why are employees blindsided when I fire them after warning them that I might?

A reader writes:

I’ve twice now been put in the tough situation of needing to fire someone after they failed their PIP now, but I don’t know how to make it less surprising and traumatizing for the person on the other side. Both calls ended with me consoling them as they cry for an hour or so about how unexpected it is.

Here’s an overview of our process: as stated in our employee handbook, if they score below a certain point threshold on their annual review, they are placed on a PIP which lasts 1-3 months (depending on the position) to improve their performance. They need to improve to a certain point threshold on the tasks listed (both on the review and PIP), or they are let go. We give them a list of what needs to be improved, specific tasks that we think will help them improve in these areas to be completed within the timeline of the PIP (example: deliver more consistent feedback by completing the Y report in the next X weeks), and close out the meeting for setting up the PIP by saying, “To keep you in this position, we need to see significant improvement on the things listed here by [date].” Without fail, when the date comes around, and they’ve completed little to nothing on the list, they’re shocked they’re being fired.

What am I doing wrong? I don’t think I’m softening the message. The last person I had a review meeting with I literally said, “This is the worst possible review score for your current position, and I need you to seriously consider if you want to stay in this role or move on from the company because I would need to see drastic changes in your work to keep you in this role.” She decided to go on a PIP, and even though we had weekly check-ins where I told her I thought this was too much to ask her to improve on in this short a timeframe, she pretended everything was fine, her progress was steady, and these meetings were an annoyance/formality. When it came time to meet about the end of her PIP, she had completed less than a third of the required items. I said this is not good enough for the role, and we would need to meet with HR about it. Of course, the HR meeting was to fire her, and — like everyone else I fired — she gasped when I told her and started sobbing over how unfairly she’d been treated, and how she was given no warning she would be let go. I showed her all the documentation she signed that stated otherwise, but she said that didn’t seem serious.

Again, this has happened to me twice and other managers in the company approximately 10 times over the past couple of years. Every single exit interview gives the same feedback: they were given no warning they would be let go, and we need a better system to inform them if their job is in jeopardy. But … what else can we do? I have no idea what I’m doing wrong, and the constant crying and blaming for not telling them is really wearing on me…

You’re not actually using the words “you will be fired if X doesn’t change” and you need to.

I know, you’re saying something really close — “to keep you in this position, we need to see X” and “I will not be able to keep you in this role.” That should be pretty clear! For most people, it will be clear.

But since you’re getting feedback that some people feel blindsided and you’re wondering how to avoid that, the answer is to start using the word “fired.”

I suspect that both of the employees you warned heard “I won’t be able to keep you in this role” as meaning they might get moved to a different role, demoted, or so forth — but not fired.

It’s also possible that you’re softening the message more than you realize. I’ve coached a lot of managers through the warning/firing process, and we’ll often role-play the conversations ahead of time. It is fascinating how often I coach managers to use the words “fired” or “let you go” and they agree they will, but then when it comes to actually saying it, they switch it to softer language like “we might need to let you go” or “I might not be able to keep you on” or “it’s really important that you make these changes.” And when I ask about it afterwards, they often don’t even realize what they said!

(Also, many people find it much easier in these conversations to say “we will need to let you go” rather than “I will need to fire you.” Either one conveys the message, so if “let you go” is easier for you and thus you’re less likely to swap it for something fuzzier at the last minute, that’s fine.)

During that warning conversation, you can also explicitly say that you want to be sure they’re not missing the message: “I want to make sure I’m being really clear because I don’t want you to be blindsided. Right now, I’m not seeing the improvement that I need and unless XYZ happens by March 21, I won’t be able to give you further time and will need to let you go.”

Beyond all that, though, it’s also true that some people will always be shocked when they’re fired, no matter how clear your warnings were. Maybe that’s because they’ve had similar warnings in the past but the manager didn’t follow through on firing them, or maybe it’s a defense mechanism to not believe things are really that bad, or who knows what. But it’s a thing that happens.

You can’t control that, but you can control how clear you are. I don’t think you’ve been quite as clear as you could be, but with this small shift you can change that.

{ 619 comments… read them below }

  1. PNWorker*

    Call me crazy, but I really feel like if I heard the language from the LW, I would pretty worried about my own performance/job security. Are people really that ignorant or optimistic about these conversations?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! To be clear, most people aren’t. Most people hear it quite clearly. But occasionally you get people who seem legitimately blindsided (even if your language is as clear as it could possibly be). It’s very interesting, from a psychological perspective.

      1. PNWorker*

        I definitely liked what you wrote, and agree. I just am… surprised. But perhaps I am also more critical of myself. But of course, people hear what they want to hear, and I guess some people just don’t hear the siren.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          And the opposite of this is the people who walk around genuinely afraid they’re about to be fired when they’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback! They exist too. Both are painful places to be, in different ways.

          1. Onward*

            You see this in performance reviews all the time. The lowest performing person on the team who you’ve had multiple conversations with about their low performance will rate themselves “exceeds expectations” and be SHOCKED that they aren’t even at the level of “meets expectations”. Then your top performer will rate themselves “needs improvement”.

            1. Bopper*

              Classic case of the “Dunning Kruger Effect”
              The Dunning-Kruger effect effect occurs when a person’s lack of knowledge and skills in a certain area cause them to overestimate their own competence. By contrast, this effect also causes those who excel in a given area to think the task is simple for everyone, and underestimate their relative abilities as well.

              1. ecnaseener*

                I don’t disagree with it anecdotally, but the supposed Dunning-Kruger effect is actually just a statistical artifact called autocorrelation! Basically, Dunning and Kruger’s math would have shown an “effect” even for completely random numbers!
                (Economics from the Top Down has a great article about it.)

                1. KHB*

                  But if people’s self-assessment of their own abilities are “completely random numbers,” that itself is an interesting effect.

                  What I took from the Dunning-Kruger paper is that pretty much everyone is really bad at assessing their own skills relative to the rest of the population. People tend to revert to guessing that they’re slightly above average at everything, regardless of how good they actually are.

                2. Candi*

                  Problem with claiming autocorrelation is, it’s a fact there are people who don’t know enough to know what they don’t know. It’s also a fact there are people who know a little and think that means they know a whole lot, to the detriment of their career, friendships, and other parts of their life. There are famous and not-so-famous historical examples of both.

                  On the flip side, there are people who know so much they are overwhelmed by what they don’t know and forget they are quite knowledgeable and skilled in their own right.

                3. linger*

                  No. Some tendency in the same direction in the raw test results is indeed predicted by autocorrelation, but Kruger & Dunning 1999 also directly established causality, using post-tests (1) manipulating participant awareness of the range of responses from other participants (which improved self-assessment accuracy for high-competence but not low-competence individuals), and (2) training less competent individuals (which improved performance and self-assessment accuracy, whereas a training exercise unrelated to the task did not).
                  A 2002 followup paper explicitly debunked autocorrelation as the sole explanation of their findings.

              2. Van Wilder*

                I was once bad at a job and I kind of did this. I was on a PIP and I logically knew I could get fired but I put on airs of everything being fine and it being everyone else’s fault. (Which, in fairness, it was a toxic workplace, but that didn’t change the fact that I wasn’t performing well and was on a PIP.)
                I also had a deadly case of fixed mindset which meant my whole identity would shatter to pieces if I wasn’t the best at everything. Luckily for me, I found another job and quit before I was fired. My new growth mindset is a work in progress, but it makes it much easier to handle tough feedback.

                1. Random Dice*

                  What a lot of powerful self-reflection and self-growth in such a short paragraph. I’m impressed with you!

                2. Van Wilder*

                  Thank you! It’s been a long time since then. But even then, I knew on some level that I wasn’t being the best version of myself.

              3. Macropodidae*

                My oldest kid graduated from UMich with degrees in Psych and Soc (wants to be a forensic psychologist) and actually had a class with Dunning and adored it. I fan-girled from across the state.

              4. Wintermute*

                I feel obligated to point out that most people misunderstand the D-K effect.

                First it only applies to context-free situations, when you have to rate yourself without any feedback on things that are not concrete.

                A workplace, a good workplace anyway, should be giving plenty of context, honestly just seeing the results of your work provides context and feedback.

                1. linger*

                  Not quite. The basic idea of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that the ability to assess skills accurately in a domain is part of the skill base needed to be fully competent in that domain, and so less competent individuals lack the ability to assess their performance accurately. Without that ability, negative external feedback can be explained away as random (“I was unlucky”), or negative external forces (“my boss hates me”, or even “my boss doesn’t understand my awesomeness”) rather than ascribed to personal deficiency. (The tendency of high-competence individuals to underestimate their relative ability is ascribed to a separate “false consensus” effect, which disappears when evidence is presented showing others are less competent. Which does suggest a remedy for imposter syndrome!)
                  What is true, though, is that self-assessment is most strongly correlated with actual performance in exactly those domains where feedback is frequent, immediate, and quantitative (e.g. competitive sport) — and least strongly correlated in domains where feedback is infrequent, delayed, or indirect (e.g. social skills). The latter domains offer scope for a more pronounced effect. Kruger & Dunning 1999 also suggest low-competence individuals should have the most inflated self-assessments in domains where individuals can justifiably believe themselves to have some untrained ability: hence their own chosen task domains of sense of humour, logical reasoning, and first-language grammar judgements.

                2. linger*

                  So (coming back to what K&D actually found to change lower-competence individuals!) a good workplace should be using feedback as a basis for training. Which leads directly to the usual advice about giving feedback that is specific and actionable.

            2. JelloStapler*

              It’s similar to our students who are on Probation and claim everything is fine when we are hearing they are skipping class and have not handed in one assignment. Then they are shocked at final semester grades.

              1. Irish Teacher*

                Yup, I have students who will tell me “I get on so well in such a class. I never get in trouble and I’m gettin really good grades.” I mention to the teacher that x loves your class and get an amazed look and “what? He never does any work and I’ve put him on detention twice this week.”

              2. an academic*

                Yes! I have had students email me shocked, insisting that my class website has calculated their grade wrong, they couldn’t possibly be getting a C when they were getting an A earlier. (The website auto-calculates grades; it is not wrong.) Then I reply that there is no mistake and what did they think would happen if they failed two midterms in a row?

            3. Lacey*

              Yes! A friend of mine had an employee who she charitably put at a “needs improvement” even though she thought they should have had the lowest score.

              They marked themselves “exceeds expectations” and in the meeting proceeded to argue with her about how they were actually exceeding their own expectations so she should count that.

              1. MigraineMonth*

                This is the bizarro-world version of the manager/professor who never gives anyone the top grade because they have such high expectations. Neither of which are what the “exceeds expectations” is supposed to mean (it should mean “exceeds the expectations laid out in the job role”).

                1. I am Emily's failing memory*

                  Yes, this is a classic instance of the hypothetical “reasonable person” standard. It’s not about any one specific individual’s expectations – your own, the boss’s, or anyone else. It’s “what would a reasonable person expect someone with this job description to have accomplished this year?”

                  Of course, some people don’t know they’re unreasonable, but the boss who openly says “my expectations are so high nobody can exceed them” clearly knows that they’re deviating from a standard.

              2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

                “I’m living up to her low expectations, because her low expectations are high enough for me.”

                Mid-90’s country song chorus – but boy does it fit here.

              3. dackquiri*

                i am not proud to admit it but i cannot help but admire the gumption it would take to say that with a straight face

              4. botanist*

                I need to stop thinking about this so I don’t burst out laughing randomly at my desk. This is amazing.

            4. Well That's Fantastic*

              Yes! I had a peer who was on a PIP and was told at least once a day she should have completed things and needed to meet deadlines or she would be let go. On her self-evaluation for her performance review she rated herself “exceeds expectations” in every single category. She was absolutely blindsided when the boss didn’t share the same evaluation and listed deadlines she had missed. “I thought I was doing great!”

              1. Random Dice*

                As someone with intense anxiety, it must be so… carefree to live inside of a head so blithely optimistic and confident.

                On the other hand, my intense anxiety let me excel through decades of unmedicated ADHD, so… thanks?

                1. Timothy (TRiG)*

                  I kind of have this, in that when something is troubling me I can just put it out of my mind. Sometimes this is useful, or at least restful, but sometimes it leads to me not doing things I really, really should. (It’s something that I discussed at length in therapy with regard mostly to family situations, but it can apply in work too.)

                2. yala*

                  Dang, wish my cognitive cocktail worked like that. The Anxiety and the unmedicated ADHD essentially… well, you ever see that meme of the skeleton chair that looks simultaneously intense and utterly stationary? It’s kinda like that. (Changing the “unmedicated” part has helped, but I’m still trying to find the right one).

                  At any rate, I’m simultaneously constantly waiting for the next bad thing but also just…not as focused as I should be.

              2. Sara Smiles*

                Meanwhile I’ve been at my job for 10+ years and every time I’m called into my boss’s office I’m convinced I’m being fired……

            5. DataSci*

              Partly that’s because “needs improvement”, in isolation, doesn’t go on a scale from “exceeds expectations” to “fails to meet expectation”. Everyone can always improve! And the top performers are probably the ones most aware of this, and working hardest to improve their own skills. People learn what “needs improvement” really means, but it’s still weird.

              1. allathian*

                Yes, this. I’ve never met a person who excels at their job who thinks that there’s nothing they could do even better.

              2. Onward*

                We have a scale that we show them and define each of the categories. “Needs Improvement” means that you’re not performing all of the required job duties.

              3. Pinacolada*

                Everyone can certainly improve, but if you *need* to improve, it means you’re not doing the job or skill at even a satisfactory level.

            6. Alanna*

              People also have really different ideas about what self-reviews are for. My husband gave himself the best possible score even though he’s constantly talking at home about what he wants to do better, because he views it like a resume or a cover letter — it’s your opportunity to talk yourself up. My self-reviews tend to be pretty tough on myself (we don’t give scores at my company) — I’m more interested in review time about where I can improve, even though I know that, by the standards of my peers, I’m pretty good at my job.

              But that also kind of makes sense when I think about it in terms of how secure we feel at our jobs. I know that my organization values me and views me as a high performer in general, with normal deviations from review period to review period, and if I’m too hard on myself, all that will happen is a slightly awkward conversation about having some perspective. He’s had a much more mixed bag with managers and his contributions aren’t always seen or recognized.

              People who are doing poorly may see reviews as a way to defend themselves. That said, as a manager, the best thing to see ahead of a tough performance review is a self-aware self-review.

            7. Little Beans*

              We did a performance rating “calibration” exercise on my team once and it was fascinating. My colleague, who everyone knows is struggling, listed a whole bunch of specific things when describing a high performer, and they all happened to be things he does a lot — except none of them actually make him a strong performer, and in fact, some of them are the very things that drive the rest of us crazy.

              1. Alanna*

                I asked everyone on my team to do self reviews this year for calibration purposes (basically: do we agree on how you’re doing and the main areas where you need to improve? if so, great, we can spend the review talking about how. If not, we need to start the review by getting on the same page) and it’s been fascinating. Self-awareness is unevenly distributed.

          2. Ellen N.*

            That can be because it’s happened to them.

            In my last office job I asked repeatedly for feedback. I was told every time that I was doing fine until they called me in for a meeting to fire me.

            As the firm had 30% turnover in six months, I’m confident in my view that their management was the problem.

            1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

              Same here. In a long-ago job, I walked into what I thought would be a regular mid-year review and was instead given a paper to sign that said I had six months to either turn around my unacceptable performance or get fired. My previous review was fine and I did not see it coming.

              I did not get fired, unlike the manager who’d put me on that probation, who was demoted and then let go a year or two later for performance issues. But somehow my main takeaway from it was “they can tell you you’re doing great one day, and fire you the next. The people that you work with day-to-day and the people who decide you need to be fired will not be the same people, so your clients and teammates being happy with your work means nothing. Just keep your things in one place so they’re easy to pack.” (I literally kept a tote bag in my desk drawer the entire time I’ve worked in offices.) It was 20 years ago and I still cannot snap out of that mindset. It didn’t help that the one coworker whom I could trust, that I came to for advice, who managed a team and was great at it, said to me, by way of advice, “I wake up every day fully expecting to be walked out the door before the day is over” and then a year later he was walked out the door by the division CIO that he was reporting to. At this point in my career, I’m seeing getting fired like I do Covid – everyone gets it eventually and I will too one day. (Haven’t gotten either of those two yet.)

              1. MigraineMonth*

                “The people that you work with day-to-day and the people who decide you need to be fired will not be the same people” struck such a chord with me.

                One of my coworkers at a previous job was fired for bad performance metrics against the wishes of their direct manager. As soon as they left, the rest of the team started to have performance issues. What couldn’t be seen just from the metrics was the amount of work the fired coworker had been doing to support the team (including the majority of the training, mentoring and committee work).

              2. Christina*

                At my last job, I was given outstanding performance reviews (my second year, I was given the highest rating you could get), performance and project bonuses, nothing but positive feedback from my boss. Then as soon as I started asking about moving up in title/role, suddenly her feedback on my performance went the complete opposite way, she would tell me all she’s gotten since I started was negative feedback from my coworkers (but wouldn’t tell me who), refused to get involved in how I could fix anything, and she never told me because she didn’t like giving negative feedback. I ended up quitting with nothing lined up because f that noise.

                Funny enough, when they reposted my role, it was at a higher level.

              3. retired3*

                At one state agency the saying was “You always get fired, but it wasn’t for the thing you did.”

          3. No_woman_an_island*

            Me. It’s me. So weird there are people running around that just accept they’re good at their jobs because literally everyone tells them so. ;)

            1. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

              That’s me too! I got a new job and I get nothing but praise, and I thinking they have low standards as to what impresses them. My husband said “Maybe, IDK you are just really good at your job”. Nah, it can’t be that, lol.

              1. Rocket Raccoon*

                I once had a delivery job that was literally “count out the number of teapots on the invoice for each store and deliver them,” which I did. Everyone raved about my performance… I can only conclude that I was replacing someone who was shocked to be fired.

                1. Burger Bob*

                  I have a similar experience. I regularly get great yearly evaluations and told that I’m performing SO well on my metrics. I do not think I do anything special. I can only conclude that some people in my role have set the bar extremely low. (Actually I’ve met a few of them and can confirm that their performance is…..minimal, to be generous.)

                2. Merrie*

                  Someone who comes on time, is polite and helpful, can find the locations they need to go to, and can count correctly is about all that’s needed in that sort of role. But it’s surprising how many people can’t handle those things.

                  I work in a hospital and we have a number of workers on our team whose job is to walk to various units on the hospital and deliver products. We have one lady who is really nice but can’t seem to get things to the right place. If something is supposed to be delivered to the 8th floor of the A building, it might end up on the 7th floor, or the 9th floor, or on the 8th floor of the B building instead, or whatever, and then the people who need it can’t find it, and we need to either have her or someone else go try to find where it went, or else redo it and resend it. It’s maddening, and yes, several people have discussed it with her and she verbalizes that she knows it’s a problem, but she struggles to get it right.

              2. MAC*

                This is still me, 14 months into a job where they routinely provide positive feedback … I’m constantly amazed that they think so highly of me. And I actually had a manager many years ago who told me she’d never had someone be so self-critical in a self-evaluation, and she considered me one of the highest performing members of the team. But I wasn’t meeting my *own* expectations of myself, so I thought I “needed improvement.”

              3. londonedit*

                Oh yeah, that’s me. I’m always thinking I should be doing more, could be doing more, berating myself for that one time when I was a day late sending something to Production, etc etc. Then I happen to bump into a colleague from another department and they tell me my boss has been singing my praises all over the place, and we get to annual appraisal time and my boss is full of admiration for how brilliantly I handle everything. My brain just won’t let me believe it! Obviously these people are just easily impressed!

            2. ceiswyn*

              I can’t understand it either!

              I have been with my current company for four years and received nothing but praise and pay rises. I have been given a reference by a VP that literally said nothing but “You should hire her”. A boss who left the company considered poaching me, but decided he couldn’t do that to his old friend who had taken over managing me. I was once let go by a company for financial reasons, and two years later they were trying to hire me back but couldn’t afford me.

              I’m just so good at pulling the wool over people’s eyes. One day they’ll see the truth.

              1. AmyintheSky*

                That’s how I feel! Constant positive feedback, constant thoughts of “I have them fooled and they’ll find out any time now”.

                Imposter syndrome in the extreme.

              2. Anna*

                I read someone write something on how to twist imposter syndrome to make it less of a hindrance, let’s see if I can explain it well… It was something like:
                Instead of feeling bad and insecure that you’re tricking all these people into thinking you’re competent/nice/whatever, fancy yourself an evil mastermind: muhaha, my plotting has succeeded, by deviously doing my tasks as expected/acting thoughtful to people I like, I succesfully tricked them into thinking I’m competent/nice! Power is mine!

                Now that I think of it, I haven’t actually implemented this approach myself, but I like the idea.

                1. birch*

                  I’ve heard of this working for people too–but it doesn’t work at all for people who also have a touch of issues with moral scrupulosity (hi, that’s me). The idea of *intentionally* fooling people is so much worse than accidentally fooling them! But what actually does work for me (sometimes) is another approach: the idea that believing you have these people fooled actually means you’re insulting their discernment. So it’s about reminding yourself that you respect their opinions, which includes positive opinions about you!

          4. It is what it is*

            That’s me. I am always much harder on myself and expect much more from myself than most of my managers have ever been. It is a painful place to be.

            I would never put the expectations I have for myself on any of my coworkers.

            It’s a work in progress for me to not be so critical of myself and to believe my manager when they say I am doing an excellent job.

          5. Mike*

            I had the opposite happen once. I had a vague sense that things weren’t going well, I wasn’t picking up the job fast enough, I sensed irritation from the boss and grandboss, but there was never a formal PIP, nor was there ever a conversation about what I needed to do to improve. And there was most DEFINITELY never anything signed.

            Eventually, I did get fired, and at the exit, I commented, “Wow, this is really coming out of nowhere.” (OK, in reality, it wasn’t “nowhere” but it wasn’t totally expected either.)

            Then my boss said, “Yeah, we kind of expected you to say that.”

            Seems like there was wrong on both sides.

          6. Zee*

            I’m constantly afraid I’m going to get fired, despite the fact that I know that I am really, really good at my job. I think partly it’s a function of American society not having any safety net.

            1. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

              Same here. I was musing the other day that I’m about 10 years from retirement and will be so happy when that time comes. Not because I don’t like my work, but because I always have low-grade dread that I’ve screwed up SOMETHING and will be out of a job.

          7. Steph M.*

            I’m the person who was almost fired for performance early in my career. I got the hint and got out before it happened. It made me hyper aware of my performance moving forward. That focus turned me into a workaholic who was constantly worried for their job, even when I was producing my best work.

            Not to be a bummer, but losing my mom suddenly in January of year flipped my world upside down and changed everything for me around work. I was laid off in June of last year, and I was ok.

            However, both place are super lonely and painful.

          8. Caroline*

            Agree! I am a person who, during training for a role, will take ”here’s the feedback on your latest assignment, you did really well, there were 2 small things that need changing” as ”you are beyond useless and about to be fired”.

            It is what it is!

        2. ThatGirl*

          From a different perspective…

          I was on a PIP once. I understood that it was serious, and that my job could be at risk, though I don’t recall if anyone firmly said “if you don’t improve, you’re fired.” I did improve, I met the goals, my manager praised me for turning things around, and I had a very good review that year.

          And then, a few months later, I made a huge mistake and got fired. And in retrospect, I get it — I’d been on thin ice once already that year and hadn’t built any goodwill back up to speak of. But it took me by surprise at the time because in my head, things were back to normal. I’d had a good review! Wasn’t the slate wiped clean? Well, no.

          1. Candi*

            I think that “things do not reset like some video games” is an important aspect of jobs that doesn’t get touched on nearly enough. That you can still suffer after completing the PIP “quest” and need to build your resources -social capital- back up.

            It’s a whole different framework from how discipline works in K-12 or even college.

            1. Alanna*

              This was a huge shock to me the first time I got a performance review in my first job. I wasn’t in PIP territory, but I’d made a couple of serious mistakes earlier that year and I thought we’d moved beyond it. The idea that things you did wrong could still come back up months later really shocked me.

              That job was not as good at incremental feedback as it could have been, but in that case, I think my naivety was the culprit there — I was in a kid/school model where you “get in trouble” with the parent/teacher, they impose consequences (or the “getting in trouble” conversation is itself the consequence) and you move on. I didn’t really understand that jobs are different — your boss doesn’t punish you, but they do remember.

      2. different seudonym*

        Not in every case, but in some, I think the surprised people don’t understand if/when there’s no personal aggression or shaming. There are folks out there who will not understand that they are doing badly unless someone seems to be “mad at them.”

          1. different seudonym*

            thanks! I think in many cases it comes from abusive or low-quality K-12 schooling, honestly.

        1. ecnaseener*

          Oh, good point – firing feels like a Big Punishment rather than a practical consequence of failing to meet the bar, so if everyone’s being polite and businesslike about it how can they really be Angry Enough to Punish You?

          1. Anonymous for now*

            Firing may be a practical consequence from the point of view of the person doing the firing.

            From the point of view of the person being fired it is a big punishment because of the impact it has. Being fired can destroy a person’s life. For some people just a couple of weeks without a paycheck can be catastrophic. So they assume their boss isn’t going to ruin their life over not selling enough units, being a little late with some reports, not smiling enough, or having a cracked tooth, etc., that you have to do something really bad to have your life ruined.

            1. Candi*

              It doesn’t help when toxic management does fire to punish. If someone’s been through those kinds of workplaces, a nice, polite, professional PIP meeting is unlikely to set off their alarm bells. Abuse distorts perception of reality.

            2. IDIC believer*

              Yeah but these same employees DO believe it is the boss doing the ruining as opposed to accepting they (the employee) ruined their own life. A boss can care more than the employee about the employee’s life.

              I’ve had to fire several non-/under-performing employees. I did clearly say “you will be fired” along with a multitude of required verbal and written warnings, a PIP, retraining, hand-holding, weekly meetings, recommended resignation, etc.

              It was always “my” fault. I learned to accept their warped thinking was just another example of their unsuitability for that job.

              1. Anonymous for now*

                My point is that if you are seeing it from the point of being fired can ruin your life you may be thinking that any reasonable supervisor would only use that for something really big. That they couldn’t possibly fire you for multiple missed deadlines, surely they only use that for things like embezzlement, burning down the building, or causing someone physical harm. It’s all about perspective. Management sees it as a reasonable response that hopefully improves the business. The employee sees it as a nuclear option that affects every aspect of their life. And people are pretty good at convincing themselves that the really bad thing will never happen to them.

            3. ecnaseener*

              It’s of course a massive consequence, but my point is it’s not a punishment (in well-functioning workplaces). It’s not “you deserve this for doing a bad job,” it’s “this is sadly what has to happen since you can’t or won’t do the job.”

              As others have mentioned, nobody deserves to be destitute because they can’t manage a job – this is why people push for safety nets, UBI, etc. As crappy as it is, you can’t make hiring and firing decisions based on whether you think the person deserves the money.

            4. Caroline*

              That’s where the warnings come in, such as ”you cannot submit reports after deadline, we need to see X and Y improvements” etc come in.

              Also. While it’s totally the case that losing one’s job can be unfair, a major upheaval financially and in other ways, very often, it is a reasonable end point.

        2. Irish Teacher*

          I really think you might be on to something here. “(S)he didn’t seem mad at me, so it can’t be that bad.”

        3. Lacey*

          Yes, especially if they’ve worked in the kind of environment where under performers are treated like dirt instead of just… not the right fit.

            1. Caliente Papillon*

              Whew- an oldie but…baddie? Meanwhile I think I would just leave if someone asked me to put on a dunce cap.

        4. mlem*

          As someone who spent years being terrified that mistakes would make people mad at me … I really think you’re on to something here.

        5. tamarack etc.*

          Yeah, that does happen, I think.

          If your standards are distorted by long-term experience of dysfunctional environments, you might get things wrong this way. (Or in in the other direction, as Alison mentioned.)

        6. Isolda*

          This is an excellent point. Many people are not used to civility and the idea that people can express displeasure without personal attacks.

        7. Alanna*

          This is so true and I was just typing something similar above. I never got to the point of being almost fired, but I had some surprisingly bad performance reviews early in my career. My mom was both strict and short-tempered, so my entire life, if I had done anything wrong, I KNEW IT. We were not a household where we shrugged off mistakes or intentional bad behavior with, “well, it happened, what can we learn? let’s move forward.”

          So my mental model was “if nobody lectured me or punished me, it’s fine.” When bosses would react to mistakes in a normal work way — ie, what’s done is done, let’s fix it going forward — I would assume that meant it wasn’t really a big deal.

          This is one reason why parents should try to not use anger as discipline!

      3. Phony Genius*

        I’m wondering how many of the employees put on a PIP felt blindsided by that. Also, were those who felt blindsided by a PIP more likely to improve than others? I think somebody who is in denial when they’re put on a PIP and treat it like no big deal will change little and end up failing. At least if you’re blindsided by a PIP, you’ll ask yourself “what do I have to change?”

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          I’d wonder if it would turn out to be the opposite, at least in a functional organization where there is regular constructive feedback. People who are surprised by a PIP don’t know they’re performing poorly when they arguably ought to know. They might not be able to evaluate their performance during the PIP either.

        2. AcademiaCat*

          I dunno, the one time I was told I would be put on a PIP, it made me evaluate how I felt about the job, and I wound up quitting (without anything else lined up) and changing fields. It was very much an “if I can’t do this anymore, then I should stop doing it, and put all my efforts into finding something I do want to do.”

          I was surprised that people had noticed that I was Done with that job, but only because I had been coasting on previous goodwill for a solid 6 months.

      4. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

        I seems to me that OP’s company fires a lot of people. It could very well be just they fire so many people, they see the outliers.

        1. Candi*

          I’d like a ballpark figure of how big OP’s company is. The bigger the company, the more people you’ll usually wind up firing just because of numbers.

        2. Wintermute*

          that struck me as well, it seems like they must fire a LOT if they have this much data!

      5. tamarack etc.*

        I think one aspect is that the OP is dealing with employees *who are already not doing well*. It’s like when you have a student who’s struggling – telling them the same pointers that would get a high-performing student to course-correct won’t do much for them.

        1. linger*

          Yep. These are employees that need:
          a clear set of quantified expectations for performance (which OP claims is given)
          + explicit training for how to meet those — either around certain specific skills, or around organisational skills such as focus or task prioritisation (which is probably lacking)
          + a clear statement of what is at stake (which is what Alison’s answer addresses)

    2. Ben the PM*

      Yes, definitely. People will very often hear what they want to, or not hear what they don’t want to. This isn’t a conscious thing; it’s (one of the ways) we cope with really unpleasant things. Being fired is a really huge scary thing for most people, which also means that you’re going to get a lot of emotional responses.

      Also, not everybody even knows that “keep you in this role” is being compared to “fired” vs, for example, “We’ll have to find another position for you.”

      I, too, would be very concerned hearing anything remotely like this language. I have also worked with people who truly didn’t understand that this language meant “…or you will be for real definitely fired.”

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Right, it’s like online dating. I tried it for the first time in my 40s and it took me a while to understand that “I think we should be friends” means “welcome to dumpsville, population: you, and I better not hear from you again”. I mean, he said he wanted to be FRIENDS!

        If I heard the language like the one in the letter, I’d be frantically making sure I have enough in my emergency fund and am otherwise prepared to be out of work imminently; but I’ve been in the corporate world for quite a while.

        1. Sasha*

          Oh god yes, I learned that lesson aged 18 when my ex-boyfriend mysteriously acted like I was a stalker when I tried to remain besties with him (we had no mutual friends).

          Mortifying in retrospect, I’m sure he thought I was trying to win him back, but I was genuinely trying to be friends, like he told me.

          1. Candi*

            It’s even more confusing to use that phrasing because exes who part on amicable terms often do remain friends. With that context, it almost requires mind reading to know they meant “I don’t want to see you ever again” and not “I like you, but I don’t like like you.”

            In a workplace, it’d be the difference between “you really need to fix this or your position will suffer” and “you need to do A, B, and C, or you will lose your job.”

        2. Caroline*

          Me too, but then I am the polar opposite of the people who are blindsided. I am convinced, always, that I am *this close* to being fired. A manager saying ”hey, do you have 15 mins later today, I’d like to catch up” or ”thanks so much for the report, for the future, please can you do X or Y, it’s a house style thing” will leave me completely hysterical (privately, I keep the crazy on the inside, mostly) and sure of my imminent firing.

    3. Irish Reader*

      Sounds like they’re in denial, doesn’t it. Surely the points threshold in the appraisal should also make things really clear too.
      Are they not getting feedback throughout the year? That part wasn’t clear to me.

      1. I'm fabulous!*

        I was going to say this too. It’s like they’ll believe it when they experience the reality.

        1. Lady Ann*

          Some people definitely don’t believe it until they experience it. I once managed someone who was deficient in X so I told her if she didn’t complete X by Y date, she’d have to go on a PIP. Then when Y date came and I presented her with the PIP, she cried and said she didn’t expect it. (She did however successfully complete her PIP, so there’s that at least.)

      2. laser99*

        I can speak to this. The one time I was fired, there were clear signals, but the enormity of it all was too much for me to take in, so I just…didn’t.

      3. LW here*

        That’s a good question! We have 6-month reviews with this point system, but we also give feedback throughout the year. I try to have one-on-one meetings with anyone whose performance I’m concerned about, but that mostly focuses on training unless the mistakes are so egregious it moves into PIP territory immediately. At the company, there’s a HUGE emphasis on training/growing/development, and they really don’t want managers to use any “you might lose your job over this” kind of language unless someone is on a formal PIP to “better encourage their professional development and growth.”

        1. Chilipepper Attitude*

          I suspect the culture of training/growing/development at your company has led you all to soften the message much more than you all realize! I think you need to be able to say fired, or “lose your job.” I worry that Alison’s phrase, “need to let you go” will even be too soft given the culture of your company.

          “I want to make sure I’m being really clear because I don’t want you to be blindsided. Right now, I’m not seeing the improvement that I need and unless XYZ happens by March 21, I won’t be able to give you further time and will need to let you go.”

          1. SarahKay*

            So Alison’s comment about people unconsciously softening the message just happened, here, which I find fascinating.
            Your (Chilipepper Attitude’s) advice was to use the words fired, or ‘lose your job’, but then your suggested message said “will need to let you go”.

        2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

          Yeah, then I think it might be what Alison is saying about the language. If you are being super supportive and encouraging then saying “I won’t be able to keep you in this role”, I could understand your employee thinking that you absolutely do not intend to fire them, but definitely plan to modify their role and remove the tasks they are failing at. It’s not quite false hope, but it may be unintentionally implying that they will be kept on as an employee regardless of the outcome of the PIP (“why else would Boss invest so much time in making me better just to fire me?”) so they don’t see improvement as a condition to continued employment.

          1. Candi*

            Oh, there’s some good phrasing. “Improvement is a condition of continued employment.” It’s a bit soft for those who need to be told bluntly, but to many they’ll hear “not improving will get you fired.”

            Might need a little tweaking for individual contexts.

        3. Candi*

          Hey, LW, one thing your company needs to consider: The neurodivergent.

          I have ASD/Asperger’s. When I was young, nothing but a direct “fix or be fired” would get through. Subtlety and indirect language blew right past me. It cost me many painful lessons and at least one job.*

          Some of your workers will be neurodivergent, and you often will not know who they are unless they tell you. People can have odd habit and behaviors for other reasons, after all. There will be a selection of those worker who cannot hear “your job is in danger” unless they are told explicitly, either due to neurowiring or not having learned yet.

          * Though I maintain “you need to improve X and Y” without even a “or your job will be affected” falls on the side of insufficient warning.

          1. Rainbow*

            Lol, I am neurodivergent, and due to my awareness that I am not amazing at picking up context, I overcompensate and pick up *too much* context a lot of the time. (Basically reading too much into random body language or word choice or whatever.) I legit believe I’m going to be fired on roughly a monthly basis, and even though I know “oh, I did this last month” it’s still scary every time!
            I’ve never actually been fired…

          2. marvin*

            I’m neurodivergent as well, but I tend to err on the side of assuming that any negative feedback is much more dire than it really is (a fun mix of anxiety and being oblivious to subtext). In either case it is helpful to provide clear context around the feedback, whether that’s “You’re doing well in general but need to work on this one minor thing” or “You’ve consistently struggled with some major components of your job, and we’ll have to fire you unless you can make these specific changes.”

            1. Alexander Graham Yell*

              Yep – anxiety + RSD currently has me convinced that I’m going to get fired because I (checks notes) did not notice the dates listed on two documents did not match.

              Is it important that they match? Yes. Would it put the project at a standstill if they don’t? Nope. Am I still vaguely worried my manager is going to be super mad at me and I’m going to get fired or put on a PIP over it? 100%.

          3. Kella*

            Neurodivergent can’t be the only explanation here, though. You’d need to both require a high level of direct communication around the potential for losing your job AND to completely discount all of the direct expectations being communicated to you that are required for success in your job. Like, plenty of ND people are able to succeed in work without every single assignment being followed by “And if you don’t complete this by the deadline, you will be fired,” because we understand that a manager assigning us work and following the expectations for the delivery of that work is the basic function of having a job.

    4. KHB*

      It’s pretty common for something to seem perfectly clear to observers who are on the outside looking in, but to look totally different to someone who’s actually experiencing it. This might be another example of that. Motivated reasoning is a powerful thing.

    5. Polar Vortex*

      In my experience: yes.

      A lot of it tends to be willful ignorance though. They truly deep down understand that this means they’ll be fired, but it’s hard for them to cope with that actuality. They either struggle with failure or they’re going through some things or they’re frozen in their current incompetence, but all of it adds up to the fact that they need to lie to themselves about the outcome. If it’s blinding to them, then they don’t have to take credit for the fact they got themselves fired. They can feel terrible and absolve themselves of the pain of failure.

      Blunt language like Alison is talking about means they can’t hide behind the assumptions that the less blunt language allows them to tell a different story around it.

    6. goddessoftransitory*

      It constantly amazes me how efficient some people are at only hearing what they want to hear. You could be yelling “YOUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE!” and they’re genuinely shocked it’s getting hot in here.

      At work I have had to explain really, really basic things to customers a lot–things that are “how have you lived this long without falling down a manhole?” level of stuff. Like, when I tell people the large is 17 inches, and they ask “how big is that?” or I list our three salads and they confidently request one we have never made. More than once. Often these are people who order with us regularly for YEARS.

      1. Chilipepper Attitude*

        When I have to help people at the public library with things like finding the big green print button on the copier, I often wonder how they don’t put their pants on their heads but now I’m going to ask how they did not fall down a manhole!

        1. Good night gorilla*

          Once as a brand-new parent, I tried putting the baby’s pants on upside-down. It took a minute to realize why the wardrobe was malfunctioning!

          So these days when I deal with anyone particularly off their game, I tell myself they probably have a newborn at home, and I feel much more gracious.

          1. goddessoftransitory*

            When I hear kids and/or pets wailing in the background I am much more lenient in my assessments!

        2. goddessoftransitory*

          I regularly take orders from people I would not leave alone with a potted plant, yet they work, have credit cards, and presumably vote.

        3. Boof*

          As someone who’s brain just works… kinda weird, this is probably me. I can be very smart at some things but terrible at being observant or processing information if it’s not quite in the format I was anticipating. It is a running joke where I tell my spouse “I know the thing is here in front of my face, but I cannot see it, can you please help me find the thing” (and lo there it is right where I was looking for it except it was a slightly different than I was scanning for in some way)

      2. Liv*

        Okay to be fair, I’m really terrible at visualising numbers in anyway, especially measurements. So if you told me that something is 17 inches, I have absolutely no concept of how large that is unless you physically show me.

      3. steliafidelis*

        In my server days, I had the following conversation more than once:

        “I’d like the catfish, please.”
        “Okay, and would you like it fried or grilled?”
        “What’s the difference?”

        NEVER could figure out how to answer without sounding snarky. (“One is fried and the other…is grilled?” Do you need me to explain what frying is, or grilling?)

    7. Dust Bunny*

      Yes, especially if they’re young, inexperienced, and/or in denial about how badly they’re doing. Current Me would be in an absolute panic and ready to climb glass walls to improve, but Younger Me would have assumed I was just going to be knocked back to a gruntwork-ier job or something.

      1. PNWorker*

        I agree. I realize I probably should have left some room for younger workers who don’t know what a PIP is or perhaps don’t understand the context. There is definitely room for a teaching moment that gives more warning.

        1. Mari*

          That’s absolutely a thing – especially with younger workers. They’ve come up through an education system (especially in the US) that talks big, but doesn’t often follow through on the consequences – there are an awful lot of ‘second chances’ (I have a student right now who’s on their…. I want to say ninth? ‘second chance’ this school year. Yes, that is the sound of me rolling my eyes so badly I have neck strain).

          The other thing is that it is entirely possible that they ‘know’ (know of?) someone at a different organization that has been on a PIP and they have not had consequences, so they assume it’s the same everywhere.

          So, for example, I know someone who works for ‘Big Tech’. This person does a specialized job that pays well and is ALWAYS hiring – they never have enough people to do this job. In the past X years, they have been on X-1 PIPs (where X>5). They never fully fulfill the requirements. They go on and come off and go on and come off and the company is never going to fire this person – now, the company is never going to promote this person, and they’re never going to get a great raise or a fabulous bonus, but the fact is, as long as they don’t bork up one PARTICULAR thing, they have a job for as long as they want it. It’s not a good look – and it’s causing all kinds of problems with their younger kid, who has decided that this is an EXCELLENT example to follow (cue neck strain from eye roll).

          Having been a contract professor for many years, where any little thing costs you your job and you’re permanently replaceable, I have somewhat less than measurable sympathy…

          1. Dust Bunny*

            I don’t like to frame schools as coddling students. Most of us up until at least college have experience with discipline primarily from our parents and (usually public, in the US) schools, which unless they’re uncommonly harsh have a lot of social and legal obligation to not completely kick us out. Adult jobs don’t. But up through high school unless we’re violent there isn’t really anyone who can do that without basically abandoning a child, so there’s little reasonable precedence for, no, seriously–this gig is over for you.

            I mean, if public schools kicked kids out for as many things as can and should get employees fired there would be a) a lot of people out of school, and b) a big public uproar, because literally the point of schools is to do what they can to provide for students. But in an adult job, the point is that the employee is supposed to provide for the job. Most employers aren’t social support institutions the way schools are.

            1. Sorrischian*

              I didn’t read Mari’s comment as having a problem with schools ‘coddling’ students – rather, it seemed to be a problem with how they ‘talk big, but don’t follow through’. I’m happy to see even very troubled students get support and opportunities to continue learning, because you’re totally right about that being the point of schools. However, I absolutely knew peers in school who had been formally warned “this is your last offense, next time we won’t cut you any slack” five or ten infractions ago and the consequences had never materialized, and that is a problem because it does give people the sense that any warnings are all talk, that as long as you don’t do one thing big enough to get thrown out all at once, you can just keep pushing the limits and never have any real consequences.

              1. Mari*

                Exactly, and if that didn’t come through, I’m terribly sorry.

                With the vast majority of students, kicking them out is ABSOLUTELY the wrong call – I reserve the right to say that the student who gets violent with me or another student in my room will not be darkening my door again.

                My issue is that when performance standards are not met – work isn’t handed in, there are cheating issues, attendance issues or spectacular classroom behaviour problems (backchat is normal in HS – calling the teacher a racial or religious slur is not backchat) – there are umpteen chances. “This student deserves a second chance”. The student I’m thinking off has met… exactly NONE of the clearly-spelled out deadlines for work in my class (and in three others). NOTHING has been on time; more than half the work has not been submitted at all. We have revised deadlines, we have changed assignments, we have modified and adjusted and given more chances, and NOTHING has changed. And, in the end, no matter what grade I submit (it’s currently a 17/100), the student will get a 50 and pass. It does not matter that I have told them they will fail – someone will change it. Why? Because that’s how it works. It would ‘be counter-productive to their learning’ to fail them. It would be ‘damaging to their self-image’.

                Given multiple years of this, why would a person who is told ‘you will lose your job if you don’t complete the PIP’ expect it to actually HAPPEN? They may have had years of being told ‘You will fail’, only to have some mysterious force pull out a pass for them.

                1. Ariaflame*

                  It’s counterproductive to their learning to pretend they have passed when they have not learned

                2. Zelda*

                  Of one algebra 2 student of mine, I have said that I would like a few words out behind the woodshed with whoever let him out of algebra 1 in his current condition. He needed to *repeat the class*, and sending him to algebra 2 with, like, 20% of the tools he should have had was an act of cruelty.

        2. TomatoSoup*

          I don’t know if my employers didn’t use them or I just didn’t need one, but I’d never heard of a PIP until I started reading AAM. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t assume that PIP was the step before firing.

          1. Zee*

            I also had never heard of them before reading this blog. If it’s your first office job after working retail/food service, I can see how it’d be confusing.

        3. ThatGirl*

          I got put on one when I was 26, and I didn’t fully understand it then. I knew it was serious, but I thought my manager was trying to help me. And I mean, she was – but also it was that formal documented “let’s do this before we fire her” thing that I didn’t fully comprehend. She wasn’t the greatest manager, I wasn’t doing the greatest at my job, it was kind of a shitshow all around. Ah, hindsight.

        4. Candi*

          I learned what a PIP was from Ask a Manager. No one ever told me what they are.

          (Using AAM cover letter examples as a reference right now in job hunting. Love this site.)

        5. Grith*

          Agree completely. Only PIP I’ve ever been on was as a 21YO working in a bar – manager basically decided to clamp down on uniform standards and wrote up 75% of the FOH staff all in one go. We all laughed it off, put it down to him having an off day and basically did nothing about it. No one was fired as a result of these PIPs.

          15 years later I now know the context and structure a bit better. But if I’d found myself on a PIP between then and now, I don’t know if I would have taken it as “about to be fired” without any additional context or guidance.

      2. Garrett*

        Yep. I was put on a PIP when I was in my 20s and I don’t remember my boss spelling out I was in danger of being fired and I had no idea what a PIP really meant. Luckily I got a new job during that time so it didn’t play out but I had no clue and didn’t even realize until years later just how close I got to being fired.

        1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

          That’s hilarious. I can just see you walking through a war zone with rockets falling all around you and you just … make it out safely, having had no idea how much danger you were in the whole time.

          I kind of like that!

          1. TypityTypeType*

            But you can walk right off the edge of the cliff, just as long as you don’t look down!

            I have, alas, been that person. They didn’t say “you’ll be fired,” but they were still sending many signals and I just didn’t get it. I was young and a terrible fit for the job (they were 100% right to let me go), but thought it would work itself out … somehow.

            1. Mack*

              I had a job I was a bad fit for several years ago. They swapped who I reported to quite suddenly. I’m pretty sure my new boss, in our first 1 on 1, was going to put me on a PIP when I handed him my resignation letter. He had a lot of feelings going across his face but I’m pretty sure the outcome was ultimately the best for both of us! I hadn’t been able to handle the (in my opinion excessive) workload alongside job searching, I knew I wasn’t performing well. And I’ve learned to steer clear of that type of role, it’s just not my jam.

        2. Jenny*

          I might have had this as well. And I still don’t know. I had yearly review where normally I would have gotten a promotion. But I didn’t get the promotion and had a note great review. I was given some tools to help me get better at my job (tracking errors over time with a goal of how many errors I would have). It was never relied to me that it was a PIP and I definitely wasn’t told that I was going to be fired if I didn’t do better. But years later, I wonder. As it was, the bad review was enough to scare me straight and I improved and everything turned out OK.

          But IF I hadn’t improved, I would have been surprised if I had been fired. It was never presented to me as a really bad performance.

        3. Alanna*

          I’m in my mid-30s, I definitely learned what a PIP was from AAM and then again after I moved into management. I have lots of friends who are still senior individual contributors and I’m not sure they all know what they are.

          If I had been put on one when I was 25, I absolutely would not have understood how dire it was unless someone spelled it out — I likely would have assumed it was just goal-setting, and maybe even a flattering level of attention from a manager. (I was pretty clueless.)

          1. I have RBF*

            To me getting put on a PIP means “Your manager and you are not on the same page, you need to find a new job NOW.” Why? Because the only time I’ve been on a PIP was when my manager was a glassbowl with unrealistic expectations, an unrealistic view of their ability to train, and was generally bullying and abusive. When the PIP “goals” are unrealistic or impossible from what you know about the job, it’s time to leave, the job isn’t a good fit for you.

            1. trebond98*

              I had also never heard of a PIP before reading AAM. They seem to be something that comes from HR world but have not really permeated the general public. I’m pretty sure many people have no idea what they are.

      3. Irish Teacher*

        Yeah, I was thinking the same about experience. I would hope I’d get it now, but when I was in my early 20s, I could see myself thinking it was one of those threats like when the class troublemakers were told “if you don’t improve, you’ll be held back next year” and almost never were. As an absolute worst case scenario that will happen if you make no effort whatsoever.

        In school, you can often avoid dire consequences by showing willing and making it clear you are trying to improve, so I can see a young person thinking that would work in the workplace too but while school is based on your personal development, the workplace is focused on the results. But I can see a young person thinking there is no way they’ll be fired if they are improving, even if they haven’t met the criteria for success.

      4. Julia K.*

        Yes. In my first job out of college, I was put on a PIP. I had no idea it was a prelude to potentially being fired. I thought it was awfully nice of my manager to finally give me closer supervision to help me develop some better work habits, which I knew I needed.

        I ended up leaving that job voluntarily to go to grad school for a different field that was a much better fit.

        It wasn’t until decades later reading AAM that I learned what a PIP really was.

        Looking back, if I had been fired, I would have been totally blindsided. I’m certain that firing was never explicitly mentioned. If I heard something like “or we may not be able to keep you in this role,” it was not memorable, probably because I would have assumed that meant “moved to a different role in the company,” which had already happened once.

        1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

          I appreciate how clearly you spelled that out for people who can’t relate! I’ve been oblivious about things before too, and having concrete examples like yours are really useful to me in making things real.

        2. Momma Bear*

          This made me also wonder how clear OP is day to day. Do these people need more structure before it gets to a PIP in the first place? Does OP only do regular status meetings during a PIP? I’m wondering since it happens so often across the company and with OP in specific if there’s more OP could do to make tasks and progress more clear upfront.

          1. WantonSeedStitch*

            Yeah, I wondered that myself. The OP talks about the performance issues coming up due to the low score in a performance review. They don’t mention whether they’d been giving feedback before that review.

        3. Lacey*

          Yes, I do think “we may not be able to keep you in this role” can be confusing. Because I’ve worked in some companies where people are just moved from role to role to see if something clicks.

          1. Candi*

            There’s also been other reasons discussed on this site why people are moved instead of fired. To someone who doesn’t have the experience of a nepo-employee, a epic ton of paperwork to fire someone and no one wanting to do it, or a union that is too protective of employees, it may look like the employees were moved to try to find a fit, not because no one wants to try and fire them.

            (Unions are run by people. If the people are mostly good at their job, so the union will be. Same for people who are bad at their job.)

      5. Crooked Bird*

        Oooh man, I did the “younger me” thought experiment too, and younger me said “she only said it once and she hasn’t been on my case about it since then, so it’s probably not that serious.”


      6. Thegreatprevaricator*

        Yep. I was on a (mis-used) PIP early in my career and didn’t understand the significance of it. It was the only bit of formal management I received, and was a company of 4 employees of which I was the junior member. I had no performance reviews or feedback structure. There were performance issues and looking back I did need to go. The set up wasn’t right for me. But I was absolutely blindsided by it. It was poorly handled. I didn’t cry but I think my mother might carry the grudge for me forever! That employer was also one of the few times I’ve had someone phone me up and swear at me re something they were unhappy about with my work. Ah well. It worked out ok for me in the end and we’ve maintained politeness whenever paths have crossed, not speaking ill of each other. I now know I’m not the only one to have had a difficult experience with some of the people associated. Because of my experience I do have some sympathy with those blindsided by a PIP. I’d agree with really spelling it out.

    8. Kevin Sours*

      I feel like there is a solid correlation between people with the awareness and introspection to react that way and people who avoid ending up on PIPs.

      1. PNWorker*

        I consider myself to be pretty critical of what I do. I suspect you’re probably right that there’s some relationship between the introspectors and those who do not end up needing PiPs.

        1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

          Actually, i have a caveat: People can end up on PIPs for reasons unrelated to cluelessness, like job skills. However, being the kind of person who doesn’t think its’ serious to be on a PIP and doesn’t really hear or take the feedback to heart is definitely correlated.

          1. Kevin Sours*

            Even then people who are self aware are more likely to correct the problem before it gets to the point of a PIP or to move on on their own terms if it’s not a correctable problem. That’s not to say it never happens (but then they aren’t surprised by it) or that being put on a PIP isn’t a wake up call for people who then to reevaluate and respond appropriately.

            But a lot of the things that lead to being on a PIP also prevent people from understanding what it means.

    9. Distracted Librarian*

      I think sometimes this response is driven by the same characteristics that lead to poor performance (not willing/able to listen to feedback, thinking you already know everything you need to know). When I think about the poor performers I’ve managed (thankfully few), all had trouble adapting their behavior in response to feedback–even really clear feedback.

      1. LW here*

        I very much think this may be a factor. I am a young-ish woman, and I have mostly had problems with employees who are older than me who feel their age should make them be in charge instead.

        1. Candi*

          Ah. “We respect/disrespect what you are, not who you are.”

          In my opinion, that kind of thing needs to be permanently roundfiled.

          Sounds like they don’t want to admit company rank beats age.

          I’ve had to come to peace with that myself -in college as a nontraditional student, at least 2/3 of my professors have been younger than me, and I know it’ll continue in the working world. It helps I just want to be a happy little worker bee.

    10. L-squared*

      As someone who works with the public a lot, one thing I can say is that people VERY often hear what they want to hear. That is why so many people also will recap conversations like these in writing, so you can’t just say “I misunderstood”

      1. Sloanicota*

        As cruel as it is, I wonder if you could ask them in the moment to repeat back to you what they heard, and ask them if they understand what will happen if you don’t see what you’re looking for. If you can’t say “fired,” I wonder if they can say “fired.”

    11. Fluffy Fish*

      There’s this brand of individual I occasionally have worked with over the years that are just…living in an alternate reality. They think they are stellar employees while demonstrably failing at their job and being told repeatedly that they’re failing.

      I worked with one person who was told to order 1000 widgets and ordered 5. She had even written it down and reviewed her notes. It was a big deal and when she was asked why, she said I don’t know. Or the other guy who was entry level, got fired in less than 8 weeks and then started a consulting business despite the fact that no one is going to hire a consultant with 8 weeks of bad experience who got fired and nothing else.

      In fairness to OP, I suspect her two examples fell into that category and she could have told them daily btw improve or you face firing, and the end result would have been the same.

      1. laser99*

        I suppose it’s also possible the firee thinks maybe they will “change their mind”. Stranger things have happened. As the news shows me daily…

        1. Fluffy Fish*

          Good point. Or even well I improved a little/did some of the things so they couldn’t possibly fire me. That def was the mentality of the first employee I mentioned.

      2. The Starsong Princess*

        I had a guy who I said straight out that “it would result in termination” if he didn’t improve. I thought I was being crystal clear but in retrospect, I don’t think he really understood that termination meant fired. Not the brightest crayon in the box.

      3. Bast*

        We had someone like this. Admittedly, she was kept on WAY longer than she should have been, but this woman would show up excessively late, no call no show, and repeatedly failed her target goals over and over (think, I need to follow up on 10 requests a day, and on a good day, she’d do 5). Most of her time was wasted or applied inappropriately. She was coached over and over, told that she needed to tell people when she was planning on not coming in, etc, but when we fired her it was because we “just hated her” and I had “always had it out for her.” She had no called no showed 3 days in a row and upper management had had enough and called to let her go. This was not a 20 something new to the job force either; this was a woman in her early 40s who somehow did not see her actions as being a big deal.

      4. Lacey*

        Yes. I work with one of these. It honestly makes me wonder how she navigates regular life.

    12. Snow Globe*

      In addition to the ones who only hear what they want to hear, there are also people who just don’t want to accept responsibility and always choose to assign blame to someone else. They may have understood perfectly well, but when they can’t improve their performance and they end up being fired, they’ll claim that they were not given any warning, so it’s really not their fault.

      1. Sloanicota*

        Yeah, when the hammer falls some people are always going to say it’s unfair in a bunch of ways – there is no universe where they will admit it was fair – so I’m not sure OP needs to be super preoccupied with it TBH.

      2. Panicked*

        Yep, totally agree. I walked into a mess of a PIP that had been going on for over a YEAR. We did literally everything we could; from retraining her to do her job several times, several ways, in several styles to checklists, to video walkthroughs she could reference at any time. We asked her what she needed to be supported in the role; she gave us nothing. She absolutely could not grasp even the most basic of her job duties. We met bi-weekly and gave firm, clear guidelines.

        When we finally termed her, she said “This isn’t fair, you gave me absolutely no help and no indication that this would end in termination.” I pulled out my files and showed her the written documentation (that she signed!) of all the help and indications we gave her. She flounced out of the room and stated that we just didn’t know what we were doing.

    13. Lizzianna*


      I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that these people are often the hardest to coach because they often just don’t hear critical feedback or anything that contradicts their view of the world that everything is fine.

    14. Decidedly Me*

      I had someone that, up to and including their final check in, kept telling me that they were feeling better about things, with me telling them that they were still far from meeting requirements to keep their job at the end of their PIP (it was made clear at the beginning of the PIP that I would need to fire them at the end if requirements were not met). When I let them go, they seemed quite shocked because they’d “been feeling better about things”.

    15. CJ*

      There are a lot of people with melodious headphones to go with the rose-tinted lenses. I’m not in management, but I am in higher education. The difference in effect between “not doing the project will have an unrecoverable effect on your grade” and “not doing the project will cause you to fail” is massive. As Alison noted, some students pick up on the first one. But many students appear to need the adrenaline shock of the f-word in the second for them to actually change.

    16. JSPA*

      Think about people who are not great with language; not great with communication; not great at understanding consequences; not great at separating “hope” from “magical thinking”; not clear on how employment works; and/or not great at perceiving their own risks and weaknesses.

      They WILL be proportionally over-represented among, “people who do badly enough to first be on a PIP, then be fired.”

      Sure, there will also be people who have other life stresses or who are a bad fit….

      But your messaging needs to be tailored to people who can’t begin to buy a clue about, well….a lot of things.

      1. Cluelust*

        To paraphrase a knitting blogger (sorry, can’t remember name?)
        “…couldn’t get a clue. In the middle of a clue field. In clue mating season. Covered in clue musk…”

      2. Mel*

        Phantom of the Opera: If these demands are not met, a disaster beyond your imagination will occur.

        (Demands are not met, disaster occurs)

        Carlotta: What is this? What has happened?? UBALDOOOOO!

    17. Snoozing not schmoozing*

      I’ve worked in some places where “we can’t keep you in this role” means the employee will be moved to a lower position. So yes, it is too vaguely worded to mean a firing.

    18. morethantired*

      Recently, someone I know was put on a PIP at work and got a serious message like this from her boss. She relayed the PIP and conversation to another friend and me really casually and we both had to give her a reality check. She heard everything her boss said but just totally didn’t digest the seriousness of it. When we explained it back to her, she was shocked. It was the most wild conversation I’ve ever had. Denial is a very real way our minds cope with bad situations and it can be very powerful.

    19. Tiger Snake*

      I think you should expect a certain level of self-denial from the people you’re speaking to though. There’s a reason its Stage One of grief and ‘oh no change is happening’.

      Big Serious meetings with your boss are scary, and a part of human nature is to try and calm yourself down by downplaying and pattern-matching. ‘I’m about to get fired’ isn’t a part of most people’s normal pattern matching thoughts, but ‘I need to improve and the boss wants to help me’ is something we get trained in thinking from even back in primary school.

      A part of the reason to be blunt and use the big scary language is just that; shock them out of the denial phase and into understanding that, no, that’s not the pattern you’re in anymore.

    20. Pugetkayak*

      The thing is, the worst employees are always the ones who don’t realize. When I have had to start the process I’ve had people who would get constant corrections in which it was clearly stated it could not happen again, the impact it had on customers, poor performance review and then were shocked to go onto an official warning. Also, these are the people who just do enough to get off the warning and they rate themselves as “exceeds” on their review. It is bonkers to me, but I think it reflects a certain mindset that leads them to be a poor performer in the first place.

    21. sailor mouth*

      I was just a kid, like maybe 21, and I am neurodivergent and VERY literal minded. I was completely blindsided when I was fired. Had no idea of professional office norms, because it was my first job out of college and I had not worked in an office – fast food before my previous delivery driver job. I had worked since I was 14, but never in an office. So when the boss told me that Roger (a co-worker) was Christian and he didn’t like me swearing, it never occurred to me that as long as I opened the mail at the same rate as everyone else, I would be fired for swearing in general office chatter as we opened mail. I learned the hard way. But telling me Roger didn’t like it, when he was just a co-worker and not a boss, was not the clarity I needed. I needed to hear “you will be fired if you do not stop this”. It had nothing to do with optimism or arrogance, and everything to do with ignorance. And inability, or at least lesser ability, to read subtext.

      1. r*

        This sounds more like office decorum, though. I mean, I’m an atheist, worked years in retail and restaurants, and found constant swearing really off-putting. You don’t have to have worked in an office, or not be neurodivergent, to have plain old good manners.

        1. tamarack etc.*

          Well, that’s neither here nor there. Even if sailor mouth had identified the swearing as bad manners they would still not have expected to be fired a breach of decorum without clarity that it was in fact a non-negotiable condition of continued employment.
          (A manager telling a subordinate that a co-worker “doesn’t like X” about me, and X is neither illegal nor inhibits my performance nor explicitly listed as a fireable offense, then, well I can see how an inexperienced or literal-minded employee would file this away as a piece of information rather than a warning that their job is in jeopardy.)

        2. Sorrischian*

          Okay, but what if you’ve spent a lot of time in environments where swearing is a social norm? ‘Good manners’ are super subjective and depend on the circumstances, and besides, that’s not the point. Even if they had been doing something entirely out of line, they should have been told clearly what they needed to change and what would happen if they didn’t, because it takes a lot of reading into to get from ‘your coworker doesn’t like that you do x’ to ‘you will be fired if you don’t stop’. (I personally don’t swear at work, but I don’t think my stance would be different if I did)

      2. I have RBF*

        I swear like a sailor. Telling me that “Roger (a co-worker) was Christian and he didn’t like me swearing” would have meant little to me when I was younger, because my gut reaction would have been “So what? It’s his problem, not mine.” (The fact that I was newly ex-Christian and rather hostile to my former religion and it’s hypocrisy would have made it more so.)

        They would have needed to say “Don’t swear at work. It makes others uncomfortable and contributes to a hostile work environment. We do not allow swearing on the job. Keep it up and you will be fired.” Especially when I was younger and my ADHD was at full unmitigated blast I would have needed very explicit words to that effect.

        Yes, I was clueless about various professional norms in my 20s, and a bit of a snot. I was also used to being the smartest person in the room. It wasn’t until years later that I met people who were actually smarter than me. (I now tend to seek them out, because I learn more that way.)

        1. inksmith*

          Do you really want people’s first warning about everything to include the phrase “keep it up and you’ll be fired”? I’d find that terrifying if every time I was told to correct behaviour it came with the warning that I could be fired.

          There has to be a middle ground between the two.

    22. James*

      The sort of person who can take this kind of feedback seriously and put in the work to improve don’t get put on a PIP in the first place.

      (not a universal rule and not the only factor in the situation, but definitely part of it).

    23. Hosta*

      I think sometimes it is just folks misunderstanding of the job and/or the value that they are bringing. At least I see this in tech.

      Manager says “do X”. They start on X, but then get distracted by Y which is super interesting and seems important, and Y leads to Z. They believe that their work on Y & Z makes up for not doing X. And frankly, sometimes they get away with it. But other times you have to say, “I know everyone is telling you what a great job you did on Z. But your job is X.”

      Praise from colleagues has been a huge factor when I need to get someone back on track. If they’re getting positive feedback, especially from folks above their level, it can be hard to direct them back their actual work. If someone gets told by a manager or senior peer, “You did such a good job setting up the baby shower for Sue. Thank you so much.” a lot of folks will set up more baby showers, even if it takes time away from their actual job.

    24. Snow Day*

      I work in a hospital, and we say all the time “what you say is not what they hear”. For example, “the next 24 hours will tell us if things are getting better or worse, but right now his condition is pretty tenuous” got interpreted as “it’s okay if you all go home and go back to work.” (2 hours away). The patient died, and there were howls of “you didn’t tell us he was so sick!!”.
      We have to use the D word (died) instead of “passed away” or “I’m sorry, he didn’t make it”. One family said “I get the part about how you say he’s brain-dead, but what about his mind?”.
      Some people totally shut down when they are frightened or sick or grieving, or whatever. I have started to pretend that I am talking to a kid in grade school in order to be as clear as possible. I imagine that some of the employees are in denial, similar to the patients and families. Black and white statements only. Sad but true.

    25. Keats*

      It would depend on the context. My first job out of college, my manager pulled me into his office after six months and told me I was going on a “pip”. He said it very seriously, but I didn’t have any clue what he was talking about. He just kept using jargon I had no context for. It was about 30 minutes of him beating around the bush until I understood, and I still needed a mentor to help explain what was happening in plain terms.

      It didn’t help that there had been no discussion of any performance issues. My mentor was the one who figured out that even though I was smashing what were our state objectives, that meeting was his way of telling me other metrics (which I regularly updated him on) weren’t where he wanted them.

      It was confusing, upsetting, and demoralizing. I think I would have wound up fired and shocked if my mentor hadn’t translated for me.

      So…yeah. Please be clear in these situations.

      Also, he was demoted the next year and I made the company a huge amount of money when a small project of mine went viral. The schadenfreude was real.

  2. hellohello*

    Alison’s advice is, as usual, on point – but I also wonder if the people who are most likely to be given a list of “do these things to keep your job” and not actually do the things are also the most likely to not pay attention to the message of “no really, we will have to fire you.” Lack of attention to detail/ability to figure out the important facts of a situation could both be a factor in the firing and in getting “blindsided” by the firing.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I’m sure this is also part of it: If they weren’t already in denial and skating, they wouldn’t be on a PIP in the first place.

      1. Gerry Keay*

        Eh, while I think this is often the case, there are also plenty of circumstances where someone is genuinely trying their best and is put on a PIP because they just just aren’t a good fit for a role due to skill, temperament, etc.

        1. Pareto*

          This. I struggled in an early career role because it was a bad fit. It wasn’t because I was in denial or didn’t care, it just wasn’t working. I have thrived and performed well the rest of my career. One can fail while trying one’s hardest.

        2. Random Dice*

          Sometimes it’s really not the fault of the person on the PIP. I am a high performer, but at a prior role, my new manager (who was not an expert and couldn’t do the work, but had previously managed experts who did the work) was laying the groundwork for a PIP / firing when I escaped to another role in the org. There I excelled, and fast forward some years, now I have previous manager’s job.

          (But I also saw the signs in advance and escaped, rather than putting my head in the sand.)

          1. I have RBF*


            I was changing careers, in a literal “junior” role, but had a manager who sucked at training because they didn’t realize what I didn’t, couldn’t know, and expected me to teach myself somehow. They put me on an impossible PIP (I would have had to teach myself stuff that I had zero idea of where to start), and I took it, correctly, as being a bad fit, and found another job. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was determined, it would have put me off of my current career. The next job gave me more “clues” on where to look and what to look for, so I could learn.

            I now mentor people who are new to my field. I still remember floundering in that first junior role because I had no map, landmarks or other guidance on where to start finding stuff out. I try to give good guidance on how to figure things out from various resources. (My job has a lot of need to research how stuff works to fix problems.)

            But if someone in my field has fundamentally poor research, self teaching and problem solving skills, no amount of coaching can fix it, and I point them back to a different track.

      2. ThatGirl*

        Eh, in my case I got put on one because I was making a lot of dumb, preventable mistakes, which were happening because my personal life stress was bleeding into my work.

        And the work stuff got addressed (and then later I got fired), but I do kinda wish someone had asked me what might be going on in my life to distract me. Not that I deserved to be given more leeway because of it, but because maybe I could have made the connection better. Hell, that’s one time an EAP may have come in handy. Oh well. bygones.

    2. Carol the happy elf*

      This x 100. I handed someone a long letter (outlining negligence and absenteeism) from the Supervisor of Supervisors. He read it, and asked which of his coworkers was that lazy and stupid. (!!??)
      I said, “Leroy, who is the letter written TO?”
      Then I got bluster and denial, then vaguely worded threats mixed with promises to “Address your misperception of my work.”
      My boss had his boss read this new book called “The Gift of Fear. It has a chapter on firing someone safely. After that, the people who needed to be let go were fired by a specific formula as outlined in the book.

        1. Dona Florinda*

          I remember the suggestion to fire people at the end of the day (so there’s less people around to see) and on Fridays, so they have the weekend to cool off and since people wouldn’t work on weekends anyway, it doesn’t break their routine.
          But I don’t remember if it said anything about what to do prior to the firing.

          1. Random Dice*

            Most bigger companies these days have whole workplace violence training and hotlines to note behaviors of concern far in advance. (Far too often, after there’s an incident, people are not at all surprised.) Sometimes firing someone by phone is safest.

    3. ferrina*

      This. The folks that are most likely to be in trouble are also the most likely to need it spelled out.
      I had a coworker who didn’t have the skills for his job. His job responsibilities were re-assigned in quick succession. He thought it was cool that he had less work to do; everyone else could tell that they were getting ready to lay him off. Sure enough, he was shocked when HR told him that he was getting laid off because there wasn’t enough work to keep him on (at that point, his assigned duties were 20hr/wk or less, which he was aware of, even though his coworkers were usually at 42-45 hr/wk.).

      1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

        That guy may actually have left the job without realizing that he wasn’t good at it. Maybe he went on to another similar job, only to fail there too. I understand why people want to avoid telling someone that they aren’t a good fit for the job – it’s not fun to upset people, and if there’s a way to get rid of that person without anyone getting upset, why not do it? But then this person doesn’t get valuable information that could help them choose a more suitable career or think about how they behave in certain situations.

        I think it also benefits the employer to say these things extremely clearly, because some people may actually improve when they understand what exactly they should do differently and what will happen if they don’t. Explaining this very clearly is cheaper for the employer than firing one person and finding and training a new one, so it should make sense to try that first :)

    4. Executively Dysfunctional*

      Despite overwhelmingly positive feedback from peers, I was put on a PIP for relying on disability accomodations too much – the things I needed to functionally do my job. Not always a clear cut case.

        1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          Have you been on Twitter this week? Very high profile example.

          But I digress.

    5. Justin D*

      I feel like a lot of people fall into two camps on this:

      -people who think they will be fired for anything and everything and it will happen in an instant
      -people who think they can’t be fired short of stealing or assault

  3. Davis*

    People also might just be angry or sad and are mischaracterizing those emotions as surprise. I find that employers often don’t see their employees as actual people and as such don’t realize how upsetting it is to get fired. Maybe you should re-evaluate if these folks really need to lose their jobs?

    1. Frank and Beans*

      Respectfully, I disagree. As a manager, it’s already SO hard to have to let someone go when you know and like them as individuals but their performance is lacking. In the past I’ve let people stay for too long and continue creating issues because my friendly affection for them has kept me from acting more swiftly- even with multiple corrections on my end and chances on theirs to turn themselves around. Yes, (good) managers do realize how upsetting it is to get fired- it’s also upsetting to DO the firing. I always tell employees that they have to act in their own best interests, and similarly the company has to act in ours.

      1. Need More Sunshine*

        I’m in HR and am always present for a firing (and I’m the person making sure the manager did all the right steps in our process so that it’s not a surprise!) and I always say that if it’s not hard to fire someone, there’s a problem. It’s an inherently hard thing, and recognizing that you’re impeding someone’s livelihood SHOULD be hard!

        1. D-wight*

          You’re not impeding it, you’re destroying it. This is exactly what Davis meant. They may lose their house, their marriage, their children.

          That doesn’t mean you need to keep someone who’s incompetent or needs to be fired for disciplinary reasons, but it’s not simply an “impediment”.

          1. JSPA*

            Really depends on specific situation, location (thus, ± functional social safety net), hiring landscape, etc.

            Being fired doesn’t generally make someone unemployable; it only makes them currently unemployed. Which is also true for new grads and people re-entering the workforce.

          2. WFH FTW*

            To be clear, the /employee/ is the one who’s impeding (“destroying”) their own livelihood.

            1. Gerry Keay*

              Oh come on, it’s *so* much more complicated than that in the vast majority of circumstances, save for like, harassment and bigotry. There are so many more factors to an employee’s perceived success by employer than just the employee’s work ethic.

          3. LlamaDuck*

            I don’t think these are inevitable or typical consequences of being fired.

            I was fired once, fairly, and abruptly laid off once as well. My husband has also been fired once (possibly more before we got together). We never even considered getting divorced. Why would we? Just because the other lost a job?

            We love each other deeply, and we’re committed to each other through the ups and downs. Love is a strong, beautiful thing; it brings people into deeper connection and intimacy in tough times. If a person wants to bail on a marraige just because their spouse was fired, was the love even real?

            Or, possibly, was losing a job just the final straw that broke the relationship – like, a person who is bad at listening and adapting to feedback at work may also be bad at listening to and solving relationship problems when their spouse presents them? And every single “not listening” and “wishful thinking” straw piled up and up until the relationship couldn’t bear it.

            That’s not a healthy marraige. I don’t think healthy marriages end like that, over one unlucky break.

            Likewise, regarding housing, I don’t think it’s normal for getting fired to leave someone homeless. It can happen, absolutely, but I think it’s not so common that it can be presumed, unless the job is known to pay below a living wage anyway.

            Personally, neither my own or my husband’s experiences losing our jobs ever put our housing in serious jeopardy. We rent, but both times we’ve been fired we’ve been able to live off a mix of personal savings, cutting back on expenses, and help from family. Once, we calculated that, in a particular month, the expense we had to cut was “food,” and we went to the food bank.

            If we did ever lose our housing, it would be awful, but we still wouldn’t be homeless. We know which family members we could try to live with until we regained our footing. My sister and her husband lived with my parents for a little over a year when she lost her job. Not great, but not the end of the world either.

            While I don’t know the statistics specifically, my guess is that worst case scenarios aren’t all that common; I wouldn’t recommend anyone seriously consider them when weighing whether or not to fire someone.

            Most people seem to have a strong, painful immediate reaction, then a rough go for a while, then manage to get a new job, or work freelance. That might be worth weighing! But, it’s good to keep things in perspective. For most people, at the end of the day, firing doesn’t destroy a person’s whole life. It just makes it shittier for a while.

            1. D-wight*

              You’re right, it might be destroying a weakened marriage. But your insinuation that the marriage would have failed anyways is heartless at best.

              I didn’t mean homeless, I meant losing your home. Some people will end up homeless eventually, or having to declare bankruptcy.

              My point is that it’s not a simple impediment, and that kind of thought from management is why employees have this distrust towards HR.

            2. Davis*

              I think you’re both overestimating how many people can rely on family for support as you were able and underplaying how “shitty” shitty for a while can be. We live in a country with a worse social safety net than any other rich country as well as no public healthcare. In the world we currently live in, I can only support people losing their jobs in very specific circumstances.

              1. Holly*

                I get that losing a job can be terrible, but this mindset is biased toward the individual without considering the impact it has on others. It is unfair to everyone that has to work with them, to the customers/patients/clients they serve, and to the person that could have been hired in their place. There is compassion, sometimes, in ending a bad situation for everyone, and allowing someone else an opportunity. I recognize that there is privilege in this view point because some people just do not have resources or support to get through a life altering event like this, but that is a critique of the system as a whole, and doesn’t mean that incompetent people should be retained when they can cause serious damage.

            3. trebond98*

              I think one key here is that you were married when you were fired. If you are single it looks very different.

          4. Random Dice*

            D-Wight, this is a really judgmental gult-tripping approach. Sometimes firing someone is required for a healthy workplace where coworkers are not taken advantage of by picking up others’ slack. We can’t be managers if we can’t both do the warm-fuzzy and the hard-awful parts; that’s what this site is about.

          5. Owl*

            This is absolutely ridiculous. Firing someone isn’t destroying their ability to ever work again. Nor did my marriage vows say “Til death or unemployment which over comes first do we part.” If your marriage can’t survive someone being fired, your marriage was not going to survive. Loosing one job does not mean loosing your kids. If you loose your house you probably couldn’t afford that house in the first place. It’s horrible that in the US doesn’t have more social safety nets in place and that in some relatively rare instances someone who is fired also meets with a lot of other bad luck, but it’s also not an individual employers fault, or something they can solve.

        2. It's Marie - Not Maria*

          I agree Need More Sunshine. Also in HR, and I hate firing people, even when it is their own doing. I’m sure you have cried after these meetings too.

      2. Lilo*

        Yeah, I have been involved in firing people I personally liked, but they just weren’t getting their work done after multpile chances, hands on help, etc. You do have to fire people.

        1. laser99*

          Not to mention all these letters we read about how an employee is incompetent/mean/bigoted but isn’t fired because “no one is ever fired where I work,” “My boss is conflict-averse,”etc. So the LW ends up leaving.

        2. Owl*

          I have been this person. The job was a terrible fit and I hated it but I spent so much time trying to do it that I didn’t have time to apply to other jobs.

          After I was fired I found a job that’s a great fit and was promoted ten months in. I’m much happier now.

          My old company fired the next three people in “my” role and I was the first to have it so… make sure your expectations for the role are realistic. But it doesn’t matter to me either way. I wouldn’t want someone who didn’t love me to stay with me out of pity, I wouldn’t want to stay at a job where I’m not appreciated and excelling. Let people go and let them find their own good fits.

      3. StressedButOkay*

        Chiming in as a manager in agreement. It’s never easy to let someone go. It’s gutting because you realize the position it puts people in but no matter how much I feel for or like someone, if they aren’t doing what they need to do, firing them is the only recourse.

        A person who isn’t doing their work or doing it well isn’t just a liability to the company but also to their colleagues and manager who are picking up the slack. As a manager, you have to weigh all of that. And it’s never easy and it should never be easy!

      4. L-squared*

        Man, not that I don’t understand, but I hate when managers try to say “Its also hard for me”. Like I guarantee you, its not as hard to let someone go as it is to find out that your source of income is gone. I’m not saying you feel nothing, but when people try to act like its equally hard for both sides, I roll my eyes.

        1. Alanna*

          Managers should never say anything like that to anyone being affected by their decision, or anyone who could be (like anyone else on their team). It’s incredibly tone-deaf. You are not the main character.

          That said, it is really hard and it’s fair to talk about it that way with other managers, family or friends, or people outside the situation. Two of the worst days I’ve ever had at work were the day I had to fire someone out of the blue, and the day that someone on my team was laid off.

          1. I have RBF*

            I have been in the position of having to help console a new manager when he had to lay me off. I had been through the whole thing before, he hadn’t, from either side.

            I’ve had to fire someone in a volunteer context, and it’s not easy to do, even if there’s no money involved.

        2. Frank and Beans*

          To be clear, I never said it was worse for the manager, nor would I ever say anything like that to someone being fired. I was just pointing out from the message I was replying to that stated “Maybe you should re-evaluate if these folks really need to lose their jobs?” that sometimes you do still have to make that call, even if you recognize the impact it might have on the employee. Are there cold-hearted/inconsiderate/etc managers out there? Yes- I know them, I’ve worked for them. Are there decent managers out there who do consider the consequences of their actions? Also yes. Isn’t this entire site dedicated to understanding and navigating the perspective of employees AND management in a given organization?

      5. Ellen Ripley*

        This response sounds like you recognize it is hard for you to fire someone, not that you understand the feelings of the employee who is being fired…

        1. Frank and Beans*

          My response wasn’t as nuanced as you needed it to be. I do have empathy for people, just as I do for anyone going through a difficult time that I personally am not experiencing in that moment.

        2. RecentlyRetired*

          It’s also possible that the person doing the firing has in the past been fired.

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Based on the information given here, it definitely sounds like they needed to be fired. I don’t believe OP takes any joy in firing people, and we should probably take their word that they know what the job requirements are. This sounds like a much more thorough and transparent process than most employers have.

    3. Ben the PM*

      I found myself agreeing with you entirely up until the last sentence. We should treat employees with empathy and kindness – but we also, as managers, have an obligation to ensure acceptable levels of performance from our employees. Firing somebody is extremely upsetting – but that’s a good reason to be extremely professional and careful in how we communicate that upsetting news. It’s not a reason to not fire a low performer who’s gotten adequate warning and opportunity to avoid that consequence.

      1. GammaGirl1908*

        This. It’s important to treat people with compassion and support them and help them do their best (and to help them transition as compassionately as possible if necessary) … but that doesn’t extend to keeping poor performers because you feel bad for them and firing and being fired is hard. Firing people is an unfortunate part of hiring people, and people aren’t entitled to keep jobs they are not doing well just because they will be upset. If they need to go, they need to go.

        There have been countless letters here about the negative effect of not firing people who need to be fired.

      2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

        Also, I think being careful with how the compassion and kindness is conveyed is crucial.

        Let’s say an employee is doing well at A, B, and C but need to improve X, Y, and Z. It may feel like the kinder, more compassionate way to convey their need for improvement as “You really are doing a great job at A, B, and C and I really would like you to bring some of that to tasks X, Y, and Z”.

        However, if X is the most critical part of the job and if the employee does not get that right you need to fire them, then lumping X together with other less critical tasks and buffering it with the praise for A, B, and C does not give the employee an accurate understanding of their performance. Combine that with the constant encouragement and development, an employee could know they are not knocking it out of the park, but have no real sense their job is at risk. This means they have no idea they should be applying for other jobs and shoring up their financial safety net in addition to working to improve X, Y and Z.

        I guess what I mean is we should not confuse being nice with being kind. Tell employees if they don’t improve X you will have no choice but to fire them. You can still praise them for A, B, and C and help them get better at X, but don’t act like you are talking about the difference between getting a B+ and a B- in a class, you are talking about passing and failing.

        1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          Or perhaps it’s like “You may be great at geography, but you can’t graduate without a math component and you’re currently getting straight Fs in math.”

    4. Snow Globe*

      There is no reason to think that the LW hasn’t already given this plenty of thought or that maybe these people don’t need to be fired. Its’s precisely because managers know how upsetting being fired is that they often tend to soften the language even unconsciously.

      1. Davis*

        There’s no reason to believe she has either. I’m reluctant to take internet strangers at their words. Skepticism is healthy.

    5. I should really pick a name*

      I don’t see any reason to question whether they needed to be fired or not.

      Firing people sucks, but sometimes it’s the right move. Some people just aren’t right for the job.
      You’re eliminating someone’s source of income, so of course it’s going to be upsetting. You can try to be as compassionate as possible, but it’s going to hurt them anyway. This doesn’t mean the employer doesn’t realize how upsetting it is. Often they do, but they have to go through with it anyway.

    6. Dust Bunny*

      This is definitely not how my workplace sees people but I don’t know how much can be done to make someone less unhappy about being fired–a lot of them are just going to cry.

      And for the sake of the remaining, competent employees, let’s not get too invested in not-firing people at all costs.

    7. Sabina*

      If a job requires X, Y and Z tasks be performed to a certain level (for example: mold, fire and glaze 20 teapots per shift with fewer than 2 defects per 100 teapots) and this is not happening after appropriate training, then how can you justify keeping an employee who doesn’t meet this performance level ? If it’s an unrealistic standard of production then other employees won’t be meeting it and you have a problem of unrealistic expectations. But if it’s just one or two employees then they need to be let go. And, yes, I know being fired sucks.

    8. Empress Matilda*

      Yes, to the first sentence. My family has an expression, “shocked but not surprised.” Like when someone dies after a long illness, or when somebody you were pretty sure was gay finally officially comes out. If you know (or suspect) something is coming, you may not be surprised about it, but you may still be shocked to a certain degree.

      I strongly disagree with the rest of your comment, though. LW was pretty clear about the process they follow, and that the people in question actually did need to be fired. It has nothing to do with whether or not they see the employees as “people” – it has to do with whether or not the employees meet the standards of the job.

    9. Beth*

      It’s also upsetting to the good employees when someone who really, really needs to be fired is allowed to remain as a dead weight.

    10. Fluffy Fish*

      We can assume OP is the best judge of whether or not they needs to fire someone.

      There’s nothing in the letter that even hints at callousness.

      The reality is some people are bad at jobs and need to be fired. Keeping them on does no one any favors including the employee who needs to find work they are better suited to.

      1. Random Dice*

        I mean, she stays with them while THEY CRY FOR AN HOUR.

        An hour.

        This is not some heartless corporate automaton, far from it. (Honestly, sitting there while they cry for an hour is way too long in my mind.)

    11. Onward*

      They were placed on a PIP and given specific metrics to meet in order to keep their job and they didn’t do that. It’s definitely upsetting to be fired, but “I can’t fire people because it will upset them” is a terrible reason not to do it. There is nothing in this letter that suggests the manager does not see her employees as actual people. Managers are not all heartless drones.

    12. Dinwar*

      It’s pretty simple math. If I keep this one person around he’ll lose us contracts, which means a several dozen people are likely to lose their jobs (contracts in my career can last decades). Ironically, one of the people we’d need to let go is the person I’d be trying to protect by not firing them. So the question becomes, is keeping this person worth losing all the rest of the team and losing him anyway?

      Does this mean I don’t see him as a person? Of course not. However, I also need to see the rest of my team as people. How could I look any of them in the eye after stating that someone who’s incapable of doing their job is more important than they are?

    13. bamcheeks*

      Honestly, IMO this is the case for a comprehensive unemployment insurance scheme and social safety net. It should be possible to go, “this person simply isn’t working out in this role” without having to think about whether it meets the bar for taking away a household’s income.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        If your household needs the income, you’re best served to pay attention and improve. I can’t afford to get fired, either, so I’ve greatly reduced the chances of it by not being a dead-weight employee.

        1. bamcheeks*

          Many firings are not “you are a bad person who does not deserve to eat”. Some are just, “you’re a great person and a hard worker but we need someone who understands Excel”.

        2. Emmy Noether*

          This is very unkind. Some people just are not made for some jobs, and end up in them anyway, for whatever reasons. Some people just have “boundless enthousiasm and a head full of soup”, as a recent LW charmingly put it. All the effort in the world won’t make them good at their job.

          They’re still people. They deserve to eat, and a safe place to sleep, dignity and compassion. Doesn’t mean their coworkers have to carry them. It *does* mean that as a society, we shouldn’t abandon them. Help them pick themselves up and find a better fit.

          1. Avril Ludgateaux*

            Some people also do very well in their jobs until a change in management, and an accompanying change in rules/expectations, or a manager who simply doesn’t like the employee and doesn’t have to justify their decision, or the company could be in the business of swapping established, higher-paid employees for newer ones commanding lower salaries, or …

            I’m not jumping on OP here, I’m more broadly questioning the assumption that somebody who was terminated always deserved it.

        3. I have RBF*

          Sometimes you end up in a job that you just don’t fit, no matter how smart you are or how hard you work. When I got canned from one of those it was a relief, even though it tanked my finances. I had a fundamental disconnect with what the company wanted me to do, and what I could actually do well. They needed something I wasn’t. It happens.

          What it taught me was to ask more questions in the interview on the day-to-day expectations for the role. There are some things that my brain is not wired for, that I can only do with a lot of skull sweat and false starts because it just doesn’t make sense to me. If the role wants those things on a regular basis, I know I need to pass, because while I can sort of do them, I don’t do them well or quickly, and I won’t be able to meet the expectations of the job.

          It has been really hard for me to admit to myself that there are some things I just don’t do well. But there are, and I owe it to myself to not put myself in a position where those things are the main focus of my job.

      2. Gerry Keay*

        YES this is it. If the stakes of unemployment weren’t “maybe you just don’t get to eat or have shelter,” none of this would be as fraught.

        1. Dinwar*

          I disagree. Even if you have a fallback plan, being fired is a tremendous psychological blow. Most of us have an inflated view of our own merits–everyone thinks they’re an above-average driver, for example–and being fired is hard evidence that you don’t measure up to some standard. That’s always going to be hard to take, even if you don’t actually need the job. I’ve seen people get fired when their spouse was the breadwinner and they just had the job to fill their day, and they were just as upset (if not more so) as folks who needed the job to pay for necessities.

          Especially in the USA, jobs are tied to one’s self worth. Being fired will therefore always be traumatic. No amount of re-structuring society is going to change that.

          1. Gerry Keay*

            Yeah no. Being fired when you’re at risk for homelessness is *significantly* more traumatic than being fired when you have a social and financial safety net. That doesn’t mean it’s not always going to be hard to get fired, but the stakes are just unbelievably different when you’re worried about feeding yourself and your family! Like I’m sorry but that’s just a fact and if you don’t recognize that, I’m going to guess that you don’t know anyone who has ever been homeless or food insecure and therefore haven’t seen the bone-deep, lifelong traumatic responses those experiences can create.

            1. r*

              Then people should buffer that by not being a bad employee, and thus not risk homelessness. Watching slacker after slacker get held onto at all costs while I get their work sucks, too, and it’s really hard to feel badly for a person who puts their job at risk.

              1. anoncat*

                Try to step out of the mindset capitalism has put you in that work is something you MUST do to have worth. Do you genuinely think a person who is bad at working deserves to starve on the street? The fact is that some people are never going to be good at meeting goals, being a good team member, or growing and improving when told to. Seriously. Some people will get fired over and over and never learn from it, and those people still deserve to live, don’t they? To not suffer the indignity of a slow decline in poverty or destitution? To not wind up in prison for having no other alternative?

                With our current lack of social safety–despite the wealth of resources this country has available–many of them *will* suffer. It doesn’t have to be like this. There are alternatives to a society where working, no matter how bad you are at it, is the only way to get by.

              2. Spencer Hastings*

                “Then people should buffer that by not being a bad employee”

                Gee, it’s that easy, huh?

              3. Gerry Keay*

                Yeah sorry that my heart hasn’t been so thoroughly rotted by capitalism that I believe “slackers” should still be able to eat and have shelter. Guess that makes me the rube?

            2. Rosemary*

              I don’t think Dinwar is suggesting that being fired when you don’t financially *need* the job is equally as traumatic as it is for someone who risks homelessness or food insecurity if they are fired – they are just pointing out that it can be a serious psychological blow, regardless of your financial situation or access to to safety nets.

              Analogy would be someone who is diagnosed with a serious but treatable illness versus someone who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Is the former not “allowed” to be upset about their illness, even though they are arguably in a better place than the person with the terminal illness?

          2. bamcheeks*

            I agree, but as far as I’m concerned this is ALSO an argument for a good social safety net! Most people are pretty motivated to contribute to their community or society in whatever way: you don’t need the added threat of homelessness or starvation over their heads.

    14. Humanitarian*

      …or, some people just need to learn things the hard way, sometimes, and if a consequence of that is loss of employment, well, there it is. Holding on to someone because “job loss” is…not good management.

    15. Cool Tina, Train Conductress*

      Wait, but if they’re angry/sad but NOT surprised, doesn’t that specifically imply that they likely did need to lose their jobs?

      I don’t see how you’re taking “this one emotion is masking a different emotion” and turning that into “these firings were unjustified.”

    16. MigraineMonth*

      Getting fired from my first job is literally the best thing that ever happened to my career. It got me out of a toxic culture, improved my self confidence, reduced my stress, and let to me applying for (and getting) much better jobs.

      The solution to employees not doing their jobs or behaving inappropriately at work needs to be getting fired. The solution to people not having income/health insurance/houses/etc because they have lost their jobs needs to be a better social safety net (including basic income), universal health coverage and affordable housing.

      1. I have RBF*

        Yes. With a good safety net, people can afford to go and get training or education, or even fart around finding a job that they are suited for.

        The basic issue is that not everyone is suited for every job. But people are told from a young age that “anything is possible if you work hard enough.” It’s just not true. We give people very little time to go from high school to a career. Even college, once you pick a major it’s hard to change course. So we have people picking careers with very little information, then we make it hard for them to get out and change course.

        It’s even worse when you have over a decade of work experience in one field, and sudden physical disability upends your entire ability to do your job. It took me about four years to transition into a new field, even though I decided on what I wanted to do within six months of being disabled. There were no quick, easy college courses in it, no boot camps or any of that.

        In the US we need to re-think careers and reskilling. I have know people who once worked in thriving fields that were obsoleted almost overnight by newer technologies. This happens more often than we admit, and people are not taught how to find a new or adjacent field. Plus, we are really bad at teaching people how to teach themselves new things.

    1. Lilo*

      I will say I was involved in the firing of someone who acted like this (I was given a stab at turning her performance around) and she had been told multiple times she’d be fired if she didn’t improve and still acted surprised when the very clear deadline passed, she still hadn’t made numbers (let’s say she was supposed to paint 20 teapots that month, she knew she was supposed to do that and she’d only painted ten and omitted painting the spouts on most of them, which she’d been repeatedly told was required).

      Some people just will try to play any card they can.

      1. Not a SuPURRvisor*

        Yeah, I worked with someone who claimed he wrote the book on how to brush llamas, brushed 300 llamas in the timeframe, and sorted the llama and alpaca pens… the “book” was less than a sentence, the llamas had been gestured at with a brush, and sometimes we still find more llamas and alpacas that he hid places.
        He was surprised and did not understand he was being fired even after being told “These are actual requirements in your job and if you don’t improve by this date, you will be fired.”

    2. MigraineMonth*

      My ex-job never used the word fired, but they also went to ridiculous lengths to “encourage you to resign” rather than firing you. There was someone who’d stayed on my team for an additional 5 months after being told to resign, just by ignoring these directives. They were so well known for the practice that anyone who resigned was automatically eligible for unemployment insurance benefits, so there wasn’t even a real purpose to the policy.

    3. Budgieman*

      I absolutely hate the term “let you go”… I think it has a soft implication because “let you go” implies “allow you to go”, and not “I am dangling you you over a cliff, and I am going to let you go”.
      It’s like we say that somebody has “passed on” instead of saying they died, because we don’t want to confront the brutality of the truth.
      Some decades ago, we had a girl who was “let go” on Friday afternoon. She turned up on Monday morning, because she didn’t understand, and thought she was given an early day off.

  4. BatManDan*

    Well, this supports the research that shows the people who are fired due to performance are usually surprised by it; if they HAD known they’d be fired, they would have made changes (typically). Now, whose fault is it that they don’t know? Does it really matter? Doesn’t the manager have a responsibility to be MORE than clear? Keep in mind, that most of these managers are probably practicing a sounds-nice-in-theory approach to results improvement that pre-dates the “you really need to make these changes” conversation by months or years. And it’s this: the “oreo method,” or some other such ridiculousness that advocates softening correction with praise. Bad idea on the surface, made even worse by the praise-correct-praise method. For the astute receiver, they are now trained to flinch every time you praise them, because you’ve taught them that a correction is coming right behind it. For the oblivious employee, it only reinforces that they are doing well, since the correction is buried by the praise. The fault / fix lies entirely on the one doing the firing.

    1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      I disagree with the idea that the fault lies with the person clearly telling someone their performance needs to change rather than the person who didn’t change their performance but allegedly would have if they knew it meant they were going to be fired. If a person has a job, they should do their job.

      1. Buffy Rosenberg*

        It is about making sure they understand the severity of their performance issues, though. Sometimes managers present very serious feedback in the style of casual suggestions.

        The sandwich/oreo message definitely makes things unnecessarily confusing.

      2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

        Yes, but a job has many tasks in it. I would assume the Manager knows better than their Report what of that Report’s many job tasks are absolutely essential that the Report keeping their job and what tasks could be totally half-assed and still be “fine”.

        Say the Manager praises how well Report did preparing the data and presenting on teapots at the department-wide meetings, but says they really need to improve how they document notes on spout shape in the teapot database. I would place the blame on the Manager if they didn’t make clear that the presentations are a totally perfunctory thing whereas notations on spout shapes are actually crucial for the production department and insufficient notes create a firing-worthy problem.

    2. Bess*

      Not really. There are people delusional enough that they hear very negative feedback and soften it before they process it, or they can receive a PIP or something like it and still not fully believe someone would really fire them. Whatever is going on there psychologically, it probably varies by the individual, but it’s a real and strange thing that may be some form of self-protective denial.

    3. Random Dice*

      Sometimes it really is on the person on the other side of the table.

      I’m guessing you’ve never worked retail or waited tables. If you did, you’d understand that some people are just collections of bizarre thought processes are held together with chewing gum and magical thinking.

      1. r*

        Lol, I worked in both settings for many years, and I know *exactly* what you mean – that’s a wonderfully accurate and succinct description.

  5. Witch*

    Pre-PIP are there conversations about their overall quality of work?

    If you’re putting someone on a PIP and telling them you don’t believe they can actually achieve all that needs to be done, how long have you been noting that their work is behind/below where it needs to be?

    “We might need to let you go” sounds clear to me. I can’t think anyone could interpret that message other than it being close to the end of the road. But if they’ve been hearing work complaints for months and only now with the PIP is there a time limit on achieving goals, maybe that’s what’s throwing them off?

    1. Employee*

      I’m wondering the same thing. It seems like PIPs are only doled out at annual review time, after which the company is giving employees 1-3 months to improve after, what, 11 months of said employee not meeting the company standards? It does seem a bit sudden and harsh if no other conversations are being had during the year.

      1. I should really pick a name*

        1-3 months actually sounds like a pretty generous amount of time to me.

        1. Prospect gone bad*

          I just came to say the opposite so I guess this is industry and job specific

          I’m in a multi-layered analytical department and would expect a few months to pass to see improvement. There is too much to learn and do to see a huge shift in a month unless we’re talking about stuff like “stop coming to work drunk”

          A month is like 19 work days, with a weekend and public holidays almost every month. That’s almost nothing

          1. I should really pick a name*

            If someone has reached the point where you’re at “improve or we fire you”, how much time would you say is reasonable to give them to turn things around?

      2. MoneyKeeper*

        I agree. That is why you have verbal/written warnings that can escalate to a PIP. No need to wait for a review.

    2. Colette*

      Back in the day, I worked at a company that had, by that time, laid off 2/3 of their employees. I was at lunch with a coworker – who, from my perspective, was not the top performer on the team – and she said something along the lines of “Oh, well I won’t lose my job.”

      Again, 2/3 of the company had already been laid off, and layoffs were continuing. It was abundantly clear that anyone could lose their job.

      Sometimes people hear what they want to hear.

      So if you say “we might need to let you go”, someone who has a tendency to magical thinking will hear “there’s a very low chance that they might fire me, but it’s unlikely”, or “they won’t really fire me, they’re just trying to scare me”.

      1. GammaGirl1908*

        Also, a LOT of people feel very entitled to keep their jobs no matter what. Like, once the company has hired me, they are obligated to keep me no matter what.

        That’s … not how this works.

        (I am reminded of the letter here from a person who moved far away during the pandemic, and was now being told that her job could no longer be remote, and if she wanted to keep her job, she would need to come back on site. Since she wasn’t moving back, she understood that she couldn’t stay in that particular job, but seemed baffled that no one was hustling to tell her what her new, remote job would be.)

          1. Lily Rowan*

            Oh man, this just happened at my job. Someone moved away to a state we don’t have (whatever it is you need for employees), so quit, but then didn’t like it in the new place and said they were moving back, so got re-hired. But then they didn’t move back! And didn’t have real plans to! So now they don’t work here again.

          2. A Simple Narwhal*

            I reread that letter and its update, and wow did it take a sad left turn. It’s unrelated to the topic at hand but man oh man that update was not what I expected.

        1. Prospect gone bad*

          Well some people may be irreplaceable, and the company still fires them. That was two jobs ago for me. We got taken over by another company and they fired all the awesome irreplaceable people and then huge amount of customers drop their contracts. So they were technically correct that they were irreplaceable employees, but that doesn’t mean that somebody’s not gonna come in and completely screw up the business as a whole

    3. Witch*

      > The last person I had a review meeting with I literally said, “This is the worst possible review score for your current position, and I need you to seriously consider if you want to stay in this role or move on from the company because I would need to see drastic changes in your work to keep you in this role.”

      Also no offense yeah i’d go on the PIP, too. it’s going to take a rare individual who decides to voluntarily leave their position. unless there’s some factor like a demotion or lateral transition between job or no job I wouldn’t put them in the position of having to “seriously consider if they want to stay in their role.”

      1. AngryOctopus*

        Alison suggests this kind of language frequently. I think it lands more with people who do struggle and KNOW they struggle and haven’t been able to come up to scratch, and may feel relieved to have the off-ramp in a job they know they’re not suited for. It can also preserve a relationship where the employee can say “I’m moving on because I discovered after 3 months that there was more X than I was prepared for and it was overwhelming” and the manager can give a reference that says “she wasn’t prepared for the level of X but she was excellent at Y and Z that your job mostly entails”. For someone who is struggling and refuses to see it, this language isn’t going to clue them in (“Of course I want to stay in this role, I’m doing fine!”).

        1. hellohello*

          Exactly, this kind of language/plan can be a huge kindness to someone who isn’t a bad worker, just struggling in this particular role. It gives them an easy off ramp and/or time to start job searching, so they can hopefully leave for a new job instead of unemployment.

          It won’t work for people who are convince they won’t be fired, which is why it should be pared with explicit language over the course of the PIP, but it would be a shame to remove the option for people it would genuinely help.

          1. I have RBF*

            Yeah, I’ve ended up in a job that just didn’t fit. I rightly got let go – I was wrong for the job. Not even a PIP, which was obnoxious since it would have given me time to job search before being unemployed, but startups are like that. I had already started to hate the job because I just didn’t fit it. Now I know what a job mismatch feels like.

        2. Michelle Smith*

          For me, it’s less about needing to save face and more about how I’m going to pay my bills. If I don’t have a job lined up and won’t be able to get one quickly, I’m definitely choosing the PIP and letting you fire me. I would need the unemployment more than I’d need the reference.

      2. Anonny*

        I knew someone who resigned/retired instead of a PIP because they finally realized that they could not pretend to keep up anymore. They flew below the radar and got away with so much that they realized the tide had changed.

      3. Seahorse*

        Early in my career, I was on the receiving end of this conversation. The job was a bad fit all around, I’d taken it because I was desperate, and it somehow didn’t occur to me that I had options beyond resentfully struggling along.

        It was an awkward conversation, but ultimately we agreed that I would job search, they’d be flexible around my interviews, and I could at least stick around to help train my replacement if I hadn’t found something else. They didn’t have to be that supportive of a bad employee, so I’m glad they were both honest and kind about the situation.

        The OP strikes me as having a similar management style. They want their people to succeed, and they want to communicate clearly when that’s not happening. Sometimes euphemisms just don’t work, and other times, people will never hear what they don’t want to hear.

    4. Qwerty*

      *might* is the obfuscating word here. It gets used for things that are both likely and unlikely to happen. If someone doesn’t want the thing to happen, their brain will put it in the unlikely category.

      “We *will* need to let you go if X and Y are not met” is more clear.

  6. skaffen-a.*

    i can’t help but wonder if this is another company where pip demands much more from an employee than regular daily work, i.e. is just serving as management arse-cover for firing than an instrument of actual improvement.

    (also – from a person not living in the u.s. – it’s just another example of how extremely hostile to humans is the employment language in the united states)

    1. Snow Globe*

      There is no evidence of this in the letter. If the LW needed to put the majority of their staff on a PIP, that is a possibility, but two employees over a couple of years doesn’t really imply that goals are unattainable.

      1. skaffen-a.*

        well, if it were only two cases in a few years, i don’t see what would disturb the letter’s author so much – but it seems to happening frequently enough to make the author wonder about the reasons. so perhaps one of the reasons is that the pip process is not designed for improvement, but for failure.

        1. Snow Globe*

          If it happens once it would be upsetting. I can understand why twice in a couple of years would make a good manager question what is going on.

        2. Lily Rowan*

          Twice in a few years would be disturbing! I’ve never managed a huge team, but I’ve been managing people for almost 20 years and have only ever put one on a PIP.

          1. Snow Globe*

            That may be due to the type of job. I used to manage a department of entry-level employees, and PIPs were not uncommon (and many people successfully improved through that process). Later I managed a group of more senior employees (10-15 year’s experience) and never had to put anyone on a PIP. This was in the same organization.

        3. I have RBF*

          IMO, usually by the time they are passing out PIPs the person needs to find another job.

          Essentially, I have never been on a PIP that wasn’t a set up for failure. If I can’t do X (because I have no training in it, and they haven’t helped any), why would they think I could do X+Y without any training or documentation?? That’s the kind of thing I have seen on a PIP – a clear set up for failure.

          Yes, a PIP should outline what improvements are needed and by when. But then the followup needs to be making sure that the person gets the training needed to improve. The few times I’ve been on a PIP no one lifted a finger to coach, train or even provide information on the tasks I had to do. That just plain sucked.

    2. I should really pick a name*

      also – from a person not living in the u.s. – it’s just another example of how extremely hostile to humans is the employment language in the united states

      Could you clarify what you mean by this? (Note: I’m also not from the US)

    3. Eirene*

      Oh, good, another non-American here to shoehorn in a dig about how sucky we all are. Thanks, that’s super helpful advice.

      1. Alpacas Are Not Dairy Animals*

        Speaking as an American, I think it *is* helpful because as soon as there aren’t any Europeans or at least a couple of Communists around it seems like half of us forget we’re not supposed to live like cattle and start saying things like “you’re lucky to even have a job” or “you’ll let your coworkers down” or “no one wants to work anymore.”

        1. Eirene*

          Are you seriously suggesting that only Europeans and communists are smart enough to remember that we’re all human beings who deserve to be treated as such, and that we Americans are so stupid we forget that without their help? On this website, where just about weekly there’s a huge thread about how much the U.S. sucks?

          1. Avril Ludgateaux*

            That’s because this website’s American commenters lean further left than the general population. I’m hesitant to call us all “communists” (I’m sure there’s a sizeable portion though), but this is definitely a pro-labor, progressive-leaning populace. And, unfortunately, that doesn’t represent the American workforce at large. (Though, tides are changing.)

        2. ADidgeridooForYou*

          I definitely have my gripes with the American work culture, but as an American, I’m really not sure what kind of language OP is referring to. Also, it bugs me when people say “All of America is [fill in the blank],” because not every single worker in the US is a corporate drone working at a soul-sucking conglomerate. I’ve been at companies where we are treated like cattle and told to be grateful, but I’ve been at more companies that are incredibly understanding and willing to listen to me to improve employee experience.

          And FWIW, it goes the other way, too. My father (again, American) works with a German team in Munich, and they work more hours than he does. One of them even told him that Americans don’t know the true meaning of work. Neither Europe nor the US are monoliths, and it bugs me sometimes when comment bases treat them that way.

          1. gmg22*

            This is a good point — made me think of the story in the NYT today about the debate in France over raising the retirement age. The stereotype we Americans have is of French people as people who work to live, not live to work, and that is indeed a factor reflected in the article — but it also makes clear that toxic workplace behavior is a MAJOR problem there, just as it is here.

            I work at an international org, and I have seen the culture clash around workplace protections actually start to feed into our US program’s morale problem. Take maternity leave: It’s a year for the Euros and everybody happily congratulates them, but one of my American colleagues last year had to go to the mat to battle for more than three months, and she lost. That stuff starts to get noticed, especially if it isn’t handled respectfully (and I can tell you that that is the case from our COO, who we’re all also acutely aware lives here but is not American herself and has that escape hatch any darn time she wants to use it).

      2. fgcommenter*

        It unironically is. Like other toxic and abusive situations, people in them tend to normalize them, while those outside can have a normal&healthy perspective and be able to say “that’s not right.” Once the person in the toxic and abusive environment learns that things don’t have to be and aren’t always this way, they can acquire the hope necessary to attempt to change or leave the situation.

    4. metadata minion*

      I’m normally in agreement with you on the last sentence, but provided they’re used appropriately, PIPs seem like a pretty reasonable way to track performance for people with serious issues. Is there a process your country uses instead that you think works better?

    5. Sloanicota*

      It’s definitely true that sometimes the PIP is an a*s-cover at the point here there’s no recovery possible. It’s a required step in some offices but sometimes the supervisor has made up their mind and is just jumping through the necessary hoops. But that should make employees even LESS surprised if the outcome is firing!

    6. Starbuck*

      “how extremely hostile to humans is the employment language in the united states”

      That’s definitely true but from what the LW wrote this doesn’t sound like it is actually a very hostile example. Having clear metrics for performance (like x # of tasks done / month) is reasonable, especially if most people hired are able to meet those expectations. Clearly telling someone “we expect ### tasks from you, but you are only doing #” and that they will be let go if they don’t meet the benchmark or at least start getting closer isn’t cruel or hostile.

      1. Snow Globe*

        I’d argue that having clear metrics and warnings from the manager when the employee isn’t meeting them is actually helpful to the employee. Certainly better than leaving an employee to guess how they are doing.

        1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

          Indeed. If an employee is told “make a minimum of 50 teapots a week” and is only making an average of 40 per week, they know both that they are not meeting the criteria and what exactly meeting the criteria looks like. Compare that to “Needs to improve professionalism” where an employee can be told specific examples of where they may have failed, but it’s really hard to to give them a concrete way to measure improvement, so it is challenging for them to know exactly what “met goal of improving professionalism” looks like.

          1. I have RBF*

            Yeah, when I see fuzzy goals like that in reviews and stuff I reflexively roll my eyes.

            I’ve seen “professionalism” used as a cudgel to abuse people over appearance, language, “attitude” and other trivial or immutable things. Don’t like that the person wears a lot of black clothes? Write them up for lack of professionalism. Don’t like that the person is not a super positive polyanna organizational cheerleader? Write them up for lack of professionalism. Don’t like that someone who has a female body doesn’t perform femininity to your satisfaction? Write them up for lack of professionalism.

            Having had these experiences, I have a very cynical attitude when people talk about “professionalism”. Yes, some things are not professional, but the ones I think of are clear and are based on obvious behavior, and I never see these as a so much of a “professionalism” thing as a “get along in the workplace” thing.


            Seriously, don’t use “professionalism” as a criteria. Use conduct standards that are clearly defined and measurable. “If you cuss out your coworker again you will be fired.” is clear and definite. “Don’t wear pants to work” is clear and definite (albeit unreasonable.) “Don’t be unprofessional” is not clear or definite.

  7. YaBetterWerk*

    “…including and up to termination” is a phrase that you should learn to use. You don’t want to phrase things in absolutes, because that may not be how you decide to proceed with a given employee…maybe there’s another role that would allow them to function well in what they already do great.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wouldn’t say that if they are even just pretty likely to be fired if they fail the PIP, because people who are already prone to not hear what you’re saying will hear the wiggle room in that statement.

      1. YaBetterWerk*

        True, but on the flip side of this…if you don’t provide yourself wiggle room you might be opening yourself up to additional issues down the road.

        Let’s say there are two employees with very similar performance issues placed on a PIP, and at the end of the observation period both have failed the goals outlined in the plan. Employee A may have failed the goals but showed a lot of excellence in other areas that warranted either retraining or even transferring to a new role, while Employee B didn’t.

        With absolute statements, the PIP has said that both should be fired because they failed the goals of the plan. Employee B could say they weren’t given the same opportunities as Employee A, and could attribute that to any number of other issues.

        1. DyneinWalking*

          I think you’re confusing the language in the PIP with language used when talking about the PIP? It seems to me that Alison is advising to be blunt in the conversations but makes no comments on what to write down in the PIP.

        2. D-wight*

          Isn’t that the whole point of the PIP? They’re on the hot seat, and if they don’t achieve A, B, C they’re fired. If it’s not important enough to be fired over, then it doesn’t belong on the PIP (or should otherwise be worded in such a way that either A or B needs to be met).

      2. Avril Ludgateaux*

        It’s tricky – what if a person interprets too absolute of a message as “you’re going to be fired regardless of how hard you try,” and then they just… don’t try?

        If somebody is “pretty likely to be fired,” I have to wonder what benefit there is to putting them on a PIP in the first place. You shouldn’t be using a PIP unless redemption is a real option, and if it is, you can’t very well frame it as hopeless.

        I do agree you should be clear that termination is a real possibility, but there’s a fine line between impressing the risk and establishing termination as the only possible outcome.

  8. C.*

    Thousand percent agree. Be explicit, use the words. And in your progress meetings, talk about whether they are on track to keeping their job or not. You can’t have the last meeting be the first time someone realizes that they didn’t meet the summative expectations of their PIP – people need (and deserve!) to hear regular, real-time updates and from the letter it doesn’t sound like that was necessarily happening beyond generic levels of concern that the PIP was too much.

    Get specific, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Put summaries in writing and email them at the end of meetings, so you can refer back to them as needed for how the path was clear and explicit along the way.

  9. Baron*

    I completely agree with Alison here. The language in this letter (PIPs and point thresholds and “keep you in this role”) is maybe second nature to some people, but I’d argue that it’s the jargon of a very specific kind of white-collar job, and that some people might not know/understand it.

    I remember when I was an intern in college, first in my family to make it as far as middle school, and I was doing (in hindsight) just terribly. I was maybe 20. My great-great-grandboss, David, was the vice-president of the university, maybe 55. My immediate boss finally sat me down and said, “We’re not sure if your role is a fit for you.” I thought maybe that meant I was going to be moved out of my current “role” and into David’s, since that guy was really old and sure to retire any day now. I walked around for a week thinking I was going to be named vice-president of a university. 99% of that is me being a stupid kid—but 1% of that is that neither I, nor anyone I’d known in my life, would have called a job a “role” before that conversation, and certainly wouldn’t have known “this role isn’t a fit” would mean “you’re fired”. This progressed to talk about “moving me out of my role”, and it’s, like, great! What “role” are you moving me into? It never occurred to me that this could have anything to do with me being fired or even with people being unhappy with my performance.

    As Alison says, “I will not be able to keep you in this role” probably seems really direct to you. It would seem really direct to most people. But with some people, you need to say, “Do X or I will fire you.” I personally would stay away, even, from passive-voice language like “you will be fired” – that’s too easy to dismiss as, “My buddy LW is giving me an off-the-record warning that Brad in accounting wants to fire me, but I’m sure when Brad tries to do that, my buddy LW will stick up for me and keep it from happening!”

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      This is a really good point — we really don’t know what we don’t know, and have to guess at meanings when we’re out of our depth.

      1. Emuroo*

        And moreover that sometimes we don’t know how broadly known what we know is – so someone who doesn’t share a background with us can completely misread what their boss is saying!

    2. Artemesia*

      I am not sure I would have heard fired in ‘can’t keep you in this role’ when I was starting out either. ‘Fired’. It has to be said.

    3. WorksinTech*

      Great comment. You absolutely must say “I will fire you.” Most people do not understand “we may not be able to keep you in this role,” it’s too soft and “we” sounds like you are involving the employee in the decision. I’ve been on Leadership teams where the managers were shocked that those they fired did not see it coming. Not once did the managers ever say “Your work isn’t good enough to stay here. Change X, which will be measured by me and only me. Of you don’t change in the ways I alone am measuring, I will fire you.” They really should have done that. They didn’t do that because they didn’t want to be “mean.” It was a lot meaner to be unclear and then fire a shocked person who thought they were part of “we”

    4. rubble*

      outside of AAM I don’t think I’ve ever really heard “your role” in a work context and equated it to “your employment”. to me it’s more equivalent to “this particular duty you’re doing”. like, if I’m an accountant and on our team of accountants someone has to take meeting notes then my role in meetings is note-taker but my job is accountant. or if I’m a graphic designer working with my peers on a big project, whatever area of it I’m responsible for, that’s my role in the project, so removing me from my role means I switch areas or work on another project.

      because I read AAM I would probably ask “does that mean I’d be fired?” if I was at a meeting about my poor performance and someone said I couldn’t stay in my role anymore. but without AAM, I’m not sure I would make that connection.

    5. AnotherLibrarian*

      This is a really insightful comment. I think white-collar softening language can be really obscuring for people.

  10. Kevin Sours*

    To quote Messrs Simon and Garfunkel: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”

    1. Sloanicota*

      Yeah, honestly, this is it. It’s like if you get a bad diagnosis at the doctor. A part of you is immediately like, “well, maybe it’s not as bad as all that, maybe I’ll be one of those medical miracles, maybe they’re looking at the wrong patient files, these things happen …” I actually think this is an evolutionary thing to keep you trying even if you’ve been half-eaten by a cave bear, or whatever. It’s a rare person who will actually absorb the worst possible news.

  11. Caprese*

    The second you get put on a PIP, the company has begun laying the groundwork to get rid of you. At that point I wouldn’t even bother trying to meet their standards of “improvement” and pivot to finding something else ASAP.

      1. Aggretsuko*

        Yeah, but it’s still true at a lot of companies, including the one that put me on a PIP for very few items but was basically leading to laying me off because she wanted to hire someone else.

        I know one person who wasn’t fired after being on a PIP, but they later fired her anyway. PIP is generally notice that you will be fired soon unless you start working some miracles.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      No, this is not how my workplace operates.

      I know of two people here who have been put on PIPs–one made it and continued to be a productive employee until she retired. The other one was either hopeless or completely resistant and we didn’t really have any choice but to fire her.

    2. anononanon*

      I respectfully disagree that it’s most workplaces. Some workplaces? Sure.

      I was on the equivalent of a PIP and was given about 4 months to turn my performance around and was told my employment would be terminated if I didn’t (and yes, I knew it meant I’d be fired).

      They were not laying the groundwork for my firing. I was given extra supports and told what I specifically needed to improve in. I did so to the satisfaction of my supervisor and still have my position.

    3. Onward*

      That’s not true. I’ve had a lot of employees come back from PIPs. Some have even become really solid performers.

    4. StressedButOkay*

      Not true at all. We’ve put people on PIPs at my work in the past with the intent of hopefully keeping them on should they be able to improve. The only ‘groundwork’ towards termination is that we make them aware that at the end of the PIP time, they’ll be taken off of it if they’re at a good place or terminated if not.

      Our managers actively work with the staff to meet their goals – which are simply their day-to-day goals and not some to the moon new things. Maybe some companies use it to cover their own butts to get rid of people but most don’t.

    5. Sloanicota*

      I think it’s fair to say if you are put on a PIP it’s a good idea to start looking around. Of course it doesn’t lead to termination in all – or perhaps even most – cases, but it obviously can, and it’s a clear sign you’re not a rockstar in your current role. Is it worth it to go through the process and see if you can improve? I’d say yes, you might learn something, and it might be one of those cases that does work out. But you should certainly start looking, IMO.

    6. Lilo*

      I have supervised someone through a PIP where they succeeded and were retained. Still work here 5 years later.

    7. Dinwar*

      I was all but on a PIP my first year–my boss literally had the paperwork on his desk, everything but the signature filled out, and told me in no uncertain terms that I was very, very close to being fired. I took it to heart, fixed the issues I was having, leaned into the things I was already doing well, and 15 years later he’s still my boss, I’m still with the company, and we’re both a lot higher up the ladder than we were back then.

      So done right a PIP (or even a threat of one) can work. To me, they seem to be useful when there’s a clear issue, where you can make measurable goals, and where the employee is very aware that this is a very, very serious thing.

    8. I have RBF*

      This has been my experience as well.

      It’s like an impending layoff notice – update your resume now and find a new job.

    9. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      Caprese, I agree with you for my industry, where the PIP is pretty much pretense, a prelude to firing, and a way to document the situation to reduce the company’s liability exposure. And pretty much everyone in my industry (except the most naïve and junior) is aware that once you are PIPed, you need to start looking for a new job very quickly. I actually think of it as a grace period for the person to find a new job and leave voluntarily. But I assume this varies by company and by industry.

  12. Ferret*

    Do we really need comments questioning whether any of these people need to be fired or if the LW is just a terrible manager inflicting unworkable targets on people with no notice?

    1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

      It also just dawned on me that a reason the question is moot is because I am pretty sure LW would then KNOW why the employees she is terminating are responding this way. Like, if they met 99% of their PIP goals and LW was all “Nah, you’re gone”, I don’t think she would be so confounded by their shocked reactions she would write to a management advice blog.

  13. Sparkles McFadden*

    I do agree that the words “You will be fired” need to be said out loud at the PIP check-ins, but, be prepared for the same thing to happen even after you do that.

    I have said “You are going to be fired and you last day will be mm/dd/yyyy unless you do X and Y” and the guy being fired said “I know how to do my job.” He did nothing on the list and then burst into tears at the final meeting saying “Why is this happening? Why are you doing this to me?” Another person who was told “You will be fired if…” replied to that with “I know I’m not very good at the job but everyone here likes me so I don’t see how you can fire me when everyone is always happy to see me.”

    Some people just rewrite history in their own heads. Google “Incompetent people really have no clue” and you’ll find an article from sfgate which explains part of this.

    1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      Ah, yes, good ol’ Messrs Dunning and Krueger. Wow, this research came out over 20 years ago!

      “People who do things badly, Dunning has found in studies conducted with a graduate student, Justin Kruger, are usually supremely confident of their abilities — more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.”

      I suspect that this explains a lot of social incompetence as well.

  14. Veryanon*

    When I work with managers in these situations, I always coach them that before we move to a PIP, they should have a last-ditch conversation along these lines, and then *document it back to the employee in an email so there is no question that the conversation occurred*:
    *your performance is not currently meeting expectations in X, Y, and Z
    * I need to see immediate improvement in these areas and can provide X resources to help you
    *if I don’t see immediate strides toward improvement [literally within the next 1-2 weeks], the next step is to go to a formal performance improvement plan

    Somehow some employees are still shocked that they end up on a PIP, and then shocked when they are let go. Even when the document and the discussion are very clear about what will happen if they don’t meet expectations.

    1. I have RBF*

      I have never seen “and can provide X resources to help you” added to the “I need to see immediate improvement in these areas”. It always seem to be vague “goals” and demands without a pathway to get there.

  15. Scooter*

    It feels to me like having to fire 12 people at a company over a couple of years is a lot of people! Is there something else going on about expectations at this company??

    1. nnn*

      You can’t say that without knowing the size of the company. If it’s 1000 people, that’s less than 1%.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      As noted above: Let’s not speculate on whether or not these people need to be fired/the place is operating unfairly.

    3. GammaGirl1908*

      Also, there are places that plan for a lot of turnover. A friend of mine worked at a famous tech company that let go the bottom 10% of their performers each year. You knew it when you were hired.

      1. I have RBF*

        Yep. There are several of those. Even if you have a high performing department, the “bottom” 10% will get canned. Stack ranking and “rank-and-yank” sucks. I made it a little over four years at one such place.

    4. Fluffy Fish*

      Its highly highly job dependent.

      There are just jobs that you can’t do poorly and that you can’t really know how someone will perform until they’re in it.

      I work tangential to 911 staff – trust me when I say you cannot perform poorly at that work and be kept on.

    5. Random Dice*

      I was shocked it was so low. Like, jaw droppingly astounded.

      But I work for a gigantic corp that employs hourly workers. We have a lot of workers who have been here for decades, but also a ton of coming and going based on life circumstance and performance.

  16. Goldenrod*

    I think Alison’s advice is great here. But I’ve known people who underperformed in jobs, and *I* could often see the writing on the wall way before they could. Sometimes these people were good friends, so it’s not like I didn’t like them as people, but I was aware they weren’t competent in the job.

    Honestly – this may be an unpopular opinion – I think there is often a correlation between 1) not being able to do the job, and 2) not being able to receive feedback/have the self-awareness that you are not good at the job. In other words, sometimes the person failing in the role lacks more general self-awareness.

    Not always – but I’ve witnessed it! Definitely with this type of person, you need to be very explicit, because they aren’t going to be able to read the subtext.

    1. Anon for this one*

      I’ve had this debate with my partner fairly recently (came up in conversation as one of my team mates was put on a PIP). He thinks that in general when people are failing at their job they’re generally aware of it and people on the whole have a good sense of how their performance is. My experience doesn’t back that up; I think this specific PIP colleague must have had some sense they weren’t meeting expectations based on people’s responses to them (including mine, I’m afraid I was quite short tempered and intolerant as I had to redo yet another piece of their work and cancel my own time off as they couldn’t be trusted to cover). I’ve seen PIPs happen before where the person was successful as they needed a bit of a course correction, and one that was cancelled by HR as they cried in the meeting (….what?)

      1. Weaponized Pumpkin*

        I’m with you. I believe that we (humans) are generally not great judges of our performance or perception.

        This is why many trainers advise against the sandwich method of feedback. Folks who are prone to being critical of themselves will fixate on the bad and won’t hear the positive parts or will disregard it as false flattery. Folks who are prone to thinking of themselves generously will only hear the good bits and not hear the critical parts. Neither side hears what they need to hear.

        1. DyneinWalking*

          Well, the whole point of the sandwich method is to soften the core of the feedback with the other bits, so I think it should be no surprise if that’s what people take away from it.

  17. Qwerty*

    How clear is the performance message *before* the annual review? If the low performance score is the first time it is being painted in black and white for the employee, there is a good chance that their brain is panicking/shutting down during the initial PIP talk. Have they been given documented warnings prior to their final PIP warning?

    Do you ever trigger PIPs outside of the review process? The varying length of time someone could be struggling for will also contribute to confusion. If problems have been going for 8+ months, then Sally will be surprised that suddenly there are consequences to the performance conversations when it was all talk before. Or if Gina was struggling for only 3 months, then she’ll be shocked at being let go because it took almost a year for Sally to meet the same end.

    Overall it is worth looking at the whole way that performance reviews, PIPs, and coaching is handled if there are 12 cases within only a couple of years of employees feeling completely shocked and blindsided. I’m curious how many employees were fired that didn’t say they were blindsided and how many employees survived their PIPs. And what the turnover rate is – is there a problem with hiring the wrong people for the role? Outside of layoffs, I’m struggling to think of 12 people who have been fired in my department over the past decade.

    1. Humanitarian*

      But as mentioned above, how large is your company? If it’s 10,000 people, a firing of 12 is an excellent ratio.

  18. NewJobNewGal*

    ” I said this is not good enough for the role, and we would need to meet with HR about it.”
    This would make me think that the HR meeting would be about a transfer or demotion. If I was being fired, I’d expect it to happen right there in the PIP Outcome Meeting.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      This! This right here! This is what these folks are thinking: “Oh, they’re going to demote me to some other position.” They’re not thinking they’re going to get the boot.

    2. greenland*

      Yeah, I had the same reaction. At the same time, I don’t know what else would be appropriate here, because saying “we need to meet with HR to finalize your termination” is functionally just firing the person in the meeting without HR present. Maybe “This doesn’t meet the requirements of the PIP and isn’t meeting the standard of work we need to see from you to remain in this role. I’ve asked HR to join us to close out here.” (If you can schedule it so that HR IS actually able to join immediately, instead of leaving the employee waiting for the death stroke for a day or to.)

    3. AnotherSarah*

      Same–for me, I’d get the language you use…but “meet with HR” does not = “for firing” to me. At all. I’d think I had another shot.

      1. RussianInTexas*

        I’ve only ever met with HR for the on-boarding or getting laid off.
        “meet with HR” while employed would fill me with terror.

        1. AnotherSarah*

          Interesting. I end up in HR for all sorts of things, including solutions to problems.

      2. CA Cupid*

        To me it might imply “I’m meeting with HR so they could tell me what my new job is, since I was told I’d be moving out of my role. Now HR will tell me the new role I’m moving into!”

    4. londonedit*

      Yeah, I can 100% see how someone might assume ‘we’ll need to meet with HR about it’ means ‘we’ll need to discuss the situation further’ rather than immediately understanding that ‘meet with HR’ means ‘so that HR can conduct the formal process of firing you’. ‘Meeting with HR’ sounds too much like ‘having a meeting where we can all have a chat about this’.

  19. Hiring Mgr*

    People are always going to be upset when they get fired regardless of how clear you were, what they agreed to already, etc. That’s just how it goes – yes some people will take it worse than others but either way it’s a pretty traumatic event so..

    1. Michelle Smith*

      Agreed, and that’s why I think LW really needs to be focused on how to end those conversations so they aren’t hour long cry fests that drain everyone’s energy. There is no reason they should be putting themselves through that.

      1. That Lady in HR*

        Yeah, I’ve had to lead quite a few termination discussions, and the key is to give the information in short, clear bursts and keep them moving from one action item to the next. Their emotions are completely valid, but I’m not the right person to help them process them – so my job is to give them the information that they need and get them out the door so they can go talk to their real emotional support. If you’re in an hourlong crying session, something’s gone wrong, IMO.

      2. And I'm the alchemist of the hinterlands*

        I was thinking that also! These meetings do not need to be an hour long.

      3. Hiring Mgr*

        I’ve had to let go a few people over the years, always it’s the case that they’re far better off in a new job anyway. The only person that cried with me went on to a startup that IPO’d and he became a multi multi millionaire

  20. Anonymous Koala*

    12 instances (2 from the OP, 10 from other managers) of this kind in the past few years seems like a lot. Did your company go through some kind of management or policy shift in that time? I once worked at a place where new management came in and started issuing PIPs to low performers and everyone who had been there for years collecting a paycheck without doing much work felt blindsided because their behavior had been tolerated for 10+ years at that point.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Depends on the size of the company, though. My dad spent his career at Giant Petroleum Company and 12 would hardly be a blip.

      1. RussianInTexas*

        My partner works at a 100,000 employees Petroleum-Adjacent company.
        This is a statistical non-event.

    2. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      This is true. We had a guy who worked very little the first 5 years he was here, and then less and less until it was pretty much nothing the last 3 years he was here and was SHOCKED when he was let go at the end of a PIP. He was just the broken stair in our department that no manager wanted to deal with, and it wasn’t until we needed the money to hire more people that they finally realized they could “find” the money if his salary were given to someone who actually works.

      I get the impression for some reason, though, that the OP might work in a place with a natural amount of high turn over…maybe call center, data entry, retail sales…

  21. Dust Bunny*

    I do think the LW needs to be more direct and more explicit about the need to improve or the employee will be fired, but I also think that people in general are prone to be in denial about how badly they’re doing and how likely they are to incur negative consequences, and some of them are going to be surprised not matter how clearly the LW words things.

    1. biobotb*

      I wonder if there’s a place for the LW to ask the person being put on the PIP to verbally summarize their understanding of the PIP, what standards they will have to meet, and what will happen if they don’t.

      It’s too easy for someone to say they understand something, even sign a document saying they understand it, without them actually understanding it.

      1. WorksinTech*

        Agreed. “I understand Manager will fire me if I do not complete X and Y to Manager’s expectations. Manager is the only one determining success of X and Y.”

        Additionally managers must stop saying “we” in the feedback (“we need this” or “we may not be able to continue with you in this role” because the employee thinks they are part of “we” and their impression of their own work will be taken into account.

  22. AriesPandaBear*

    Back in the day before computers were a thing in offices, I was hired as a temp to type mailing labels for a marketing mailing (on a typewriter). Later on, I received a call from the boss not to come in that day, so I didn’t. However, I showed up the next day. Everyone in the office was surprised to see me. Apparently, I had been fired the day before. Either he didn’t say it or I didn’t hear it (leaning strongly towards the former), so, yeah, clear communication is vital. Needless to say, I was so embarrassed.

    1. BurnOutCandidate*

      Same thing happened with me at a temp job in 2007.

      Kara, the manager of the department, called me to her office on Friday morning. I thought she had a new project for me. She told me it was my last day and she would sign the payslip now. I was literally blindsided by this. Kara told me that the agency should have gotten in touch with me in the week to let me know the company (a Medicare provider) wasn’t keeping me on. They had not. I hadn’t spoken with anyone at the agency — a professional placement sort of agency — in three months.

      I went back to my desk and went back to work on the project I’d been working on for a week. It was, honestly, busywork.

      She saw me at my desk and hour later and said that I needed to go.

      “I’m working on this project. I’m trying to get it to a good stopping point by the end of the day.”

      “No, you need to go. Box up your things and go.” I was probably two minutes from being escorted out by security.

      I boxed up my things, grumbling and annoyed as heck the whole time, my coworkers all kinda shocked, and went home.

      The agency called me that afternoon. They said they’d have something for me soon. I got a job on my own (six weeks later) and had been there for months before they ever called me to ask if I were interested in something.

    2. CoffeeThief*

      This comment just reminded me of the time I was fired and no one told me. It was a retail/food service job, and I noticed my name wasn’t on the schedule for the next week. I happened to run into the manager as she was leaving at the start of my last shift (like, just happened to see her in the back hallways of the mall as I was coming in). I asked her about it, and she said, “oh yeah, we don’t need you to come in anymore.”

      1. starsaphire*

        That is, sadly, a super common thing in retail and food service both. Just… not being put on the schedule. I’ve never been able to work out if that counts as a firing or a layoff.

        Might be an interesting thing to bring up in the Friday open thread.

        1. Burger Bob*

          Yeah, it’s somewhere in that frustrating between space. In my years in retail, I generally see it done to part-time employees who are performing badly, particularly in terms of…..showing up for shifts. The manager eventually gets frustrated with repeated call outs or late arrivals and just drastically scales back hours. They know when they do it that it will likely lead to the employee quitting, but at that point they don’t care a whole lot since the employee isn’t reliable anyway.

  23. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I think it needs to go just a bit further than “you will be fired at the end of this” because the phrase “significant improvement” is pretty soft too. I know you give them a list of improvements, but how specific and quantifiable are they? I would avoid percentages like a 10% improvement, because the people who are bad at their jobs are probably also really bad at calculating things like efficiency and improvement.

    The woman who thought she really was improving probably wasn’t “pretending” during those check-in meetings. For some people, going from being late 4 days a week to being late only 3 days a week, or making 7 typos in data entry instead of 10 typos in a day, is a significant improvement in their estimation.

    1. CM*

      The “pretending” stuck out to me too — like the OP was thinking, clearly she is not performing acceptably, I’m telling her outright she is not performing acceptably, so the only explanation for her lack of attention to this is that she’s pretending everything is OK. When another explanation is that she genuinely believed everything was OK, and was conveniently ignoring anything negative the OP said. I think the unambiguous “you will be fired” is a good suggestion but in this case, I’m not sure if there would have been any difference in the end result.

    2. Spencer Hastings*

      Also, some things just aren’t quantifiable in that way. For instance, if most of my job is preparing routine tax returns, but sometimes a weird situation comes up that I have to do research on…my boss could tell me I need to do more research, or better research, or different research, or she could tell me I need to document the research in a certain way, or cross-reference it more clearly. But there is no quantitative metric like “10% more research”. Every situation is different, and the non-routine cases are a minority.

      And the efficiency often can’t be calculated, not because anyone’s bad at math, but because the comparison is hypothetical. If I take extra time to do research, it might look inefficient on paper (as in, “this was budgeted for 6 hours and it took you 10, what happened?”) — but in the alternative world where I do insufficient or sloppy research and don’t (initially) go over the time budget, that would lead to more inefficiency later because of the work that would have to be redone. But you can’t actually measure that in real hours, since they can’t both happen. It’s not like getting 10% faster at making widgets. In fact, I think most jobs aren’t like that.

    3. Andrea*

      I wondered how progress against the PIP targets is monitored during the PIP period. It almost sounds to me like the conversations while the employee is on the PIP are along the lines of “how do you feel you’re doing” rather than specific checks of how they’re tracking.

      1. I have RBF*

        Worst are the PIPs where they give you no additional training, guidance or even check-ins. Those are the ones you know are just set up for failure, so you need to leave first.

  24. Irish Teacher*

    I would also guess people might be hearing it and thinking that if they make an effort to change, you won’t fire them. I can see people interpreting “you have to consider whether you want to stay in this job or not because I would need to see drastic changes in your work in order to keep you” as “I feel you are slacking off deliberately and if you continue doing that, you will be fired, but if you show me you are making an effort, you won’t be.”

    I think part of it is hearing what one wants to. The idea that you might be fired is scary and people are likely to be focusing on what they can do to avoid it, so it could easily go from “these are the things I have to do or I’ll be fired” to “if I focus on these things, I won’t be fired. Sure, I might not complete them all but they will see I’m doing my best and surely that will reassure them I don’t deserve to be fired.”

    It is also possible they have a picture in their heads of who gets fired and they don’t see themselves as that type of person so they don’t believe it could happen to them. If they grew up say with parents who were managers and heard them talking about employees getting fired for stealing, gross misconduct, etc, they might see people who get fired as “bad people who deserve it” and since they are not a bad person, they won’t be fired.

    I would also consider what you are saying during the check-ins. You may be doing nothing wrong at all; it may simply be that they are in denial or believe only those who do really bad things actually get fired, but I think it is worth looking at anyway. If I were one of your employees, I’d be paying far more attention to how positive you were about my progress than to what you said right at the beginning.

  25. CatCat*

    There’s something psychological going on with some people when something they need is threatened and is pretty clearly something they’re going to lose absent taking specific actions. I’ve seen this kind of denial in other contexts like evictions, foreclosures, loss of insurance, loss of a public benefit. I think you’ve got to be pretty blunt. It’s actually kinder though it may not feel that way at the time.

  26. squeakrad*

    I agree with those who have said that presenting this at the annual review with a limited time to improve is probably not the best way to encourage an employee to improve. If they haven’t been receiving consistent feedback that their performance is less than adequate for those 11 months beforehand, asking them to suddenly become a productive employee may be nearly impossible. It just goes to show that consistent regular feedback is probably the most helpful tool any manager has to encourage their employees to do their best.
    The one time I had to put an employee on a PIP, and this was at a very lovely nonprofit that never fired anyone, she said “I know what that’s about you’re just gonna fire me so I’m leaving today.” I was pretty young myself and pretty shocked. But I said OK if that’s what you’d like to do that’s fine. My boss authorized a two week salary payment which we handed to her on her way out. Little did we know she had wiped our entire database clean before she left. Learned my lesson the hard way.

    1. Greyhound1*

      As a teacher, I can tell you it’s because they’ve gone through school NEVER HAVING CONSEQUENCES. As teachers were told to not give consequences. So, when our students get to the real world, get put on PIP’s, and are told they need to make changes or may be fired they don’t believe it will happen.

      I know many people think I’m kidding, being over dramatic or sarcastic. Please believe me when I tell you I’m not.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        I was thinking the same kind of thing. And it’s not just teachers, it can be parents, as well. Some parents and teachers will give multiple chances and then end up just not worrying about it. Others will give you exactly one chance and then it’s immediate consequences.

        This is not meant as a criticism (about which I could write a book), but some people have never experienced an environment that has hard edges until they get to this point. It’s literally just not part of their brain’s wiring to hear “we may have to move you on” to mean “you may be out of a job”.

        Hence the need to use the word “fired”.

        1. metadata minion*

          “It’s literally just not part of their brain’s wiring to hear “we may have to move you on” to mean “you may be out of a job”.”

          As someone already posted above, this is partly about the weird euphemisms white-color jobs tend to use around firing. Why would someone new to the work world automatically know that “we may have to move you on” means “you will be fired”? My reaction on hearing that would be “ok, maybe there’s a different job I’d be better at (at this company), that sounds like a really good idea; where are you moving me to?”.

      2. NeedRain47*

        You may be right about lack of responsibility/consequences being a contributing factor, but to blame it on any one factor such as lack of being punished by teachers, is just not how it works.

      3. metadata minion*

        The LW mentions elsewhere that their two instances were both from older employees. Can we not do the “kids these days” thing again?

      4. hellohello*

        I mean… the alternative is to give literal children dire consequences in school, which seems much worse than someone getting a rude awakening in early adulthood.

        (Also this behavior is absolutely not limited to young adults in the work place. Older employees can and are just as guilty of not listening to or understanding feedback in the workplace.)

      5. Dust Bunny*

        The thing is, schools have a responsibility not to just kick kids out for failing. Schools are supposed to keep trying until the kid quits on their own, improves, or ages out.

        Jobs aren’t social institutions and they don’t have to do that. Schools and jobs are not equivalent. (And let’s be real–a certain subset of parents has always spoiled their kids. One of the worst spoiled children I know is 84 years old.)

      6. Maple Bar*

        What do you wanna do, Greyhound, boot all the 4th graders having trouble with their times tables out of the education system entirely so they learn a lesson? This is not the compelling parallel you think it is. I know you’ll come back and insist that the kids aren’t giving a good faith effort and are just exploiting the (notoriously supportive and kind) public education system, but I think the bigger issue is why you feel that you are in a battle of wills with a bunch of children every day. I say this as someone who spent many years of their career dealing with children every day, albeit successfully so your mileage may vary.

  27. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

    In my experience, there are always going to be people that don’t truly hear what you’re saying no matter how clear you are. These people tend to dissociate when being told something they don’t want to hear, and afterward are unable to recall important details because they were willfully not taking in what was being said. You are bound to have at least a few of these as your direct reports, and it would not surprise me at all if these people were also more likely to end up getting fired from their jobs.

  28. John*

    LW, I’ve seen this time and again. People who were told in no uncertain terms that they would be FIRED (that word was used) absent huge, immediate improvement.

    In every case, the person put in zero effort to improve, nor did they check in to see if their manager’s perception of their work had changed. Yet they were FLOORED when they were let go. (If I was out on a PIP, I would be regularly checking in with my boss to ensure I was now on track.)

    One guy had just had a third child and was now the sole breadwinner (despite hiding out somewhere all workday while pretending to be off at non-existent meetings… he was only in the office at the start of the day, made a brief appearance at lunchtime and a final appearance before 5pm… we never figured out where he was!). So basically he’d abandoned his job… yet was stunned to be let go.

    Denial runs deep.

    1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      Oh, I had one of those. Always missing, no one could ever find him, and he really couldn’t understand why I was “singling him out” by looking closely at his time sheets.

    2. Bess*

      Yep. This person (in my experience) doesn’t even check in to see “how am I doing” while on a PIP plan, or ever acknowledge there is an issue to begin with, or seem to meaningfully engage with very detailed feedback, or really adjust behavior at all. Zero ownership or accountability—impossible to work with as a manager.

  29. Tuesday*

    Oooh. While reading the letter I was thinking “what is wrong with these employees?” but after reading Alison’s answer, it makes perfect sense that they might be thinking they’d still be kept on somehow. I’ve been at my company for a while and have a good track record, so if I suddenly was put on a PIP with that language I might be tempted to think they still wanted me to stay, just in a different role somehow.

    1. r*

      That’s what I am struggling to understand, though. If an employee is on a performance improvement plan, how does that translate to the company wanting to keep that employee, just in a diffetent role. I don’t follow the logic, I guess.

  30. Freya*

    I’m very curious about the nature of the check-ins. I view PIPs as a process for both the employee and the manager. I describe it as a spotlight on the employee for a designated point of time where the employee and the manager have an open dialogue with scheduled checks in about progress to see where the issues are.

    It is not just a list of tasks to complete or goals. It is checking in on a set schedule and discussing what happened during the period after the last check-in and how things could improve or did improve from there.

    If a PIP is being used as a tool just to warn an employee to either start doing something or stop doing something with a timeframe attached, then you should just go with a written warning and move on from there. Hopefully, OP is doing most of this and just didn’t explicitly state it in her letter. But if she’s not, that could be a big reason why the PIPs aren’t going successfully and why employees feel blindsided at the end by a termination.

  31. HannahS*

    Use the words! Oh my gosh use the words. “If you don’t meet X target by Y date, you will be fired.” If that feels too final, say, “If you don’t meet X target by Y date, you will be fired. I would be sorry to see that happen, so I hope that you’ll complete this PIP successfully.”

    It’s so hard to tell people things that you don’t want to tell them AND it’s hard for people to hear things that they’re scared of hearing. That’s a big part of it, too. I work in healthcare and these kinds of miscommunications are common–the medical team thinks that they were super clear that X would have Y outcome, and yet the family is on a totally different page. A lot of times it comes down to a combination of the communicator needing to be more explicit and to use the scary word (“fired” in your case, “will not walk again” in the case that I just spent two months feeling gaslit over.) When the listener isn’t able to hear gentler language, you need to use stronger language to make sure that they understand.

    1. Gracely*

      Yes. The blunt language sucks to have to use, but if it’s important and the person isn’t getting it, the blunt word(s) needs to be used.

  32. Fluffy Fish*

    A general observation on the language we use in business.

    So a lot of my job is in emergency warnings. And one of the difficult parts is using language that people of varying educational levels, language proficiency, under stress etc etc can understand. We will likely never succeed in being truly accessible to every last human, but we do try.

    One of the most important tenants is plain language. In normal business dealings we tend to fancier language, idioms, higher level language.

    So good rule of thumb to remember is comprehension is on a spectrum as is language. The more important it is to be understood clearly the more plain the language you use should be.

    1. Somehow_I_Manage*

      Based on OP’s description, the shock seems genuine. But there’s a small part of me that wonders if this could be attributed to positioning for an unemployment claim.

      1. Michelle Smith*

        I don’t see how it affects the UI claim though. If you are fired because you couldn’t perform the job adequately, you would still be eligible for UI whether or not you’re surprised to be fired.

    2. Pierrot*

      I am in a pre-professional program in a field where jargon and long, winding sentences are very common. I took a course on writing for this field, and the professor really emphasized writing in simple language with short sentences. The most helpful point was that if you’re picking between two words that mean the same thing but one is common and the other is an SAT word, pick the common one. We’ve been taught that fancier words are more precise, and sometimes that is true but other times it is not. I think that the same logic applies to euphemisms and also making sure that the language of the PIP is clear.

      Based on the description of the employee, there’s a solid chance that if LW told her that she would be fired if she did not improve, the employee would have still called it unfair and tried to argue her way out of it. I know of a situation where someone at an organization was put on a PIP due to low performance and and complaining about her job constantly on social media. She was told as a condition of the PIP that she could not complain about the PIP on social media, she did, and then she was immediately fired. The PIP was very clear but the performance problems were a symptom of bad judgment and that was not going to go away.

  33. scurvycapn*

    I think the real story here is what kind of business is hiring five year olds? An hour of crying to your boss when you get fired? Yeesh.

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      I don’t think an hour is unreasonable (someone just lost their livelihood!), but I do think it’s also not something your boss has to stay on the line for.

      1. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

        Crying for an hour is not unreasonable; crying for an hour to your boss is unreasonable.

    2. Starbuck*

      Yes, an hour, wow… once you’ve broken the news and gotten to the crying part, any final wrap-up details can’t possibly be taking that long. If you can’t get the words heard over the sobs, say you’ll convey the rest in writing and end the call / meeting!

    3. Bess*

      Firing is very traumatic even when it’s expected. It’s hard on the employee and on the manager.

  34. Ellis Bell*

    Yeah, I think this is super vague and softened language OP. To be clear, it’s not soft language for the hyper aware, experienced or proactive type but it’s a bit wobbly for anyone lacking in attention to detail. In my job we have a lot of agency employees who are super easy to ‘fire’ because they legally work for their agency (in the UK anyone on a permanent contract would typically get a verbal and written warning before a firing; “being on a warning” is colloquially understood to mean they want to fire you, and I think they expect those commonly known steps and terminology, even though they’re not permanent staff). My former boss used to use language like yours, and even put stuff in writing as to what was acceptable/unacceptable for”staying in the role” but they viewed it as her being invested in their performance, rather than her getting ready to walk them out. One temp was told “Stop doing x and if you can’t, you’ll be doing it at another job” and he just thought she was using hyperbole. In his opinion, doing x was the right way to get results and she would see it eventually. He told me her phrasing on the morning he got fired and I said “Ok you have to do exactly as she says or you’re fired” and he thought I was being preposterous. I got a drink with him after the firing and he acknowledged he was slow on the uptake in retrospect.

    1. londonedit*

      Even that, if someone’s never experienced a situation like it before, could come across as unclear. If she was determined to think everything was fine and the boss was overreacting, ‘You’ll be doing it at another job’ probably sounded to her like ‘We’ll find something else for you to work on’. It’s quite amazing how the brain can hear what it wants to hear and disregard the rest. It’s like how people can start off coming in late once or twice for genuine emergencies, and no one says anything, so then they gradually slip into coming in 15 minutes late twice a week, and no one says anything, so they think it’s all fine and they start coming in half an hour late every day, and then ‘all of a sudden’ their boss is saying hey WTF do you think you’re doing coming in half an hour late every day. If you asked them, they probably wouldn’t think they’d done it deliberately, but ‘I’ve been doing this thing and no one’s said anything so I assumed it was fine’ can be a very tempting road to go down.

  35. greenland*

    In addition to the clearer language about how to actually ensure people understand the stakes, I think it’s also worth noting that you don’t actually need to create the space for someone to cry at you for an hour. (Which might happen even if you’ve perfectly communicated and they totally understand that they are about to get fired!)

    If you know your employee may react emotionally, you can plan deliver the news and say “I know this is hard to hear, so I’ll give you some time to process and we can meet again at 4 pm to talk about the logistics of closing things out here.” You are obligated to be empathetic and kind but that doesn’t mean you need to sit there with them that whole time! It may actually be kinder to let them react independently instead of having a witness to a real low moment.

    (Obligatory: in some situations, you wouldn’t want to allow there to be any time between telling someone they were fired and shutting down their access to accounts, etc, so this may not work in every situation.)

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Yes, this struck me as well. I could see giving them a private place for a while, but I’m not going to be able to console someone for an hour. I have things to do!

  36. thatoneoverthere*

    I agree with Allison in that the wording needs to be more direct. I have friends, I could absolutely see this happening to. If you are not super straight forward and direct with them, they will not get it at all.

  37. Essentially Cheesy*

    I’ve even had a conversation with a manager that was part of my department once .. I reported to our department head but she was part of the group I supported. She “overachieved” on all of the wrong things – even in my limited scope as admin I could see that.

    I had mentioned to her in July that when an employee doesn’t seem to really mesh with what the upper Corporate management really wants them to do, they seem to get walked out. No PIP or opportunities given to reconcile. She said “oh that will never happen to me, I’ve never been fired, and I never will”. Wanna guess what happened in August? It was the shock of her life.

    A lot of people think it can’t happen to them and it does. Even when they get opportunity to improve!

  38. Caramel & Cheddar*

    I think an aspect I haven’t seen touched on here is how often there just *aren’t* consequences for bad performance in the workplace and how that might be influencing how these employees see their situation.

    So many of the letters on this site are from folks whose bosses won’t manage problem employees or who are the boss and won’t manage a problem employee, etc. We’ve all seen the problem employee continue to remain gainfully employed to the point where people start to joke about how hard it is to fire anyone at the company, etc. It’s super common! So I can see how, when coupled with the vague language LW is using, someone might not think getting fired is an *actual* possibility at the end of the PIP given how often it seems like it won’t be. (Should the PIP be a clue? Maybe. But maybe they also just think it’s CYA and a formal exercise before nothing happens.)

    1. irene adler*

      Exactly! If the rules aren’t being applied to others, then they surely won’t apply to me, right? PIP = no big deal.

      1. Emily*

        I think this is a great point. Both places I’ve worked post college have been places where the boss/bosses are way too reluctant to let people go who are clearly not doing their job/not working out, which then of course burdens the good employees. I can see how people would think they are going to get to stay on even if they are bad at their jobs because too many places allow this to happen. Also, there are people whose perceptions of themselves are *way* off and who are just in general clueless.

    2. GammaGirl1908*

      Also and not for nothing, a lot of people take their cues from TV, where incompetence and inappropriateness is played for laughs and has no lasting consequences. I never watched The Office, and even I know how much it has permeated office culture.

      Even on shows where the characters AREN’T painted as being bad at their jobs per se, they still spend hours in coffeehouses seemingly during work hours and date each other and have no boundaries with their colleagues and break every rule in the book to save their patients or win cases, and they stay employed. Most workplaces on TV should have burned to the ground years ago.

  39. Dr. Rebecca*

    To address two things I’ve not seen addressed in the comments so far: “Both calls ended with me consoling them as they cry for an hour or so…”

    OP, are the PIP/check in meetings in person? If not, it’s possible they’re not picking up on body language signals that show how dire the situation is.

    Also, you don’t have to console them for an hour. You can have another meeting to go to. Or whatever. It’s perfectly fine/professional to rip off the bandaid and leave them to deal with their own emotions.

    1. Onward*

      +1 — It’s very unlikely that, as the manager/person terminating them, that you will be able to adequately console them. Hopefully they have friends/family who can do that. It’s not heartless to cut it off and say “I understand that this is extremely distressing news for you. HR will help you with benefits/final pay, but I do wish you the very best of luck going forward.”

  40. irene adler*

    I wonder if it’s not so much the PIP/termination message, but how other managerial messages are communicated and received. Are other directives from management sometimes ignored or explained away? Do managers make statements like: “that’s not something this dept has to follow” when a directive is issued from upper management? If so, why would the employee place much weight on the termination aspect of a PIP?

    As an example:
    We have to follow GMP at [company]. Management stresses the importance of this. That means things like signing off documentation steps as you complete them (“Sign as you go!”). Only, it saves time to simply sign off all the steps at one go-after the job is complete. I’ve called this out many times, but the production manager won’t enforce this. He says, “We’re too busy. And besides, what’s the difference? Can’t tell once the document is completed how it was signed.”

    So of course, any other GMP I try to enforce is met with acknowledgment by the techs- and then completely ignored. Their boss will back them up.

  41. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

    IME, some people will always claim shock, suddenness, not enough time, etc. when faced with a change they don’t like. No amount of time and preparation will ever be enough for those folks, I’m sorry to say. Though I don’t think the LW owes them an hour of his time while they cry. I understand they’re upset, but it’s not the LW’s job to deal with that.

  42. Jan Levinson Gould*

    I once worked with an organization where things were pretty bad financially, and we had some very low performers. I was a manager, and then a director who had to fire a few people. We had a long term HR consultant who came in and tried to help/coach us managers to help improve performance. This involved us having very difficult and direct conversations with the underperformed. We ended up firing quite a few people over a year’s time. I was blown away by how many of these folks were absolutely shocked. Even people who were utterly failing in their jobs. Our HR consultant, who was a lovely man, told me that it was pretty normal and most people don’t actually think they are going to be fired. It’s pretty wild.

  43. Heffalump*

    The few times that I’ve been fired it was clear even to me that I was struggling in the role before my employer even said anything. But that was me and those particular situations.

  44. C&H*

    As a person who was on a PIP last year, I’d like to weigh in here.

    The PIP needs to have actionable items. (For example, mine had a statement about improving collaboration and since I couldn’t do my job without collaboration, I didn’t understand what was expected to be done differently. None of the people involved in my PIP could provide me with specific items about how that collaboration should look differently than what I was already doing.)

    Feedback must be clear about improvement during the PIP period. I had one on one’s scheduled with my manager weekly during the PIP period. Half of them got cancelled. The feedback I did receive was “you’re doing great, how do you think you’re doing.” (Well, I think I’m doing great too, thank you.)

    The PIP was terminated (I was not…thank god). No further discussion about any of the items on the list. Imagine my surprise when during the annual review period several MONTHS later when I was told that I had been on the verge of being put back on the PIP because of “regression”. (News to me…)

    I’m not whining about myself, but it is an example of asking yourself as a manager – are you really communicating what you think you’re communicating? I wasn’t blind about what was happening and I wanted to make sure I was doing what was needed to get off the PIP and keep my job. However, I don’t believe I was given the right tools to actually succeed and was poorly managed in the process. I do, however, believe that the managers involved thought they had done everything they were supposed to do. My point is – do more than you think you have to to make sure communication has gone in both direction.

    1. CommanderBanana*

      Yep, I was put on a PIP in retaliation for reporting an assault at an event, and it was full of vague, objective “goals” (vs. active metrics). They were shocked, shocked!!! when I turned in notice two weeks later.

    2. KTB*

      Oh, someone else on a vague PIP! The job involved creating and submitting iterations of reports that were assembled from at least 15 sources both inside and outside the company- and the reports had been hung in the revision process for two years before I was brought on. My PIP asked me to work more efficiently, but with so much of the work depending on other people there was no real way for them to add (or me to meet) benchmarks. My check-in meetings were similar to yours in content and apparent importance. It just kind of dwindled away until I never heard about it again. It was horribly stressful though and I really resented the lack of guidance. “Just be better!” is not an adequate improvement plan.

  45. Delphine*

    Agreed completely. Professional language can obscure what you’re actually trying to say–sometimes that’s a good thing (e.g., the ol’ “as per my email”) and sometimes it’s not.

  46. JelloStapler*

    It is similar to college students who claim everything is fine even though professors are sending red flags our way and they are skipping class/not handing in assignments, and then they act shocked when the final grades come in. I think some of them think they will get eternal extensions or can finish 15 weeks of catch up work in one week.

    I wish I had their optimism. I am the person who thinks I am in trouble if a boss wants to “chat”.

    1. C&H*

      “I am the person who thinks I am in trouble if a boss wants to “chat”.”

      LOL – That is a 40 year conditioned response ingrained in me.

      1. ZugTheMegasaurus*

        A few years ago, when still working in the office, I was sitting in my cubicle when my boss came up behind me and said we needed to chat. I spun around in my chair and I don’t know what expression my face was making, but he immediately said, “Oh god, it’s nothing bad!” I must have looked like a deer in headlights or something.

    2. I have RBF*

      I am the person who thinks I am in trouble if a boss wants to “chat”.

      Same here. I have been in multiple jobs where the only dialog I had with my manager was orders or criticism. No training, positive feedback, career progression, nothing useful. Just commands and criticism. Bleah.

  47. bamcheeks*

    I agree on the language needing it be more direct, but I am surprised that “let you go” counts as direct language. May be a UK/US difference, but to me “let you go” sounds very much like “we’d prefer you find another job” rather than “you will not have a job here.”

    1. NeedRain47*

      There’s only one thing “let you go” can mean in this context, in the US.

      besides, y’all say “sacked”…. like in official news reports about gov’t officials on the BBC… which sounds way too casual/informal to me but clearly isn’t.

      1. londonedit*

        ‘Sacked’ is colloquial and I’d be surprised if a boss or HR professional used it when speaking to an employee. News reports here – even on the BBC – are often quite colloquial and will use more hyperbolic language. The tabloids are the worst for it, but it’s pretty common for any news item to include words like ‘sacked’ when you wouldn’t use them in professional communication.

        We don’t seem to have the same confusion as in the US around laid off/fired/let go etc – here you’re either fired on the spot for gross misconduct, fired after a process of escalating verbal and written warnings, or you’re made redundant (though technically *you’re* not made redundant, the position you work in is) which also has its own process to be followed.

    2. Pierrot*

      In the US, most people would understand that being let go means fired, or at best laid off.
      I know someone who went through the process of suggesting that someone find a new job because it just wasn’t a good fit and they wanted to give the person an opportunity to look for another position before terminating her. It wasn’t really about poor performance, just a mismatch in what they needed but they wanted to be diplomatic.
      I think the language in that circumstance was: “This is not a good fit for your skillset. We do not want to terminate you and leave you in a bind, so we will give you x amount of time to look for another position before you are laid off and we are happy to provide a reference.”

  48. ConsciouslyIncompetent*

    As someone who once failed a probationary period, which is similar to a PIP, here are my psychological insights into what might be going on in their noggins:

    * Being totally inexperienced and having no familiarity with these kinds of procedures and how they usually play out.
    * Already having an anxiety disorder and being permanently on edge, I had no calibration for whether things were going just fine, or whether I should be worried. I couldn’t read any situation without second-guessing myself.
    * When constantly making mistakes, trying to recover from the embarrassment involves a lot of self-soothing, putting on a brave face, and optimistically telling oneself that we can do better next time.
    * Self-consciousness also causes one to make more mistakes.
    * I was really just trying to get from one moment to the next without literally dying from shame – survival mode shuts off one’s ability to plan and anticipate the future.
    * In a varied role, which can involve having to judge and respond to many different situations or unfamiliar procedures, I didn’t always have an opportunity to get a grip on one thing before already f*ing up the next thing.
    * I really wanted my manager to acknowledge the things that were highlighted in green on my training record, because I literally just needed any kind of “win” to maintain the structural integrity of my shattered ego.
    * “It must be in some way salvageable, because if I was really, irredeemably terrible at this job, they wouldn’t let me carry on and they’d just fire me already, right?”
    * At least while I was still in the role, they were paying me, and I could wait it out for the final weeks of my probationary period, no matter how badly it sucked.

    I really wasn’t surprised to have failed the probationary period, and the only saving grace was that I really would not have wanted to spend another day in that job even if I had succeeded in turning it around. It’s also not quite the same situation as someone who’s been in that role for a matter of years, and still underperforming. But those were some of the layers in the psychological onion that might have played out as obliviousness or outright denial to the casual observer (or manager). It goes without saying that I am not that person any more – I think this phenomenon has more to do with a combination of factors than someone just being inherently too dense to know they’re sh*t.

    I could also see someone wanting to rules-lawyer against the PIP process if it seems like the feedback has more to do with the cogs of the faceless corporation, rather than it being a reflection of the actual flesh-and-blood manager who has assessed your performance and found you wanting.
    You really do have to explain it to someone like they’re Five – that’s the level of emotional intelligence they’re operating on at the moment when their pride is wounded and their livelihood feels threatened.

    1. r*

      Your experience sounds painful and complex, but in fairness, it seems the LW is explaining things as simply as possible, yet getting nowhere; hence, the question. At some point, people have to work out their own emotions and struggles for themselves. I’m sorry you had a rough go of it. I guess we’ve all been there to some extent or other.

  49. DefinitiveAnn*

    If someone is on a 90 day PIP, I would hope there would be regular check-ins to remind them of the need to make progress. Even a 30 day PIP, I would hope there is some checking in going on.

    1. Lavender*

      LW specified that they were having weekly check-ins with at least one of the employees they fired.

  50. BronzeFire*

    I’ve never been on a PIP, but I would not have heard this warning clearly with such euphemistic language early in my working years. “You’ll need to move on,” “…or we won’t be able to keep you in this role,” or “we’ll need to part ways” would have sounded to me like I’d be moved to another position or team. I never saw/heard phrases like that until I started reading this site. If someone is in danger of getting fired, they deserve clarity.

    At the same time, I have worked with people who were hired for a seasonal job and were shocked that they were let go when the season was over. It was clearly advertised as seasonal! There were hints that especially good workers might be asked to stay on, and some were, but these people were not exceptional. One lady cried to me that she was getting fired, and I was baffled because we all knew it was seasonal. So I believe there are people out there who go straight to denial no matter what.

  51. MaryLoo*

    The letter writer talked about the employee’s ratings on their annual review. But how many of these issues were brought up to the employee in their weekly/biweekly (etc) meetings with their manager? (I’m saying this knowing that some people just don’t hear or believe negative feedback).

    The LW needs to be bringing up issues like this long before the annual review. Specifics are important, so “finish a minimum of 3 TPS reports per week” and not “do better at finishing your TPS reports”.

  52. TootsNYC*

    or maybe clear but less attacking:
    “we will terminate your employment.”
    or the passive: “your employment will be terminated”

  53. Lavender*

    I’m wondering if saying, “This might be too much to ask you to improve on in this short a time frame” as mentioned in the third paragraph might be inadvertently softening the message. The employee might have interpreted it to mean, “I asked you to take on too much, so don’t worry if you can’t meet all of these goals.”

    1. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

      Yes to this. It definitely could read as the OP taking some blame for the ask being too high, vs. warning the employee that her work is so in need of improvement that there’s not enough time to turn it around.

    2. Artemesia*

      yes. The subtext is, ‘I’d suggest you start a job search right now’ but they might hear it as — it will be okay if I only get half of this done because she agrees it is too much to ask.

    3. Bunny Lake Is Found*

      Definitely! It sounds more like the problem is the goal, not the employee’s performance. I compared this earlier to grades. It kind of sounds like you are saying they likely won’t be able to catch up enough to get an A rather than you do not think they will be able to do enough to pass the course. So they are thinking if they make about 80% of the goals they are doing pretty well (B-) when in reality they are not even making a D+.

    4. r*

      I read that as “You’ve messed up to the extent that you’re out of time to make any headway in improving.” As others have noted, the blog is chock full of people who should be fired outright. As such, taking the letter writer at their word, it’s an entirely appropriate response, especially given the willful hands-over-ears reaction of LW’s employees. I bet at least some of those employees’ co-workers, themselves not on PIPs, are jumping for joy that they have a boss who notices and acts accordingly, and doesn’t get trapped by the lure of coddling bad employees with kid gloves.

      1. Marley's Ghost*

        I agree that’s what the LW meant–but I think it’s completely understandable that the employee didn’t understand that and was surprised by being fired.

  54. Van Wilder*

    This reminds me of Scrubs when Keith the intern has to tell a patient he’s dying, but instead he says “there’s nothing more we can do right now” and “we’re going to make you as comfortable as possible.”
    J.D. : Yeeeah, I’m gonna need you to go back in there and use some form of the words die, dead, dying, deadsies, deadwood.

    1. Tangential Tangerine*

      When my mother reached the end of her life, it came as a total shock to my parents. It wasn’t to me — I could read between the lines better and hear what they weren’t saying. And boy howdy were they committed to not saying it! Only the hospice coordinators were willing to speak plainly.

    2. That Lady in HR*

      If I recall correctly, they visualize ‘as comfortable as possible’ with a cutscene showing the patient surrounded by cotton balls and pillows and yelling “I’m so comfortable!!” Such a funny show.

    3. Data Analyst*

      Haha I just did a CTRL+F for Scrubs to see if anyone else mentioned it, first thing I thought of too.

  55. BellyButton*

    One of the things I work with managers on is that a PIP can’t be a general “improve X” it has to be specific, what exact behavioral indicators are you looking for or what milestones are you asking them to reach?

    “To keep you in this position, we need to see significant improvement on the things listed here by [date].”

    Since the LW wrote- ” she pretended everything was fine, her progress was steady, and these meetings were an annoyance/formality.” it makes me wonder if there were specific behaviors and specific milestones that had to be reached between each progress meeting.

    “Clearly communicate progress on project X” they likely think they are already doing that. The goal is communicating progress on the project, the behaviors and measurable milestones are “send a weekly update on where XYZ stages of the project are. Identify any potential roadblocks or delays, and if a delay has occurred, communicate it immediately.”

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      This is a good point. It needs to be specific and include behaviours.

    2. Maple Bar*

      This is what I was going to say. Aside from un-softening the initial conversation, I imagine those check in meetings need to be a lot more straightforward as well. Even if they understood that the PIP stakes were high, they might be going through it assuming that hitting 80% of their goals was a nice passing B grade.

      The line between fired and not needs to be clear up front and also clearly marked out vs where they are in each of these check ins, seems like.

  56. It's Marie - Not Maria*

    As a long time HR Professional, I have lost track of the number of termination meetings I have sat in, after the employee had received multiple coaching sessions, retraining, and PIPs, with VERY clear messaging they will be fired if they don’t improve, and the employee is shocked they are being fired. I make sure when I am part of the coaching/retraining/PIP meetings that I don’t soften the message – I clearly state “If we don’t see X by Y Date, you will lose your job.” There are some people who only hear what they want to hear, and refuse to understand they are not meeting performance expectations. These folks exist, and even if you put it on a flashing neon sign on their workstation, they still don’t want to understand.

    1. laser99*

      I suspect gender roles are also at play. I’m guessing that both men and women take being fired by a man with less drama and brouhaha due to the (perceived) equal/increased authority.

      1. That Lady in HR*

        Gender’s part of it, but honestly just having the conversation led by HR makes a difference. I’m a woman, but whenever I’ve led the conversation in a termination meeting the person seems to quietly accept what I’m saying and move on, even when the manager was *sure* they would freak out and try to argue. I think it’s a combination of not having a pre-existing relationship with me, plus a general sense that if it’s coming from HR it’s “official.”

  57. TX_trucker*

    How often do you give feedback during the PIP? When we place an employee on a 90 day plan, there is typically a weekly check-in with the supervisor. We also do a written update to the plan at 30 and 60 days that clearly states: good job on improving, or you still suck and will likely get fired.

  58. Butterfly Counter*

    Coming in to say that I’ve seen the same thing happen with students. For them, it seems a very certain kind of magical thinking.

    I’ve told multiple students at different points in the semester that they should consider dropping my class because they are failing. I am always realistic about the top grades they can get going forward even if they complete everything else perfectly from that point on. Most students listen, but I’ve had a few in my career that will argue with me.

    Me: You’ve been late on X number of assignments, haven’t turned in X number of assignments, and have failed your presentation. Even if you get an A on the paper, the best you can do in this class is a D+ and you need at least a B to move forward in this program.
    Them: I’m going to get an A in this class!
    Me: That’s not mathematically possible. I’m telling you to reconsider taking this class this semester. Yes, you’ll be out the tuition, but if you fail, you’re kicked out of the program.
    Them: Just you wait! You’ll see! I’m going to ace this class.
    Me: I’m telling you that you won’t. You don’t have the points.
    Them: I’ve done it before! *proceeds to turn in an incomplete final paper a week late*
    Me: *gives them an F in the class*
    Them: *shocked Pikachu face* I’m telling the dean on you!

    The bad part is that I’m actually pretty sure they’ve been in the same situation before and gotten the grade they wanted. A teacher didn’t want to fail them and passed them along to be someone else’s problem.

    1. BellyButton*

      Isn’t this at least partially a result of No Child Left Behind. It was (is??) impossible for a child to fail.

      1. Butterfly Counter*

        I don’t know. The particular example above (and it’s largely faithful to the discussions I had with the student minus her being frustrated at me for suggesting she drop for the semester) was in GRAD school.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        No. Trust me, there have always been people who were in denial about how badly they were doing.

        The thing is, public schools are a social institution and have an obligation not to kick kids out until there is just no turning back (i.e. violence, pretty much). Even if kids fail they get held back, they usually don’t get thrown out because society has an interest in making sure they get something out of school, even if it takes longer. I’m sure you can imagine the outcry if schools just started kicking failing kids out of school, right?

        Jobs don’t. Jobs are not social institutions and can fire you for essentially not turning in your homework.

        1. GammaGirl1908*

          I never thought about it this way. Even if you don’t lift a finger, (public) school doesn’t throw you out as long as you aren’t a discipline problem. You might be 17 and still in the 9th grade, but you can sit there from 9 to 3 until you’re a legal adult.

        2. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

          Even violent kids under a certain age aren’t really kicked out of public school education. They might be moved to a special classroom or even sent to an extension school, but they are still entitled to an education. My mother was a special needs class aide before becoming an elementary education teacher and they had children with severe mental and behavioral problems. Their educational goal might be to not throw their chair at another person for the day.

      3. Amtelope*

        That’s not what No Child Left Behind is. NCLB is a law that mandates standardized testing and requires that schools set targets for student proficiency on standardized tests. It doesn’t mean that students can’t fail classes, and it’s not the reason from a trend in K-12 education away from holding students back in previous grades (based on research that suggests they’re more likely to improve if they move to the next grade, but receive support services there.)

        1. Amtelope*

          And I shouldn’t have said “is” in the comment above, it’s been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (which still doesn’t mean students can’t fail classes or be held back a grade.)

  59. BL73*

    LW, I feel for you. I have had to put people on a PIP and I’ve had to fire people and neither is easy. I have weekly check-ins with my employees. I also do quarterly reviews of their work. They are provided their metrics real time weekly and in quarterly meetings. I’ve flat out said, “you aren’t meeting metric x. To meet it, you must produce 10 designs by the end of the month.” And I’ve had that conversation for 3 months with some employees before I tell them, our next step is a PIP. Then the PIP happens and I check in weekly to provide them their progress results (which btw at my company, they can track themselves using internal reporting but rarely do, because, denial) and where they need to be by this time next week. I had one person who resented so vehemently that he was on a PIP (and that I’m a woman, I suspect) that his performance declined to the point that he was fired. I had another who seemed shocked that she was on a PIP and did enough to get her out of the PIP until we could find her a less complex role at the company that would fit her skillset better.

    Firing people is awful. I’ve been called names, screamed at, had to send police to do a welfare check on someone…so listen, before you bash managers who put people on a PIP (due to the employee’s lack of performance) or fire people, understand it’s a very involved process, it requires a crap ton of work for the manager to build, write, get approved and track, and when it ends like my first example, is pretty freaking heartbreaking. I felt like a failure, flat out, for days.

  60. DM*

    I feel like the term “PIP” has a level of implied severity that isn’t universally understood by people who have not experienced the process previously. It almost feels like the term has been softened a bit. I could see how that could lead to miscommunication where the manager things “we’re putting you on a PIP” is a very clear message, but to the employee it feels a bit like some HR hoops to jump through.

    1. That Lady in HR*

      Yeah, it’s always a good idea to say something like “I’m putting you on a Performance Improvement Plan, which is the last step in our discipline process before termination.” Because on its own, PIP or Performance Improvement Plan doesn’t sound as severe as it is.

      And then end the conversation with, “If I don’t see improvement on these things by X date, we’ll have to move forward with termination, so if there’s anything here you don’t understand or don’t think is clear, please ask me.” Since it’s a stressful conversation, people might forget that detail by the end so you want to bookend it so it gets through.

      1. Matthias*

        Oh I can totally a lot of newer people not knowing what that is and means. “What is a Pip? Oh performance improvement plan? Sure I’d love to improve my performance, who doesn’t!” and then they are not corrected and/or unable to ask for further details.

      2. Bunny Lake Is Found*

        The one thing I want to flag is the word “discipline”. It kind of goes along with a convo up-thread about how the fact LW isn’t angry or mad at their employees may be confusing the employees. They assume firing = doing something awful or making people angry.

        If I was under performing at my job and was told something was a step in a “discipline process” I would either A) be confused, I’m not doing anything bad, I’m just not meeting targets (which has no good/bad ethical value), and I would assume it was some HR hoops that do not really matter to my manager or B) assume the PIP is about me being “good” and “following the rules” of the PIP, therefore I would think so long as I was TRYING to meet the goals I didn’t merit more severe “punishment” (read: “discipline”).

      3. londonedit*

        I’m reminded of a letter I read here where someone’s boss said they wanted them to work through a personal development plan, and they panicked and thought it was the same as being put on a performance improvement plan. Personally I’ve never worked anywhere where formal PIPs were in place and if I hadn’t read AAM I can imagine that absent any other context (i.e. conversations with my boss where they indicated that things weren’t going well) I might not fully understand the impact unless it was clearly explained at the time. ‘Performance Improvement Plan’ sounds like quite a positive thing on the surface, like it’s coaching or development, so I think managers do need to be quite clear on the ‘If we don’t see X improvement in Y time frame then you will be in danger of losing your job’ message. You can’t assume that everyone will be familiar with the idea.

      4. Merrie*

        Muddying the waters further, at Exjob at one point the higher-ups required us to put anyone on our team who’d scored below a certain not-really-that-bad score on their review on a PIP. I had one on my team who I had scored in that range, though I generally felt he was a good employee who was learning (he was relatively new). My manager and I thought this was silly and we didn’t want to fire the guy, so she deliberately wrote a very vague PIP so that she could easily come back and say “Oh, yeah, he did fine on those things”.

  61. Jazzypants*

    I think it’s worth acknowledging how earth-shaking a sudden job loss is. Sudden loss of income puts a person’s entire life in limbo, their long-term plans on hold, their sense of stability in life can be completely shattered. A lot of people cope by just beveling really hard that it can’t happen to them, even when the writing is on the wall, because coping with the anxiety of having their livlihood ripped away very soon is too much.

    1. Jane Air Jordans*

      Yes, I think this is very true in a lot of cases.

      It’s sort of like in relationships where people don’t want to believe that their partner is cheating or is trying to end things even though it’s clear to the people around them but the one who is going through it doesn’t want to believe it.

    2. r*

      …which makes me wonder why those employees don’t take warnings more seriously. A true curiosity.

  62. She of Many Hats*

    LW – I know you said you are having regular follow-up meetings during the PIP process but are you going through the PIP each time reviewing the steps and what was actually accomplished with the employee? Are you saying “you are still at Level X and I need you to be at Level M by now and Level G in two weeks then Level A by [date] or you will fail the PIP and be fired”?

    If you are then you’ve had the bad fortune of having a series of PIP ostriches with their heads buried in the sand.

    1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

      Also to this, if one of the employees was “pretending everything was ok”, I would suggest that the LW not just take the employees’ word that they are meeting certain targets.

      If they are saying “I’m doing great with the Teapot Drawing goal” and you say “Actually, you only completed 8 of the 10 Teapots required. You need to reach 10 Teapots or you will fail the PIP and will be fired” it will be less likely you get to the firing stage with them saying “I was meeting 80% of the target! I didn’t know only 100% was considered good enough!”

  63. TomatoSoup*

    When you have these weekly meetings are you actually asking to see or specific details from things they’ve done to improve? Otherwise, these meetings aren’t accomplishing anything and the employees could pick up the idea that they won’t get fired even if they don’t accomplish everything.

    1. SpaceySteph*

      This is what I’m wondering. You put them on a PIP and meet with them weekly, why aren’t you saying weekly “you have done X things, you need to have completed X+5 by now. Next week you need to be at X+6.”

      It seems like the OP is also fairly surprised that these people didn’t achieve the end of their PIP when a week ago, two weeks ago, 6 weeks ago it was already obvious and I wonder if the messaging was clear at every single one of these meetings: “you are on track to not complete your PIP and you will be fired” vs telling them once 12 weeks ago.

  64. Don't kneel in front of me*

    The people that go on PIPs are probably the people that have the hardest time with subtext and following instructions. You need to be clear and concise.

    I assume the employee is supposed to sign the PIP. I recommend including something like “This PIP represents the bare minimum for you to remain employed at this company. If any items are not completed by XXXX-XX-XX then your employment will be terminated on that day.”

  65. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    Just checking, LW. Do you provide ongoing feedback to your staff or do things mostly come up for the first time in the annual review? If the first time they hear feedback about where they’re falling short of expectations is in the annual review, I can see how they’d be surprised to be fired. Because if it was that serious, they surely would have heard about this before.

    In your organization, how do staff perceive the annual review process? Do they find it useful/informative or do they see it as more of a box-ticking exercise? If the reviews are generally no big deal and they don’t have any effect on anything, I can see how people wouldn’t understand that this time it’s serious.

    Obviously, I’m speculating wildly and have no idea what your organization or team are like. And none of these speculations mean that Alison’s advice is bad.

  66. Michelle Smith*

    “Both calls ended with me consoling them as they cry for an hour or so about how unexpected it is.”

    No. No, no, no, no, no. This is also a problem. This is a huge drain on your time and energy. You are not these people’s therapist or friend or support network. I strongly encourage you to practice a strategy for ending these conversations once you’ve gotten out what you need to say. You may feel harsh or aggressive for having to do this, but it really is not normal for you to have someone cry to you for AN HOUR about how surprised and upset they feel. Something like “I realize that you’re upset and I’m truly sorry about that. I’m going to have to ask you to leave my office now and collect your things” or “Please feel free to take a few minutes in the bathroom to collect yourself before you go back to pack up your desk, okay?” Or talk to your HR department about language you can use. You cannot keep spending so much of your own emotional energy managing the emotions of former employees.

    1. mb*

      A friend told me about firing someone from a fast food/coffee shop place in a mall food court. The employee was terrible – just not showing up, arriving late and leaving early when they felt like it, bad with customers, etc. She fired her and the young woman was screaming “are you serious? you’re seriously firing me?” in the middle of the mall for 20 minutes and then made a disaster of a display of some sort. I snorted in laughter when she told me that story.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        At an old job two decades ago, my boss hired a sysadmin that he was very excited to have on the team, but I had my doubts as she’d only ever worked for her parents, that she started working for straight out of high school. She probably had good skills, but she thought she was 100x as good as she actually was, and that was a problem. This happened a few weeks after I left that company. On a Friday, boss told Sysadmin “please don’t do X, it’ll take the mail server down”. She waited for him to leave, then did X, and went home for the weekend. Mail server went down. Boss and another manager were in the office for 36 hours straight bringing it back up. I am assuming they couldn’t get hold of Sysadmin. This was before cell phones. They let her go the following Wednesday. Apparently she was shocked and appalled, and gave them a long speech about how they were making a big mistake, losing top talent, and would regret it later.

        1. I have RBF*

          Wait… They specifically told her not to do a thing and why, so she waited until they were gone and did it anyway, with the predictable results? Then she was shocked at being fired?

          Yes, I’ve done things, by mistake, that caused a production service to crash. That’s part of this field – you make mistakes, then learn to fix them.. But if I was specifically told NOT to do a thing because of the consequences, but did it anyway? I’d expect to be canned, in part for being an idiot.

          That person needed the clue-by-four.

    2. FD*

      Also maybe this isn’t true for other people but if I’m crying in front of somebody and I don’t want to it just makes me cry more which is embarrassing for everybody involved. It is better for me to be able to excuse myself and get myself calmed down.

  67. Moonlight*

    Serious question though; what happens if the person passes the PIP and how has to live with the horror that their manager was planning on firing them?

    This is not a reason to not be clear; I just feel like I’m a MAJOR perfectionist (like severely anxious: I’m anxious about being fired even when my feedback is general positive!). I once had a job where I learned I might be fired if I didn’t get better and it genuinely made my performance worse because I was so anxious I couldn’t think clearly. Now, this place was awful; a friend had helped me get the job and she was the one who told me I might be fired because she heard the office manager gossiping about it with the other admin person, it was never directly addressed with me, this happened after 2 weeks of my working in a field I hadn’t worked in before as I’d transitioned from finance to health care but I had been transparent about that discrepancy, and the job was overall a bad fit and I only got it due to a bad screening process. Now all that is to mean that maybe it would go down differently if I had to get this warning in a more functional environment with a boss who was direct but compassionate?

    I just sort of feel like I’d have trouble looking my coworkers in the eye if I was told I’ll be fired if I don’t get better and would be looking for a new job, even if it’s internal, regardless.

    Do you think this causes bosses to soften the language cause they have a categorically similar hang up?

    1. Dust Bunny*

      It might be, but if the workplace is otherwise reasonable (yours wasn’t, but many are) an employee’s anxiety is not an employer’s responsibility. The employer’s responsibility is to act fairly toward the employee, but it’s on the employee to either manage the anxiety or find another job even if they pass the PIP and are doing well.

      I’ve had two coworkers on PIPS and the only reason I knew was because they told me–HR here considers it nobody’s business but HR, the employee, and the employee’s manager. I wouldn’t even have known they were on a PIP in the first place so it wouldn’t have affected how I thought of them. (One of them upped their game and came out fine. The other one didn’t but I know enough about that person’s attitude and skills to be comfortable with the way they were treated.)

  68. Ashlee*

    I suggest recording your conversations for personal use only. Listen back objectively. It’s easy to use language like “this may not work out” instead of being very clear and using language like “I’ll be forced to terminate your position here.”

  69. Jen*

    I had an otherwise awful boss who gave me the best possible advice before my first experience firing someone. Say the word, “You’re being fired,” and then stop talking. It’s critical to use the word “fired” — don’t use euphemisms. And don’t keep talking because you run the risk that the message gets lost.

  70. mb*

    I could be off-base here but I also think that many people who under-perform and need a PIP are just completely lacking in self-awareness. They’re the kind of people who aren’t conscientious enough to do a good job in the first place and so they’re blindsided when they get fired because they kind of live in a world of obliviousness. They have no idea they stink in the first place.

    Sure, managers should use clear language (and sometimes good people just aren’t cut out for some jobs), but if you should already know you’re stinking up the place.

    1. Chickaletta*

      This. I suspect there’s a strong correlation between the type of person who gets put on a PIP and the type of person who is shocked afterward that they’re being fired. Lack of self-awareness, inability to see the larger picture, victimization, etc. could be contributing factors to both things.

    2. Moonlight*

      I actually disagree; I know several people who got themselves into jobs that seemed like a good idea (and clearly the employee thought so too!), which turned out to be a bad fit… or maybe just a particular area is a bad fit? For example, maybe your a data analyst who has experience but you’re struggling with an organizations particular expectations around project management (sorry if this is a weak example) or maybe it’s your first time being a supervisor and it turns out that your management skills aren’t as strong in practice as were previously indicated. People I know who landed themselves into these situations knew it was going poorly and knew their jobs were at risk and were trying to remedy the situation.

      I think people can struggle with their jobs and not be clueless ding dongs who just have no idea what’s going on.

      That’s said, maybe I’m missing the mark of when PIPs are brought into the scene m here and the sorts of circumstances I am describing are things you’d document and coach an employee on, but not create a “change this or be fired plan”, but I vuess my main point is that people can end up in roles where they need coaching and may not be able to keep the job and be self aware

  71. DomaneSL5*

    Having to fire that many people makes me wonder if you don’t just have a performace problem, but a recuiting problem and onboarding problem. Are you actually recuiting people with the skills for the job? Are you explaining the performace measures so folks are not unaware of what they need to be able to do.

    And lastly are you paying a market pay. When I have seen departments with high turnover and poor performaces. Usually the recuiting was getting folks not qualified, who didn’t understand the expectations, who were lastly underpaid compared to what the market for that job. Many times these folks were recent grads who were getting fired.

    Maybe none of that applies, but 10 people gone in 2 years from a department seems wildly high.

    1. CommanderBanana*

      ^^ This is a great point. If you are having to fire that many people for performance issues, I feel like something else is going on. I once worked in a department of 3 and saw 11 people hired and fired in 9 months (I was number 12). That. Is. Not. Normal.

      1. DomaneSL5*

        I went through something similar, 4 person team that completely turned over almost twice in less then 2 years.

        1. CommanderBanana*

          Yep, my previous-to-last org had 100% turnover every year for three years after they promoted the boss I quit under until they finally figured out that she was the problem and moved her to a department where she had no direct reports.

    2. Heffalump*

      I once (briefly) had a summer job in college. I rage-quit after a week because of the office manager’s abuse. A couple hours into my first day he was displeased about something and said out loud, in earshot of the whole office, “If X is true, then maybe we have the wrong people here.” Translation: Maybe everyone should be fired. This was delivered flatly, in the same tone a person would use for the weather forecast.

      I suppressed the urge to say, “Maybe we have the wrong office manager.” If you think everyone you hire is an asshole, maybe you’re the asshole.

      I had gotten the job through the campus placement office. I told the nice placement office lady how it had gone, and she said, “Some offices are like that, and they have a lot of turnover.”

      1. should decide on a name*

        If you think everyone you hire is an asshole, maybe you’re the asshole.

        Absolutely spot on.

    3. r*

      10 people gone in two years is surprising?

      Huh. Allow me to introduce you to the retail, hospitality, and restaurant industries…

        1. CommanderBanana*

          I have worked in retail and restaurants, but this question and the majority of the commenters are referring to white-collar jobs. Alison works hard to keep the comment section relatively snark-free.

  72. Looper*

    I think also pointing out behaviors/patterns that are “firable” (and using that word) is also helpful, such as “consistently not meeting this performance expectation is firable, I want you to be aware of that” etc. Some folks truly think only the worst, most nightmarish employees get fired, not well-meaning-but-unqualified employees. Some people have spent the entire lives being mediocre-to-bad employees but have coasted by on likability and positive attitude, so truly this may be a shock that they are actually being held to standards of productivity and performance. It really does need to be spelled out. But I also think it’s an emotional experience to be fired and people just panic and freak out no matter what.

    1. Flawed Process*

      This is the one thing that struck me as well. I absolutely take LW at her word that the process was followed generally well laid out. But the fact that she’s “consoling” them at all is a bit of a flag that maybe there’s a mixed message somewhere. It’s probably not doing anyone any favors to appear that sympathetic if the firing was warranted (and I am not saying it is not!).

  73. Raida*

    I’d ask them to tell you what they understand the situation is.

    What’s happened (performance review), what is happening now (PIP), what will happen after that (review date), what will happen after that (fired or not).

  74. Me*

    As someone who was put on a PIP that to me came out of the blue, I can relate to the “clueless” employee. My manager was very focused on being liked, and his feedback was very unclear. It was centered on, “people are not happy with you,” which made me think, “I need to be more friendly so people will like me more.” And I knew other people were worse performers than me, and I had this naive idea that as long as other people were worse and still there, I was fine.

    My manager changed, and when we had the PIP initiation conversation, the new manager started by saying, “I know that your old manager had meetings with you on this date and that date to talk to you about your poor job performance, so this is the third meeting on the same subject with no improvement.” And my literal internal reaction was, “Oh, was that why we had those weird meetings?” The meetings were so rambling and unclear that I truly had no idea that was the point. I was completely floored to be put on the PIP.

    Yes, I was very young and naive. But I really wish my original manager had just spelled it out.

    1. r*

      Fortunately, LW made sure employees signed documentation spelling out necessary improvements – yet they still claimed “But I had no warning!” Some people will do whatever they can to sidetrack, re-direct, and otherwise screech “Foul!” once the jig is up. On behalf of employees who work hard and take pride in their work, it is a bit satisfying to see managers address things head-on.

  75. Eliflute*

    Really and truly, I’m not sure you can prevent this. I teach at the university level, and have lost count of how many times I have earned a student they were approaching a failing grade, told them it was now mathematically impossible to pass, and have later found them in my office, deeply upset that they weren’t given more warnjnt.

    Some people just don’t want to know.

  76. UrbanChic*

    A few thoughts – “We need to meet with HR about it” may be construed as the START of the performance improvement plan, not the end. I would explicitly say “As laid out in our manual, because you scored below an X on your annual review, you will be put on a performance improvement plan. Should the plan not be completed in a satisfactory way, you will be terminated.” Second, so many people think how hard they are trying should be factored into their performance. I have no idea why. Third, people take written feedback more seriously than verbal feedback. Most recently I had a direct report that I spent hours putting together a very actionable written PIP with clear benchmarks in it over an 8 week period. I met weekly and gave VERY CLEAR verbal feedback on how her work was not meeting expectations and what needed to change. At the half way point I met with her to talk through even more feedback in VERY CLEAR terms then submitted the written progress report to her for signature, and even though she seemed clear during the meeting, was literally horrified seeing it on paper. Same reaction two weeks later when I had a meeting then followed-up again with a written report. My takeaway from this was people hear something but then when they read it it hits differently.

  77. Flawed Process*

    I recognize this is not the situation in which the LW finds themselves, but several years ago I inherited an employee who was on a PIP. Unfortunately the previous manager hadn’t done the PIP correctly (treated it like a secret agreement between her and the employee where HR wasn’t looped in…yeah…). This meant that right before I took over, the clock was reset and the employee had another X amount of time to meet her goals (when HR learned about everything, they were in agreement that it should proceed, the employee was a horrible fit). I did my best to set expectations with the employee that this was the real deal. Predictably we reached the end of the line and she hadn’t gotten better, so we met with HR to proceed with termination. She pretty much said she didn’t believe this one was real either and tried to argue her way out of it. And you know what, I sort of don’t blame her. It was a messed up situation all around and I was always waiting for the place to get sued.

  78. That Lady in HR*

    It’s important to remember that in stressful conversations, people will naturally have a hard time remembering details or deciphering subtext. That’s why it’s extra important to be very clear and avoid euphemisms.

    Also, not everyone’s familiar with what “performance improvement plan” actually means. It’s intentionally worded to sound positive, and if you’re in a company that regularly tries to use ‘coaching’ language instead of punitive language then that can be even more confusing. In my opinion, it’s best to start and end your PIP discussion with that straightforward information: “A PIP is the last step at Company before termination. / Again, if I don’t see changes in the areas we just discussed, we will likely have to terminate your employment at Company.”

    If it helps, reframe it in your mind from being ‘punitive’ or ‘negative’ to being CLEAR. You’re not trying to make the person feel bad; you’re trying to give them accurate information so that they can make an informed choice about how to proceed.

    1. Ed 'Massive Aggression' Teach*

      It’s also very important to be clear because in some companies, PIPs are *not* actually the last step before firing.

      I’ve been on a PIP, some years back, and there was a stage *after* that where, if you failed the PIP, you had extremely intensive coaching for a short period to essentially see if you were at all redeemable/could simply be demoted instead of actually being fired.

      This was all laid out for me at the start of the PIP, including very specific time frames (which gave me chance to find a different role in the organisation, since I truly was a terrible fit for the job I was in!), so it all worked out for me and I’ve since been promoted in the new role. But it’s important to remember that not all HR jargon has the same definition everywhere.

    2. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

      I also prefer and would recommend using the phrase “terminate your employment” instead of “fire”.

  79. Matthias*

    I have noticed a lot that people are _very_ unwilling to give direct feedback about bad performance, for fear of that uncomfortable situation, and couching it indirect language gives the receivers many “outs” out of those statements.

    “We have noticed that you could improve generally if you would be able to”- very indirect, very easy to not get the desired message.

    “You are doing a very poor job and are about to be fired unless you start improving today” – direct, almost impossible to misinterpret, but I feel many people are unable to express this.

  80. Lisa B*

    This is a GREAT example of how easy it is to miscommunicate between managers and employees. As a manager, I read that language from the OP and think “BRAVO, that sounds so clear and specific!” And then Alison comes back and says “NO, you literally need to hit them over the head with bluntness.”

    1. Aggretsuko*

      And yet per others in the thread, some people will still just ignore reality!

      I mean, yeah, most people in the know/with any sense know that those terms are code for “we will fire you,” or that a PIP is code for “you’re going to be fired after this PIP period is over,” but so many are just hiding heads in the sand because that’s how they live with themselves.

      When I was put on a PIP, I did my best to follow the instructions and was canned anyway (I note she openly said she wanted to hire someone else with my paycheck money), so…. yeah.

      1. r*

        “…because that’s how they live with themselves.”

        May I bestow you a gigantic up vote. Perfectly stated.

    2. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I worked with someone who was let go and never found out. She worked on another floor and would stop by my desk to chat. One day, she said that her manager had told her they couldn’t keep her position anymore, and that he’d help her look and be her reference. She then found another job and left. I ran into the manager at a happy hour later that year and mentioned her and he was “oh yeah she was really bad, I had to let her go”.

      I am not sure what to make of this management tactic. At least Former Coworker was happy?

      (I mentioned her to thank him – I could not stand Former Coworker, and no amount of hints I dropped to her about not wanting to be work friends, got me anywhere – she still stopped by almost every day to chat at me. Today I’d be more blunt. This was long ago when I was not assertive at all.)

  81. Kylie*

    At a call center I worked at many years ago we received a report card each week showing if we were meeting expectations or not across the areas that were used on reviews. We had a very formal process of 8 weeks of failures lead to a PIP. During the PIP the report card was changed to on track or Fired on x date each week so it was super clear what was happening. We very rarely had people who were surprised they were fired.

  82. rubble*

    I think my original comment might have been eaten but I’m not sure it communicated what I meant well enough so I’ll try again, but different (so if the other comment does eventually appear, hey, two different comments to read!).

    I agree that the language needs to be completed explicit. say “fired” or “lose your job”. even “let you go” is a little ambiguous (I had not heard that phrase until I started reading AAM, and to me it almost sounds like you’re telling the employee you won’t object if they leave, not that they HAVE to leave) but it is less ambiguous than “can’t stay in this role.”

    let me explain how I personally understand the word “role” in a work context. to me it’s more equivalent to “this particular duty you’re doing” than “your entire employment”. taking notes in a meeting or working on a specific section of a design project or cleaning a specific room in a building are all roles to me, not jobs (unless you were hired specifically to do these specific things). so someone’s role in a team of cleaners might be to wash the floors, or an accountant might take on the role of note-taker in meetings. if they’re not good that that role, they might switch to vacuuming instead or someone else takes the meeting notes.

    so if I never read AAM and was told my “role isn’t working out” or I couldn’t “stay in [my] role,” that to me says demotion or move to a different department before it says “you’re fired.” now, I’ve read AAM, so if I were put on a PIP and told if I failed it, I couldn’t stay in my role, I would ask if that meant being fired, but not everyone reads AAM. I think if you haven’t independently come to the conclusion that your performance is bad enough that you might get fired, then it would be an easy misunderstanding to have if the PIP terms aren’t explicit.

    alternatively, if an employee has come from workplaces where PIPs are either not a thing, not required in the firing process, or that were generally very hard to get fired from, they might misunderstand a PIP as a sign you think they’re worth saving, so to speak. they might think because they haven’t been fired immediately that you want them to stay, and are just trying to work out what level of work they are capable of, so you can decide what level to demote them to or what other job in the company you are going to recommend them for. make sure everyone in your company/department/etc understands the role PIPs play in the firing process especially if they are compulsory for all but the most extreme circumstances. employees shouldn’t learn this only when they are put on a PIP.

    I also would avoid telling someone you think the PIP is not achievable once they’ve actually started the process. it sounds too much like you’re saying they shouldn’t worry about achieving 100% of the goals, especially if you are a good boss who never normally gives unachievable targets. if you become absolutely certain they can’t achieve the PIP goals halfway through, just fire them with severance equivalent to the rest of the PIP period.

  83. Gouda*

    No matter how clear you are, people will be sad when you fire them.

    Sure, you should try to communicate more clearly if that’s something you need to work on, but the goal can’t be “people are not upset when fired.” That’s just not viable.

  84. Mothman*

    My first thought was also that they’re hearing “this role” not “this company.” It also seemed like there would be further conversation.

    My concern is that if they seem shocked, how much training and checking in happened during the PIP? People rarely fail because they *want* to. I mean, yeah, there are jerks out there. But the majority of people just want to pay their bills.

    It’s also important to remember that getting fired is traumatic. Shock may be the only thing they’re able to express safely at the moment.

    But…yeah, use the words. And definitely use the PIP period to help them get better, even if you think they should figure it out. Some people need help and don’t know what help they need, that they need help, or how to ask for it.

  85. LobsterPhone*

    My first thought on reading the description of these conversations was to wonder if people think they’ll be moved into a different role? ‘Keep you in this position/role’…if you’re really in denial you could interpret it that way.

  86. Jessica Fletcher*

    3 months is a long time. If you tell Jane she’s on a PIP, and she has to improve or you can’t keep her on staff, but Jane keeps having check-ins and keeps not getting fired, I can see Jane getting the impression that she actually won’t be fired. It sounds like you need to be much clearer at every step of your process, as do your fellow managers who are having the same problem.

  87. rebelwithmouseyhair*

    “I can’t keep you in this role” might mean they’ll be transferred to another department rather than be fired.
    That said, there are narcissists who always blame everyone else for whatever goes down, the manager is stupid and doesn’t understand or didn’t give out the right instructions, so setting them up to fail, etc.
    Narcissists do sometimes start believing their own BS somehow.

  88. Aepyornis*

    Would it also make sense to have a written follow-up after the conversation, summarizing the situation, the next steps and the possible outcomes? The same language in written form may be even clearer to the person, especially if their emotions at the time of the conversation prevented them from fully understanding what is at stake. I think an email they can re-read may help them understand it fully. This is also something that they can show their partner or a friend to get their opinion, if in doubt, which may also help (a friend may be able to see it even more clearly and confirm to them that, yes, you definitely will get fired if you don’t do X).
    But yes, perception of how one person is doing in a job is something that is incredibly difficult to shift. If someone is during a year thinking they are doing ok or even a good job, a single conversation, no matter how clear, is unlikely to completely change that self-perception, and even a few conversations may still not get the point across. And if someone is doing a sloppy job, they are probably even less likely to have an accurate perception of how they are doing their job.
    My sister was recently fired from a job. It was very clear to me that she was at risk of being fired just from the stories she was telling me, and I tried to warn her, but despite not reaching her goals by far, being rude to customers, and keeping on giving work riddled with errors, she was absolutely blindsided when she was let go and still doesn’t see any issue with her work, while they were absolutely baffled that she could be surprised by it.

  89. Squamous & Rugose LLP*

    “the constant crying and blaming for not telling them is really wearing on me…”

    With the best will in the world: you are firing people. It really does suck to have to carry out one of the least pleasant tasks one can have as a manager, but it also really, really sucks to lose your job. Expecting your employees to just not feel sadness or anger when that happens is not realistic.

    However, if the perception they haven’t been told really is a constant across multiple firings (which seems to be the case) then it’s really worth taking it as sign of something actually being wrong with the process.

  90. yala*

    Hooooooooly crap

    I thought maybe it was something she said while y’all were talking casually, or a vague attitude she had, but no, she said it with her whole chest, to you, regarding your work. And also essentially called you a liar? And threw in some good old fashioned “men aren’t natural caretakers like women” gender discrimination for good measure. Like, I mean, it’s almost impressive how many pins she’s knocking down with one statement.

    I feel like you would be reasonable to go to HR even if you weren’t a mother, because this needs to be checked *now.* But given that she was essentially saying she doesn’t think *you* can do your job because you have a child (that someone else is taking care of while you work)…yeah, that’s gotta get brought up to someone over her, like. Yesterday.

  91. Idratherbequilting*

    This is not unusual, unfortunately. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve issued discipline to, and repeated discipline, suspension, PIP, etc., that are shocked (SHOCKED!!! I tell you) when I finally fire them. I just don’t get it either.

  92. Cat Lover*

    The first time I had to fire someone, she took it well… in person. After I informed HR that the firing was completed (they had approved termination due to performance and professionalism issues) I sent the standard termination email with info on insurance, passwords, tech, etc.

    She emailed back and cc’d everyone under the sun that she was blindsided, didn’t agree, etc. etc.

    Like, no. We had multiple conversations, everything was documented she knew she was struggling. The final straw was a literal meltdown (in front of patients!) when she got really overwhelmed one day.

    Some people literally don’t understand. She ended up trying to go through legal but since it was within the 90 probationary period there was nothing she could really argue.

  93. Ari*

    In addition to Allison’s advice, I’m curious about whether OP gives regular, timely, and actionable feedback to their direct reports. My company requires supervisors to provide regular feedback via one-on-one discussions (and coaching where needed). HR also clearly states that no one should be surprised by their performance rating at the end of the year. If they are, then you haven’t done your job as a supervisor (barring the occasional employee who chooses not to hear negative feedback). OP doesn’t indicate whether regular feedback is provided or not. If not, it’s worth incorporating so you don’t get all the way to performance ratings before trying to handle any issues.

  94. Booksalot*

    I think some people are deep in denial, although this does seem like a lot of people in the OP’s company.

    I’ve had more than one employee be shocked to be told they aren’t meeting their goals/fulfilling their responsibilities despite having the job description, receiving reams of emails about how they are behind, what they need to do, areas that need improvement, etc., having phone calls about it, and having it noted on their reviews. After all that, we put them on a PIP and they are “blindsided.”

  95. Orange You Glad*

    The only other thing I can think of is continuing to reiterate the status/possibility of being fired at the weekly check-in meetings. If you are not seeing progress during those meetings, you should be flagging it every week with a reminder of what is to come.

    1. Orange You Glad*

      One other thing, since your PIP period is long, if you are not seeing improvement halfway through and they still haven’t heeded your warnings, can you let them go early? Stringing them along for months with poor performance could lead them to think it’s something they could get away with and not really a big problem.

  96. 1-800-BrownCow*

    While I agree with Allison’s response, there really is no “One-Size-Fits-All” way to handle this. Using the word “Fire” might actually have helped in LW’s situations, there are those who hear that word and immediately spin out of control. I experienced that with a direct report a couple years back. He would hyper-focus on just one word, usually the most negative, spin his own story and just handle the situation incorrectly. Which, obviously, showed that he was maybe not the best employee and likely needed to be fired. But I do like to try and work with people so they can learn from experience and hopefully make changes. This particular employee was really great as his physical job, he was just a problem with his interactions with colleagues. And putting him on a PIP with the understanding he could/would be fired, in the end made it worse. However, he had enough sense to find him something better before that happened.

  97. blood orange*

    OP – does your workplace have a strong culture of performance and accountability in other areas? The review > PIP > termination rules you’ve described are pretty strict, so maybe there is that culture in other areas, but I’m having hard time with the fact that this seems like such a common issue at your workplace, not just with you but with other managers.

    I do agree with Alison; some people will just be shocked they’re being fired no matter how clear you are. However, it’s a little surprising that it’s not 1-2 out of that 10-15. It makes me think there are other areas where those same employees have seen management not follow through on accountability in other areas. For instance, when employees are reprimanded multiple times is there any real consequence, or just another write up? If someone misses a deadline, are there consequences? Do coworkers hold each other accountable to deadlines and other objectives? Do some or many of your disciplinary processes fall flat, so it’s shocking when the PIP actually gets you fired?

  98. Ginger With a Soul*

    This is probably too far down the comment thread to ever be seen by anyone, but there is another step that will help you assess whether you’ve gotten through (and this works for all kinds of situations when you are conveying vital information to an employee/legal client/patient): after you drop the bomb (“If there’s no improvement in three months, you will be fired.”), PAUSE. Whatever you do, resist the urge to say anything else. It doesn’t matter if the silence lasts ten seconds, 30 seconds, a full minute: do not let the next word spoken be yours.

    This not only gives the other person time to absorb the full impact of what you’ve just said (and reinforces its seriousness), but their next words will be very instructive to telling you whether they’re getting it. If, for example, they respond, “Whoa. So this is really serious,” then you know they get it. But if they say, “Well, you just have to say that to everybody; I’m not ACTUALLY going to get fired,” you know you have more work to do.

    The pausing is almost as hard as saying the tough words, because as humans we try to change the subject very quickly after something uncomfortable is said, and we hate silence and our natural urge is to speak to fill it. (I have coached law school students for many years in delivering bad news to a client and this is VERY hard to do, OP: good luck and keep trying!)

    1. Aepyornis*

      That’s a really good tip actually. I’m going to keep it in mind for difficult conversations (though I don’t expect to have to fire someone in the near future). I do use long, awkward silence for negotiations, but that’s a different and probably very useful tip (also goes well with my own comment on a written follow up).

    2. Avril Ludgateaux*

      Pausing is a great tip! So is asking them to reiterate what you’ve just told them, to make sure they understood clearly. The latter may come across as condescending, but if my job were on the line, I would rather be condescended to than walk away with the wrong impression that puts my livelihood in jeopardy.

    3. SpaceySteph*

      I was a certified instructor (for adults in job-related training) in a previous role and one of the things we were taught was how to wait out silence when posing questions to the audience. Silence is uncomfortable and you want to just say something. There, as here, its important to suppress that tendency and leave room for someone else to speak.

  99. Keymaster of Gozer*

    I’ve fired people and in every case they’ve tried to argue that it was unfair, that they weren’t warned (they were), that it was just me being cruel, that they are going to starve…

    Basically people have a defence mechanism to truly horrible events. Some shut down entirely, some try to work out what they are going to do next and some try to argue that it isn’t happening at all. And until someone is in that situation you don’t know what the reaction is going to be.

    Even the person I fired for gross misconduct on the spot tried to say that they were totally justified in their behaviour and I’d failed.

  100. Properlike*

    At a certain point, you can be clear as clear can be, but a subset of the population will never hear what’s being said. I am quite certain these are the same fraction of students I had every year, who – despite a long syllabus, clearly stated and restated (and written) rules, and both specific verbal and written warnings of “you will be dropped from the class” – were always indignant and shocked when they were dropped from the class. Didn’t matter what they had signed, how many conversations occurred beforehand with their acknowledgement. And I can’t sugarcoat to save my life.

    My favorite example of this said, “I didn’t think you were serious.”

    “At what point in all of this —“ “— did you get that impression?”

    Couldn’t answer. Didn’t argue after that either. I think it’s just a strategy they use so often that’s worked for them in the past that they’re legitimately surprised to meet the person unwilling to give the second/third/tenth chance. And we know from this column that there is a disturbing percentage of managers on whom the crying/denial tactic DOES work.

    It’s not you, LW. It’s them.

  101. Katy Early*

    At my last place, I noticed that employees placed on PIPs almost never kept their jobs, despite weekly meetings and coaching. This is not universal, I’m sure, but just being put on PIP was a loud and clear signal that the person had better up their game significantly.

    1. I am Emily's failing memory*

      I’ve gotten the same sense from everywhere I’ve seen that does PIPs. Passing them and going on to have a successful tenure at the company is not completely unheard of, but it’s rare.

      Even though who survive the PIP struggle afterwards to reset the boss and possibly others’ perception of them as a weak performer, and their work is very likely to continue receiving a heightened level of scrutiny even after the PIP is successfully completed, and tiny mistakes that would just be corrected and everyone would move on if made by other employees, become “another example of poor fit” for the PIP graduate. Ultimately, the employee usually needs to leave for a new company just to get a reputation reset that will enable coworkers and bosses to give them the benefit of doubt again.

  102. Heffalump*

    Someone upthread posted that people sometimes think, “My horrible colleague hasn’t been fired, so I certainly won’t be.” I once experienced something like that, although I wasn’t that naïve.

    My then employer didn’t vet me very well before hiring me and had expectations of me that weren’t spelled out when I was hired. When I was fired after about 3 months, it came as a relief. However, one of my coworkers, Sansa, routinely broke one of the company’s major rules and strolled in 30 minutes late. I followed the rules and came to work on time. From what I could see, she wasn’t struggling in the way I was.

    Anyway, I had feelings of, “OK, I’m being fired for poor work, so be it. But Sansa, who breaks rules and gets to work 30 minutes late, should rightfully have been fired before I was.” I was old enough to understand why it realistically didn’t work this way, but I was annoyed that it didn’t.

  103. RecentlyRetired*

    There was some discussion earlier about what additional repercussions you might expect after successfully completing a PIP (and retaining employment). I thought I’d share my experience.
    I was put on a PIP for playing games on a computer at work. And the customer (government) witnessed it. I was literally at a “turn-around” desk around the corner from my project manager waiting for him to get off the telephone so that I could talk to him about something project related.
    This was in 2008-ish, so the computers came with minesweeper and solitare installed. Many employees spent time playing computer games while eating lunch, but they were usually at their personal desks, not in a hallway were they can be seen by customers.
    It was a 30-day PIP, which is unheard of at my company which usually has 60 and 90-day PIPs. The steps to complete included working with IT to have the games removed from the computer at my desk and not play games on any computer at work. IT assisted in removing the games from the startup menu, but the games themselves were part of the operating system they were downloaded on my computer at restart, resulting with an error on every restart from then on. I never played the games again at work, but I made certain my manager knew that the games were prevented from being permanently removed by IT.
    The PIP was closed after 26 days.
    I heard a rumor later that someone else had been caught by the customer playing computer games the previous week and they were fired, so I can’t complain too much by being on a PIP.
    For additional repercussions: 1) I was scheduled to receive an award for completing a Six Sigma project ($500) and the company rules stated that no awards would be granted while on a PIP. 2) I was actively applying for a transfer to division in another state, and I was brought out for an in-person interview – but I didn’t get the job and I believe that it’s partially or entirely because I was on a PIP. 3) At my annual performance review, I was given a 0% raise because I had been on a PIP that year.
    So, even if you complete the PIP, you might want to consider changing companies because your company really doesn’t have your back. I wish I had – but well… “hindsight is 20/20.”

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I got a serious talk from my boss several weeks into a new job for “being reported as being on the Internet a lot”. (That was 06, before stackoverflow, sharepoint, Jira, github etc, when being on the internet always meant slacking off.) When I started, I was given the worst cubicle in the office, as new hires usually are. Mine had me sitting with my back to the hallway and with my monitor facing the front desk AND the executive hallway.

      I explained that my old job had been casual with jeans allowed every day, I hadn’t been prepared for the dress code at this one to be much stricter, that I’d been online shopping for work clothes, and that I was now done and it wouldn’t happen again. (Partially true, I did shop for work pants and such, but I was on online forums during my breaks too.) Then I came in early the next day and turned my monitor so that now I was facing the hallway and my monitor wasn’t. (Not an easy thing to do with an old-timey CRT monitor.) Got a lot of questions about why I’d done it, but like magic, the complaints about my internet use went away and never came back. But to the point that you made, there was never a formal PIP (just my boss calling me into his office to vaguely threaten me like “we had someone who did this and got defensive when called on it and he doesn’t work here anymore”), and so never any consequences like the ones you listed. I’d be livid if I had all the accomplishments and the career growth you did, and then had them all cut short because… you played minesweeper while waiting for your PM, instead of doing the totally acceptable and equally productive “staring off into space while waiting for your PM”?

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