Performance improvement plan: The dirty little secret

Performance Improvement Plan

I’ve been put on one performance improvement plan in my life, but in reality I probably should have been put on about 2-3. I don’t say this to indicate I’m a bad worker by any means. I’m not the greatest employee of all-time, but I’m not the worst. The sheer fact of the matter is, performance improvement plan stuff is all about managers covering their own ass. It’s yet another thing we toss over to HR as “their domain” and somehow still attempt to ’empower Human Resources’ despite the fact that they’re now shepherding an employee right out the door.

Alright, so here’s my performance improvement plan story: I was working at ESPN in New York City. The role was completely ill-defined — we were supposed to be putting ESPN The Magazine online, but no one had discussed that with existing ESPN.com editors and they were all threatened as hell — and instead of focusing on the core challenges of what was happening, all our leadership did was (a) bitch about the structure of everything and (b) try to get short little videos we made onto ESPN TV. Here’s something you should always remember: people chase the biggest thing they can, and at ESPN, it’s long been assumed that TV makes the world go round and everything else is kinda just fun little departments.

I write about job role and definition a lot, and the reason I do that is because I think people miss this one core idea all the time. There’s not really such thing as a “bad employee.” There are just “people with certain skill sets and backgrounds in the wrong fit.” I know some Baby Boomer middle manager just gagged on his Healthy Start frozen peas, but I honestly believe no one is a “bad employee.” Workplaces often force individuals into inauthentic situations. Or, conversely, they force them into situations where they have no idea what their job is. Those are equally demoralizing, especially if everyone around you is rushing around screeching about how busy they are — and you’re like “I haven’t done any real work since Tuesday at 10:12am.”

That was my situation at ESPN when I got put on a performance improvement plan. My first assumption, of course, was that I’d get fired. I didn’t, though! More on that in a second.

Performance Improvement Plan: The goal isn’t improvement

Liz Ryan, who kills it writing about HR flaws predominantly on Forbes, has this topic nailed down too:

They already know they want to get rid of you. I was an SVP of HR for eons and I know that when a manager comes into HR and says, “I need to put someone on probation” or “I need to put someone on a Performance Improvement Plan,” it means that the manager doesn’t  like the employee and wants him or her out of the building.

Yep. See, here’s a thing we often don’t discuss — even if we realize it — and one that ties directly into performance improvement plan issues. Our brains are wired, via evolution, to predict threats. (“Oh shit, that’s a lion.”) Even though you may dislike your boss and assume he/she has no brain, he/she does — and as a result, your boss is trying to predict threats. It’s that simple.

And if you have good ideas or do good work, that can be a threat. If it happens 5-6 times, that’s enough of a threat that it’s time for a performance improvement plan.

That wasn’t exactly what happened with me at ESPN — admittedly I was an asshole, although it’s all contextual. One time, on a Friday at about 3pm, I was supposed to head out of town with some friends. One of the women I worked with — not my direct manager but hierarchy-wise she was above me — started lobbing a bunch of projects at me, all flagged as “urgent.” You know how this goes. This is a classic managerial “I own this shit” move. Barely a soul is doing any tangible work north of 11am on a Friday, but managers love to toss the deliverables as you’re thinking about an exit strategy — just so you know what’s what.

In this situation, this woman sat about five feet from me and kept e-mailing me new stuff to do. It’s the lowest form of bullshit and has no connection back to real human interaction, but I’ve seen this same woman at cocktail parties be like “We’re just such a family there, it’s all rooted in respect, you know?” After about the fifth e-mail, I told her on a reply to “calm down” and I was “getting it done.” She immediately came right over and started essentially yelling at me about respect. (She could have come over with the deliverables in the five e-mails, I’d argue.)


This was one step towards me being on a performance improvement plan.

Now, you can read the above and say “You shouldn’t e-mail a superior and tell her to calm down,” and yep, you’d be right. But read the entire story. Understand the context. I was wrong, yes — but she was wrong too. But because she was livid that someone under her talked down to her — that’s not how hierarchy works, goddamn it! — I was moving towards a performance improvement plan and fuck, she was probably moving towards a bonus. (“You deserve more money for that inferior treated you!”).

The goal of a performance improvement plan isn’t improvement. It’s managing threats and risk and moving the people you don’t like out the door. I’ve also heard it called a “shoot the dogs” strategy.

Performance Improvement Plan: HR Jargon Extraordinaire

One of the most popular articles online about performance improvement plan methodology literally contains the words “HR Jargon” in the headline. That’s all this whole thing is. It’s HR jargon and BS.

Imagine you worked in Human Resources and you wanted this oft-referenced “seat at the table” where your department is involved in legitimately important discussions around money and the like. So you have your day-to-day tasks, which is probably a lot of compliance and working with insurance plans and updating personnel files and dealing with Chinese fire drills around some 22 year-old marketing girl’s Snapchat account, right? And then every time you aspire to relevance, you get put in these cover-your-ass situations by everyone else.

  • “I need Gary out! Can we draft up a performance improvement plan?!?!”
  • “I need a social media marketing manager. I realize you don’t know what that does, but can I get a job description and 10 candidates by yesterday?”
  • “The employees don’t seem engaged. Is there some asinine perks program you can invent to better that? I don’t have time to think on it. Revenue goals, you know?! The business of doing business!”

It’s all miserable bullshit — and most senior leaders completely endorse this concept every day with how they treat HR and the projects they kick to them. At one of my last gigs, the CEO constantly bellowed about culture — and did absolutely nothing to really consider it. His head of HR spent a week one time hiring him and his wife a new nanny. That’s not even a joke. You know how fucking ridiculous that is on face? But people do it because, well, they want to keep getting a paycheck.

My Performance Improvement Plan and how I escaped

It was tough, but I rooted the whole thing in transparency. I talked to three of my superiors about personal problems I had been having, I wore suits to meetings, etc. I asked for very specific elements on the performance improvement plan — this terrified some of my managers because ‘more specific’ means ‘actually achievable and trackable goals,’ which means ‘it’s harder to fire them when they don’t complete vague goals.’ I was on this thing for about six to eight weeks. At the end, I didn’t get fired. I left a little under a year later. This was a hard time for me because I grew up as a huge sports fan and always assumed ESPN was my dream job and the one I’d be at forever. Didn’t quite work out that way — and a lot of it came from the whole performance improvement plan period I went through. That also kinda drives a lot of how and what I write here: I realize management isn’t intuitive, but it shouldn’t be based on threats and masked programs that don’t really attempt to drive improvement.

Ted Bauer