Updated: Nov 22, 2021
Over the last 20 years I’ve seen companies consistently fail to manage the performance of
employees to such a degree, I have concluded that whatever their true purpose, Performance
Improvement Plans have little-to-nothing to do with performance. The first time I noticed this was when I met Tyrone.
Tyrone and his manager Claude got on very well. Perhaps a large part of that was because Claude
got on with everybody well. By all accounts he was a good manager and his staff appreciated his
professional, hands-off approach. One Christmas, Claude returned to his native Belgium for an
extended family visit. Before he left, he handed over the reins to an enterprising and highly
competent project manager who had managed to stumble her way into the CEO’s bed. I won’t go
into the sleazy details of how Hekate positioned herself, but rest assured that the wildest imagination would do the story no justice.
When Claude returned from Belgium three months later, he found that his role had changed so
much, he was no longer suited to it. Hekate had divvied up the tasks to other staff (and the CEO)
and implemented a whole new management system in his absence. He was made redundant,
shortly thereafter. Claude was a lot more than your average middle-man, he was glue. And in the 3
years he held the role of GM, not a single staff member left the company.
Now Hekate had her eyes on the top job. Sleeping with the CEO and usurping the GM’s position
wasn’t enough, she wanted to run the top production team in the company and she set her sights on
Tyrone’s position as manager of that team. Tyrone’s team was running projects for major banking
groups and government bodies when unusually, one of their minor projects went over budget. At the same time, an internal project Tyrone was managing also went over budget. Not a good look right?
They were tracking their hours very closely (which is how we know they were over budget) and the
team's budget had blown out by exactly the shortfall in sales. Rather than sit around and do nothing,
Tyrone had kept them productive.
First the CEO had a screaming fit in a teleconference and only started behaving like an adult again when his
CTO came to Tyrone’s defence and explained the shortfall. Tyrone was not impressed and politely
let the CEO know that his criticisms were unfounded and his method was unprofessional. The next
day Hekate called Tyrone to tell him she was flying to Auckland to help him ‘manage his
Like all ‘performance improvement plans’, Hekate’s involved regular interrogations disguised as
‘support meetings’, vague targets that would be subjectively judged and of course a constant,
pestering gaze to ensure steady pressure.
Obviously, Tyrone resigned.
Over the 12 months, Hekate put three more people into ‘performance management’ and they all
resigned. Eventually, seeing the writing on the wall, the CTO resigned and disappeared to Thailand.
That was 15 years ago and since then I have not seen a single example of a performance improvement plan that didn’t result in the employee's resignation.
The only logical explanation for this is simple: PIPs are tools for constructive dismissal. More often
than not, managers use these tools to correct what they like to call ‘cultural fit’, by removing
someone they don’t fancy, so they can be replaced with someone ‘more suitable’. Infuriatingly, these ‘cultural corrections’ frequently fall along ethnic lines, which is clearly a type of racial-bias. I’m
speculating of course, but I find it reasonable to assume that if you constructively dismiss all the
migrants because of a poor ‘cultural fit’, you might be a racist.
So how do you identify whether a PIP is abusive or legitimate? In the first instance, a plan to
improve your performance should be supportive. If it gives you anxiety or stresses you out then it’s
probably designed to do so. How could people be getting this so wrong? How could your managers
be stressing you out when they’re trying to help you? If a company can’t manage to get something
like that right, the people responsible for the process might be incompetent and that’s no better an
excuse than deliberation.
The process also shouldn’t involve close scrutiny and you should have very clear indicators for
improvement. Metrics should be clear and objective and not vague goals like ‘improved satisfaction’.
These things are worth thinking about however, PIPs as a formal process are never used for
anything but as a tool for constructive dismissal. So, if you’re being subjected to one, it’s probably