Talent   //   January 23, 2024  ■  5 min read

Are you being ‘quietly cut’ with a performance improvement plan?

Is there any coming back from being put on a performance improvement plan?

The conversation around how one’s performance is considered during layoff decisions exploded last week when an employee from tech company Cloudflare filmed herself being laid off.

In the video, which went viral on TikTok, former employee Brittany Pietsch verbally spars with the company’s HR representative after they said she didn’t meet 2023 performance expectations without clearly outlining details of what metrics she didn’t meet. 

“Every single one-on-one I’ve had with my manager, every conversation I’ve had with him, he’s given me nothing but ‘I’m doing a great job, I have great activity, I have really great meetings, I’m picking up the products very quickly, and things have been going really really well,” Pietsch says in the clip. After it went viral, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince wrote on X: “No employee should ever actually be surprised they weren’t performing.”

It comes as more workers, especially in tech, fear they will get laid off. Google already cut hundreds of jobs this year, and its CEO announced in an internal memo to expect more cuts in 2024. Meanwhile, over 80% of workers across industries fear they’ll lose their jobs this year, according to a survey of 1,900 U.S. workers from online resume builder Myperfectresume. 

All of this is spurring more questions for workers around how their performance is taken into account during layoffs, and whether some companies are engaging in “quiet cutting” — or making their jobs harder (and then downright miserable) so they’ll leave on their own. Experts and tech workers online say performance improvement plans are one tool companies use to quietly cut workers when the organization is struggling.

“This is like the cheapest way, the most rational way, for companies to get rid of employees without the additional cost of layoffs, without the reputation damage that an additional round of official layoffs would have, and it would fit in their narrative that they’re getting back to being lean mean, productive and efficient,” said Lisa Kostova, founder and CEO of CareerClimb.co, which works with experienced tech professionals to get to the next level of their career.

But others maintain PIPs are used in good faith to get lower-performing staff back on track to help them keep their jobs.

“This is like the cheapest way, the most rational way, for companies to get rid of employees without the additional cost of layoffs, without the reputation damage that an additional round of official layoffs would have, and it would fit in their narrative that they're getting back to being lean mean, productive and efficient."
Lisa Kostova, founder and CEO of CareerClimb.co.

How do PIPs work?

The idea of a PIP is to let an employee know they aren’t performing up to standard and to outline a plan with expectations for them to meet within a certain timeframe, or else they’ll face termination. 

“When somebody is underperforming, you don’t fire them on the spot,” said Josh Bersin, global industry analyst and CEO of Josh Bersin Co. “You give them feedback. You document why it is they’re underperforming so that they know, so it’s written down, and you give them some time to improve their performance.” Sometimes an employee needs more training or may simply be unaware they aren’t meeting expectations.

“It’s a way to reset the relationship between a manager and employee so that the employee knows that they’re kind of in trouble and they really need to fix whatever it is that they’re doing,” he said.

“It's a way to reset the relationship between a manager and employee so that the employee knows that they're kind of in trouble and they really need to fix whatever it is that they're doing."
Josh Bersin, global industry analyst and CEO of Josh Bersin Co.

“The manager is supposed to sit down with the employee and say to them, here are the things I would like you to do to improve your performance, so that it’s very clear to the employee what they have to do to try to turn things around,” he said.

What does a “sneaky PIP” look like?

Other workplace experts say there are a couple of signs that a PIP may not be entirely well-meaning. The first is if an employee has never had performance issues but is suddenly having performance conversations with their manager and HR, just as market conditions and financial health of their employer change, according to Kostova. The burden is typically entirely on the employee to execute that improvement, within a specified timeframe (typically three months), and might seem wildly unattainable.

In some roles like sales, a PIP could outline clear metrics like new sales quotas to hit within that time. But other roles may have more subjective improvement goals, and PIPs come with no clear expectations but are simply left at “we will check back in a couple months to see if you’ve improved,” Kostova said. Ultimately though, “they are changing the goalposts.” 

As a manager in tech Kostova once was forced by upper management to put one of her highest-paid design employees on a PIP, she said. In an uncomfortable conversation with that employee, she remembers saying, “just go and find yourself another role within the company because you’re gonna get pushed out here,” she said. 

“I think in most companies, PIPs more often serve the purpose of creating documentation for the company to justify its decision and kind of reduce legal risks, than it is in creating any genuine opportunity for the employee to improve."
Josh Merrill, founder and CEO of Confirm, a performance review platform.

On Blind, an anonymous online professional network, discussions about PIPs spiked in November and December, according to a spokesperson, and chatter centered around rumored quotas for staff considered mid and lower-performing at tech companies to get PIPed.

“I think in most companies, PIPs more often serve the purpose of creating documentation for the company to justify its decision and kind of reduce legal risks, than it is in creating any genuine opportunity for the employee to improve,” said Josh Merrill, founder and CEO of Confirm, a performance review platform.

What if I’m on a PIP?

Being told you’re essentially bad at your job — especially if you’ve never heard this before — can be confusing and ultimately demoralizing. “It’s a badge of shame,” Kostova said, “and it’s really hard not to take it personally.”

“If you’ve been around the block,  you’ve seen ups and downs and kind of been in the game for a long time, you may not take it as bad. But I think if this is your first job, and you get PIPed and you get fired for performance issues, I think it may have some serious psychological effects on people,” she said.

She wants those put on PIPS to know: “There’s nothing wrong with you. Please don’t give up. Please don’t take this personally.”

“A lot of companies have this unfortunate habit of when things at the macro level are not going well and they need to let people go, they do things like performance improvement plans to sort of try to shift the responsibility onto the individual employees, but it really didn’t have anything to do with that,” Merrill said.