What is a performance improvement plan?

The message came into my LinkedIn account with an air of optimism…

“My friend (redacted) read your book and said it rocks. She said to email you about this because she thought you’d know. So, I thought my boss was going to fire me, but I got a Performance Improvement Plan instead. I have about 20 things I need to improve on. That’s good, right?”

And the email went on for a while with specifics I won’t reveal and don’t matter to anyone but her.

When you write a book on workplace culture, office politics, toxic behavior, and decoding what things REALLY mean, you get 3 groups of emails: people who 1)  read your book and want to tell you what they learned, 2) who read your book and took action and want to tell you about it (because they really can’t tell their boss or coworkers about how a book on toxic people caused them to taken action in their office) and 3) who haven’t read your book, but want to reach out and get advice.

(note: I love them all, but to all you #3’ers…The Arsonist in the Office is available thru my website at and on Amazon. Go get yours and know that I talk about PIPs in Chapter 12–Alice in Wonderland and the Fiery Firing!)

So, what are Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) and what do they mean to you as an employee or employer?

PIPs are employer-written documents that detail ways an employee needs to improve their performance in order to continue to be employed. The employee is asked to sign the document to confirm their understanding of the situation.

In theory, as an employee this sounds potentially good. You’re being presented a path to success if you make the right moves, correct?  99% of the time, no.  Instead, you’ve been invited to jump through a few hoops with your employer in order to satisfy their attorney’s legal direction to get more documentation before they fire you.

My new friend with the 20 areas for improvement had 14 items that were doable and the other 6 were highly dubious and vague. And the PIP was probably designed that way.  It left the employer lots of wiggle room to act on the 6…failing on any one of them could trigger termination.

What should you do if you get a handed a PIP?

  1. Walk through the plan with HR and/or your manager, if they weren’t the ones to give you the PIP.  Find out what you’re dealing with, what the exact expectations are, and assess whether this is a tactic to motivate you or eventually fire you. You should have a good idea after that meeting.
  2. If there are inaccuracies in the description of your performance, speak up and put those concerns in writing.
  3. Resist the urge to not sign the document, as that can be viewed as a refusal to cooperate with your employer and could result in immediate termination.
  4. Understand that PIPs themselves are not a reason to sue. You may want to seek legal counsel to review the PIP, but a performance plan is not like termination, demotion, or other events that often trigger employment-related lawsuits. It’s only a plan, though one often with underlying intent.
  5. Know that truly unachievable tasks are potentially ways for employees to protect themselves legally for a period of time and worthy of written documentation. However, in an ‘at-will employee’ environment, the employee is–at best–buying themselves time, not achieving long-term benefit.
  6. For employers, avoid the PIP path where possible, as it offers false hope and leads to needless time for an employee chasing a set of standards you have decided you hope they fail. Be as generous as possible with severance and move them on without a personnel puppet show designed to make your employment attorney happier with you.

So, my answer to the person responding to me was this:

“I wish I could say this was good. It could be worse, but it’s not good. Your boss worked very hard to craft a written report that details 20 different variables that, if not fully achieved, will get you fired. Bosses who want to keep employees talk to them about how they can improve. Only bosses who want to fire someone call you in and ask you to sign forms that can help get you fired.

I wish I had had a better prognosis for her, but it’s reality. I urged her to do everything in her power to achieve every goal on the PIP, keep a good attitude, but also plan proactively for her next job, tune up her resume and begin the search as quickly as possible.

And, I added, talk with individuals inside the organization that she could trust to get a recommendation. She’s likely need one for the next job.

No matter what they tell you, almost every time, future termination is what performance improvement plans really mean.

Pete Havel is a speaker, trainer, and consultant on workplace culture and leadership. He speaks and consults for organizations ranging from law enforcement agencies to Fortune 500 companies.   He’s also the author of “The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures,” named as a #1 Hot New Release by Amazon. It’s available at Pete can be reached at and 214-244-7906. You’ll also find more information on him at

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