So you got a PIP…

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The Silicon Valley’s Performance Improvement Plan or PIP for short is a software engineer’s nightmare. A PIP can be an extremely demoralizing event in one’s career. It creates self-doubt and calls into question one’s self-worth. The workaholic Silicon Valley culture has many of us measure our career progression as a proxy to our worldly-success, well-being and overall happiness. A PIP is the ultimate failing, a software engineer’s version of being put in front of a firing squad.

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Over the course of my career, I have seen countless PIP soap-operas play out. Sometimes my friends have been PIP-ed and at other, my manager-friends have PIP-ed their reports. If you are at the receiving end of a PIP, I must caution you to run for the door and not look back. A PIP, in most instances, is really a legal cover to save the company from being sued when an employee is fired, far removed from the purported noble intention of bringing an “improvement” in employee behavior. Recently, I met a friend who has been working at one of the ride hailing companies as a manager and while chatting, he mentioned he was putting one of his reports on PIP. I asked if it were performance related reasons and he replied “No, I just don’t like his attitude.” Surprised, I asked, “Why, what’s wrong about it?”. And my friend replied “Well, he’s a skeptical soul and I am afraid he may be demoralizing the rest of the team.” I objected that the grounds for the PIP were at best flimsical and at worst illegal but the PIP had already been set in motion in cahoots with the HR. It reminded me of the firing of James Damore, only that this one wouldn’t make it to mainstream tech news.

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The plot against the PIP-ee is simple; the manager imagines up an impossible so-called performance improvement plan. A Herculean task that even Hercules may balk at. The PIP-ee is apprised of the demands he has to meet in the presence of an HR representative and the clock for the PIP is set off to tick. After a month’s time all the parties reconvene and the PIP-ee is unceremoniously notified that he is no good and fails to meet the PIP and is let go. Unbeknownst to the PIP-ee, his fate had already been determined a month ago.

If you are on a PIP or have been on a PIP, I want to let you know to never let the event define your competency or your self-worth. I had a friend, from my time at Microsoft, who had been abandoned by his manager and given a generous three months’ time to find another job. He went onto work for Facebook and later remains employed at Google today. Another, worked for IIS Server team and was stack-ranked at the bottom during the dark days of Microsoft, when stack-ranking was fashionable. His career trajectory took off when he switched teams and later worked at AWS, culminating as E6 at Facebook before starting his own gig. Yet another had has his self-esteem assaulted in several one-on-ones with an unscrupulous manager at Oracle OCI. He resigned for a fifty thousand dollar annual raise to be at Salesforce and deprived his manager the pleasure of putting him on a nonsensical PIP.

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The point of these anecdotes is that being put on a PIP doesn’t reflect your professional abilities or determine where you’ll be in the next five years. Sometimes it’s just an incompetent manager who isn’t experienced enough and rather than improve his (or her) own management prowess, chooses the easy way out by PIP-ing a difficult or idiosyncratic report. More often than not, it’s the environment, the co-workers, the company, the work or a gazillion other reasons unrelated to one’s competency that hamper one’s best to come out at work. To be fair with management, there are genuine cases of employees not performing but these are few and far between. And even in such instances, many are of those who were hired to do job A, when they have the skill-set to do B, a sad failing of the hiring process.

Maybe A PIP is the catalyst you need to spring into action. The kick that sends the horse galloping from a trot. But the moment you know you are on it, waste no time preparing for interviews and applying elsewhere. Hoping and trying to meet the PIP is an exercise in vain. The manager is the judge, the jury and the executioner. The Kangaroo trial already has its verdict decided. And don’t even bother talking to the HR to explain “your side of the story”. The HR is blind in one eye and only see’s the manager’s side of coin. Yes, there will be good managers who have genuine reasons to put you on a PIP but even if you meet the PIP and are allowed to stay, you’ll inevitably feel small the next time you make a slip, stay obliged to your manager for letting you carry-on and it’ll take an eternity to rub the tarnish off of your reviews. The best course of action is to grow a thick skin, take unused vacation or do minimal required work at the office and prepare like crazy to walk the tightrope in five rounds of the interview circus.

There will always be stories of successful comebacks from PIPs but for the vast majority, an attempt at a comeback will prove to be a mirage. As for my friend’s report, he jumped ship twenty days into the PIP.

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