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

Sujan Patel is the founder of Mailshake, a sales engagement software used by 38,000 sales and marketing professionals. He has over 15 years of marketing experience and has led the digital marketing strategy for companies like Salesforce, Mint, Intuit and many other Fortune 500 caliber companies.
  • February 17, 2024

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 formal document given by employers to their underperforming employees. It typically outlines the deficiencies and steps they must take to improve their performance.

You can think of this document as an opportunity for employees who have been underperforming to redeem themselves. Or perhaps a warning that their subpar performance won’t be tolerated anymore. Either way, a PIP spells only one thing and that is: it’s time to turn things around!

To ensure that their performance does improve, employers will usually provide employees with a specific timeline and list of objectives they must meet. Failure to do so could ultimately result in termination from the company.

For example, a PIP goal could state that a sales rep needs to bring in 20 new clients within a month or so.

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?

Received a PIP? Don’t worry. Here’s what you should do next:

1. Stay Calm

Don’t panic. Stay calm and composed. Go over your PIP and avoid signing anything on spot even if you’re asked to do so. Ask your manager that you need to go over it and that you’ll sign it a day after.

2. Make Sure You Fully Understand What’s Written in Your PIP

While going through your PIP, make sure you understand everything that’s written in it. If something’s not clear, for example what goals do you need to hit and when, do not hesitate to clarify it with your manager.

3. Develop a Battle Plan

Once you have an exact idea about what needs to be done, it’s time to make a battle plan. Break down the goals and create a timeline by mapping out the steps you need to take to reach them. This will help you stay organized and focused.

Also, depending on your relationship with your manager, you can ask them for advice on how to go about your goals.

4. Prepare for the Worst

Be realistic. Although you should try your best to reach PIP goals, prepare for the worst too. Start looking for other job opportunities so you can stay afloat in case of termination from your current job, which is highly possible.

5. Invest in Professional Growth

Successful people are those who learn from their mistakes. So use your PIP as an opportunity to develop better sales techniques and strategies. Go out there, attend seminars, read books, get enrolled in courses — do whatever it takes to make sure that you don’t fall short in performance again.

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.

Performance Imporvement Plan FAQs

How long does a PIP last at work?

Most PIPs last no longer than 90 days. However, depending on the company and severity of underperformance, a PIP can range from 30 to 90 days.

Can you terminate an employee during PIP?

Yes, an employer can terminate an employee during a PIP if they continue to perform poorly despite the warning.

What happens after a PIP for an employee?

There can really be only two outcomes after a PIP: either the employee meets their goals or they fail to do so. If the employee is successful, then they will likely stay with the company and further their career. But if they fail to meet their goals, then they will most likely be terminated from the job.

How do I pass a PIP assessment?

To pass a PIP assessment, you need to make sure that you fully understand the causes of your underperformance.

Then, create a plan to address the issue and demonstrate that you can meet the goals within the timeline set by your employer.

Keep in mind that you need to maintain a professional attitude and show your employer that you are willing to work hard and put in the effort to improve your performance.

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