“Must I acknowledge receipt of my Performance Improvement Plan?”

Question: My employer, one of the world’s largest retailers, wants to put me on a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”). I have never once been coached for any kind of problem – performance or misconduct – in the eleven years I’ve been with the company. In fact, just 30 days ago I received my yearly evaluation – it said I was a solid performer.

The PIP has certain objectives I must accomplish that are entirely out of my control, such as reduction of “shrinkage” (loss by theft), and workplace accidents. It also contains derogatory comments about me which are simply not true.

The regional manager said I must sign it, and if I don’t I will be fired for insubordination. He says I’m only signing it that I received it and understand it, not that I agree with it. Can they do this?

Appleton, Wisconsin

Answer: Dear Al:    

Your Performance Improvement Plan (or “PIP”) sounds a lot like most people’s. And it is not surprising that you received it after being evaluated as a solid performer: although that is illogical, and defies common sense, that is not that unusual. So many PIP’s – like yours – seem to be little more than a fraud.

1. Employers have every right to ask employees to do reasonable things, such as confirm (a) receipt and/or (b) understanding, of a document. There are many different things an employer sometimes reasonably needs to ask an employee to do that may be necessary to run a company or organization. They would include: (i) using a time-clock each time they arrive or leave work; (ii) parking their cars only in designated areas; or (iii) periodically participating in fire drills. These are simply part of running a company or organization. I see asking an employee to confirm that he or she received a document, and understands a document, to be just as  reasonable, and the law sees it that way, too.

2. If an employee refuses to do something he or she is asked to do, provided it is reasonable, that is called “insubordination” and is a good reason for firing. There are two basic reasons to fire an employee: (i) poor performance or (ii) misconduct. Insubordination is a kind of “misconduct,” and will almost surely lead to your firing. If an employer asked an employee to steal money, or engage in sex, surely refusing to do those things would not be reasonable grounds for insubordination, or firing. On the other hand, being asked to show up to work on time, and being asked to drive carefully, are both entirely reasonable; your refusing to confirm you received and/or understand a document would be insubordination, and grounds for firing. 

3. Read the PIP document carefully: Is it clear that you are signing it only to “Confirm Receipt and Understanding?” Sometimes wording is clear, and sometimes wording is vague. If it is entirely clear that you are only being asked to sign the document to confirm your receipt and your understanding of it, I recommend you sign it. The test is this: would it be clear to, say, a person with an eighth grade education? I say that because many people on juries have just that amount of schooling.

4. If the PIP document is not clear that you are only acknowledging receipt and understanding, you can make it clear. To do so, I recommend that you write above your signature: “I confirm receipt and my understanding only; I do not agree with the contents of this PIP” or words to that effect. Whatever you do, do not write in any curse words, accusations, threats, words of anger, or similar language: that, too, could lead to your being fired for misconduct.

5. I strongly urge you learn how to “push back” against your PIP, and then to do so. Frequent readers of our blog know I feel it is always wise to push back at a Performance Improvement Plan. How do you do that? We help you do so in three ways:

(i) Watch our Video “Performance Improvement Plans: How to Respond.” To do so, [click here]. 

(ii) Read our Newsletters and Q&A’s on Performance Improvement Plans. To do so, [click here].

(iii)  Obtain our Model Letter “Responding to a Performance Improvement Plan.” To do so, [click here].

Al, it used to be that you only needed to do your job in order to keep it. These days you need to (i) do your job, (ii) devote effort to keeping your job, and also (iii) consider what you would do if you lost this job. Is this exhausting? Yes. Is this confusing? Yes. Can you avoid this? No. Sooner or later, it will hurt you if you don’t know how to navigate and negotiate these things. I hope you’ll see this as a learning experience, and take it in stride, as a necessary step to protect you and your family in these more challenging economic times.   

Thanks for writing in. Good luck in standing up and pushing back! Please tell your colleagues about our blogsite – I truly believe that the more people who stand up at work, the less we’ll all have to.

Al Sklover


© 2011 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.