Weekly Wrap: Why Performance Improvement Plans Are a Big Cop-Out

I’ve written here before about performance improvement plans (PIPs) and how I generally think they’re a fraud, used largely to provide cover to management for firing people they simply want to get rid of.

In case you missed it, here’s what I wrote about PIPs in June:

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.”

“Fired after failing to satisfy his bosses”

Some readers agreed with me, some didn’t, but nothing that I’ve seen or heard since then has convinced me I’m wrong. And in fact, stories like this one about how the news agency Reuters has used PIPs with its staff only convince me even more that performance improvement plans are very rarely about actually helping to improve anyone’s performance.

According to Jim Romesnesko’s website, “late last month, veteran Reuters copy editor and PIP target John Picinich was fired after failing to satisfy his bosses.”  Picinich let Romenesko reprint an email that Picinich sent to friends after his failed PIP led to his termination, and it is an instructive reminder of how and why performance improvement plans have gotten such a bad rap:

The company sacked, canned, gave me the boot last Monday (Aug. 20). I was one of 28 Guild members targeted by the company this year for disciplinary action. We all had long-standing service, me from 1985. A rigged appraisal system led to us all getting “did not meet objectives” and, as a result, we were put into a Performance Improvement Program in which every week we had to show examples of our work, prove we were up to standard. And of course many of us “failed” to meet the PIP. This violated our Union contract which states that these appraisals cannot be used for discipline.

We have individually filed age discrimination complaints with the EEOC against the company. I met an agent on Friday and after he checked his computer he said “There are a LOT of you” and told me the EEOC was planning a class action suit against the company as all of us are over the age of 40. Why the Guild, our union, has not filed a class action suit is beyond me (the agent himself was flabbergasted) but I imagine the Union cannot afford a high-priced lawyer because the industry and Guild membership is shrinking.

Whatever the case, tis not the end of the world. The company gave me 52 weeks severance pay, doled out every other week like a paycheck; in a sense paying me NOT to show up at what has become a toxic newsroom.”

Why PIPs rarely work

While it is good to know that this fired copy editor, employed by Reuters since 1985, was given a year’s severance, the fact that he was fired after a so-called performance improvement plan ran its course is a sad commentary on the state of management that exists in many American businesses.

My biggest problem with PIPs, and something that a lot of those who commented on my last post seemed to miss, is that I really do believe that the concept of an improvement plan is a good one — as long as it is designed and used to actually help someone improve. Unfortunately, as a long-time manager myself who has had to deal with a lot of them, that is rarely the case.

In my experience, performance improvement plans don’t work because the outcome is largely pre-ordained before they even begin. I can’t recall a single one I was involved with that didn’t flow out a discussion that started with something like, “we need to get rid of Joe (or Jane) because they just aren’t cutting it.”

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If the conversation had begun with a discussion centered around a struggling employee that we had an investment in and that we wanted to help improve, that would be different, but in my experience, the PIP was simply a mechanism to help get rid of someone under the pretense of being fair.

I’m guessing that Reuters is going to have some lawsuits over all of this, but whatever happens, the bottom line is the same in my book: PIPs are designed mainly to get rid of people despite the notion that they are helping employees “improve.” It’s the ultimate cop-out for managers who don’t have the huevos to step up and actually fire someone without an HR-designed crutch, and it happens far too often in way too many organizations.

$100k jobs without a college degree

Of course, there’s a lot more going on than failed performance improvement plans in the news this week. 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.

  • Making $100k without a college degree. Higher education (like a college degree) usually leads to higher pay, but this CNBC story published in USA Today points to a number of jobs where workers made $100,000 per year without it. “From overseeing the creation of beautiful breads, pastries and desserts for hotels and restaurants as an executive pastry chef to (surprisingly!) becoming a nuclear power reactor operator … having a college degree in these occupations is not mandatory. Personal trainers, massage therapists, and handymen are also among the jobs where top earners with no college degree can receive annual pay that exceeds $100,000, according to PayScale.com. To compile this list, PayScale.com surveyed its salary and career database, covering about 12,000 jobs in over 1,000 industries.”
  • Home Depot pays ex-employee $100,000 for ADA violation. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Home Depot will pay a former cashier $100,000 for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act after firing the 13-year employee while she was on unpaid leave recovering from the removal of a cancerous tumor. The settlement includes a requirement for the Atlanta-based home improvement retailer to provide anti-discrimination training and stops Home Depot from denying reasonable accommodations in the future, according to a statement from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”
  • Boeing and its engineers are “in open conflict.” The Seattle Times says that Boeing’s negotiations with the union that represents Boeing engineers is not going well. “These are the most offensive and disrespectful negotiations I’ve ever been part of,” said Ray Goforth of the Society for Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), which represents more than 23,000 Puget Sound employees. “It appears they don’t have any intention to reach a deal.” From Boeing’s side, Commercial Airplanes’ head of engineering Mike Delaney says he’s “taken aback” by the union’s attitude and “a sea change in the relationship.” The surprisingly bitter showdown is shaping up to be a test of union power.”
  • Is there value in thanking employees? No, this is not a trick question because yes, there is great value in making the people work for you feel appreciated and valued for what they do. This informational graphic from Globoforce does good job of pointing out just how much value there is for management to make this happen.


John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


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