How to Handle a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) at Work

Page Contents

What is a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)?

If you’re suddenly called into a meeting with your manager and HR only to be handed a mysterious document labeled “Performance Improvement Plan,” it’s normal to feel blindsided. What is this thing, and why does it have my name on it?
In a nutshell, a PIP outlines areas where your work performance is deemed subpar and defines goals you must meet to avoid disciplinary action. But there’s more nuance to it than just a surprise list of your perceived shortcomings. Let’s break down exactly what PIPs are, how employers use them, and their intended purpose.

The Formal Definition

A performance improvement plan, often abbreviated as PIP, is an official document designed to notify an employee that one or more aspects of their work isn’t meeting the employer’s expectations. It lays out specific goals and benchmarks the employee needs to achieve within a certain timeframe, usually 30 to 90 days. A PIP letter formally establishes:

  • The performance issues or failures that have been identified
  • The company’s performance standards and how the employee is not meeting them
  • Verifiable improvement goals and targets for the employee to meet
  • A schedule for follow-up assessments and reviews
  • Consequences for failing to sufficiently improve performance, usually termination

By outlining the gaps between the employee’s actual and expected contributions, a PIP intends to provide an transparent roadmap the employee can follow to get back on track.

When Are PIPs Used by Employers?

Employers typically put workers on PIPs as an official warning that their underperformance could lead to termination if not corrected promptly. Some common situations that prompt a PIP include:

  • An employee receives a poor performance review or evaluation score. This shows they are not meeting standards in one or more areas of their job.
  • There are multiple issues with an employee’s work that have been addressed previously through informal warnings or coaching by the manager. A formal PIP letter documents the ongoing problems.
  • An employee fails to meet clearly outlined performance targets or expectations for job duties or productivity. Their goals may be unrealistic or unsupported.
  • Behavioral problems like frequent tardiness, conflicts with colleagues, or policy violations require formal intervention to correct.
  • An employee seems disengaged, does subpar work, or makes too many mistakes. This aims to get them re-motivated and focused.

The Intended Purpose

Ideally, a PIP is meant to be a constructive process that gives struggling employees the structure, guidance, and resources they need to get back on track. The overarching goals are to:

  • Clearly communicate performance expectations that are not being met currently
  • Outline specific, measurable targets for improvement that are reasonably attainable
  • Provide coaching, training, tools, and support to close skill or knowledge gaps
  • Establish regular check-ins and opportunities for feedback and progress tracking
  • Warn the employee of the consequences if deficiencies are not addressed within a fair time period

When done right, PIPs can align expectations, illuminate development areas, and improve employee effectiveness. Workers gain greater clarity about how their performance needs to progress.

Of course, the language in a PIP letter is usually not all that inspiring or supportive. And few employees are thrilled to be called out for their shortcomings on paper. However, the PIP framework itself aims to facilitate improvement before the problems escalate further.

In a Nutshell

A performance improvement plan (PIP) is an HR mechanism designed to notify an employee of performance gaps, set goals and expectations to close those gaps within a definite timeline, and monitor progress. Its purpose is to provide structured assistance and warn of the risk of termination so that the employee can improve. However, while well-intentioned in theory, PIPs are controversial in practice. More on that later!

Are PIPs Legal and Enforceable?

As an employee facing a PIP, knowing your rights is critical. The thought of being placed on a Performance Improvement Plan can be stressful enough without worrying if it’s even allowed legally. Let’s break down the key laws and regulations around PIPs.
Are PIPs Legal for Employers to Use?

The short answer is yes – within reason. Employee performance management, including the use of PIPs, falls under companies’ purview to oversee personnel and operations. There is no federal law prohibiting formal performance improvement plans. As long as the PIP process does not violate any employment laws, companies have the right to use them.

Some specific laws actually endorse the use of PIPs under certain circumstances, like as a reasonable accommodation for disabled employees under the ADA. Overall, courts tend to see PIPs as legally acceptable so long as they are fair and applied equitably. The burden lies with the employer to implement PIPs in a lawful, non-discriminatory manner.

What Laws Are Relevant to PIPs?

While PIPs themselves are not illegal, they still must be drafted and administered in compliance with various employment laws. Some key laws that often intersect with PIP enforcement include:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – Protects employees from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. PIPs must not single out individuals due to these characteristics.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – Requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. PIPs may be used to outline accommodations.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) – Prohibits age discrimination against workers over 40. Older employees should not be targeted unfairly.
  • Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – Provides job-protected leave for medical reasons. PIPs should account for approved absences.
  • National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) – Safeguards collective bargaining rights and protects concerted employee activities. PIPs cannot retaliate against or interfere with these rights.
  • State Anti-Discrimination Laws – Prohibit workplace discrimination based on protected classes defined at the state level. Vary by state but relevant to PIP compliance.

What Makes a PIP Legally Enforceable?

Assuming no laws are inherently violated in the content or intent, the enforceability of a PIP depends on how judiciously it is implemented by the employer.

Courts have ruled PIPs enforceable when they include certain elements:

  • Written Notice of Performance Issues – The problems are clearly documented and defined in writing. Verbal warnings are not sufficient.
  • Reasonable Time to Improve – Employees are given a fair, adequate chance to meet realistic standards outlined.
  • Consistent Application – PIPs are not enforced selectively against certain protected groups over others.
  • Training/Support Provided – Employees receive tools, coaching, resources to address shortcomings.
  • Measurable and Objective Standards – Performance goals are specific, quantifiable, and relevant to duties.
  • Documentation Protocols Followed – PIP meetings, assessments, results are recorded per policy.

Requirements for a Lawful PIP Process

Based on the laws and court rulings around PIPs, the following are generally required for a lawful, enforceable process:

1. Notice of Performance Issues

The problems must be clear, specific, and provided to the employee in written form. Vague criticisms or relying solely on verbal warnings usually makes disciplinary action unlawful. Employees have to understand exactly how they are underperforming according to measurable standards.

2. A Reasonable Timeframe to Improve

Employees undergoing a PIP must be afforded sufficient opportunity, days or weeks, to realistically demonstrate improvement in the areas outlined. Timeframes that are egregiously short for the goals set may indicate a “sham” PIP designed to oust the employee pretextually.

3. Meaningful Training, Support, and Resources

The employer should actively help employees succeed under a PIP through coaching, training, tools, and other resources tailored to the deficiencies identified. Lack of support may render the PIP unjust.

4. Objectively Measurable Goals and Metrics

PIP standards and success criteria must be clear, quantifiable, and performance-related. Vague, subjective, unattainable, or task-irrelevant goals suggest an invalid PIP.

5. Documentation of All PIP Activities

The employer should document all components of the PIP per company policy, including meetings, evaluations, feedback, results, and disciplinary decisions. Spotty or selective documentation can undermine enforcement.

The Bottom Line

When crafted and deployed fairly and transparently, with adequate support for employees, PIPs can be lawful tools to communicate expectations and address underperformance. But PIPs that are discriminatory, retaliatory, arbitrary, unsupported, or with unrealistic standards are on shaky legal ground. Make sure to consult an employment lawyer if your PIP appears suspicious in any way.

Should You Sign a PIP if You Disagree?

When your boss and HR present you with a PIP letter outlining alleged shortcomings in your work, you’re probably anxious to dispute and clarify all the points you feel are inaccurate or exaggerated. But should you go ahead and sign the PIP anyway even if you disagree with portions of it? Let’s discuss when and why you may or may not want to sign.

Should You Sign a PIP You Don’t Agree With?

The consensus among employment lawyers is no – do not sign a PIP if you substantively disagree with or dispute significant parts of it. Here’s why:

  • It Indicates Acceptance of the Allegations – By signing, you are essentially acknowledging and consenting to the characterizations of your performance in the PIP being accurate and factual. This undermines any later attempt to refute them.
  • It Prejudices Your Position – A signed PIP including performance issues you genuinely disagree with weakens your position in challenging any discipline or termination down the road. It’s a written admission that can be used against you.
  • You Lose Future Leverage – You lose leverage in negotiating a severance package or filing an employment lawsuit by already conceding there were performance gaps needing improvement.
  • It May Be Legally Unenforceable Anyway – If the PIP is unlawful, inaccurate, or improper, your signature normally cannot make it suddenly enforceable.
  • Impact on Unemployment Claims – Having signed off on performance deficiencies can allow your company to contest any claim for unemployment benefits after termination.

Unless you entirely agree with the PIP as drafted, avoid signing it until you have had time to carefully review it, consult a lawyer if needed, and formulate an appropriate response. Never let yourself be pressured into signing on the spot.

What If You Want to Improve Without Signing?

You may totally have a mindset and willingness to improve your work – just not necessarily in the exact areas or ways outlined in the PIP presented. In such cases, communicate this to your employer.

For example, you can state:

  • You remain committed to excelling in your role and appreciate constructive feedback.
  • You have some concerns about certain characterizations in the PIP but look forward to resolving them through an open dialogue.
  • You welcome specific guidance on improving your work performance going forward.
  • You intend to cooperate fully with implementing any performance targets or expectations summarized from your discussions.

This shows you still aim to collaborate in good faith without tacitly validating a one-sided narrative you believe may be incomplete or distorted.

What Happens If You Refuse to Sign a PIP?

Declining to sign a PIP you were given does carry some risks:

  • Disciplinary Action – The employer may opt to formally discipline you for insubordination or failure to acknowledge and correct performance issues.
  • Termination – Continued refusal to sign could potentially escalate to termination, especially if you occupy an at-will employment position.
  • Strained Relationship – It may damage your relationship with your manager and cast you negatively as combative, in denial, or not a team player.

However, your reasons for not signing still matter. You have a right to understand a document before signing it and decline to sign if you have legitimate objections or concerns about it.

Some steps to take include:

  • Calmly explain in writing why you are unable to sign the PIP at this time and any aspects you consider inaccurate or unfair. Offer to discuss amending these portions to reflect your perspectives also.
  • Ask for a private copy to comprehensively review on your own first before formal discussions. Set a follow-up meeting for clarifications.
  • Consult an employment attorney to understand your rights and options if asked to sign an objectionable PIP. They can provide tailored guidance for your situation.
  • Stick to principled objections – avoid emotional outbursts or unproductive arguments. Maintain decorum and take the high road.

The bottom line is you should never feel coerced into signing off on a PIP that mischaracterizes your work. But handle the discussions professionally and document your good faith efforts.

How to Respond to Receiving a PIP

Being issued a PIP often sparks feelings of anxiety, frustration, or panic. Your flight-or-fight instincts kick in. How should you respond in the pivotal meeting and days after? What are the smartest steps to take when you’re first put on a Performance Improvement Plan?
Carefully navigating this crucial period helps defend your interests, buy time to formulate a plan, and create an evidence trail. Let’s run through some proven do’s and don’ts.

In the Initial Meeting

When you’re first presented with a PIP letter, you’ll likely experience shock, confusion, and defensiveness. But avoid letting raw emotions dictate your real-time reactions in that moment.

  • Stay calm – Don’t get emotional, combative, or indignant even if you feel the PIP is totally unfair. Keep a level head.
  • Ask clarifying questions – If anything is unclear in the PIP draft, request that it be explained in full detail into the meeting record.
  • Take copious notes – Document all points raised, tone of the meeting, statements made, questions asked, and answers given.
  • Buy time – Decline to sign the PIP straight away. Explain you’ll need time to carefully review it before formally acknowledging it. Request at least 24 hours.
  • Get a copy – Secure both a physical and soft copy of the PIP letter presented for reference. Forward digitally to your personal email also.
  • Keep silent – Aside from polite clarifying questions, avoid substantive discussions yet. Decline to agree or argue specific points raised in this initial ambush meeting.

Staying composed, asking thoughtful clarification questions, taking detailed real-time notes, and essentially pleading the Fifth by not responding to accusations is advisable in the first PIP meeting.

After Exiting the Meeting

Once you leave the room and have a private moment to digest, a few key steps:

  • Review the PIP thoroughly – Read every claim multiple times and parse the language carefully. Underline or highlight points you disagree with, find vague, or know to be false.
  • Catalog supporting evidence – Make a list of any documents, emails, files, examples, witnesses, or past reviews that refute or disprove elements of the PIP. Gather these materials.
  • Enlist allies – Discreetly ask trusted colleagues for their recollections related to any disputed PIP allegations about your work, attitude, or interactions.
  • Consult an attorney – Schedule a consultation with an experienced local employment lawyer to discuss the legality and fairness of the PIP.
  • Draft a rebuttal – Methodically outline a point-by-point written response that counters the most problematic aspects of the PIP. Provide documentation.
  • File an internal complaint – If there are clear grounds the PIP is a sham or unlawful, file a formal written rebuttal and grievance with HR.
  • Contact your doctor – If stress and anxiety become severe over the PIP, consider seeing a therapist or doctor. Getting documentation of mental health impacts may be wise down the road.
  • Update your resume – Being handed a PIP is usually a sign your job is in jeopardy. Discreetly brush up your resume and start networking.

Refusing to Sign the PIP

If pressured intensely to sign the PIP immediately, have a strategy:

  • Reiterate you need reasonable time to review the multi-page document before signing. Refuse to be rushed or bullied into acknowledging it on the spot. Politely decline signing at this time.
  • If ultimately faced with the ultimatum “sign this now or you’re fired,” carefully write the words “signed under duress” below your signature. This legally signals you do not necessarily agree with the PIP content and signed solely due to coercion.
  • Do not ever sign a document you believe to be factually inaccurate, especially under time pressure. Explain you cannot legally attest to information you know to be false. Offer to reconvene once inaccuracies are corrected.

Filing an Internal Complaint

If you have solid grounds to dispute allegations in the PIP, a formal written grievance to HR may be an option:

  • Outline each questionable claim in the PIP and provide documentation that contradicts it. Stick to facts only.
  • Explain precisely how the PIP is unreasonable, unfair, retaliatory, discriminatory, counter to past reviews, or otherwise improper.
  • Formally request the disciplinary threat of a PIP be retracted and the issues handled through normal performance management protocols instead.
  • Assert this is a complaint against unlawful employment practices under Title VII, the ADA, FMLA etc. if relevant. State you will pursue legal remedies if not addressed internally.

Having a paper trail showing your contemporaneous objections can help demonstrate the invalidity of the PIP if terminated later on.

Requesting Reasonable Accommodations

If you have a medical condition or disability that impacts your work, formally request accommodations:

  • Ask for adjustments like assistive technology, flex schedules, modified workflows etc. to aid you in meeting PIP expectations. Employers must provide these under ADA.
  • Get doctor letters documenting your functional limitations to support the accommodations requested based on medical need.
  • Put requests in writing and retain copies. Email is best to timestamp. Follow up if no response within a week – do not allow it to be ignored.
  • Escalate to HR and emphasize the legal duty to accommodate disabilities and religious beliefs that may be impacting your performance.

Don’t assume your company will proactively offer accommodations – you must explicitly request them using the interactive ADA process. This can help you succeed under an oppressive PIP.

Preparing Your Job Search

Unfortunately, receiving a PIP generally means your termination is imminent absent major improvements. Use the 30-90 day PIP period to discreetly job hunt:

  • Update your resume, LinkedIn profile, and online portfolios to make you attractive to hiring managers and recruiters. Highlight key achievements.
  • Network, reconnect with colleagues at other companies, and let close contacts know you’re exploring new opportunities.
  • Research open roles, companies, and positions you’d be a fit for. Create a target list and customize your application materials.
  • Begin submitting applications, scheduling interviews, and securing offers for your ideal next job. The PIP time clock is ticking.
  • Line up strong references who will praise your work if contacted by other employers. Avoid using your current manager.

Ideally, time securing a new job offer to coincide with when your PIP ends. That gives you maximum leverage in negotiating a termination settlement if exiting. The last thing you want is a gap between jobs.

Preserving Your Peace of Mind

Being issued a PIP can take a toll mentally and emotionally. Make sure to:

  • Maintain healthy daily routines – exercise, sleep, nutritious meals. Don’t neglect self-care.
  • Confide in trusted friends and family. Seek reassurance and moral support.
  • Avoid venting to coworkers where it could get back to management. Keep your own counsel.
  • Journal, meditate, or do yoga/breathing exercises to relieve stress. Listen to affirmations.
  • Stay positive. Focus only on what you can control day-to-day. Don’t obsess over hypothetical worst case scenarios.
  • Keep work and personal identities separate. Remember your value isn’t defined by this job.
  • See a therapist or doctor if anxiety, depression, or anger become overwhelming. Protect your mental health.

With the right mindset and discreet self-care, you can maintain your confidence and remain productive at work while navigating the uncertainties of being placed on a PIP. Stay strong.

How to Appeal or Fight an Unfair PIP

What recourse do you have if placed on a demonstrably unjust PIP? How can you challenge or overturn a Performance Improvement Plan that’s inaccurate, arbitrary, or illegal? If you exhaustion internal options, legal action may be warranted.

Appealing Internally

Most employers have an appeals process to contest disciplinary warnings like a PIP:

  • File a written appeal letter within the timeframe stated in your employee policies, often 5-10 days. Cite the grounds the PIP is improper and provide documentation. Request it be dismissed and removed from your file. Follow up if no timely response.
  • Use the internal HR grievance process to assert retaliation, discrimination, whistleblower violation etc. if relevant. Escalate the appeal to corporate HR if needed.
  • Involve upper management – If you have allies higher up, enlist them confidentially to advocate on your behalf and put pressure behind the scenes.
  • File a complaint with oversight agencies like the Department of Labor or NLRB if the PIP infringes upon protected rights.

Exhausting internal company procedures and complaints processes before taking external legal action is usually required anyway. So make your best case through every available in-house channel first.

Negotiating a Settlement

Another option is trying to negotiate an agreed-upon departure to avoid the PIP and drawn-out termination process altogether:

  • Make a written proposal outlining your transition date, a positive reference, compensation/severance for leaving, repayment of expenses etc. in exchange for waiving potential claims related to the PIP. Send to HR/legal.
  • Communicate through your lawyer to enhance formality and legal posture. Demonstrate you are serious and prepared to litigate if needed.
  • Offer a severance amount – Even propose a sum or formula to the employer as a starting point. Many companies find it more expedient to pay a modest settlement than undergo prolonged legal wrangling.
  • Request non-disparagement terms – Both parties agree not to speak ill of one another. This gives you protection from retaliation.
  • Don’t resign until a settlement agreement is inked. Make the employer terminate you if needed so you preserve claims. Severance can be forfeited if you quit voluntarily.

Pursuing a negotiated exit agreement can give you money, references, and benefits while avoiding an acrimonious termination battle over a contested PIP.

Filing a Lawsuit

If settling out of court is not feasible, a lawsuit becomes an option:

  • File a complaint with the EEOC – This is required before suing under anti-discrimination laws like Title VII or the ADA. The EEOC may investigate or mediate a resolution.
  • Engage an employment litigation lawyer – Have them review your case and handle the EEOC charge process and any subsequent lawsuit. It is difficult to successfully navigate alone.
  • Send a demand letter – Your attorney can send a letter demanding compensation for unlawful PIP retaliation or discrimination. If rebuffed, a lawsuit generally follows.
  • File your claim in court – The complaint lays out how the PIP was illegal and harmed you. It states the type of relief requested. The court process to prove your allegations ensues.
  • Gather evidence – To win in court, you’ll need documentation showing you were a strong employee, that the PIP was pretextual, and proving any illegal motives alleged. Witness testimony also helps.

Only consider litigation once internal resolution attempts are unsuccessful and you have strong evidence of wrongdoing. Consult an attorney before taking any formal legal action.

Grounds to Challenge a PIP

To contest a PIP, focus on proving:

  • No prior notice of performance issues – Sudden discipline despite consistently positive reviews suggests pretext.
  • Vague, unrealistic expectations – Unattainable standards designed to provoke failure indicate bad faith.
  • Insufficient training, resources, and support – Not setting you up to succeed undermines legitimacy.
  • Biased, hostile, or harassing treatment – Bullying suggests an unlawful discriminatory agenda.
  • Favoritism toward other employees – Comparatively worse PIP standards shows disparate treatment.
  • Violations of protected rights– Disciplining for using FMLA leave, discussing pay, unionizing etc. is illegal.

Any behaviors or double standards revealing the PIP process to be a sham or pretext for unlawful purposes makes it contestable.

Proving Retaliation

Retaliation protections legally prohibit punitive actions for exercising rights such as:

  • Speaking up about discrimination
  • Filing EEO complaints
  • Requesting disability accommodations
  • Taking protected leave
  • Organizing collective bargaining
  • Whistleblowing

Wrongful retaliation must be proven by showing:

  • You engaged in legally protected “opposition” to an employer practice
  • The employer took adverse action against you like a PIP
  • The proximity implies it was motivated by your protected activity
  • Their claims it was for performance alone are undermined by the facts

An attorney’s help navigating burdens of proof and evidence rules is invaluable in an EEO retaliation case.

With the right documentation and legal argumentation, employees can often successfully fight or overturn unjust PIPs, either internally or through formal legal action. Don’t suffer in silence if your PIP seems plainly unlawful or retaliatory in nature.

What Happens After Failing a PIP?

Few scenarios spark more dread than reaching the end of your PIP period only to have failed to meet the standards outlined. Now what? Can you still be fired? Will you get severance pay? What are your options once you’ve been through but not successfully completed a performance improvement plan?

The Typical Aftermath

Barring exceptional circumstances, not satisfying a PIP’s requirements by the deadline spelled out leads to termination. This outcome is telegraphed at the start of most PIPs as the consequence for underperformance.

Once the time period for improvement lapses, your manager and HR can begin the termination process if you’ve failed to measurably progress:

  • You are issued a final written warning that you did not meet PIP expectations.
  • A termination meeting is scheduled where you are informed your employment will be ended.
  • If eligible, you may be offered a severance package to waive claims against the company and ease the separation.
  • Your last day of employment arrives and you are no longer working for the organization.
  • You can file for unemployment benefits while seeking a new job, but may need to appeal if contested.

Barring exceptional circumstances or alternative arrangements, not succeeding under a PIP generally ushers in involuntary termination in short order.

Are Severance Packages Common?

While many corporations include severance pay as part of a normal layoff, severance is less likely after you are fired for cause due to poor performance. PIPs are designed to create legal cause for dismissal without severance liability.

That said, some companies offer small severance packages anyway (1-2 weeks’ pay) under amutual separation agreement to speed up the offboarding process amicably. This usually requires signing a waiver promising no legal claims.

If you have grounds to allege your PIP was unlawful or improper, an employment attorney may be able to negotiate larger severance compensation for you even post-termination. But absent wrongdoing, don’t expect a windfall.

Negotiating a Settlement If Let Go

Should you be able to negotiate a severance deal or settlement if released after not meeting PIP milestones?

Potentially yes, but you have less bargaining power once no longer employed. Any severance negotiations should ideally occur while still on payroll.

That said, even post-termination a talented lawyer may be able to secure you:

  • Several months’ salary as a severance payment in exchange for signing a waiver
  • An agreed-upon neutral job reference to share with future prospective employers

-Certain benefits like health insurance coverage for a defined transition period

  • Payout of any owed commissions, bonuses, or unused vacation time
  • Forgiveness of any expenses you owe the company

The price of a settlement for the employer is often lower than the risks and costs of protracted litigation. Painting a picture of a messy public legal battle can be persuasive leverage in negotiations if you have a viable case.

Filing a Lawsuit for Wrongful Termination

If you can demonstrate your PIP and subsequent firing was illegal, filing an employment lawsuit may be an avenue to pursue:

  • Consult with an attorney experienced in wrongful termination cases to assess if you may have viable claims around:
  • Discrimination (age, gender, race, disability etc.)
  • Retaliation for protected activities
  • Hostile work environment
  • Breach of employment contract
  • Have your attorney send a demand letter to the company asserting your intent to litigate if a fair settlement amount is not paid.
  • File official EEOC and state agency administrative charges prerequisite to a court filing.
  • Your lawyer can then sue for back pay, front pay, lost benefits, emotional distress and/or punitive damages depending on applicable laws.

Lawsuits should never be lightly undertaken, but remain an option if your termination clearly resulted from an abusive, fraudulent PIP process.

With the right evidence and legal arguments, even former employees can still recover some compensation when PIP dismissals are proved unjust.

When Are PIPs More Likely Unfair?

Not all performance improvement plans are created equal. Many are justified responses to genuine workplace issues. But in some cases, PIPs are deployed unfairly or even abusively against employees. What are red flags to watch for that may indicate your PIP is a sham rather than legitimate intervention?

Sudden Changes From Positive Reviews

Beware PIPs that seem to come out of left field if you’ve historically earned positive performance marks. A few warning signs:

  • Your last annual review was glowing with no areas of improvement indicated.
  • You’ve received praise, bonuses, and promotions in the past year for strong work.
  • Coworkers express shock, saying you are one of the top performers on the team.
  • There was no effort by your manager to address any issues informally before the PIP.
  • The PIP meeting is your first ever notice of any problems.

Sudden discipline despite recent rewards and affirmations often signals an ulterior agenda – not addressing genuine performance deficiencies.

Vague, Subjective Performance Metrics

Well-designed PIPs outline improvement goals that are concrete, specific, quantifiable, and directly related to your actual job duties. Beware PIPs based on:

  • Highly subjective measures like “bad attitude” or “poor teamwork skills”.
  • Targets focused on style or persona rather than work outputs.
  • Criteria that seem irrelevant to your core role.
  • Expectations left undefined or ambiguous.
  • Mysterious unexplained criticisms.
  • Moving goalposts where nothing seems good enough.

Opaque, arbitrary standards offer little hope of redemption and imply unfair targeting rather than constructive improvement.

Lack of Clear Communications

Fair PIPs follow extensive prior dialogue about performance gaps and how the employee can get back on track before formal discipline. Watch for:

  • No clear job description detailing expectations was ever provided.
  • You lacked regular check-ins and feedback about your work before the PIP.
  • Your manager seems unable or unwilling to articulate specifics about your deficiencies.
  • No peers, mentors, or trainers were enlisted to help you improve beforehand.
  • No warnings were given – the PIP came out of the blue.

Insufficient guidance telegraphs the employer isn’t truly invested in your development and success.

No Investments in Training or Coaching

Supporting employees undergoing performance management with proper tools for growth is an ethical imperative for leaders. Look out for:

  • No training resources or coaches are allocated to help you achieve PIP goals.
  • Your requests for support are continually rebuffed or ignored.
  • Standards demand new skills you’ve been denied chances to develop.
  • You’re punished for skill gaps rather than helped to overcome them.
  • More senior staff with similar issues don’t seem to be disciplined the same way.

Withholding development opportunities indicates a self-serving PIP, not a constructive one.

Unreasonable Timeframes

Even if areas for improvement are fair, incredibly short periods to meet them reveal a PIP stacked against you:

  • The deadlines given are absurdly short for the goals outlined – less than 30 days, a week etc.
  • Targets demand volumes of work impossible for anyone to complete in the allotted timeline.
  • You’re given less time than peers on similar plans.
  • Requests for reasonable extensions are denied.
  • Probation periods much shorter than company policy allow may demonstrate pretext.

Draconian, excessive demands aimed to induce quick failure expose bad faith PIPs. Discrepancies in duration allowed compared to policy or other employees helps prove unjust treatment.

Opaque Criteria

Clear, defined expectations are essential for any fair improvement process. Watch for:

  • Goals consisting of vague buzzwords like “be more innovative” or “improve leadership.”
  • Subjective assessments of your “attitude” or “teamwork abilities.”

-Metrics that seem arbitrarily chosen rather than substantive and verifiable.

  • Ambiguous standards you cannot reasonably understand.
  • Refusal to clarify ambiguity when asked.

Flawed PIPs often reflect a shaky, unscrupulous agenda rather than facts. Opaqueness is a hallmark of unlawful pretexts.

Scrutinize your PIP for any of the above red flags. While not definitive proof of ill motives, they can build a strong case if considering challenging your PIP as abusive or unlawful.

Tips for Navigating a PIP Successfully

Being placed on a PIP puts your job in precarious waters. While building a case against unfair plans is wise, pragmatically you also need strategies to successfully traverse the process. How can you best position yourself to satisfy PIP requirements if termination is truly on the line?
Take It Seriously But Stay Positive

Getting served with a PIP can spark feelings of resentment, especially if you dispute its merits. But maintain a constructive mindset:

  • Treat the situation with gravity and urgency, regardless of whether you feel the PIP is justified. Perception matters.
  • Frame it internally as a growth opportunity to refresh skills and demonstrate your commitment, not just a penalty.
  • Avoid badmouthing your manager or the company to colleagues. Venting may feel cathartic but can undermine you.
  • Focus only on actionable steps within your control. Don’t waste energy complaining or wallowing.
  • Research shows optimism and psychological safety boost performance. Adopt a positive, proactive attitude.
  • Be solution-oriented. Aim to understand then exceed expectations, not prove your employer wrong.

With the right mindset, even some unfair PIPs can catalyze improved performance and professional growth.

Overcommunicate With Your Manager

Increase transparency as much as possible with your boss:

  • Schedule 1:1 status meetings to review progress frequently, not just mandated PIP check-ins.
  • Ask clarifying questions to deeply understand ambiguous expectations. Eliminate guesswork.
  • Provide regular written updates detailing goals achieved.
  • Request their feedback on work samples to confirm alignment.
  • Proactively notify them of any upcoming absences or schedule changes.
  • Express appreciation for their support and validation of your hard work.

Managing up through assertive communication makes successfully navigating a PIP much easier.

Seek Out Mentorship and Training

Take advantage of any learning resources made available:

  • Ask about coaching from respected veterans who can impart their knowledge.
  • Request access to online courses, tutorials, certifications to build skills.
  • Attend conferences, workshops, or seminars to expand your capabilities.
  • Shadow top performers to learn their habits and adopt their winning tactics.
  • Pursue cross-departmental rotations to gain new perspectives.

Accessing organizational knowledge elevates skills, networks, and visibility – all valuable regardless of your PIP outcome.

Meticulously Document Progress

Maintaining diligent records provides evidence of your commitment:

  • Log all PIP goals set and results achieved to quantify your success.
  • Keep a daily journal of tasks completed, trainings attended, new skills demonstrated etc.
  • Save copies of standout work products exemplifying your improvement.
  • Get unsolicited positive feedback from colleagues in writing.
  • Compile everything into a progress summary binder to have on hand.

Concrete artifacts of effort help justify extending your PIP or overturning termination if performance gains are made but still deemed insufficient.

Discreetly Look for New Opportunities

Unfortunately most PIPs presage eventual dismissal. Pragmatically:

  • Confidentially spruce up your resume and LinkedIn presence after work hours.
  • Research ideal next roles and companies. Craft targeted application materials.
  • Network and line up recommendations to aid your job search.
  • Interview discretely and secure an offer by the time your PIP ends.

Being proactive positions you to smoothly transition elsewhere if released. Don’t let a PIP lead to an extended income gap.

With strategic planning, diligence, and resourcefulness, it’s possible to survive and glean value from even questionable PIPs. Cautious optimism coupled with careful documentation of progress is key.

Alternatives to a Formal PIP

Once performance issues are flagged, some form of performance management process typically follows. But a formal written PIP is not necessarily the only option. What other routes can employees and employers mutually explore?
Create an Informal Action Plan

Rather than immediately issue a stern PIP letter, your manager might propose a collaborative improvement strategy like:

  • An informal 30/60/90 day action plan outlining goals, check-ins, and resources available to help you succeed.
  • Regular weekly or bi-weekly meetings to review progress and provide coaching.
  • Access to training content, mentors, and other learning opportunities.
  • A shared online tracker to monitor completion of plan milestones.
  • Extra time allotted for practice and skill development outside core projects.
  • Periodic anonymous peer feedback surveys to gauge your strengths and growth areas.
  • Clear written guidance on expectations with examples of what success looks like.

This constructive, participatory approach gives space for positive growth without the adversity of a formal discipline plan.

Explore a Job Reassignment

Some performance issues tie specifically to a role mismatch rather than individual deficits. Constructive options may include:

  • Temporary or permanent transfer to a new department or team that’s a better fit for your talents.
  • Assigning you to enriching stretch assignments to showcase other skills.
  • Eliminating or changing responsibility for tasks that are proving challenging.
  • Providing extra staffing support to supplement any shortcomings.
  • Adjusting your position scope to play to your natural strengths.
  • Exploring lateral moves into more suitable openings.

Taking a collaborative approach focused on matching people to the right jobs for them to thrive can render formal PIPs unnecessary.

Negotiate a Severance Agreement

If your struggles seem insurmountable no matter what support is provided, your employer may propose:

  • An amicable contractual separation whereby you voluntarily resign in exchange for a severance package.
  • Typically 2-3 weeks of salary per year served.
  • Sometimes extended health insurance, reference letters, waived repayment of debts, and other benefits.
  • Legal release promising no lawsuits.

This enables a respectful transition rather than an acrimonious firing process after a failed PIP.

Extend the Improvement Timeframe

If you’ve made some progress but just need more time, suggest:

  • Lengthening the PIP duration by another 30-60 days.
  • Periodically reviewing whether an extension is warranted based on positive trends.
  • Allowing work from home days or reduced hours to focus on building skills.
  • Assigning a mentor or coach to provide support during the extended period.

Most employers are open to good faith flexibility if an employee demonstrates initiative in improving.

The Right Fit

In issues of underperformance, a rushed PIP may not always be the optimal starting point. Explore alternatives that set your mutually up for success.

Questions to Ask About Your PIP

Receiving a PIP letter loaded with criticisms can feel destabilizing and intimidating. But you have every right to raise clarifying questions about the plan outlined – in fact, doing so is critical. What should you ask your manager or HR rep to better understand expectations and boost your chances for improvement?

What Specific Metrics Will Determine Success?

Well-designed PIPs include objective, quantifiable targets – not just sweeping generalizations. Drill down on:

  • Are all performance metrics objectively measurable rather than subjective assessments open to interpretation?
  • How specifically will you evaluate whether my customer satisfaction skills improve? Will there be surveys? Fewer complaints?
  • What volume of sales or other numerical productivity target must I achieve to meet or exceed goals?
  • Are there quality assurance benchmarks or testing criteria you will apply to my work?
  • How do my metrics compare to others? Are they reasonable and equitable?

Probe ambiguous expectations that may leave you foundering and unsure how to progress. Define metrics concretely.

Can We Adjust Goals Based on Early Feedback?

An agile PIP allows fluid course corrections, not just rigid do-or-die demands. Explore:

  • If I meet some goals faster than expected, can we discuss raising the targets?
  • If certain goals prove unrealistic, can we reassess and modify them?
  • Can I request deadline extensions if I’m near success but need a bit more time?
  • Can interim wins earned through extra effort be grounds for reducing other expectations?
  • Beyond the formal reviews, will you provide informal progress feedback so I can calibrate?

Goal setting is an iterative process. Build in assumptions testing, not just ratcheting expectations.

Will You Provide Regular Status Updates on My Progress?

Managing a PIP in a silo adds needless stress. Seek transparency:

  • How often will you share feedback about my PIP performance – weekly, bi-weekly etc?
  • Can we start each workday with a 15 minute check-in to align priorities and get quick feedback?
  • What is the best way for me to surface concerns or ask for course corrections – email, slack, in person?
  • Will your observations remain private between us initially before formal reviews?
  • How will you communicate not just shortfalls but also successes along the way?

Consistent status updates prevent surprises come formal performance evaluations.

Is Additional Training or Coaching Available?

Supporting improvement with knowledge transfer is only fair when requiring it. Inquire about:

  • Are there any job aids, online modules, or expert coaches available to help build my skills in areas deemed deficient?
  • Will senior mentors be assigned as sounding boards I can shadow for guidance?
  • Can I receive extra time for self study of materials related to my improvement goals?
  • Are internal or external classroom training opportunities available that could accelerate my growth?
  • May I attend conferences, workshops, or certification prep courses covering relevant skills?

Aid your own success by exhausting every education resource possible.

Are There Peer Benchmarks I Can Learn From?

Models of excellence provide motivation and reveal best practices. Ask about:

  • Is there an internal wiki, recordings, or mentors who can demystify what exemplary outcomes look like for my role?
  • May I review anonymized examples of peers’ high-quality work as guidelines to aim for?
  • Can certain team members be recommended whose work ethic and habits would be valuable to emulate?
  • What training resources are provided to our company’s standout performers in my function that I could also benefit from?

Studying what success looks like helps you replicate it. Discover what support aids top talent.

Asking thoughtful, well-researched questions about your PIP demonstrates engagement – and builds understanding needed to meet expectations. Leave no ambiguity unaddressed to set yourself up for success.

Exit Gracefully If Termination Seems Likely

Despite your best efforts, you may reach the end of a PIP still deemed underperforming by your employer’s standards. If firing looms, how can you depart with poise and protect your interests? Don’t go down without a fight – but also avoid burning bridges.

Don’t Vent Frustration or “Go Rogue”

You may suspect your PIP was unfair or handled poorly. But steer clear of unprofessional parting shots like:

  • Lashing out at your manager or team members. Harsh personal attacks will backfire.
  • Sabotaging projects or abandoning critical responsibilities to leave them in the lurch.
  • Deleting or corrupting data assets entrusted to you out of spite.
  • Sharing confidential information externally in retaliation.
  • Making dramatic public accusations against the company.
  • Resigning in a rage rather than resolving matters.

Such retaliation will only hand your employer evidence to defend firing you and contest paying unemployment or severance. Keep cool.

Request a Strong Letter of Reference

Bosses are often willing to provide a positive reference letter despite a tense conclusion. Consider asking them to highlight:

  • Key accomplishments, milestones, and contributions you’re proud of.
  • Knowledge, skills, and strengths that distinguish you.
  • Any areas of top performance or praise received from colleagues.
  • Leadership activities or special projects you spearheaded.

Also request they omit direct reference to your termination or being on a PIP. A gracious letter focused solely on your merits makes new job hunting easier.

Explore Leaving on Positive Terms If Possible

Aim for a respectful separation by asking:

  • If they would consider a neutral reference that simply confirms your tenure.
  • To advertise your role internally and support you in applying.
  • To allow you to indicate you resigned voluntarily when asked why you left.
  • To consider rehiring you if a more suitable opening arises.
  • If unused PTO, vacation, or sick time could be paid out in your final paycheck.
  • That they return or purchase your company-issued phone, laptop, or other gear.

Amicably settling accounts smooths your path to the next chapter even after a rocky ending.

Get Legal Advice on Avenues for Recourse

If you feel seriously aggrieved, discreetly consult an attorney to understand your options:

  • Were there violations of employment laws you can allege like discrimination, harassment, or failure to accommodate a disability?
  • Can you attempt to negotiate a severance agreement in exchange for waiving claims?
  • Would an appeal arguing an unjust PIP have any merit?
  • Do you have grounds for wrongful termination or retaliation lawsuits?

Just because you’re leaving does not forfeit your right to challenge an unlawful PIP. But litigation should be a careful, informed last resort if needed to make yourself whole.

Parting ways despite a PIP gone awry does not have to mean scorched earth. Strive for high ground, protect your interests, but avoid unnecessary bridges burned.

When to Consult an Employment Lawyer About PIPs

Navigating a PIP can feel overwhelming without knowledgeable guidance. While lawyers can’t guarantee you’ll keep your job, they can protect your rights. In what situations does it make sense to seek legal counsel when you’ve been put on a performance improvement plan?
If You Suspect Discrimination or Retaliation

Was your PIP potentially triggered by unlawful biases involving:

  • Age
  • Gender or pregnancy
  • Sexual orientation
  • Race or national origin
  • Disabilities you have
  • Religious beliefs

Or could it aim to punish protected activities like:

  • Taking medical leave
  • Reporting workplace issues
  • Not yielding to sexual advances
  • Joining a union
  • Filing discrimination charges

Then a lawyer’s objectivity can assess whether legitimate evidence of bias or retaliation exists. They know what facts convince courts and how to build the strongest case possible.

If the PIP Was Imposed Suddenly Without Fair Warning

It’s unreasonable to blindside employees with discipline for issues they were never alerted to previously or coached to correct. If your PIP came out of the blue:

  • Despite no prior performance discussions
  • With no advance notice of problems
  • Despite recent promotions or raises
  • Differing drastically from past reviews

These inconsistencies suggest pretext. Experienced counsel spot patterns courts weigh as proof of sham PIPs.

If the Employer Won’t Let You Respond to Allegations

Fairness dictates that employees should have opportunities to address accusations of poor work. Refusing to hear your side of the story implies an agenda unrelated to growth. If they:

  • Silence your objections in PIP meetings
  • Block you from appealing internally
  • Ignore emails rebutting evaluations
  • Prohibit you from gathering contrary evidence

…then engaging a lawyer lends you a voice and platform to formally contest unjust actions.

If You Were Denied Accommodations or Protected Leave

The ADA and FMLA legally require employers to grant reasonable accommodations and leaves without penalty. If you were disciplined for:

  • Requesting disability adjustments
  • Taking intermittent FMLA
  • Needing extended medical leave
  • Asking for religious considerations

…counsel can compel your employer to halt discrimination and rectify harm done.

If You’re Fired Shortly After Completing PIP Requirements

Sometimes improved performance during the PIP period still isn’t enough to avoid termination. If you diligently met all expectations but were swiftly fired anyway, a lawyer’s second opinion may reveal:

  • The PIP was crafted to be impossible to fully satisfy
  • Standards were unfairly stringent compared to others
  • Positive progress was discounted or ignored
  • Extensions were unreasonably denied

In such scenarios, the PIP may have been deployed as an underhanded scheme to oust you on a technicality.

Any Time You Need Experienced Counsel

The stress of being placed on a PIP can overwhelm. Speaking with a knowledgeable employment attorney is wise if:

  • Unsure whether a PIP is lawful or impartial
  • Need guidance appealing or drafting grievances
  • Want to negotiate a dignified exit settlement
  • Require help filing discrimination charges
  • Considering a wrongful termination lawsuit

They can demystify the law and processes at each step so you can make informed decisions protecting your best interests. You needn’t weather a PIP alone without an expert advocate on your side.

Next Steps After Being Placed on a PIP

You’ve just been blindsided with a Performance Improvement Plan outlining alleged shortcomings in your work. Now what? How you respond in the crucial days and weeks ahead can significantly impact your situation. What pragmatic steps should you take after receiving a PIP to defend your interests?

Don’t Panic – Focus on What You Can Control

It’s completely normal to feel shocked, angry, or afraid about being issued a formal warning. But make smart decisions, not emotional ones:

  • Stay calm and professional, especially at work. An outburst can only hurt you.
  • Stick to your daily tasks and avoid overthinking hypothetical worst-case scenarios.
  • Remember your value and that this is just one challenge – not the end of the world.
  • Focus your energy solely on aspects within your control like your attitude and preparation.
  • Maintain healthy self-care like eating well, exercising, and getting enough rest. Don’t neglect your needs.

With a solutions-focused, level-headed mindset, you can effectively navigate even daunting workplace adversity.

Communicate Positively – Ask Questions, Listen

Avoid conflict or assigned blame. Be part of the solution:

  • Politely ask clarifying questions to understand expectations, not just object.
  • Listen actively to criticism and feedback without getting defensive.
  • Express appreciation for their willingness to help you improve.
  • Note concerns but reaffirm your commitment to exceed standards.
  • Suggest ideas like training or mentors that could aid your progress.
  • If discussions get tense, ask to table them and reconvene once emotions have settled.

Control the narrative by demonstrating cooperation, restraint, and solution orientation.

Document Everything – Create a Paper Trail

Contemporaneous documentation strengthens your position enormously if disputed later:

  • Keep a daily work journal accounting for tasks, interactions, issues that arise etc.
  • Forward any ambiguous or questionable emails to your personal account for safekeeping.
  • Discreetly save copies of positive past evaluations that conflict with the PIP claims.
  • Get pledges of support or performance praise from colleagues in writing.
  • Record all face-to-face discussions about your PIP – but only if legally permissible in your state.
  • Keep paper and digital copies of any work showing you are meeting PIP expectations.

Accurate documentation helps reveal any unlawful PIP biases and provides evidence to defend yourself.

Protect Yourself – Discreetly Record Interactions

If permitted legally in your state, discreetly record any in-person PIP meetings on your phone. But avoid being obvious. This can:

  • Capture verbal criticisms not documented on paper.
  • Refresh your recollection when drafting detailed rebuttals later.
  • Expose any abusive or coercive statements made.
  • Support claims of discrimination, retaliation, or pretext if needed.
  • Prevent “he said, she said” discrepancies over what exactly was said in private.

Just be cautious and keep it confidential that you are self-protecting in this way.

Reach Out for Support – Peers, Mentors, Therapist

You need allies in your corner during this challenging time:

  • Discreetly confide in close co-workers you trust to vent and brainstorm tactics.
  • Call on past mentors from school or previous jobs as compassionate sounding boards.
  • Seek moral support from friends and family to boost your spirits outside work.
  • Consider consulting a therapist or counselor to help manage stress and anxiety.
  • Join a support group of fellow professionals who have undergone similar predicaments.

Rallying empathy, wisdom, reassurance, and insights from others alleviates isolation and self-doubt.

Review Your Options – Start Job Search, Negotiate Exit

Take proactive steps to expand possibilities beyond just waiting passively:

  • Discreetly spruce up your resume and LinkedIn presence and begin networking.
  • Research ideal next roles and companies. Start submitting applications.
  • Hire an employment attorney to assess grounds for negotiating a severance settlement.
  • If resigning, aim for neutral references, payment of unused vacation days, forgiveness of any debts to the company, etc.
  • If staying, request an internal mentor, access to training resources and support groups.

Generating choices empowers you and sets up Plan B if the PIP process goes awry.

Being issued a PIP needn’t spell impending career doom with the right mindset and smart preparatory steps. Remain solution focused, document thoroughly, enlist allies, know your options. You’ve got this!


  • PIPs outline performance gaps and expectations to improve within a set timeframe. Failing to sufficiently improve may result in termination.
  • Never sign a PIP you disagree with or were pressured into signing. However, you can still commit to making positive changes.
  • PIPs must be fair, lawful, supported with resources, and allow reasonable timeframes to be enforceable.
  • If you feel your PIP is unjustified, consider filing an internal appeal or grievance to dispute it before signing. Consult an attorney.
  • When first receiving a PIP, remain professional in meetings but take detailed notes and secure copies. Ask clarifying questions. Do not provide substantive comments yet.
  • Carefully review the PIP and gather supporting evidence or documents that contradict unfair criticisms or claims.
  • Begin discreetly preparing for job search activities in case termination happens down the road. Keep a positive mindset but acknowledge the reality.
  • If terminated after an unfair PIP process, consider negotiating a severance settlement and/or filing retaliation or discrimination charges with the EEOC.
  • Document everything related to your PIP extensively, including meetings, praise, progress and unfair treatment. Records can help prove good faith efforts later.
  • Remain solutions focused, communicate politely with your manager, and take advantage of any resources available. But know your rights and options if the PIP seems unlawful.

Frequently Asked Questions About PIPs

Q: Are PIPs legal for employers to issue?
A: Yes, PIPs are legal instruments employers can use to address performance issues, provided they are administered fairly and reasonably.

Q: Should I sign a PIP I disagree with?

A: No, avoid signing any PIP you substantively dispute or were pressured into signing. However, explain you still aim to improve and succeed.

Q: How long should a PIP timeline be?

A: Typically 30-90 days. Duration depends on circumstances, but it should allow a fair, realistic chance to improve.

Q: Can I be fired for refusing to sign a PIP?

A: Potentially yes, although simply declining to sign does not necessarily equal insubordination if handled respectfully.

Q: What should I do after being given a PIP?

A: Carefully review it, take detailed notes, enlist allies, begin job search activities discreetly, and draft a formal rebuttal to unfair aspects with evidence.

Q: Can I negotiate a severance settlement if I don’t agree with the PIP?

A: Yes, you can attempt to negotiate an agreed-upon exit rather than go through the PIP process itself. Make any proposal through your attorney.

Q: How long do I have to file an appeal of my PIP with my employer?

A: Typically 5-10 days after receiving the PIP per company policy. File a written appeal citing reasons it is unfair and requesting its dismissal from your file.

Q: Can I collect unemployment benefits if I was fired for failing my PIP?

A: Yes, you can apply for unemployment and appeal any denial. Make your case that the PIP was unjust or goals unattainable in allocated time.

Q: What are some signs my PIP may be unlawful?

A: Sudden discipline without prior notice, lack of support, standards far stricter than peers, demotions, intimidation, superclass scrutiny, etc.

Q: When should I talk to an employment lawyer about my PIP?

A: If you suspect discrimination, retaliation, harassment, failure to accommodate disabilities/leave, discipline for protected rights, or unjust termination after following an unreasonable PIP.