself that has grounded you to a halt?

While you don’t need to start packing up your desk just yet, Salemi suggests getting a head start on job-searching to prepare for the worst: brush up your resume, polish your LinkedIn, update your references, and start networking! The prospects of changing jobs or careers might feel daunting, but remember you’re just looking around to see what’s out there, and hey, you might end up finding something more fulfilling and in line with your interests, and that should be an exciting thought.

That was the case for Michael: “While I wasn’t happy about it at first, it turned out to be great for me,” he says. Michael took advantage of the review period and applied for other jobs. Ultimately, he found an excellent fit for him and changed companies after completing his PIP.

As such, the PIP period can be a great time for self-reflection and figuring out what you really want out of your career. Maybe a change is necessary, and you will never have a PIP again.

Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself but rather try to appreciate what you’ve gained. No matter how stressful the review period, it gave you the opportunity to better understand your strengths and shortcomings — and that will make you a more accomplished employee in your current role or the next.

names changed for anonymity

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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