Dear Bob …

Have you ever written about PIPs (Performance Improvement Plans – official HR hand slapping)?

I am faced with one now for the first time in my almost 35 years of IT. It basically sets me up to fail — strict requirements to be completed in 30 days over vacation and holidays.

What I’m curious to know is whether there are any statistics out there showing what percentage of those put on these types of plans ever really succeed, and how many result in employees leaving on their own steam. The view from here is that these are mainly used as a management tool to remove a team member without actually firing them. Or am I just being paranoid?


– PIPped off


Dear Ticked off …

I don’t think I’ve ever written about this subject, although there was a time in my career when I was responsible for instituting the process (I headed up HR for a client for a year).

Answers to the questions you asked first: I don’t know what kinds of statistics exist for this sort of thing. I’m pretty sure, though, that any statistics that are available won’t mean very much. The reason: The only useful statistics would come from comparing the performance of pairs of similar employees, led by similar managers, with one in each pair given a PIP and the other left unaware of his/her performance deficiencies.

I know enough about business “research” to be confident no studies like this have been conducted. Among the reasons for my confidence: The unlikelihood that a researcher could ever persuade a company to engage in research like this, especially as the use of performance improvement plans for non-performing employees is widely considered “best practice” among HR professionals.

So from the perspective of whether or not these things are useful, I doubt there’s any reliable evidence either way.

But really, that doesn’t matter. Here’s what does: You’ve been handed one. Your decision is what to do about it.

The best advice I have is to take it seriously, whether or not it deserves to be taken seriously.

Take it seriously because your employer is taking it seriously. Do what it asks you to do, do it by the numbers, and document that you’ve done it. Even if your plan is to leave because of it, this is a key step in leaving under your own steam.

And while you’re doing so, figure out which of the concerns expressed in the plan would be worth your time and attention to address, whether or not you deserve to have been put on the plan.

Here’s what I expect your biggest challenge will be: In a very real sense you’re dealing with the proverbial stages of grief right now. In your case, your sense of loss is your 35-year unbroken string of positive performance, which is now being called into question.

30 days is just about enough time for you to progress from denial to anger — a singularly unhelpful phase in your current situation. To succeed you’ll have to put all of that in a box and find something in all of this that really is an opportunity to improve.

And you’ll have to find a way to do it that doesn’t impinge on either your self-respect or your intellectual integrity, because from your description of the situation it appears you don’t agree with your manager’s assessment that resulted in this situation.

It isn’t merely hard to say, “You’re right — my performance in this area really has been awful,” when you think you’ve been doing well at it. It feels cowardly, like failing to stand up to a schoolyard bully.

And yet, as you’ve already discovered, arguing about it isn’t going to get you anywhere. Your manager has made up his/her mind, HR agrees, and that’s a fact you have to deal with, not a problem you can solve.

A professional marriage counselor once told me the advice she gave clients that most found both helpful and most difficult to follow was to hear the message while ignoring the tone of voice with which it’s delivered: Just because someone is screaming doesn’t mean their message is wrong.

There are parallels to your situation. So with that, a suggestion: Whether or not you think your performance in an area is deficient, you can still find ways to improve at it. Focus on that, not on the assessment that led to it.

Good luck. It’s a rotten thing to have to go through. But finding another job while unemployed because you failed at it is a whole lot worse.

– Bob