Employment Law Attorneys

Are Performance Improvement Plans (PIPS) Illegal?7 min read

By Jill Halper

If you have been placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) and think that this is an authentic and well-intentioned attempt by your employer to help you improve your performance at work, then think again. In truth, our experience counseling employees in these situations has consistently shown that an employer/manager only puts you on a Performance Improvement Plan as a mechanism to terminate you. Certainly, this is a hard dose of reality to swallow, as we all want to believe that our managers are there to guide and mentor us. But knowing that it is not the real goal and purpose of a PIP, will help you protect and position yourself as best as possible during this stressful time at your job. Please contact our employment lawyers in Fairfield County, CT if you’d like our guidance in navigating this challenging situation.

A PIP Is Intended to Set You Up For Failure

If you are reading this article and interested, you have probably already been placed on a Performance Improvement Plan or believe you are about to be placed on a Performance Improvement Plan, also sometimes referred to as a Performance Action Plan, and therefore likely know what this is. But for those who are unclear, technically a PIP is a plan presented by an employer to an employee when the employer believes said employee is experiencing performance related deficiencies. The plan often sets forth the alleged basis for the deficiencies and provides a set of tasks, goals and expectations to be met by the employee in order to realize improvement. However, make no mistake, these plans are designed to do just the opposite. They are implemented to set you up to fail.

Five Ways PIPs Make You Fail

How do they set you up to fail when they appear to want to help on their face? The answer to this is five-fold. For one, they impose standards and set goals and expectations that are unrealistically high and impossible to meet and succeed under. Second, the plans themselves create additional work and are so overly burdensome that complying with the additional requirements under the plan actually take your time and energy away from your basic job duties (the duties that you were supposedly having trouble doing or completing when you were NOT working under a labor intensive plan). Third, the employer/manager who decided that you needed to be placed on this plan also often operates as your evaluator while on this plan. As such, it only stands to reason that the employer/manager who placed you on this sham PIP, will similarly provide you with sham negative evaluations and sham negative findings throughout the PIP. Fourth, these PIPS, while operating under the guise of trying to help you, do not make any attempt to hide the fear and pressure they impose. Without question, the cloud of fear, criticism and intimidation under which an employee is forced to work on a PIP wreaks havoc on the employee’s psyche and creates a defeatist mentality. The employee quickly becomes discouraged, making it that much harder for the employee to stay positive and succeed. Lastly, a closer look at a PIP, and the actual execution of a PIP, will make it clear that there is little to no teaching, or mentoring taking place. The PIP, while aggressive in its critiques and exhausting in its expectations, usually provides NO actual help or guidance in getting there. Put simply, there is no genuine showing you how to improve, rather just a barrage of arbitrary and unreasonable assignments, observations, evaluations, goals and expectations to demonstrate “improvement.”

Don’t Walk, Run to An Employment Attorney!

So, this brings us to the next question… if the employer’s goal is to get rid of you, why go through the exercise of placing you on a Performance Improvement Plan in the first place, especially when the majority of employment agreements create “at will” employment arrangements where you can be terminated for any reason or no reason at any time. The answer to this question is exactly why you need legal counseling the moment you are placed on a PIP or believe you will soon be placed on a PIP. Our employment attorneys are to here to help you. Although most jobs are at will, employers are never permitted to terminate employees for unlawful, discriminatory or retaliatory reasons. In order to defend themselves against possible claims of discrimination or other unlawful actions taken against an employee, the employer will need to establish that an employee was terminated or treated adversely for cause. Therefore, if an employer has a discriminatory or retaliatory motive to get rid of an employee, they will need to create a narrative and calculate a plan by which to demonstrate that the employee was, in fact, a poor performer or provide other such cause for termination, in order rebut a presumption of discrimination the law provides to certain protected classes of people, such as employees over the age of 40, employees with disabilities, whistleblowers etc.

Employers Only Use PIPs to Defend Terminations

By placing you on a PIP, the employee is documenting your personnel file and setting the stage to rebut potential claims related to an unlawful termination. If they need or want to find cause to terminate you, they will under a PIP, given the overly burdensome requirements and arbitrary and impossibly high expectations set forth in these plans. Therefore, be warned, that placing you on an unwarranted PIP is a strategy used by the employer to demonstrate and document poor performance and failure to improve, when neither may be the case. And by doing so, the employer further shows that not only were you struggling in your job, but that the proper mechanisms were put in place to help you to improve, but you were unable to do so, thereby resulting in an apparent lawful termination for cause.

This scenario, as described above, is both common and especially disconcerting in a public school setting. In this context, highly experienced and tenured educators over the age of 40 are often targeted because they are at the top of the pay scale and can be easily replaced by younger teachers earning half as much. Because of their tenured status, these teachers may only be terminated at a tenured teacher termination hearing, which will be warranted after the school has found they are failing under a PIP. In most cases, public schools use a two tier PIP process whereby a teacher is first placed on an initial PIP and once they fail under that PIP, they are placed on an intensive PIP, under which they are even more certain to set up to fail. At any time during this intensive phase, the termination for cause hearing may be ordered. As such, being placed on a PIP has become a most feared and devastating event for these hard working older teachers who have devoted their lives to this honorable profession. Do you still think a Performance “Improvement” Plan is meant to help an employee improve and succeed? Our age discrimination lawyers in Connecticut don’t, and we will fight for you.

A PIP Can Be An Adverse Employment Action

Further to this discussion, in order to prove a claim of discrimination, an employee must show that an “adverse action” was taken against them by their employer. Because these PIPS have become well known springboards to termination, being placed on an unwarranted and undeserved PIP can be considered, in and of itself, an “adverse action”. As such, an employee should not wait to be actually terminated before seeking legal counsel from an employment lawyer in this situation. If you are a member of a protected class, as soon as you are placed on an unwarranted PIP; the adverse action has occurred; the writing is on the wall, and the end is near. In addition, once an employee places an employer on notice of legal claims of a discriminatory adverse act, if/when the employer does terminate you, you may want to consider asserting additional claims of retaliation. As such, we encourage you to seek legal counsel as soon as possible to document your discrimination claims and understand your rights and the statutory deadlines by which these claims must be filed. We also encourage you to keep a detailed narrative of everything that takes place as soon as the words “Performance Improvement Plan” are uttered, and to rebut in writing any determinations that are made prior to and during the plan, which you believe are a sham and unwarranted.

While we would love to be wrong about the so called Performance Improvement Plan, our experience in this area has unfortunately proved us right. Please do not hesitate to contact our discrimination attorneys if you are in this untenable and frightening situation, or with regard to any of your employment needs.

Attorney Jill Halper can be reached at (203) 255-4150 or jhalper@capclaw.com