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Transforming the Performance Improvement Process

Leaning into Clarity and Choice

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Jul 11, 2024
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Last updated on Jun 24, 2024

“I don’t like PIPs,” an HR colleague said to me in a recent conversation about Performance Improvement Plans. “I prefer to let employees know exactly what is expected of them, where they are missing the mark, and what the consequences are if they don’t improve.”

What she was describing was, in fact, a PIP. It made me wonder why an experienced HR professional might feel so strongly opposed to a tool that achieves exactly what she is hoping to do.

PIPs can be terrible. By the time the manager loops in their HR partner, they have typically lost patience and are ready to move straight to termination. The PIP becomes a “check the box” exercise that is just slowing them down. Employees sense the manager is not on their side and are unmotivated to prove them wrong.

On the other hand, PIPs play a critical role in ensuring an employee has a clear view of what is needed to be successful and what the consequences are if they can’t meet expectations. Without PIPs, employees are often blindsided by termination.

There are two things missing from the PIP process that can meaningfully improve its efficacy: clarity and choice.

We offer clarity by not just giving feedback but by painting a broad picture of performance issues and talking openly about consequences. And we give choice by allowing employees to opt in or out of the process. Let’s dig into each.

Focus on Macro Feedback 

We have all been in a situation where an employee is surprised by a PIP despite being given feedback for months. Often, the culprit is the nature of the feedback. Managers dutifully apply the SBI model they have been taught and give specific feedback about a particular situation—a presentation, a project deliverable, a task. 

This kind of feedback is called Micro Feedback, and there is nothing wrong with it. It’s a great way to course-correct and help employees learn from mistakes. What it does not do, however, is paint a bigger picture of how all these pieces of feedback contribute to a pattern of low performance.

Example of Micro Feedback: In Tuesday’s sales review meeting, you failed to listen actively to others and dismissed their ideas. As a result, we did not achieve the objectives of the meeting, and your colleagues left feeling frustrated.

If we want the performance improvement process to work, we need to ensure managers are also sharing Macro Feedback. Macro feedback links micro feedback together into a clear picture of overall performance.

Example of Macro Feedback: In your role, I expect that you can seek out diverse perspectives and actively listen and integrate others’ viewpoints into your work. You have consistently shown resistance to others’ ideas and viewpoints. This has contributed to challenges working with cross-functional partners that are critical to success in your role.

All employees should get feedback on their performance, but when an employee is not meeting expectations of the job, that feedback should come in the form of macro feedback so they clearly understand the implication to their overall performance and where they stand.

Talk about Consequences 

It feels really hard to tell someone they may be fired. But when we fail to talk about consequences leading up to a more formal plan, it puts a lot of pressure on the PIP to do that job. Suddenly, no one can see anything in the plan other than the line at the bottom that says, “Failure to complete this plan may lead to further disciplinary action, up to and including termination.” It’s no wonder PIPs feel like a foregone conclusion by the time they are delivered.

As managers give feedback, we should also get them more comfortable talking about the potential outcome. Let’s help managers say things like:

“We have talked quite a bit about where your performance is not meeting expectations. I don’t want you to be surprised that if things do not turn around, we will need to consider a more formal plan of action that could lead to termination. I have a lot of confidence in your ability to improve and am here to support you, but it wouldn’t be fair if I wasn’t clear with you about this.”

This message must balance support and optimism with realism and honesty. You have to land the message in a non-threatening way, such that the employee knows you are doing so because you care. When landed well, it is the most compassionate thing you can do in this situation.

Provide an Opt-Out 

When you finally get to the PIP, I highly recommend offering employees the opportunity to opt-out of the process. Often referred to as PIP or Package choice, offering employees a small severance package (typically the same length or slightly longer than that of the PIP) gives employees much-desired agency in an otherwise powerless situation. Rather than dragging both manager and employee through the PIP process kicking and screaming, you find a very different outcome.

In my experience, most employees take the package and exit within a week. Employees get to “resign” and leave with their head held high, while managers get to refocus their energy on backfill and a path forward. Almost every employee I have talked to in this situation was truly grateful for the opportunity to exert some control over the situation.

Even more interesting is what happens when someone opts into the PIP. Because they are doing so by choice, and giving up something to do so, they have more to prove. They work harder, are more engaged, and take the PIP more seriously. In turn, the manager starts to change their view and regain faith in their ability to be a productive member of the team. It’s what we all want for the PIP process but can only really achieve when employees actively choose to engage in it.


PIPs have been cast off as an outdated and ineffective HR process, and it clearly has been in many (even most) cases. This is because we have failed to be clear, direct, and empathetic to what the employee is going through. Regardless of how much feedback they have gotten, they may not know they are failing to meet expectations and that their job is at risk. And have we asked them if they want to make it work? Offering more clarity throughout the process of managing low performance and ultimately allowing employees to opt in or out of the formal PIP process can transform the experience for employees, managers, and the business as a whole.

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