Is a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) the Kiss of Death for Sales Reps?

If you’ve heard of a Performance Improvement Plan, aka a PIP, chances are you didn’t hear people talking about it in the kindest words. For better or for worse, performance improvement plans have gotten a bad rap as a harbinger of death — well, a harbinger of getting fired, at least.

But that reputation isn’t totally deserved. While it’s true that PIPs are often a prelude to a termination, that’s not always the case. If you’re given a performance improvement plan, there’s hope yet — in some cases, you can still fix the issues and keep your job.

But let’s get a bit deeper into PIPs: what they are, what you can do about them, and what they mean for you.

What Is a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)?

A performance improvement plan (PIP) is a document that’s given when your management isn’t satisfied with your performance and wants to give you an opportunity to improve — well, that’s what it’s supposed to be at least. The reality is that in some cases, it’s more of a threat or a scare tactic, but more on that later.

The PIP will lay out all the issues that management has with your performance and all the improvements it wants you to make — hence the name “performance improvement plan.” In most cases, there will be specific goals and a deadline by which you’ll need to meet those goals.

For example, your performance improvement plan might state that you need to make 50 sales by the end of the month or it might say you need to make 10 sales by the end of the week. If you meet that goal, you’ll likely keep your job. If you don’t, well, it won’t be pretty.

Ok, But What’s the Subtext?

The problem is that, in reality, performance improvement plans aren’t as friendly or benign as they sound in theory. If management were truly interested in keeping you onboard as an employee but wanted to see some improvements, they’d try to coach you or work with you to improve your performance. Your manager knows that receiving a formal document stating you need to improve is not going to be taken very well and will probably scare you.

The unfortunate reality is that performance improvement plans are generally threats. While it’s possible to keep your job after you’ve received a PIP, receiving one in the first place means that management is very unhappy with you. Even though they’ll frame it as a performance issue, in some cases the problem is entirely unrelated to your performance — it’s just a convenient scapegoat. Maybe you said something that your boss didn’t like, or maybe your boss just doesn’t like the way you wear your hair.

Whatever the reason, a PIP gives them a convenient excuse to get the termination process rolling. Plus, it covers them legally. If they fired you right away, they could face legal issues. But if they give you a performance improvement plan, they can pretend that they gave you a fair shot, even if the goals they asked you to hit were completely unrealistic.

So, Is a PIP the Kiss of Death After All?

Not necessarily. It’s definitely not a good sign, but it doesn’t always mean that everything is lost. Sometimes, your boss may be rightfully angry at you and is threatening you for good reason.

When you’re evaluating where you stand, be honest with yourself: Have you truly been giving your job your best? Or have you been slacking? If you were in your boss’s position, would you have done anything differently?

A PIP is sort of like probation for a job: you did something wrong, and your boss is ready to fire you, but they’re willing to give you one more shot. If you can fix the issues, you can stay, and maybe you’ll win back your boss’s respect, too.

In some rare cases, a PIP could actually be a good sign. For example, if you really messed up on something or had a particularly bad month with atrocious numbers, your boss may have felt they had no option but to fire you, but in a last ditch attempt to keep you, they gave you a performance improvement plan. It’s not the most likely scenario by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s always a possibility — sometimes people just truly don’t understand how their words or actions come across.

All that said, most managers know that when you receive a PIP, you’re going to do one of two things: either work really hard to fix things or check out entirely and start looking for a new job right away. Which camp they’re hoping or expecting you to fall into is anyone’s guess.

What Do I Do If I Get a PIP?

First thing’s first: don’t panic. Don’t freak out. Calmly read over the PIP, discuss it with your manager, and go from there. If you need to sign something, don’t do so on the spot. Tell your manager that you need to read it over carefully, and you’ll get back to them tomorrow.

Of course, not signing isn’t going to prevent you from being fired, but you don’t want to sign something under pressure that will make things worse for you if things do eventually go downhill — for example, signing a document with a hidden clause that cuts your severance pay.

When you read it over, you should make sure that you fully understand what you’re being asked to do. If you have any questions about what goals you need to hit and when you need to hit them after reading through the document, clarify with your manager. You don’t want to lose your job just because you misunderstood something in your PIP.

After that, make a plan of your own for meeting those goals. Evaluate your performance yourself to better understand where your biggest roadblocks are and what you can do to overcome them. The PIP will list out the issues, of course, but you’ll have deeper insight into what caused those issues in the first place. Once you know what the causes are, you can make a battle plan to attack them head on and get back on track. Depending on your relationship with your manager, you may be able to ask for some advice on how to correct the problems.

However, while you do that, it’s always best to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Start looking for other jobs while you work on improving so that you have a plan B in case you do get fired. And focus on professional growth with sales courses and bootcamps.

Key Takeaways

PIPs are scary. There’s no doubt about that. But they aren’t the death sentence that so many people think they are. Sure, some managers use them solely to cover their legal bases before firing someone or to scare them out of their job, but some managers also use them as a last ditch attempt to motivate underperforming employees.

When it comes to PIPs, things can go either way: some employees will end up getting fired after a PIP, while others will go on to not only keep their jobs but truly thrive in them.

The good news is that, in some cases, the outcome is up to you. If you want to stay in your position after getting a PIP, improve your work quality and speak with your manager about getting better. Make sure to simultaneously look for other jobs just in case you don’t hit your goals. If you don’t want to keep your job, use your PIP as a signal that it’s time to start job hunting.

Above all, stay calm. Stay focused. Things tend to have a way of working themselves out.

Ryan Walsh is the founder and CEO of RepVue, the world's largest crowdsourced sales organization ratings platform where sales professionals can discover, research, and apply for sales roles at the best run sales organizations on the planet. Prior to RepVue, Ryan was the CRO of ChannelAdvisor, where under his leadership he grew revenue from $35 million to $115 million, helping realize a successful IPO during that tenure.

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