Your boss schedules a meeting with you, but doesn’t say what it’s about. You arrive to the meeting only to find your boss and a representative from Human Resources waiting for you. After brief introductions, the HR rep tells you that this is a meeting about your performance.
You are handed a Performance Improvement Plan, or PIP, that outlines issues related to your performance. It identifies goals and tasks required to improve performance. You were not expecting this or for the HR rep to explain that the company can take additional action if you don’t comply with the PIP in time, anywhere from 30 to 90 days.
This is particularly troubling if you had no indication that anyone had concerns about your performance. There are steps you should take once you receive this, including taking no immediate action in that meeting. You may wonder, “Do I have to sign a PIP?” The first thing you need to know is, never sign a PIP under any circumstances.
Never Sign a PIP
A meeting with your boss and a representative from HR can be intimidating. You can feel pressure to act and say things against your interests. You must understand you have rights. When you are asked to sign the PIP, you should politely decline. Explain that you must take time to process this and to read the document thoroughly.
The reason you never sign a PIP is because these documents are not what you think they are. While the document references performance, that may have a different meaning to you than it does to your employer. Your employer should make very clear when you are hired what constitutes good performance.
You should have regular meetings discussing your performance and ways to improve your performance. Without these, performance can be left up to interpretation, and that does not benefit you.
When you receive a PIP, you need to know that everyone understands the definition of performance. Performance improvement sounds like a good thing. But that’s not what a PIP is.
Don’t Accept the Claim of Non-Performance
If you sign a PIP, you are essentially acknowledging that you accept the definition of performance in this context.
In terms of an employment contract, performance is generally defined as meeting or falling short of agreed duties and actions. You wouldn’t be in a meeting with your boss and HR if everyone believed you were meeting performance as defined in an employment contract.
Clearly, the meeting is about your non-performance, and signing a PIP acknowledges this. If you acknowledge this by signing, you are essentially consenting that you have breached your employment contract.
It’s not that you are taking the position that you are perfect and without any need to improve yourself. But a PIP is documentation of non-performance that is the first step for many companies to terminate an employee. That means you are just like an employee who fails to show up for work, or violates ethics policies, or does some other act in violation of the employment contract.
When you sign a PIP, you aren’t being humble and acknowledging you have room to grow as an employee. You are saying you failed to do your job.
Why Not Signing a PIP Helps You
It may not seem like it when you’re sitting in that meeting with your boss and an HR rep, but not signing the PIP will help you in the long run.
First, you should understand that the meeting you’re attending is evidence that you have been targeted for termination.
The vast majority of PIPs are not designed to truly help you improve your performance. They are designed to document your termination for failure to perform. They also are designed to give your employer the opportunity to terminate you for cause without providing a severance or settlement of any type.
When you sign the PIP, you are making it easier for your employer to fire you. You acknowledge when you sign that you are not performing. The PIP gives the employer an opportunity to argue later that they gave you a plan to improve, but you did not satisfy the plan.
They also can argue that you agreed that you were not performing and accepted the terms of improvement to be completed within a finite period of time. A PIP signed by you makes your employer’s case stronger to terminate you without severance or settlement.
You force the employer to document on their own the claims of non-performance. Chances are this will be difficult to do if they have not clearly defined performance requirements and expectations.
It also makes terminating you even more difficult if you had prior performance reviews that showed praise for your work and job functions.
If you had no prior performance reviews, your employer has no basis to argue that you previously were notified about performance issues. But if you sign a PIP, all of that is wiped away because you acknowledge non-performance.
How to Decline Signing a PIP
Chances are after you are handed the PIP, you will be asked to sign it. You should explain that you want to take time to read it thoroughly. Point out that you were not expecting this and you need to read it carefully in private, not in the room with your boss and HR there.
What happens if you refuse to sign a PIP?
You will likely be told that you are not acknowledging non-performance when you sign the PIP. They will likely say that signing the PIP simply shows that you received the document.
Don’t fall for that. Instead, explain that you need time to process this and to read the document thoroughly. Tell them that you do not want to sign the document under pressure, and would prefer a chance to read it privately.
If they continue pressuring you to sign the document, it should be very apparent to you that this is an adversarial meeting. They are not here to help you. You can explain in response to the ongoing pressure to sign that you agree to execute all duties that are requested of you and to make changes that will improve your performance. But you can point out that you believe there are inaccuracies in the PIP about your performance and you do not believe it is in your best interest to sign it without consulting an attorney.
In the worst-case scenario, you may be threatened with immediate termination if you do not sign the PIP. If this occurs, only sign the PIP when you add the words under your signature, “under duress.”
Make sure to spell these words out clearly to show that you were threatened with termination if you didn’t sign and you were not given the opportunity to decline the PIP. This will help you show in the future that your signature was not an acceptance of the terms of the PIP or the claims of non-performance.
What Steps to Take When You Receive a PIP
The first thing you should do when you receive a PIP is to read it thoroughly. Take notes about anything said in the meeting with your boss and HR. Ask them to repeat points if you are not clear about their statements. Be sure to note in particular any statements about your performance that you know are not true.
Once you leave the meeting, contact an employment law attorney and tell them, “I was put on a Performance Improvement Plan.” You will want to inform them about the meeting, provide them a copy of the PIP and obtain guidance on how to respond to the PIP.
After you leave your office, begin crafting a detailed response to the PIP. You will want to share this with your lawyer and determine whether this is an unfair performance improvement plan. Respond to each claim made in the PIP. Identify evidence, witnesses and documentation you can use to counter the claims.
It is important to gather up prior performance reviews you may have received to use as evidence, particularly those that praise your performance. Emails, handwritten notes and company-wide announcements praising you are also significant evidence.
You should also immediately begin looking for another job. The fact that you were called into that meeting means you will likely be fired after the period set in the PIP to improve your performance, from 30 to 90 days.
Disclaimer: This article is written based on the author’s personal experience and does not constitute a legal advice. Neither the author nor Eggcellentwork will assume any legal liability that may arise from the use of the information in this article.
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Founder of Eggcellentwork.com. With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.