What to do if you get PIP’ed

PIPs are a disciplinary practice used by managers to exert power and control. Here's what you can do when a coworker gets PIP'ed.
Claire Schlessinger

On paper, the Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) is common practice used by management to help low-performing employees get back on track. In reality, PIPs are a disciplinary practice used by managers to exert power and control. Increasingly, it is also used as an obfuscated  form of retaliation and a precursor to firing dissident employees. As organizers, we should be on the alert when our coworkers are put on a PIP.

This is a playbook with linked resources developed for coworkers who are supporting someone  who has been  put on a PIP, but the model is flexible and can be applied to a variety of situations, from other non-PIP disciplines. It could be adapted to be the collective action for a colleague who’s been under-leveled or someone who’s not getting a promotion they deserve.

Before the PIP is delivered

  1. Make sure you stress in all your interactions with your contacts that if they start to get negative performance feedback, loop you in ASAP
  2. Once their manager says they’ll be getting put on a PIP, your contact should email their manager immediately invoking their Weingarten rights, saying that they want their union steward present at the PIP delivery meeting. Make sure you get added to any email threads or calendar invites and get forwarded any existing documentation.
  3. Get details from your contact about what’s going on, any historical context etc. Try to suss out what’s motivating the PIP — is there a genuine performance issue or is there some vendetta? What’s their relationship like with their teammates? Will they support them?
  4. Find out what their goals around the situation are. Do they want to stay at the company? Do they want to look for another job? Do they want to try to negotiate severance? Talk to them about their other options and figure out if this PIP playbook is the best way to support them for their goals. This plan requires a lot of work; they may want to use the PIP duration just to support a company-paid job search rather than trying earnestly to pass it.
  5. Reach out to your union staffers and leadership to make them aware of the situation and get feedback and suggestions.
  6. Add the information to any trackers1 you have for member discipline (with appropriate confidentiality measures per your union’s policies)

In the PIP delivery meeting

In the meeting you’re there as an advocate and to push back if you can.

  1. Push back against anything in the PIP that seems unclear, out of scope for this person’s role/level, or difficult to measure. HR or labor relations will likely try to shut down edits to the PIP, but the manager might be receptive if you point out things that are truly unclear or wrong. Point out where an expectation is in conflict with the career ladder. Use your expertise as a peer: you know when things are unreasonable for your role.
  2. Ask questions:
    • How did the PIP come about? Management won’t concede that any previous management was poor, even if it was and HR will say we’re not here to litigate the PIP — but say it’s important to understand the history so that you can best support your colleague through the duration of this PIP.
    • How will success be measured? Really dig into each requirement to ensure there’s alignment and mutual understanding on what success looks like.
    • Do you think these goals are realistic to complete within this period of time?
    • Who will ultimately decide if the member passes the PIP? Who’s the decision-maker who your contact should be aligning with throughout the PIP to see if their performance is on track to pass?
  3. Emphasize how seriously we’re taking this. Management will evade and try to not give you specifics; tell them that that’s an unacceptable way to approach something with such high stakes as whether someone keeps their job. A bit of grandstanding about how this is someone’s livelihood is not unwarranted.
  4. Ask that the PIP have a provision that it gets extended for every day the contact is out sick, so the PIP ends up the same amount of working days. Try to maximize the length of the PIP, whether it’s to give your contact more time to show results or buy them runway for their job search.
  5. See if there’s room to soften the PIP consequences, like failing the PIP results in downleveling rather than termination.
  6. Take word-for-word notes of the interview.
  7. If the member wants during the meeting you can ask for a caucus too either to discuss things or to just give them a break.

After the meeting

  • Send a follow-up email recapping points of agreement, documenting any points of disagreement or things management wouldn’t agree to, and capturing any action items like if they said they needed to discuss something before getting you an answer
  • Debrief with your contact — how do they think it went? Does the PIP feel passable to them?
  • Meet with your union rep and legal counsel, if available, to go over the PIP and get any thoughts.
  • Add the PIP to your union Drive in a secure location with the appropriate privacy controls.

During the PIP

You should check in with your contact regularly during the PIP — at least weekly for a one-month PIP. Ask about how their check-ins with their manager are going and whether they’re getting any indication of how the manager feels the PIP is going.

Support rotation

  • Copy and fill out the [Times Tech Guild] Team support rotation template with the PIP goals
  • Ask your contact to meet 1:1 with all team members they want to tell about the PIP and bring into the support rotation and have them explain the situation
  • Organize a kickoff meeting with all the teammates and your contact to explain the support rotation. Ask them to sign up to do shoutouts on specific days
  • The shoutout format depends on what’s available at your company and what norms are. Workday, for example, is an HRIS that has a shoutout feature; that’s nice because it’s in the official HR system and goes to their manager. Slack is great because it’s very public. You can also choose to take advantage of multiple formats.
  • Throughout the PIP, make sure people are doing the shoutouts they signed up for and check in frequently with the support team
  • Your contact should collect screenshots and/or contemporaneous notes for each shoutout and email them to their manager.
    • E.g. [Name] Shout Outs
    • Send a separate reply to the same email thread for each shout out

Success Tracking

  • Copy the [Times Tech Guild] PIP success tracking and fill out with all goals that your contact will be measured against in the PIP. Adjust the goals legend as necessary
  • Your contact should set up a daily meeting with their manager to discuss that day’s progress. Late afternoon or early morning work best as you can discuss a complete day.
    • The manager should share their screen and edit the tracker during the meeting.
  • The contact should go through line-by-line describing any relevant details for the day. 
  • Your contact should request that their manager rate them on each item in real time. Add a grade & a comment justifying said grade. Ask them: “If the PIP ended today would I have a job tomorrow?”
    • If scored anything other than Complete/Achieved, the manager should include an explanation of how to either get back on course, stay on course, get unblocked, or why the item wasn’t relevant to the day’s discussion. 
  • Be sure to have your contact send contemporaneous notes/screenshots of the grades and comments so that you can keep your own records. 
  • Managers may not feel comfortable saying “you would pass” so explicitly. Continue to ask for the clearest answer possible. “How can I perform up to your required standards if you don’t indicate when I have met them or not?”
  • As soon as the PIP ends, the contact should alert you and as many teammates as they feel comfortable contacting on the final status of the PIP. If the manager says “you passed” on June 15, it’s helpful to have 15 texts saying “my manager told me I passed.”

Further work

There are many other processes that can be built out related to this, like a resource guide for terminated employees on employment lawyers, avenues for legal action like EEOC charges, how to apply for unemployment benefits, a GoFundMe. You could set up a mentorship network to help an employee who is actually struggling to perform in their role to find colleagues who can help that person in the target areas. You could build out more fields on the discipline tracker to identify trends across demographics. You could look for patterns of bad managers and come up with collective actions to support employees working under them. I’d love to hear how you use and adapt this!

Resources

Footnotes:

  1. I recommend maintaining two trackers: one detailed for your union staff, BC, and stewards of affected contacts, and one anonymized to be shared with the broader unit to provide transparency into how often PIPs/discipline are occurring, where it’s concentrated, etc ↩︎

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