Image depicting how managers can use PIPs to help improve performance

Even Managers Face PIPs

Managers issue PIPs, but they also receive them. It does not matter your position, you can face a PIP, or “Performance Improvement Plan.”

At Gardner Employment Law, we assist clients in filing an effective response to a PIP. We have helped clients save their careers in a PIP situation. If you receive a PIP and don’t know what to do, contact us.

Managers Get Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs)

If you’re in management, you may believe that you are immune to being placed on a “performance improvement plan,” better known as a PIP. Companies use PIPs to address an employee’s performance issues. Any team member can receive a PIP, even managers. Usually, a formal document will be provided to an employee whose performance is lacking. During a performance management meeting, a supervisor may discuss the expectations with the employee, although HR persons may handle the discussion. 

The ultimate goal of PIPs is to help employees improve their poor performance with an action plan. As we discuss in “A Performance Improvement Plan or Documenting Your Exit,” a typical plan includes procedures you must follow, constructive feedback, acceptable performance goals, as well as the disciplinary action upon failure to meet these goals.

Sometimes, PIPs are issued for reasons other than actual “improvement” purposes. In Mangum v. United States Steel Corporation, Phyllis Mangum, a Black woman, was a manager at a U.S. Steel plant working alongside two white men. Two supervisors thought Ms. Mangum was falling short and gave her a PIP to address her work performance. After failing to meet the PIP’s expectations, U.S. Steel fired Ms. Mangum. She alleged that company terminated her based on retaliation and racial discrimination. She offered evidence that the two white men with the same managerial position received different treatment. She recounted how the white managers committed the same safety violation that was contained in her PIP, but that they never received any counseling or PIP.

Based on this evidence of differential treatment with the company putting Ms. Mangum on a PIP but not the white men, the court held that a reasonable jury might find discrimination in Ms. Mangum’s story.

Even though the U.S. Steel argued there was no direct evidence of discrimination, the court still found merit that other white managers doing the same work did not receive the same treatment after similar infractions. As explained in our Services page on Discrimination, in my 30+ years, I have never seen a supervisor show direct evidence or blatant behavior of discrimination. Yet, from the U.S. Steel case, we can see that it is possible for supervisors to claim poor performance to cloak their prejudice. 

Ms. Mangum’s story shows that even managers can receive PIPs. If you are a manager who receives a PIP, consider how you could benefit by going through the improvement process. However, if it is clear to you that there are other reasons why you received a PIP aside from your performance, you may want to contact an expert employment lawyer for advice.

Is a PIP a Sign of Impending Termination?

The good news is that a PIP is not always a bad omen. Every situation is different. While PIPs can often make the employee feel discouraged, sometimes a PIP could be a sign that an employee may be better suited for another position. As reported by The Huffington Post, Ellen Bailey, the current Vice President of Diversity & Culture at Harvard Business Publishing, was put on a PIP early in her career. Ms. Bailey first reacted by feeling discouraged. However, after she completed the PIP process, she gained the courage to speak with her manager about her other skills and interests. Her manager agreed to transfer her to a position in marketing, where she found great success.

As shown from Ms. Bailey’s story, an employee performance improvement plan does not always indicate that the employee is incompetent. Sometimes it only means that the employee may be better suited for a different role or other responsibilities. After a performance review, employees with drive like Ellen Bailey can transform into high performing employees in a different area. When handled well, PIPs can actually support the employee and the best interests of the employee-employer relationship. You can “turn a lemon into lemonade.”

What Should I Do When Given a PIP?

PIPs can serve as a wake up call. If you receive a PIP, do not abandon hope. Consider if there are legitimate deficiencies in your performance. If you are honest about your performance, you might find room for growth and even change your employer’s opinion. Try to follow the PIP process and complete it to the best of your ability.

If the PIP shows you that there may be a better position in a different department, use meetings with management as an opportunity to negotiate a better role. Or, if the PIP process brings to light a toxic work environment, don’t burn bridges with your team. You may choose to find another company that suits you better.

If the PIP seems out of the blue, has no authentic basis, or is based on discriminatory reasons, consider contacting an employment lawyer to assess whether there is foul play. As this article shows, there can be legitimate reasons for PIPs, but sometimes there are illegitimate reasons, too. It is important to have a rational third party listen objectively and help you determine the best course of action.

Let Us Review Your Employment Circumstances

If you are on a PIP or in danger of disciplinary action at work, timing is essential. Sometimes a PIP signals the “last straw.” It is important to capitalize on any opportunity to turn your situation around. If you need advice regarding how to respond to a PIP, feel free to reach out to us.

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