The problem with improvement plans, or PIPs, is how rarely they're focused on improving the worker's performance. More frequently they're used as a legally acceptable way of slow-dancing the worker to the exit.
As part of that slow exit, which can take months to execute, the employee might be asked to do any number of humiliating things, such as reporting to a peer, having their conversations or emails monitored, or even training a subordinate to do their job.
It's not that workers never require more intensive attention. But is that what's happening in the PIP? My measure on that is simple: If the process lacks constructive feedback designed for learning, it's difficult to see these steps as anything other than a prolonged firing.
The solution to the situation isn't quite as simple as the diagnosis. Should the worker walk out the door in a huff? Secretly begin job searching? Try to complete the PIP and claw back to status quo? Engage the services of an employment attorney?
If you are facing a PIP or the blunt edge of an axe right now, you need more than a careers column to advise you. I'll get you started, though, with a few steps to consider.
1. Assume you could be escorted out momentarily and secure the contact information for people you may want to network with later. Storing this information in the company cell phone or laptop won't help if you're fired without notice.
2. Seek transfer. You might fit better in another part of the company, and your boss might be relieved to assist in the transfer.
3. Question the process. If you're being PIPed, ask for facts regarding unsatisfactory performance (not “you're always late,” but “you arrived late on Nov. 6”).
4. Control the process. Ensure the conditions for reinstatement are measurable and realistic. If necessary, request that a neutral person evaluate your progress.
5. Negotiate. Consider asking your boss directly if your job is on the line, and if he or she would prefer that you left. Then start negotiating, either to keep your job or to leave it in a reasonable fashion, perhaps with letters of recommendation and a severance check.
6. Refuse to panic. This is awful, but it's not the most awful thing ever. Gather your wits, seek advice if needed, and make your plans to move forward.