Steps to Take with an Underperforming Employee Before Implementing a PIP

Sonesh Surana

VP of Engineering at Optimizely



One of the biggest mistakes managers make in dealing with an underperforming employee is not having sufficient documentation encompassing the 'why' of the situation and what should happen next. Before administering a performance improvement plan, both the employee and manager should be in agreement about the problem and work closely with feedback to correct it.

Actions taken

Shared documentation

  • Through weekly or bi-weekly meetings, discuss how you feel as a manager and how you are assessing the employee.
  • Allow them to access your notes afterward as a record that they can return to, review, and hold themselves to the proper standards. Explicit articulation of the consequence of the current performance
  • Whether it be negative or positive, they should know what trajectory they are on.
  • You must back yourself as a manager and follow through on your commitments. Coaching memo as a 'pre-pip' step
  • After underperformance and feedback has been discussed, bring them to the point of this needed intervention as a way to have continued impact optimized.
  • Do not make the employee feel as if their job is under threat, but rather focus the aim on being managed out of a very specific underperformance issue.
  • Implement a 2 month long, focused transition. If at the end it is unsuccessful, you will have to follow up with a performance improvement plan.

Lessons learned

  • Shared documentation is very powerful because it then becomes a concept they really invest in as well. From this, you are also able to point back to things later on and improve collaboratively. This type of information is important for both high and low performers to hear.
  • It is valuable, that during the consequence trajectory, it is specified that you do not see the employee as an underperformer. However, do let them know that in the future, a pattern of this type of performance will be seen as so.
  • You would be surprised at the number of people who underperform due to a misunderstanding and may not even realize they are working in this way.
  • Enforcing a coaching memo can help transition an underperforming employee out of the company by giving them the time to assess their wants, interview with other companies, and exit without impending work on their plates.
  • For the most part, those who decided to leave the company have done so on good terms and have appreciated the time I spent trying to help them improve. If on the other hand, they decide to fight through it and stay onboard, this can be a lot of work for the manager as they will have to give daily feedback.
  • 15-20% of these cases have a positive outcome, even if the employee ends up leaving the company. If they had an amicable departure, they shine a spotlight on who they are leaving behind.
  • This is a tricky process to manage with younger engineers who tend to have a bigger sense of entitlement or think that they are doing the right things because of integrity.
  • It is helpful to have a process to support this person. In the case, for example, that other employees, perhaps friends of the underperformer, ask questions in opposition to what you are doing as a manager. It can delay the concerns of engineers about how the engineering department is being run.
  • Give yourself and the employee about 6 months maximum time to follow through with this whole process.

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Sonesh Surana

VP of Engineering at Optimizely

Performance ReviewsFeedback Techniques

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