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How To Identify A False or Unfair Performance Improvement Plan (and How To Respond)  

A Performance Improvement Plan is a formal way to help an employee whose performance hasn’t met expectations. However, in the majority of cases, a Performance Improvement Plan is usually the first step in firing an employee.

The best way to identify a false or unfair Performance Improvement Plan is when it imposes unrealistic performance expectations and it is a ploy to avoid paying the employee’s severance pay and benefits. A fake Performance Improvement Plan typically lacks the specifics that could help the employee improve work performance.

When a Performance Improvement Plan is Warranted

On the other hand, a valid Performance Improvement Plan could be beneficial when an employee:

  • repeatedly fails to meet sales goals or similar expectations
  • misses specific and reasonable deadlines
  • is constantly late for work
  • ignores or violates company policy on multiple occasions
  • frequently commits errors in their work

Elements of a valid Performance Improvement Plan

The Performance Improvement Plan is a written notice to an employee that details:

  • the performance expectations the employee must meet and work towards
  • the smaller goals within those broad expectations to help the employee to accomplish those large objectives
  • specific timeframes for reaching the specified targets

A Performance Improvement Plan typically spans between one and four months. The plan is triggered by either objective or subjective criteria that measure underperformance against quantifiable work standards and job descriptions.

Additionally, federal standards for a Performance Improvement Plan requires the following:

  • thoroughly documented reasons for the performance review based strictly on the employee’s professional duties
  • detailed explanation of the Performance Improvement Plan goals, with a timeline, the standards of evaluation, how to achieve them, and a thorough training plan from management
  • a statement of consequences of failing to achieve the Performance Improvement Plan objectives

Difference between a Performance Improvement Plan and a disciplinary action

A Performance Improvement Plan is NOT a disciplinary action. While the Performance Improvement Plan and a disciplinary action are outcomes of underperformance at work, each has different tactics to achieve its ends—improve performance.

As previously mentioned, the Performance Improvement Plan specifies concrete goals, etc. It provides guidelines and keeps the employee on the job. A disciplinary action, on the other hand, involves warnings (oral and written) that can lead to loss of working privileges. A disciplinary action could involve a temporary suspension from work without pay or a demotion.

A Performance Improvement Plan is NOT officially confidential

Most federal and state privacy laws protect highly personal conduct outside the workplace as confidential. However, a Performance Improvement Plan, by definition, is not confidential, because it is conducted in a professional, rather than private and personal setting.

However, some companies treat a Performance Improvement Plan as confidential and as a document that is not typically discussed openly.

What constitutes an unfair Performance Improvement Plan?

The sure sign that you should appeal a Performance Improvement Plan is that it is impossible to complete. Specifically, the plan:

  • sets unrealistic high goals and expectations
  • introduces additional responsibilities and tasks that divert from the principal job and duties
  • designates the individual who decided that the plan was necessary as the person in charge of overseeing improvement goals and progress
  • heaps increased stress to the extent that it impacts the ability to achieve performance goals
  • lacks instruction or mentoring that could help the employee learn and achieve performance goals

Can you disagree with a Performance Improvement Plan?

You can disagree with a Performance Improvement Plan, and you should do so in writing. The disagreement should be polite and professional. However, as an employee of the organization, you cannot refuse the Performance Improvement Plan. Outright refusal could be a basis for termination for insubordination.

How do you respond to an unfair Performance Improvement Plan?

You can appeal the Performance Improvement Plan by:

  • first, reading the plan thoroughly and taking detailed notes. There could be factual errors. For example, job expectations in the plan don’t match the reasonable standards expected from other employees in similar positions
  • pointing out any defects in the plan with a ruthless analysis of the plan in the context of the foregoing definitions of an unfair Performance Improvement Plan
  • deciding whether it’s worth it. Is the job worth keeping? Are you up to the effort to meet the requirements of the Performance Improvement Plan?
  • refusing to sign the Performance Improvement Plan. If pressured, remain steadfast and politely explain that you need time to process the plan.
  • seeking the advice of an employment attorney

Note: Except in cases of obvious discrimination or unfair employment practices, an employment attorney usually cannot save your job. However, an appeal from a performance improvement plan could buy time to search for another job and protect your employee severance package.

Does anyone survive a Performance Improvement Plan?

Writing for the career development website INHERSIGHT, Kristen Greggs, notes that Performance Improvement Plans are “fundamentally dishonest and driven by fear of litigation.” Basically, low performers receive improvement plans “to create a paper trail documenting poor achievement and they fail to actually improve performance.”

So, should you resign? Says Greggs, “Not necessarily. People do complete PIPs and go on to become successful…” There are, however, no records to indicate what percentage of employees are able to turn their performance around.

Says Greggs, “As a result, there is a reasonable, common belief that PIPs are used as a grace period for termination and a way to protect an organization from…wrongful termination lawsuits.”

However, there are ways to survive a Performance Improvement Plan, especially if you love your job and have a future in the organization.

Your manager may not be an expert at recognizing declines in productivity caused by personal issues, rather than a lack of talent and dedication. Here is where good HR advice and assistance can reestablish the lines of communication between the employee and manager.

If you’re fortunate to work in an organization that has a supportive work environment and are willing to commit to improvement and following the steps and timeframe of the Performance Improvement Plan, you can partner with your manager and HR and get to the root cause of your low performance.

You can participate in the process by being honest and open about what you need to improve. You can proactively participate in the process by pointing out the following:

  • You may not have received the training you need to be successful, or circumstances have required more focused, additional training.
  • Your duties and responsibilities may not have been clearly outlined.
  • You were not granted access to the tools and resources you need to perform satisfactorily.

Finally, you should express “your desire to remain in the organization and commit to completing the performance plan.” Don’t procrastinate. Use the time allotted in the plan to make the improvements necessary. Track your progress in meeting the goals in the plan and strive to complete them before the end date.

How to survive a Performance Improvement Plan

Once you are committed to the extra effort in meeting the Performance Improvement Plan, Marija Kojic, writing for Clockify, recommends the following:

Concentrate on improving your organizational skills. 

Break down assigned tasks into more manageable sub-tasks. Block the time on your work calendar for each, and stick to your time blocks.

Pay attention to time-tracking.

Cultivating the habit of time tracking helps you organize your work and track progress more efficiently. The result will be more productive use and control of time to do the work.

Cut out time-wasting activities

Cut off time-wasting activities such as being overly attentive to unimportant emails or spending time at meetings you don’t need to attend.

Get help from others.

Be proactive in seeking regular check-ups and feedback meetings with your supervisor or the mentor who helped you learn the ropes when you were new to the company. Ask your close colleagues for progress reports and feedback.

Stay positive and motivated.

Don’t struggle against the plan, and trust in your own skills and abilities to be successful.

Seek out an “accountability partner.” 

Asking a colleague for help in implementing your Performance Improvement Plan has the reciprocal reward of keeping that colleague accountable for their own work. That approach provides a greater motivation to look at the bigger picture by teaming up with someone whose goals are the same.

Define your reward for success, rather than visualizing it.

While visualizing success can bring on feelings of elation, that visualization can diminish the satisfaction of actual success. However, anticipating a reward you’ll receive in the future for meeting your performance goals can keep you on track for success.

Practice and surround yourself with positive reinforcement. 

Kojic’s favorite motivational thing is to make a “Motivational Panel” near your desk. The panel can display post-its with brief descriptions of previous achievements, inspirational quotes, and snappy one-liners like “Don’t hate Monday. Make Monday hate you!”

The panel can be a prominent and constant reminder to keep you on track for meeting your Performance Improvement Goals.

The bottom line

Whether or not you saw it coming or were blindsided by an unexpected Performance Improvement Plan, the process can be soul-crushing. The key is to decide whether the organization is genuinely interested in improving your performance or is just covering the legal bases before showing you the door.

If the former, don’t panic. View the process as an opportunity for future growth. If the latter, do some honest introspection. You’re probably not a great fit and it’s time to find a job more suited to your skills, talents, and temperament.

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