Weekly Wrap: The Dirty Little Secret of Performance Improvement Plans

There are three words that no employee (and most managers) ever want to hear, words that will frighten the bejesus out of anyone who encounters them.

Performance improvement plan, or PIP for short.

If you work in talent management or HR, you surely have had to deal with them on a few occasions — maybe more than you care to admit — but I’ll bet that you always tried avoid them whenever possible, sort of in the same way you would try to avoid a root canal.

Yes, performance improvement plans have that impact on people.

PIPs aren’t about improving performance

For the uninitiated, performance improvement plans are a program that you put an employee on so you can closely monitor their work because, well, somebody, somewhere has determined that they aren’t cutting it and need remedial help.

But in my experience, 99 percent of the time a performance improvement plan isn’t about helping a worker improve — it’s about gathering additional evidence and setting up the framework to boot them out the door.

Here’s the dirty little secret about PIPs: not only do they not work, but they are rarely about improving anyone’s performance.

Here’s what performance improvement plans are really about: providing cover and documentation (if needed) to help get rid of an employee that someone in the management chain of command wants to move out. They’re a CYA exercise, a way for management to claim they did all they could to help the employee in question, while at the same time sending a message to the person that their next step is probably out the door

I’ve rarely seen an employee come back and be successful after being put on a performance improvement plan, although the one time I saw it happen, it was an unexpected and rewarding event that I still consider one of my greatest managerial accomplishments, ever.

The PIP onslaught at Reuters

Yes, PIPs are bad news, and every manager and employee knows it. That’s why this little exercise going on over at the financial news service Reuters is so instructive.

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A Reuters journalist, “who asks not to be named,” wrote to Jim Romensesko’s popular media website this week and said:

Reuters management has launched a push to supposedly help selected reporters improve their job performance through a legalistic process known as a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Reporters who are deemed to be laggards are handed a document that warns they could face termination if they don’t up their game, and given 30 days to turn things around.

So far, the process has forced out two respected journalists, and we fear more are on their way out the door. 29 reporters (out of a U.S. Guild-represented pool of 460) in all have been targeted.”

Sounds like a classic PIP to me. There are some other fairly major issues with this one at Reuters that are detailed in the post over at Romenesko.com, but the bottom line is the same: it’s a program designed to get rid of people cloaked in the mantle of helping employees “improve.”

They’re really “close to evil”

Think I’m in the minority here with my jaded and cynical view? Well, get a load of what employment attorney Alan Sklover said about performance improvement plans in this blog post:

Whenever a client or blog reader tells me he or she has been placed on a so-called “Performance Improvement Plan,” or “PIP,” I worry for them. In over 25 years of counseling and representing employees, I can count on one hand the number who have remained employed at the conclusion of a “PIP” . . . unless they’ve stood up for themselves by challenging the PIP.

The concept of helping someone put together a plan to improve their workplace performance is wonderful. However, in 95% of the times I’ve seen PIP’s used, what’s really going on is close to evil: it is nothing but a “paper trail” that looks objective in order to justify firing an employee who everyone knows is a good employee.

Almost always PIP’s involve giving employees objectives that are so vague and subjective no one can really tell if the objectives have been met. (“Poor communication” sounds like one of those.) Often PIP’s involve requiring the employee to accomplish something they have no control over, or don’t have the resources to accomplish. Frequently deadlines are set that are 200% unrealistic.”

You know the PIP is a badly flawed process when an employment attorney calls them “evil.” Is that what is going on with the PIPs over at Reuters? Well, it doesn’t seem like a process designed to get the best out of people, and that in itself should give you a clue to what’s going on.

I’ll die happy if I never have to deal with a performance improvement plan again. They’re bad news all around, and I’d love to hear if you have any experience with them that support my experience, or, show me that I’m all wet.

Health care costs to jump 7.5% in 2013

Of course, there’s a lot more going on this week than the PIP debate. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Who has it worse on the job front? Who has the bigger struggle to find and keep work — young, green Millennials, or aging, veteran Boomers? Bloomberg Businessweek recently wrote that, “Generations are fighting each other from within for work. A 24-year-old is more likely to compete with a peer for a job than with a 60-year-old. But in terms of who has it worse, old or young workers, it’s worth measuring the differences between the two age groups to see which is more in need of help.”
  • Beginning of the end for generous public worker pensions? There is a fight going on over public worker pensions in San Jose, California, and voters are going to get to decide which way they should go. According to the San Jose Mercury News, “Should San Jose’s Measure B pass, as Mayor Chuck Reed and the business and taxpayer groups behind it expect, it would be a key test of a city’s authority to reduce future pension costs that exceed expectations and revenues, despite earlier promises to employees. Government employee unions maintain that the measure is illegal, unfair and unnecessary. “It will have nationwide implications on pension obligations and what we can and can’t do when we get underwater,” said Marcia Fritz, a Sacramento-area accountant and president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility.”
  • Health care costs may jump 7.5% in 2013. This story from Kaiser Health News probably tells you what you have already suspected: health care costs are going to take another good jump next year — 7.5 percent. And, the “projection is more than three times that of the expected rates for inflation and economic growth, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Still, it’s the fourth year in which the cost increase is less than 8 percent.”
  • Cursing as a workforce management strategy. Is it cool — or appropriate — to swear on the job? According to The Wall Street Journal, “Generally, cursing at work can damn your career. Managers who cuss appear unprofessional and out of control, executive coaches and recruiters say. But that’s not always the case. Deployed at the right moment and in the right setting, a well-chosen curse word can motivate a team, dissolve tension or win over an audience.”

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.