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What do you do if you're handed a performance improvement plan?

Performance improvement plans, or PIPs, are part of an employer's paper trail. PIPs are supposed to be tools that employers can use to address deficiencies in an employee's work. They're also supposed to be tools that help the employee understand exactly what he or she has to do in order to bring his or her performance up to expectations.

In reality, they're usually part of a paper trail that employers try to build to insulate themselves against wrongful termination claims. It's not uncommon for the PIP to be so unrealistic in its goals that employees subjected to them quit in frustration. Those that remain seldom manage to meet the lofty requirements necessary to show improvement as given in the PIP.

So, what do you do now? Here are a few practical tips to use when faced with a PIP:

1. Acknowledge receipt of the PIP

If you refuse to the sign the PIP, you can be fired for insubordination. Signing it, however, seems like an acknowledgement that the terrible things it says about your job performance are true.

Stay calm. Sign the PIP along with a statement like, "I only sign to acknowledge the receipt of this document." That clarifies your position without putting you in danger of being fired for flatly refusing to sign.

2. Remember that this is part of the company's game plan

The company is trying to create documentation that it can use to justify your termination. You can fight back by creating just as much documentation that makes that difficult:

  • Use email or other written forms of communication to document every question you have about the PIP. Get every response in writing.
  • Document every step you take to try to comply with the PIP the same way.
  • If you've been promised assistance, document your requests for that assistance.

Make sure that you keep copies of all your correspondence with your superiors somewhere that you can access it remotely. You don't want to be cut off from the copies of that correspondence if you are fired.

3. Assume that termination is coming

If the PIP seems to have unreasonable expectations or you sense that your employer's motives are definitely not related to seeing your performance improve, assume that you're about to be terminated. If you believe that your termination is likely retaliatory in nature or otherwise unlawful, an attorney can advise you of your rights.

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