is it time to put my employee on a formal improvement plan?

A reader writes:

I inherited an employee who was never held accountable by his previous manager (for example, he completed a major web software overhaul nine months past the deadline with no consequences). As a result, I’ve been vigilant about giving him feedback every time he doesn’t do something he says he’s going to do by when he says he’s going to do it. I’ll often see improvement after these conversations, only to see this habit creep back up again after a few months. It’s usually something small — like saying he’ll send me a preview of the newsletter or update me on a project and then not getting to it or explaining why he didn’t. All of these little things add up to someone who I can’t count on for major long-term projects.

So, is it time for a formal performance improvement plan (PIP)? Are you supposed to warn someone before putting them on a PIP? Is that the right next move, or is there something else I could try?

I answer this question — and three others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • Emergency bathroom use during interviews
  • How can I end our birthday lunch tradition?
  • The details in my offer letter aren’t what we discussed

{ 93 comments… read them below }

  1. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Good advice on the PIP one. You will likely see some improvement and then backsliding again if they’ve spent this long performing like that.

    Also, putting someone on a PIP is effectively saying ‘we do want you to succeed and are giving you a chance to improve so we don’t have to fire you’ – which is how I frame it in my head when I start to feel really awful about putting someone on such a plan.

    1. L. Bennett*

      I’m so thankful for Alison’s guidance on patterns like this. As a newbie manager I was so confused about how I was supposed to handle employees who would improve while on a PIP and then immediately sink back into old habits. Now I know to address the pattern and state specifically that we need to see sustained, permanent improvement or we would bypass the PIP next time.

      1. Wintermute*

        I like the form that a prior employer used for their PIP, which had language to the effect of “this expectations plan [what they called it if I recall, which is another thing I like, it’s more clear than “performance improvement”] has a defined date on it, by which you must be meeting all expectations in order to remain in your role. However, if you are written up for any other serious performance failure or misbehavior, or if you ever need to be talked to about this issue ever again, we reserve the right to fire you immediately.”

        Now this was most applicable to behavioral PIPs, not “you aren’t meeting volume expectations/case quotas” issue, because they’re not going to fire someone just because they dip under 50 work tickets for the week because they were on a PIP two years ago. But it’s a whole other story if the PIP is about productive communication or professional standards, once you’ve been on thin ice once they should expect it never becomes an issue again.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      In the time I’ve had Current Job, I know of two people who were put on PIPs (they told me/talked about it in front of me themselves). One did fine and stayed fine until she retired. The other one just couldn’t or wouldn’t get it together and it was a relief to her department when she was let go and replaced, and I know enough about her work that I don’t think she was shortchanged. But my workplace really does try to give people a good shot before they fire them.

  2. OrigCassandra*

    Regarding the first letter: I would want to know more about processes before leaping to a PIP. Website overhauls are super-prone to blockers that aren’t the web person’s fault — anything from nonstop bikeshedding to copy for the new site not appearing when promised to all-hands-on-deck cybersecurity issues (“oh crap, drop everything and fix log4j!”).

    It doesn’t sound like this organization has much project-management infrastructure. I’d look at that too — kanban boards, gantt charts, whatever folks vibe with.

    I also wonder whether this is an organization with “the IT person.” If so, and if there is no ticketing system in place to allocate and document this person’s time and effort, I can practically guarantee that the entire rest of the organization is tapping this person’s shoulder for “just one quick thing” constantly and unaccountably. Fix that, and I bet the problem largely evaporates.

    1. Just Another Fed*

      This reflects my thoughts. LW, you’re “giving him feedback” about being late, but it’s not clear from your letter if you’re actually digging into what causes the delays or helping your employee create structures to improve his time management.

      1. Alice*

        This makes a lot of sense. If its an IT person with a non-technical manager he may have experiencing previous managers just not caring/understanding the technical reasons behind issues – ask me how I know.

    2. cleo*

      I had a similar thought. Having been involved in many web overhauls, only 9 months late sounds pretty timely to me.

      It still could be the employee, but it definitely could be a structural / scaffolding issue as well.

      1. Too Many Tabs Open*

        I’ve been at my workplace through at least four website redesigns, with hard-working and conscientious people in charge of the redesigns; all of them took 6-12 months longer than initially planned because of factors outside the person in charge’s control.

        I’ll take LW at their word that this person genuinely does have trouble with deadlines in general, but “website redesign went live 9 months late” doesn’t even register as a deadline problem.

        1. TechWorker*

          I would say though at some point you need to start building time for those ‘unexpected problems’ into the schedule. Does that mean you’ll never hit something that will blow your estimates? No. But it does mean you won’t be consistently late every time!

      2. Web overhaul*

        Yes, if he completed a full web overhaul nine months late he deserves a commendation, not a PIP.

        I’ve seen IT projects go on for years until they get scrapped.

      3. allathian*

        Yeah. Last year, my employer switched to SharePoint for our intranet, and it has worked as designed straight out of the box, and people have been reasonably happy with how it works.

        I have enough tenure that I was around when the previous intranet was implemented. It hardly qualified as a beta when they decided to release it on unsuspecting employees. It wasn’t finished by the time the planned release date rolled around and they decided to release it rather than postpone the release. It was buggy as heck and the search function was crap, so it was very hard to find anything you needed in it. As time went on, people also didn’t maintain it properly and kept old versions of documents available, which bogged down the search even further.

        In every job satisfaction survey, the crappy intranet got a lot of critical reviews, it was simply not fit for purpose at any time. They kept improving it every once in a while, but because the first impression was so bad, people never got past that and continued to think it was horrible even though they implemented several improvements over the years.

        The old intranet was designed in-house (we have a large IT department and many of the key IT systems that are absolutely necessary for my agency to do its job have been designed by them either in full or in cooperation with vendors and consultants) and it just goes to show that sometimes reinventing the wheel is the worst you can do.

        Thankfully they also learned their lesson in that when the time came to update our website, they made sure that the system worked as intended before release.

    3. L. Bennett*

      But the letter writer states specifically that he will miss a deadline and they’ll follow up but he won’t explain what happened. If my manager were asking me why I kept missing deadlines and I had an explanation like the above-mentioned, then would be a good time to mention it (and ahead of time would be even better).

      1. I am Emily's failing memory*

        I actually parsed that sentence as meaning that he neither 1) meets the deadline nor 2) proactively notifies her (with an explanation) that he won’t be meeting it. That’d be a little different than being unable/unwilling to explain how a delay happened when directly asked.

        I’ve managed people who let things slide in the former way and indeed it’s hard to trust them with bigger or longer-term projects because you get the sense that they’re not taking ultimate responsibility/ownership of the tasks on their plate – you have to keep track of what they’re supposed to be doing, and if they miss a deadline there’s a fear that the task could just fall through the cracks and never get done. From a manager’s outside perspective, there’s no way to tell if the reason the employee is furiously working on the task behind the scenes and just not mentioning it because they hope no one else has noticed it’s late yet, or if the employee has forgotten about the task entirely, or if for some reason they’re so averse to doing the task that they keep procrastinating until enough time has passed that they hope everyone has forgotten and they won’t have to do it at all.

        For big/long-term projects it’s not a big deal if things get delayed, but you need to be able to trust that the project manager can keep the project on course without you monitoring every step of every task along the way to make sure nothing has slipped through the cracks.

        1. TootsNYC*

          >>furiously working on the task behind the scenes and just not mentioning it because they hope no one else has noticed it’s late yet,

          and this would be a problem for me as a manager, because I’m often in a position to remove roadblocks–but I can’t if I don’t know they’re there.

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            I had a coworker literally have that cartoon lightbulb over the head moment when I told her what I tell my kids – I can’t help solve problems if I don’t know about them. They were constantly missing deadlines because before the new manager came in their job was their responsibilities plus all the Dept scut work nobody wanted to do (unofficially of course). New manager was frustrated that deadlines kept getting missed – but had no clue about all the other work that kept getting dumped. Once that roadblock was gone – no more missed deadlines.

            1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

              Clarifying my thought here – I was her teammate, not the manager. I was also about nine* years older – so I knew the tricks these guys were using, and wasn’t falling for it (but she was inexperienced enough to be convinced it was her job to do all the admin tasks for this group of five guys even though she wasn’t the admin assistant for the group). My comment was aimed more at let me share the same advice I’d give to my kids when all they do is complain about another person causing problems or making them worse.

              *she was convinced I was about 15 years older, because I had kids the same age as her youngest siblings.

              1. That’s how you get ants*

                I have a friend who’s a Program Manager and the one thing her team can’t get the hang of is details on their admin stuff. Their main work is social work, it’s not like things aren’t getting done, it’s a mistake here and there. She and I both look at different parts of this paperwork and when I started I made a big deal about just letting them know “Hey, this happened, please remember for the future”, and then if they keep doing it, I tell them XX Task is wrong, I need you to fix it. But I don’t keep fixing things over and over again. It took more time in the beginning but now there are a lot fewer mistakes. This whole time my friend is fixing the issues that she’s finding because it’s easier for her to do it and just get it done. And I looked at her and said, You have a job. You’re spending your time doing your job AND theirs but they’re being paid for what you’re doing. Why are you letting them get paid for your work? And I don’t know why it had never occurred to her before. Sometimes you just need help to get that little light bulb to go on.

      2. Peanut Hamper*

        Yes, this. It’s typical for some things to have delays, but it doesn’t sound like he’s good at communicating them. (Possibly because he is the reason for the delay.)

        If he’s overwhelmed, he should make sure that management knows he’s overwhelmed. That’s on him.

      3. TootsNYC*

        I got the impression the employee didn’t even say, “I was going to send you a preview, but I’ve had X problem.” That’s where the problem is.

      4. Wintermute*

        If you’re all in IT together then they may well be assuming it should be taken for granted and the fact deadlines are NEVER met unless there’s an outside constraint (and then the project will perform poorly and you probably had to hire a half million dollars worth of temps and consultants) should be well understood.

      1. Birdie*

        I never heard of it before, but OMG, it suddenly explains EVERYTHING about how my nasty, dysfunctional, completely insane former workplace operated.

      2. linger*

        Working backwards, I’m going to guess it comes from C. N. Parkinson’s observation that committee time spent discussing an item is inversely proportional to its importance. Parkinson explains this on the basis that, the more everyday an item, the more comfortable everybody is expressing an opinion about it, resulting in long arguments about, e.g., what colour to paint the bike-shed. Thus, bikeshedding = endless renegotiation of functionally unimportant details.

      3. Beth*

        I read the original book by Parkinson (it’s brilliant, btw, and terrifyingly still relevant). I didn’t know that bikeshedding had become a term!

        In the original, the committee spends about 5 minutes approving a multi-million dollar budget for a nuclear power plant, then spends an hour arguing about a bike shed. The contrast is the central idea: the unwillingness to discuss big, complicated, unfamiliar items, even when they are important and expensive and need attention, and the subsequent deep dive into the simple, trivial, and familiar.

        It’s partly driven by the desire to demonstrate competence (yes, we all know about bike sheds and small amounts of money!) when one has just demonstrated complete ignorance (we know nothing about nuclear plants and can’t actually visualize that much money).

        1. Wintermute*

          Exactly! It’s very hard to have a meaningful opinion about the choice of nuclear fuel cycle or the design of cooling systems for a power plant, but everyone knows what a bike shed is.

    4. Samwise*

      That sounds reasonable….except that the employee manages to get work done on time after being called out. If it were consistently, or even just frequently, due to factors beyond the employee’s control, they wouldn’t be able to fix the problem (and only when called on the carpet).

      1. YetAnotherAnalyst*

        Speaking from my own personal experience, if I get pulled into A Discussion about hitting deadlines, etc, for things that aren’t really under my control, I’ll often put on my project manager hat for a bit and make a point of running down blockers. What I can’t do, though, is camp outside someone’s office to get them to sign off on something and simultaneously stay on top of my other, maybe less visible but arguably more important, work. So in the past I’ve taken such discussions as a temporary priority shift, coming back to my other tasks when the high-priority task is done.

        It’s not clear to me if that’s happening here, though. And I’m not sure it changes the advice much – I think the LW needs to make sure they and their employee are on the same page about what’s expected, either way. But it might be worth confirming that the expectations are reasonable as part of that discussion.

    5. The Rafters*

      I was thinking the same thing. I know next to nothing about overhauls like this, but was told by people who do know and have done it to multiply the allotted timeframe by 3 – example, you are told it can be done in 3 months, it will take more like 9. I hate to say this, but usually the people who are giving that kind of deadline do not actually perform those tasks, have no clue about the actual timeframe and tend to overpromise.

    6. The Person from the Resume*

      I don’t know. He’s also late with newsletters too. And as others have noted, he can meet schedule targets when he been recently talked to about being late.

      I suspect this is a person (at least at his current job) who’s had no consequences for being perpetually late except the occassional talking to.

      1. Olive*

        Being in charge of a web software overhaul and responsible for newsletters sound to me like two extremely different tasks with different skillsets. Is it really necessary for the web dev/IT guy to write a newsletter!?

        1. HQB*

          I’m guessing he is responsible for publishing the newsletter online, which fits in with his managing the website.

        2. AlsoADHD*

          Yeah I was really wondering from that if this guy is appropriately staffed (does he have time and skills for all these duties) and his level, as well as how actively the LW manages and supports. When he’s directed to prioritize a task completion, he does. He should be proactively notifying LW about delays (though it sounds like previous management didn’t care to address this and maybe even didn’t want that, but I’m not sure if LW has asked for it). But it may be that he’s actually overloaded, dealing with poor structures, not at an appropriate grade/skill level to work as autonomously as LW wants. The job duties described sounded odd.

    7. Peonies*

      I wonder about this also. I have experienced a manager who would give me deadlines for routine tasks, but refuse to put those deadlines in writing, and when I explained how I had prioritized tasks and why some had taken longer than the specified deadlines, just shrug and wander off.

      So before putting someone on a PIP, I would want to know whether the missed deadlines were realistic (especially in combination with other work) and whether completing the tasks was dependent on others who may have missed their deadlines.

    8. kiki*

      Yeah, I know timelines are important and it sounds like this employee is struggling with communication for all sorts of deadlines, not just big software projects, but 9 months over for a website isn’t actually that out of the ordinary. Like others, I wonder if anyone is helping the employee set realistic deadlines and boundaries on their time.

      I once worked with a software engineer who had a lot of complaints against them for dropping the ball, but when you looked at how much they were being asked to do, it was completely ridiculous. The issue was that we needed three software engineers in their department instead of one, not that they were lazy or disorganized. They struggled to ask for help and had worked with a lot of non-sympathetic managers in the past, so they didn’t realize they could successfully advocate to get things taken off their plate.

    9. the cat ears*

      I am really glad nobody holds me (programmer) to deadlines for features, because inevitably I’ll start working on something and either learn about some requirement that was not communicated, or uncover some piece of technical debt that means we have to update or overhaul something before making further progress, or discover that the project manager who wrote the story completely misunderstood the nature of the work and estimated 4 hours to complete what is actually a feature requiring multiple devs to work for weeks or months.

      Mine is an extreme example, but I also think it’s a pretty common failure point between programmers and non-programmers.

    10. TootsNYC*

      >>Website overhauls are super-prone to blockers that aren’t the web person’s fault
      However, the LW did say the person isn’t communicating about delays:
      “then not getting to it or explaining why he didn’t.”

    11. Lost At Sea*

      I also would want to know more details. For example, I’m having trouble making deadlines when because I’m overburdened or have vendors who are not being timely, but I’ve communicated it to higher ups who have been doing everything they can to support me. I’d want to know if LW has given this employee feedback that he should communicate better and that they will support him when obstacles like this occur.

    12. 1850's Wisconsin*

      Regardless of the technical issues, it is the responsibility of the employee to keep the manager and other stakeholders updated. More frequent one-on-one meetings or check-ins may be needed to set those habits.

  3. sam_i_am*

    The offer letter changes certainly sound like a red flag to me! Hopefully there’s a reasonable explanation and it can be fixed.

    1. Kevin Sours*

      I can’t think of a good one. Best case scenario is that they intend to honor the original agreement but are somehow constrained from offering it officially due to the parent organization. But even then you’re depending entirely on the goodwill of the hiring manager. And if they leave the people who replace them may not feel compelled to honor their promises.

      And the fact that they waited until after OP resigned to show them the real offer agreement nudges this into assume bad faith territory.

    2. Plock*

      Agreed on the red flags. I’ve struck out 3 times with start-ups, all because of poor handling of employees/HR stuff. Don’t trust them. Don’t take them at their word. Get everything in writing. Have an exit strategy. I know work with start-ups can be awesome if you find the right place at the right time, but you have to look out for yourself especially since pay, benefits and employment standards/rules aren’t high on their priorities to care about.

      Take care, LW, and anyone else giving start-ups a try. They are not “normal” workplaces.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        I’m going to echo that exit strategies are important, and for more than just startups. My first job out of school was at a toxic company that enforced a ridiculously broad non-compete even after they fired me. It blocked me out of that entire field. (Yes, the non-compete was almost certainly illegal, but that company was petty enough to blacklist any client who hired me.)

        No matter how much you love your current job, make sure the skills you’re learning and certificates you’re earning are transferrable.

  4. Katie*

    He’s shown you exactly who he is. Put him on a PIP, but be ready to fire him when he backslides again. He almost certainly will. One thing though is to make sure he has reasonable time to finish a project.

  5. Rainy*

    Oof. If it were one or two things that they were like “we know you negotiated X WFH days and this is our emailed commitment to that but we can’t put it in the offer letter” or something, meh. It’s not *great* but not a dealbreaker, but I really wonder what the update on this one was, because this employer is displaying so much bad faith that if I were the LW I’d probably have tried to get my old job back and buckled down to searching knowing that my days there were numbered, because this start-up is absolutely guaranteed to be a four-handed charlie foxtrot.

    1. I am Emily's failing memory*

      Yeah, plus – not putting certain negotiated perks in the offer letter is one thing, but not using the negotiated title is way different! If the offer letter reflects how you’re going to be recorded in the employee’s files, that could mean your business cards or title on the company website is going to be the offer letter title, and if reference checkers call to verify employment, the offer letter title is the one they’ll say you had. Benefits can be privately agreed upon, but a title is an inherently public-facing thing.

  6. KatEnigma*

    LW3: You might get away with asking Birthday Girl where she’d like to eat, and then providing a gift card to said restaurant that would cover her and a guest, as a way to slide your time out of long birthday lunches.

    Lw4: My husband has things in his offer letter (a 9/80 work period) that are expressly not allowed in the employee handbook… he’s allowed to take them anyway.

  7. Falling Diphthong*

    OP4, I’m pretty confident they could change the title to be the actual title. And the length of employment. Flex-time might be mooshy (though by all means, you could have refused to come on board until you had that in writing) but an inability to edit the document to add “senior llama groomer” and remove “six-month position” is super red flaggy.

    Albeit, entirely possible that you could have a whole start-up where everyone signed the same contract and their current job titles, duties, compensation, etc are all far from that document. This doesn’t have to be a scam, but “our lack of organization makes us look like a scam” isn’t a good thing.

    And yeah, the thing to learn going forward is to hold the line that you can start three weeks after you see the formal offer letter, to allow you to give two weeks’ notice.

    1. JM60*

      Plus the fact that they set “a tight timeline for their desired start date” that pressured the OP to resign from their current position before getting an offer letter is also a warning sign IMO. By itself, a tight start date might not be a red flag. But together with the offer letter being different from what was verbally agreed upon, it looks like a red flag to me.

      1. The New Wanderer*

        I agree – it definitely reads like they oversold the position to the LW, pressured them to resign while the offer was still being prepared, then handed them a lower, temporary role with the expectation that the LW would have to take it.

        If the offer letter was in error, or a sign of shoddy organizational processes, they’d fix it to align with what was agreed on. That they didn’t do that is probably only the first sign of many problems.

        1. Twix*

          That’s my read as well. Given that they’re a startup, I’d be willing to write the initial letter off as “Maybe it was a form letter and they didn’t change everything they should have” or “Maybe some wires got crossed between the hiring person and the person who drafted the letter” or something. But the timing and calling a request from a potential new hire to have the offer letter actually reflect the agreed upon terms of employment “exceptional” screams red flags to me. Companies that try to put prospective employees on the defensive for asking for perfectly normal, reasonable things are almost never acting in good faith.

  8. Falling Diphthong*

    OP3, I agree with Alison that if you know this benefit means the world to one of your two employees (and possibly both) you should try very hard not to end it.

    1. Daisy-dog*

      If birthday-crazed employee only gets free lunch and a long break only once/year, it sounds like a pretty structured job that doesn’t have a lot of fun. Taking away that perk sounds unnecessary.

  9. ecnaseener*

    For #2, if the bathroom really is likely to take 5-10 mins as LW said, I might be more inclined to mention it up front. Or at least not say it’ll be “very brief” when you do excuse yourself. By 10 minutes, people will be wondering if you’re coming back.
    (Not to mention, asking where the bathroom is up front is a good idea if you can’t afford to take time wandering around looking for it!)

    1. Leslie*

      I had a college friend who had to do an undergrad paper defense right after a bout of flu that gave them diarrhea. They warned the committee that they might have a “bathroom emergency” and need to leave abruptly but would return as soon as reasonable.

      I love the Victorian vagueness of “bathroom emergency” and have held on to it JIC.

  10. Sarsaparilla*

    “You don’t need to warn someone before a performance improvement plan”

    You don’t need to warn someone before you fire them for poor performance, either, but ethically, it’s the right thing to do. Look, he has been working with no regard to deadlines for years now and it was perfectly ok. You show up, and suddenly it’s not ok. You have to explain to him that you will be holding him to a different standard than he is used to, and that part of that standard is that he will put on a PIP if he does not show sustained improvement. It’s the right thing to do.

    I’m always curious in this situations, though. What was happening as a result of deadlines being missed, sometimes by months? Were there no consequences to the company? No lost revenue, no broken customer relationships, nothing? I just have to wonder, if the deadlines were truly meaningless, why were they set in the first place? Is there more going on with project planning than one person who doesn’t meet deadlines?

    1. Scooter34*

      Yes, came here to say this. I spent 10 years at a job managing my own work and delivering items as I completed them. I was always able to prioritize based on my own knowledge of organizational needs. A new manager came in and early on asked me to provide a list of deliverables and due dates; I explained how I normally handled things but agreed to provide them. The “due date” for an analysis came up and I emailed her two days before, indicating I might not have it complete because of being assigned something else by the director. She sent a nice email thanking me – and then marked me down on my evaluation for not hitting my deadlines! Once we met and we clarified that she saw deadlines as solid and I had always seen them in my role as fluid, I was able to adjust my workflow to meet her expectations. Give people a chance to ensure we are clearly on the same page – don’t assume we all see things the same.

    2. I should really pick a name*

      This isn’t coming out of the blue. The LW has already established the standard.

      As a result, I’ve been vigilant about giving him feedback every time he doesn’t do something he says he’s going to do by when he says he’s going to do it.

      The PIP IS the warning.

      1. Lady Danbury*

        Completely agree. It would have been completely out of the blue if LW placed him on a PIP after the first offense. LW has consistently called him out when he drops the ball and there’s a consistent pattern of temporary improvement. While I don’t disagree with Allyson’s advice, I don’t think LW would have been unreasonable to go straight to PIP.

        Imo, the biggest consideration is that employees shouldn’t be blindsided by PIPs. Being placed on a PIP for something that your supervisor has repeatedly addressed without consistent improvement isn’t a surprise.

    3. lalala*

      I like this point. I’d also add that the additional details of missed deadlines (sending a newsletter preview, forgetting to give a project update) sound like things that in my role would be pretty minor. I’d encourage OP to look at this contributor’s work holistically – is their output strong though they sometimes miss minor or informal “deadlines” or is there a larger performance issue here? From the letter, it sounds like this could be an otherwise good employee who is adjusting to a new manager’s style.

      1. Dawn*

        The LW managed to make the employee look good while thinking that they are making the employee look bad. The employee may actually be a problem, but nothing in the letter makes that at all clear. It’s highly possible that LW is waltzing in cluelessly with a zealous and ill-conceived devotion to minutia.

        1. Blue*

          How does the letter make the employee look good?

          And saying OP is “waltzing in cluelessly with a zealous and ill-conceived devotion to minutia” is a little much.

  11. Farts*

    I already want an update on #1 lol.

    Make sure you have a longer time frame in the PIP, to hold this person accountable since they slide back into their ways after a month or so. Especially if other team members are doing their jobs, it’s a morale killer and you could risk good people leaving.

  12. soontoberetired*

    ah, managers who don’t hold employees accountable. My favorite kind – not. I’ve worked with people who did whatever they wanted when they wanted because their managers mistakenly thought the employee was golden. Eventually they get new managers who aren’t as impressed, and for a while they follow the rules but slide back and get fired.

    1. L. Bennett*

      I’ve inherited a few employees over the years that were not meeting expectations when I got them. Usually the reason is that previous managers didn’t want to have difficult conversations and hold people accountable (or they straight-up never told the person what was expected of them). I come in, explain the expectations, ask people what they need to meet those (more training/clarification on certain aspects/etc. etc.), wait for a bit so they can get their act together, and then if they can’t I’m going to have another stern warning before I put them on a PIP.

      I know a lot of folks are absolutely allergic to PIPs and formal consequences for poor performance, but those often are the people who write in with employees who haven’t been performing well for years and they don’t know what to do (or their employees are writing in saying John the Coworker isn’t pulling his weight so all the work is being dumped on them). As a manager, your job is to set reasonable standards, communicate those standards, and follow up with folks when they’re not meeting them.

      1. soontoberetired*

        We had for years two kinds of people who were never held accountable – ones who really couldn’t do the work but management just wouldn’t act, and those who could do the work but thought they could do whatever they wanted regardless of what was originally asked or what the rules were. Overall management philosophy was changed and poor performance employees were slowly let go and we were left with the “untouchable ones”. Things kept changing as we got bigger and we finally had managers who understood employees just can’t do what they want all the time and ignore company standards. those who thought they were untouchable started facing consequences.

        What always irked me is appropriate actions from the beginning would have made things better than for everyone.

      2. ferrina*

        Your approach seems like a really good go-to course of action. One thing that I’d add is that a PIP can also be used to move someone to a more junior role. I inherited an employee that had been bumped around the company but never gotten proper feedback (and half the time never told what their role actually was). It quickly became apparent that she did not have the skills she claimed to have. We put her on a PIP within the first month (my boss’s decision) and she had 3 months to complete it. She got about half of the PIP- the more advanced responsibilities were where she struggled. We offered her either a more junior role or severance (she took the severance)

    2. Lucy P*

      I work with someone who is great at what they do, but has a habit of insubordination (they hate rework which we have a lot of and want to decide their own priorities). They were written up with a warning sometime back and finally annoyed someone in upper management enough that they were given a week’s suspension. Now their direct manager and the executive want to shorten the suspension period by over 75%.
      I feel like this is such a slap on the wrist compared to what’s warranted because their unwillingness to do the tasks as assigned often leads to a lot of yelling and on a few occasions has come just short of physical violence.

      1. WellRed*

        I think if someone is at the point of being suspended for a week (in a typical office setting) they probably ought to be fired.

    3. Gary Patterson's Cat*

      I worked at a company where whole departments were never held accountable to meet a deadline!

      1. Smith Masterson*

        Me too. Family owned, so the family members were never given feedback or criticized.

  13. Parenthesis Guy*

    #1 – I’m having a lot of issues understanding this situation. So, I’d recommend that the manager make sure there are other resources that can do this employees job, and maybe talk to someone who is a subject matter expert to ensure that their understanding is correct.

    You don’t want to find out that you thought the project was late for nine months, but that was due to good reasons. Or that your employee is in fact slammed, and that’s why things drop.

    1. higheredadmin*

      I think part of the issue with #1 is that the employee (for whatever reason) isn’t communicating the reasons for the delays to their manager. Either there are very good reasons and the employee has is afraid to tell their new manager (toxic environment)/doesn’t want to tell their new manager (for whatever reason, maybe as simple as they don’t see the point or think anything would change, to seeing this as their area of responsibility so why should they), or there are no good reasons and this person is just used to doing what they want when they want. This is what needs to be flushed out. Fun example from when I inherited this kind of employee. Fergus told me that he was slammed on a project that involved two senior leaders (in fact, a web site redesign that at this point was months late). When I spoke to the two leaders separately, it quickly became clear that Fergus always told Leader 1 that he was late on their piece because he was focused on Leader 2’s piece, and vice versa. This had been going on for months. They were stunned when I put the pieces together for them. Good times.

    2. Gary Patterson’s Cat*

      I second that! OP needs to do some investigating on these late projects and the overall workload of the employee before initiating the PiP. Possibly he is loafing, or has poor time management skills, or there may be outside influences.

      I’ve had marketing projects take forever because of things outside my control (like copy not getting written for months) or it taking three months just to get a budget approval to pay an outside vendor. Was that my fault as the person organizing the campaign? There was any repercussions for other departments being late and I had zero power or backup to compel them to get it to me. To a new manager, it likely would seem my fault.

  14. Texan In Exile*

    I would definitely want more information on #1. Who knows if the initial deadline was even feasible? I have worked on software projects and sometimes it felt as if management was saying, “I want you to have a baby in four months” and the team is saying, “But – human pregnancy takes nine months!” and management just shrugs.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Sounds like the employee is not really good at giving that kind of feedback, though.

    2. I should really pick a name*

      It sounds like the employee is supplying the deadlines

      As a result, I’ve been vigilant about giving him feedback every time he doesn’t do something he says he’s going to do by when he says he’s going to do it.

    3. Kevin Sours*

      It’s not just missing “a” deadline. It’s missing multiple. And it’s not just missing deadlines it’s “not getting to it or explaining why he didn’t”.

    4. cabbagepants*

      This is such a fitting simile for certain types of program managers. “Just do your best to have that baby done in four months, ok? I’m going to put an ETA four months from now on the tracker.” (four months later) “What’s up with this delay???”

  15. Marketing Ninja Unicorn*

    My team was just part of a website overhaul that was due three years ago. There were a ton of reasons for the delays, many of them resting with our IT folks, but the last nine months of delays were perceived to be because of my team, and believe me, people were MORE THAN HAPPY to blame my team.

    Until I showed up with receipts and could say, “Well, ACTUALLY — you’re right that the widget on the website isn’t done yet, but per our emails on [date], [date], [date] and [date], your team was supposed to provide feedback and hasn’t, so until YOU tell US what you want the widget to look like, we can’t go forward.

    And then my manager and their managers got to see where the hold up really was and those teams got to explain to their managers why they were holding up the whole process.

    But you can bet that if my team misses a deadline, and it’s not because of something we did, I will have email proof of why it’s late. If it’s because of something we did — we forgot, it fell off our radar, it got bumped by something higher-priority and we neglected to update everyone on the new timeline — I will 100% own that as my mistake.

  16. Peanut Hamper*

    A PIP does not have to end in a firing. (And in ideal circumstances, it wouldn’t.)

    A PIP is a formal way to let an employee know that they are struggling, and to provide a roadmap and a timeline for them to improve. That’s it, basically.

    If you are asking yourself “Should this person be on a PIP?” the answer is that it’s probably better to do this sooner rather than later, so that they are not blindsided by it and have time to improve.

    1. L. Bennett*

      Yep. I’ve seen a lot of people say that a PIP is just a formality before firing, which might be true in some places, but there have been several people I’ve needed to put on PIPs who were able to not only turn it around but become top performers. I think some people don’t realize how serious an issue is until it comes to a PIP (no matter how many times you tell them). If there are no consequences, “this is serious” doesn’t mean a whole lot.

  17. Chilipepper Attitude*

    Family member is in IT. All they do is put out fires that other people make and then the managers are surprised when they don’t have time to manage huge projects. Never mind that 9 months is normal for IT stuff. They finally got some kind of management system that my relative has to add every task to (they have a ticketing system already, this is on top of that).

    1. They are shocked, shocked I tells ya! at how much relative does
    2. They don’t put into the new management system huge projects that my relative has to manage until a week before it starts so there is no way for my relative to organize and manage his work load and stop putting out fires

    1. scurvycapn*

      Exactly. I’m in the IT field. Our team is the smallest it has been in fifteen years, but we have just as many total projects as when it was twice the size, meaning we are juggling more work. Project managers don’t talk to each other, and schedule critical tasks at the same time as others. Or they schedule them during your PTO you notified them about four months ago and have had on your calendar just as long.

      Then they get grumpy when you tell them something can’t be done then or will take longer (if we estimated 80 hours, that means 80 hours on man hours, not two weeks after it starts… we do have other projects, meetings, etc.)

      Then on top of that, we’re expected to chip in for everyone else too. Help desk can’t help the customer? We are their escalation team. Sales team members don’t know what they should know? We’re invited to sales discoveries, review design documents, change requests, etc.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        I’m another one.

        Probably 15+ days per month, my job is putting out fires that didn’t need to be started so other programmers on my team can actually do new work.

        For my own ephemeral sanity, I also try to forget how much of my own time (unpaid) I’ve spent bailing out roll outs that were more concerned with being on time than being right.

  18. Interviewer x100*

    I would be interested in an approach for #2 if you are the interviewer, not the interviewee. Why do I feel like it’s a different situation when the person experiencing the emergency is switched? Maybe it’s just because I am regularly doing interviewing and worry about this. As an interviewer who sometimes deals gastrointestinal surprise, I would understand the interviewee needing to step out, but feel like it would make the interviewee feel some kind of way to be left alone in the same manner, especially if we are on the longer end of the 5-10 minutes.

  19. Lcsa99*

    For #2 I think you should give them a heads up ahead of time. Since a delay of even a few minutes could spell disaster, I think you need to avoid the chance that they might ask you to wait until they’re done with you – which would be perfectly reasonable if you didn’t have your issues.

  20. badger*

    I’ve been thinking about #1 a bit, because there are some things that sound familiar in the pattern – become aware of a problem, make efforts to fix, gradually let things slide again. I was diagnosed with ADHD about a year and a half ago, and it helped explain/put into perspective a lot of things about both school and my professional life. I’ve been treated for depression/anxiety for 20+ years and every time something would happen I’d get angry with myself, make a point to fix it, and then…get complacent and/or get overwhelmed and end up right back where I started. Or things would end up out of sight, out of mind. I was fired for missing a deadline ~15 years ago because systems work until they don’t. And, well, being on the right meds and working with professionals to identify tools that work *with* my brain instead of against it has made a huge difference. It turns out that I have significantly less depression and anxiety and brain fog and overwhelm when I can focus and function.

    Not saying that’s the case for LW 1’s employee, but when there’s a pattern of “lazy” and “lack of accountability” that gets better and then backslides, I have to wonder at least a little bit. Or it could just be someone who’s never really had consequences and still doesn’t have real ones, as lots of folks have speculated; that certainly does happen.

  21. CLC*

    The LW doesn’t seem to have dug into WHY the employee is underperforming. They seem to chalk it up to the previous manager not holding them accountable which seems like a major shortcut that doesn’t really explain anything (and it’s not clear if they are fully aware of the situation between the employee and previous manager). I really believe that to solve problems and be fair you need to understand the problem first and then work on potential solutions. Maybe the LW knows more than is included in the letter but it really sounds like they don’t fully understand the problem.

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