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Using Performance Improvement Plans the Right Way

Episode 9

Performance improvement plans (PIP) are difficult not just for the employee receiving the plan but also for the boss and others in upper management deciding to implement one. It’s easy for the employee to be upset or angry when put on a PIP but if used correctly, they can be a valuable tool for improving performance and building trust. In this episode of Programming Leadership, Marcus talks through a tough human resources topic and provides perspectives from both the employee and management as well as pointers on how to effectively use PIPs.



Show Notes

  • Performance Improvement Plans (PIP) should be used when you want an employee to improve; don’t use them if you plan to fire the employee regardless of performance.
  • Understand the real goal when implementing a PIP.
  • Include upper management when putting someone on a PIP and make sure that everyone is on the same page in terms of desired outcomes from the plan.  
  • Make sure that the employee understands that he/she has to make the decision to improve or leave their position. 
  • Give the employee feedback regularly when using a PIP. 



Announcer:  Welcome to the Programming Leadership Podcast where we help great coders become skilled leaders and build happy, high performing software teams.


Marcus:  All right, I’m Marcus and this is Programming Leadership Podcast. Today, I want to talk about an awkward topic. Performance improvement plans. Yes, performance improvement plans hated by everyone, managers, and employees alike. I don’t even think HR likes these things, but the reality is is that this is a tool, a formal disciplinary action tool that there’s a very good chance you will run into in your management career. In fact, if you haven’t already, you will probably use one of these when a performer is not meeting standards. Maybe that’s a nice way to put it. So when you’ve got someone on your team who isn’t doing the kind of work they should be doing when it’s not working, and you have given them feedback after feedback after feedback, then you decide at some point you’ve got to use the big hammer, the velvet anvil, I’ve heard it called, and that’s basically where you have to start talking about firing them. This is a very awkward conversation.


Marcus:  Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you’ve never been on a performance improvement plan. Why do I think that? Well, amongst the people I’ve talked to, it’s actually pretty rare, at least amongst the managers. So first of all, most employees haven’t been on one. I would put the number at maybe 25%, but it seems like managers, especially ones who are high performers, and I know that’s what you are, I would say it’s probably more like 5%. What that means is that you are going to be exposed to using a tool that you have never experienced. And while I can’t say that’s a problem, that in and of itself presents particular challenges. So in this episode, we’re going to dive into how to properly use a performance improvement plan, how to keep everyone’s perspective in mind. That is something leaders need to do is to hold more than one perspective in mind at a time, and I’m actually going to share my story because I’ve been on both sides of this thing called a performance improvement plan. All right, let’s dive in.


Marcus:  So the first thing when you do a performance improvement plan because you’ve got a developer that’s frustrating you, that you want to fire, that you’ve tried everything, whatever the reason is, when you decide to use one, you have to understand what your goal is. I would love to say that it’s going to be really clear that your goal is to help them, I improve. I mean it’s right in the name. It’s an improvement plan, but I’ll tell you that at least half the time, maybe as high as 99% of the time, performance improvement plans are actually not used to help someone improve. They are used to fire someone with less risk than if we just walked up and fired them outright. That’s right. Performance improvement plans are oftentimes used by HR executives and managers of all stripes to reduce the chance that someone will sue you, the chance that someone will ask for unemployment benefits, things like that, because a performance improvement plan leaves a paper trail behind of what happened.


Marcus:  It gives the employee a fighting chance an opportunity to change their behavior. It sets very clear standards. It tells the employee exactly how long they have to improve and what there’ll be measured by. Then you might say, “Well, Marcus doesn’t all this make it fair?” No. And here’s why. Is because I have seen so many managers not pick up the performance improvement plan until they are ready to fire. That it becomes just the motion they go through to move someone out of the organization. Got to fire someone? First, we’ll put them on a PIP maybe for a month and then they’re out. And they don’t really ever give the person a chance to redeem themselves. The language in the PIP is really high-level, hard to prove that they hit or didn’t hit the metrics. And frankly, since the manager isn’t incentivized for them to stay, the person can sense that pretty quickly.


Marcus:  So my guess is many people get put on a performance improvement plan and feel exactly like what’s happening is they’re just being fired, and this is the paper trail. I’m not suggesting that happens in all cases, but I know it does happen. I’ve seen it and maybe I’ve even done it. So here’s the thing. I want you to first figure out what is your real goal. You don’t have to tell anybody. This isn’t about going to HR and admitting that you really want to fire this person. This is just about you knowing, and you deciding how much of a second, third, or 75th chance you’re actually going to give this person because that is going to make a huge difference to them.


Marcus:  So let’s turn the tables for a minute. Let’s look at a performance improvement plan from the perspective of the person who has been put on it. And as far as I know in the history of performance improvement plans, no one has ever volunteered for one of these. No one has ever put themselves on one, maybe a personal improvement plan, but a performance improvement plan, a PIP, is something that is done to you if we can use that phrase. Now, how would I know anything about this? Well, as I said at the top of the episode, I have been through a performance improvement plan, and it did not go smoothly either.


Marcus:  As we start to talk about that, we’re going to transition to the idea of performance, I want to just stop and thank our sponsor, GitPrime, who sponsored this episode. GitPrime helps you to have better conversations, which is why I love the tool. I love it so much. See GitPrime isn’t just metrics. It’s conversational metrics about how your team is doing. Conversational metrics? Yeah, those are metrics you can talk about. GitPrime does not advocate that you just stack rank people, look at the graphs and go trim the fat. GitPrime advocates that you use their tool, and they’ll teach you to do this. You use their tool to understand your team’s behavior better, and when you’re understanding your team’s behavior better, you can have better one-on-ones. You could have better conversations. You can get into the meat of what’s going on. They are completely aware that metrics are always opinionated and that we have to check our default biases at the door. Learn more and start a free trial at


Marcus:  All right, well, I promised I’d tell my story about being on the other side of the PIP, so here’s how it went. I had been working for a while as a software developer, and I got into the habit of picking up the phone when it rang. This was the desk phone, maybe you don’t have a desk phone, but back then we had desk phones, not cell phones, and it turned out that I was pretty good at helping people who would call me. These were people who are having trouble with the application. Well, I liked it and you know you might say, “Oh, it’s such an inconvenience,” but I found a certain joy in helping someone on the other end of the line. That I could help them troubleshoot a problem with this very complicated ERP that they had to use. That was the software we built. These were manufacturing plant people, they were using it for order entry, order configuration, all kinds of stuff. And I knew the system, so I secretly really liked helping them with it.


Marcus:  Now, combine that situation with a new big project I got that was frankly kind of over my head. I was definitely out of my league, and it was a big, big project. In fact, it was slated to take me six months alone and that was a big project for our company. About seven months in, I really hadn’t gotten any work done on this thing because well, as you might expect, I’d been avoiding the hard stuff and I’d been embracing the fun stuff. And, of course, there’s a cycle that happens when in an enterprise you find someone in IT who is not a complete jackass as someone who will pick up the phone and help you, your phone begins to ring. Word gets out. Now, more and more people were calling me. Now, I was helping people, not just 30 minutes a day, but 60 minutes, two hours, three hours. And you know what else I found? I really liked being helpful. I may have actually been kind of a compulsive helper. I never told anyone no. I felt so much empathy for the people on the other end of the phone.


Marcus:  Not surprising, this got in the way of the big project I was given and finally my boss noticed. He started to ask me, “Why are you on the phone so much?” Well, I told him, I thought it was very admirable thing from my perspective. I was really being helpful. He said, “Look, we have a help desk. They know all about how to use the ERP. Forward people over there. Will you do that?” “Yes,” I said, and yet, no, I didn’t. It didn’t take too many weeks more until my boss really got tired of me telling him I was going to do one thing and then actually doing another, and he started to notice that the big project I was working on wasn’t really moving forward. And, of course, the customers were starting to get a bit anxious. “Where is that thing? It’s been now eight months. Why is it taking so long?” Well, he finally came to me, and he said, “Look, if you want to be a help desk person, I’ll move you to the help desk. You have to make a decision.”


Marcus:  Help Desk? I was a software engineer. I’d gone to college for Software Engineering. No way I was going to be a help desk, so I again verbally agreed I would stay off the phones and quit helping people and focus on my work. Well, the following week he came to me, and he said, “All right, Marcus, this is your first written warning. I don’t know what else to do. I’ve talked to you. You’ve agreed to it. You don’t do it. This written warning basically says you’re not going to answer the phone and help these other people. You’re going to forward them over to the help desk. This is all we expect you to do, and we want you to focus on this project, do that, and everything’s going to be great. You’ve been warned. Sign here.”


Marcus:  I signed and took my copy and went back to my desk and thought, “What a jerk. Really like, who is he? I’m being helpful. Software engineers were notoriously bad with customer service and here I am probably like a diamond in the rough, and he’s trying to shut me down.” Well, what did I do? I just kept on doing the same thing. That’s right, except I started to get a little sneakier. I’d be more aware of when he was in his cubicle. I’d maybe duck into a conference room and take the call and help somebody. Yeah, you can imagine that didn’t go over very well. It wasn’t long before I got caught and then the next thing I knew, I was given a second written warning that was even clearer about what was going to happen and this time it was framed as a three-week PIP. I had three weeks to clean up my act, or I’d be fired. Three weeks isn’t very long.


Marcus:  Now, let me set the stage here. We live in a really small town in eastern Oregon, 17,000 people. This is the only place you can get a job as a computer programmer in the whole town. I had a wife who didn’t work. Well, she worked. She worked hard at home with my three kids. I was the sole breadwinner and provider. This job was like my dream job and so you’d imagine that at some point I would have kind of figured out, “Well, this is what I really need to decide that this is important and keep my job,” but instead, truthfully I just got madder. I got madder, “How dare they? Three weeks. Three weeks, that’s ridiculous. I can get this project done. It’s not that big a deal,” and I had three weeks to stop my behavior, “Blah, blah, blah.” Yeah, I just got real resentful, real ugly in my heart about it.


Marcus:  Okay, so three weeks go by, I guess it was about a week in, and my boss caught me on the phone, and he called me, and he says, “Okay, paper says I can fire you right now. This is your fourth and final chance. You are going to meet with me every day at the end of the shift. You are going to bring an activity log of what you did at the end of that day, and any day that you have not done the things you’re supposed to do, or you’ve been on the phone with customers, any day is your last day, and I’m going to be watching you like a hawk. So see you tomorrow with your activity log, and it might be your last day.”


Marcus:  I was really shocked. “Might be your last day,” just rung in my ears, and I’ve hated admitting this out to you all, but I walked out to my car, and I sat in it and I could just feel my face got so hot. I felt sick to my stomach. I realized I was about to lose my job, and I was angry at myself. I felt stupid. I actually teared up, and I cried, and I remember thinking, “Okay, this is now hit me.” I don’t know why, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. “Marcus, you’re going to lose your job. You’re going to have to face the penalty for all this stuff.” In that moment. I can still remember sitting in that car in the parking lot saying out loud, “I want this job.” Not I need this job. Not I’ll be screwed if I don’t have it, but I want this job. And I went home that night, and I don’t even know if I told my wife. It was so embarrassing, and it had just dawned on me how much this was all my fault and completely changeable.


Marcus:  I came in and the next morning completely committed to take a different path. Of course, the phone rang at about 7:00 AM. I picked up. It was Clint. I said, “Hey, Clint, I can’t talk to you. Let me forward you to the help desk,” beep, beep, he was off just like that. People would stop by, “Oh, hey, Marcus, can you help me for a minute?” “Nope, Gary, I can’t help you today. I’m sorry. I’ve got to focus on this project.” I did that. I logged my time. I took it to my boss. At the end of the shift, he said, “Okay,” and filed it away. “I heard you tell somebody to go to the help desk, good job. See you tomorrow. We’ll see if you can do it again.”


Marcus:  One week of doing it turned into two weeks of doing it. And by the way, it was flat humiliating having to take your time sheet to your boss as a software engineer at the end of each shift. And it was no picnic for him either, right? I understand that this was taking up a lot of his time. One week goes by, two weeks, three weeks, and then we have a meeting with the big boss, and he reports, “All right, Marcus, is doing what he said he would do, and he’s doing what we’ve asked him to do,” and in that moment I thought, “I’m done. I’m there.” And then I heard him say, “I say we give them another three week period to prove himself.” Oh, but you know, it takes a long time to rebuild trust. I just said, “Okay, let’s do it again.” And by the time I was done with that three week period, he said, “Okay, we’re not going to meet at the end of every shift. But you’re on probation now for another month. I’m still watching because I don’t want this habit to go back to the way it was.”


Marcus:  As you might imagine, just the amount of time I was spending programming and my renewed focus on the idea that my heart is in this, “I want this job,” my productivity had soared. I was making really good progress on the big project they’d given me. Things were going well. My co-workers had gotten the hint, they didn’t come by as often. My phone didn’t ring as often, and so the reality was is that at the end of another month, I was taken off of probation, and I’ll never forget my boss. He wrote me a letter, and he signed it and he said, “Okay, Marcus has successfully completed this PIP. We believe that he is fully capable to be a high performer in our organization and are looking forward to giving him a second chance here.”


Marcus:  Now, for a lot of people, you might say, “Well, that’s nice to hear on paper, the second chance stuff, but the reality is you’ve probably performed a career limiting move, right? You’re going to stay a programmer one for the rest of your life,” but that’s not what happened. At that same company, and it wasn’t even two years later, my performance had gone up so much that when my boss got a promotion, he chose me to take his place, and then two years later he got another promotion, and he chose me to take his place there too. Then I got to lead more teams. Eventually, you know fast forward a decade, and I’m reporting to the vice president of IS. They actually did want me to succeed, and they actually did give me a second chance.


Marcus:  Now, the whole point of this story isn’t just to entertain you or to help you see that a PIP is really painful for the person who’s going through it. But to understand that if you’re going to put somebody on a PIP, and you tell them that they’ve got another chance with you, I hope you really mean it. They deserve it. They deserve for you to step back and do the hard work. Oh and believe me, it was hard work for my boss to meet with me at the end of every shift. The hard work to give them a second chance, to give them feedback, to correct them in little ways, and to give them positive feedback when you see them doing things well.


Marcus:  This is what happened to me, and I think it’s one of the best experiences of my life now. Isn’t that crazy? That a PIP would be one of the best experiences because it was such a pivotal time to remember and to feel how it felt to make a decision to want to be at the company, not just want the money, not just you know avoid embarrassment, but to recognize that this is what I wanted in my career and to know that when I do that I can work hard for something and be successful. Had they been like most other companies and just given lip service to the idea of a second chance, I would have gone through all of that and still been fired, which probably would have created a tremendous distrust of managers in general for me.


Marcus:  Okay. Now, how can you apply this? So first of all, I want you to recognize that there are some components to a PIP. First of all, it’s not the first tool you pick up. As my boss and I had many conversations, frankly, probably a dozen informal conversations before the verbal or written warning HR documents were brought out. So the person should never be surprised unless it’s an egregious offense, that there is a problem. But when there’s a problem, it’s time to start writing things down. I’m sure that my boss kept a written record. Yes, so that they could avoid a lawsuit in case I was terminated, but also because at this company he was going to have to explain why I was terminated. Why did I fail to succeed if I had been, so he was keeping a written record I’m sure.


Marcus:  Second, recognize that the goals and the outcomes, not the intent and the attitude, but the outcomes were really clearly stated in this written document. Don’t do help desk activities. Don’t be everybody’s buddy helper in the office and focus on your work at hand. Those are the kinds of things that you can measure. That time sheets are really good and tally counts and other kinds of things are pretty good at revealing not your intention but your behavior. So they made the PIP about my behavior and about the outcomes that were not happening. In this case, the project wasn’t getting done. The other thing is that when I failed to, in the first round of the verbal warning, I didn’t really take it very well. I didn’t stop doing things.


Marcus:  They didn’t just immediately fire me. They escalated the PIP, and they began this more, you might think about it as a micro-managy approach, but really I look about it as narrowing the guide rails, right? If you’re bowling, and you need to have guide rails out there so that you can hit a strike, the more narrow the guide rails, the less variance there is in where the ball can go. And so by meeting at the end of every shift, they not only created an early warning detection system, but they also made sure that I got feedback about my performance every single day and frankly, I’m really glad they did. I know it would be easy for me to be upset about that or to say that they shouldn’t have micromanaged me, but let’s be honest, I didn’t deserve and wasn’t acting in a very adult way, and so, therefore, they chose to treat me like somebody who needed a lot more oversight than anybody else in the department frankly.


Marcus:  The next thing was is they involved upper management. My boss didn’t do this in a vacuum. The director was involved, I’m sure the Vice President of IS was aware of it. These people were aware of it so that they could both support whatever the final action was, and I think mentoring-guide my boss, I think this was his first action item, his first PIP, where he was going to be going through this. And as much as you might say, “Well, Marcus, it was stressful on you,” Yeah, that’s true.


Marcus:  It was also stressful on him, and I know that if you start to use these tools when you do, you are going to find it very stressful. Make sure your boss, and your bosses boss possibly are looped in not just to cover your butt, but to get advice, to be able to go to them and say, “I’m at my wit’s end. I don’t think I know,” or, “Maybe I’m seeing some things, but I’m not sure how to interpret the behavior.” Get a second opinion; collaborate with your boss on it and that way you’re not out there all alone trying to navigate this difficult decision of how to help this person improve.


Marcus:  At the end of the day, they always, and I think this is such an important part of any PIP, they always made sure that I understood the decision was mine. The decision to stay, it was mine. It was my performance, my attitude, and my behavior. This was not something they were going to take any responsibility for. And I think that’s appropriate because had I been able to blame them, frankly, I probably would have, and so, therefore, blaming someone else is a really default stance for people who are struggling. So they were completely upfront.


Marcus:  They also were empathetic and hopeful. “We know you can do this. We don’t know why you don’t want to. We don’t know why you’re telling us you will, but you’re not, and we want to have a conversation if you can help us understand what’s going on, because if there’s a tool, or a training, or you need us to run interference, do you need us to just take your phone away?” At one point they said, laughingly and I said, “No, no,” and I’m glad they didn’t because completely removing the distraction would have actually infantilized me. It would have treated me like a child. They always treated me like an adult and when they did that they made sure that I accepted the responsibility for it.


Marcus:  Okay. We have now talked about a variety of perspectives about a PIP. As un-fun as it is, we’ve now discussed the employee’s perspective, the boss’s perspective, executive’s perspective, and I want to make a note about that. Sometimes not all the people involved share the same goals. So if you have the goal to keep someone, make sure your boss knows it. Have a really, really candid conversation with them. And if they say to you things that make you wonder, “You know I doubt it’s going to work,” or, “We’re doing this because we have to,” or, “HR says we have to do this before we fire them.” I think it’s time to sort of press the pause button and ask your boss, “What’s that mean?” And, “Are we actually interested in their improvement or are we just moving them out the door? Have they done something so egregious?” And maybe they have that we have lost complete faith in them because I actually want to propose that’s a different situation.


Marcus:  If you absolutely want this person gone, if you don’t believe they can do it and they will do it. If they and you have just no trust and a terrible working relationship, and you’re not interested or willing to improve it, just fire them. I hate to say it, just fire them and say, “We have no confidence that you’re going to actually be able to do this. It’s over.” Don’t put them on a PIP that then extends it for a month or two months or three months and gives them a chance or makes them appear to have a chance that they never really had. Another perspective in all this is the perspective of the employee’s co-workers, and yeah, you might say, “Well, it’s private. The coworkers wouldn’t know anything about it,” but that’s not true. I told coworkers I was on a PIP at times, I told them out of frustration and disgust. Later, I told them to say, “Hey, I’ve decided I need to be here and so I’ve got to focus on this and so don’t bother me. I need your help not to bother me.”


Marcus:  I had friends at work and in off-hours or at lunchtimes I confided with and confided in my friends, so, therefore, they absolutely knew about it. All of this goes to show, I guess, that a PIP should be used when you want to help someone improve, not just as a means of managing someone out of the organization, and it takes real courage to admit when you are done with the relationship. It takes real courage to put your company and yourself at a bit of risk and simply say, “I’m done. You’re fired. I don’t believe this is going to improve.” But it also means that when you use a PIP, the people you use it with, and the people that hear about it know that you’re using it to help someone improve, not just to fire them. That’s my story about being on the other side of the table in a PIP.


Marcus:  I’m so grateful for my bosses who used it, who gave me many chances, who were honest, who even micromanaged me when I needed it. And at the end of the day I’m thankful they made it so clear that it was my decision that I could keep this job or leave this job, but it had to be my decision that clear decision caused me to reevaluate my desires and for me to say, “I want to be here,” and that one sentence changed everything for me. It was no longer, “I have to go to work,” kind of thing. It was, “I want to be here, I want to do good work, and I’m going to put my best effort into this.”


Marcus:  All right. This has been this episode of the Programming Leadership Podcast. If you’ve got questions for me, would you drop me a line at I love to take your questions on the air. By the way, we do have some interviews coming up. Maybe you listened to last week’s interview with Eric Muntz at MailChimp. We’ve also got Katie Womersley, the Vice President of Engineering at Buffer coming up, and we’ve got some other special people. If you have a guest that you’d like to hear me interview, drop me a line. Let me know who it is. Who do you admire, whose writing do you like? Things like that, and I’ll see if we can get them on the show. I’d also love to have more questions, so we can do more Q&A, otherwise, we’ll go to the old archives, and we’ll dig them up, we’ll see what kind of questions have been mailed in over the past year. Thanks. Go take care of your team.


Announcer:  Thank you for listening to Programming Leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next time.



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