Recent years have seen an increase in the use of Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) either as a lead up to or in conjunction with a formal warning process prior to dismissal. Sometimes they are an honest attempt by an employer to improve an employee’s performance. Other times, the Performance Improvement Plan process can be used to place pressure on employees to resign or to start a paper trail with a view to termination. It’s not uncommon for Performance Improvement Plans to occur when new managers arrive and against a backdrop of no prior action, particularly for long serving employees.
For employees to minimise the prospect of issues being raised about performance, you should:
• ensure you have a detailed position description setting out your role and performance requirements (ideally as part of the contract of employment);
• ensure the position description is updated periodically to reflect any changes in your role or the employer’s requirements;
• ensure that you understand an employer’s targets (particularly financial targets) and seek clarification where necessary;
• ask the employer for regular feedback on your performance and suggestions for improvement;
• where possible, ask for regular performance appraisals; and
• where possible, obtain comments and other documents in writing.
If an employer puts you on a Performance Improvement Plan, then this should create alarm bells. Your choices are to start looking for an exit plan or alternatively engage in the process. Sometimes Performance Improvement Plans are put together by managers with their own problems and can be overly general in nature. The key is to engage in the detail.
Employers should ensure that a Performance Improvement Plan sets out specific areas for improvement, practical steps to be taken, assistance to be provided and reasonable timeframes for improvement and review. It is also important that performance be able to be objectively measured.
For employees, if you don’t agree with the Performance Improvement Plan, then you should put your reasons in writing to the employer (although you should NOT refuse to participate in a Performance Improvement Plan). Remember that you probably know your job better than the manager and you should seek clarification in writing on any areas and steps that are unclear. Ask questions about the factual basis or incidents being relied on to justify the Performance Improvement Plan. Look back at your job requirements and targets to see if the Performance Improvement Plan is consistent with these. Be conscious though that Performance Improvement Plans can take place over several months and this process can be taxing on your time and emotions, at the same time as you are trying to do your job. Once the initial emotion subsides, think also about whether there is some justification for the Performance Improvement Plan.
Sometimes an employer may not be reactive to your concerns and queries and may “steamroll” on with the Performance Improvement Plan. You should continue to engage verbally and in writing, politely and in detail and do your best to comply with the Performance Improvement Plan requirements at the same time as expressing your concerns (and the basis for those concerns). This may not stop the process but it may lead the employer to have second thoughts about termination or consider offering a separation package. There may be an avenue for formal complaint either in your contract of employment, employer policy or an applicable enterprise agreement. Management action which is unreasonable or taken in an unreasonable way or for an unlawful purpose can amount to workplace bullying or a breach of general protections or discrimination rights.
If an employer wants you to sign a Performance Improvement Plan, you should acknowledge it but don’t feel obligated to agree with it. You wouldn’t normally need a support person for Performance Improvement Plan meetings as they are not disciplinary action but if a warning process is occurring, then this may be appropriate. Ideally a Performance Improvement Plan should be a constructive process but if you are concerned about the employer’s motivations, then you can ask to record meetings. You should not secretly record if the employer does not agree. You should write down your recollections of meetings in as much detail as possible.
Lastly, it is important to try and retain a sense of perspective and focus on your own health. Taking extended personal leave may buy you time but is not a solution to the problem. Please contact us if you would like any further information or help.