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Marcus Blankenship
Marcus Blankenship

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Use a PIP, or just fire them?

If you’ve been on my list for a while now, you know I want to help you become a better tech manager.

One way I do this is by helping you see situations from new perspectives, often your team’s perspective.

Because it’s easy to forget that there are other perspectives.

So easy that I committed the same error in my writing.

See, I’ve often neglected your perspective, along with the perspective of your boss, company, and users.

With that in mind, let me try answering a question my friend Will posed today, from the manager’s perspective.

“When do you put someone on a performance improvement plan, and when do you just fire them?”

Begin by thinking of someone on your team who you’ve thought about firing, but haven’t yet. Maybe they know it, and perhaps they don’t – doesn’t matter in this case.

Begin with the end in mind

I think it’s important to ask yourself these questions, probably in this order:

  1. What outcome do I want?
  2. How long am I willing to wait?
  3. How much effort am I willing to invest?
  4. Given my answers, is the outcome realistic?
  5. How confident are you that this will yield the outcome you want?

Let’s use the example of Jack, a real programmer at my own consulting company. (The names have been changed.)

Jack made and deployed some late-night changes to our company website one night.

But he didn’t load the site after deploying, and he didn’t realize he’d broken it completely. He went home wholly unaware there was a problem.

The next morning I walked in, and my partner was furious. We discussed it as a management team. We never thought Jack was great, but we’d never talked to him about his performance. What should we do?

We started with these questions:

  1. What outcome did we want?

We wanted Jack to pay closer attention to his work, stop doing risky activities, and stop making “silly” mistakes (like not loading a website after a production deploy.)

  1. How long am I willing to wait?

Jack had screwed up on multiple client projects in the past, and we were not willing to wait very long. Probably only days.

  1. How much effort am I willing to invest?

We’d tried multiple informal training and coaching approaches with Jack in the past, so we weren’t willing to invest much more effort. If any.

  1. Given my answers, is the outcome realistic?

This question was hard, and we didn’t all agree. One of us felt that with more intensive training, Jack could improve. Another felt Jack was an idiot, and would never improve with all the time in the world. One of us just wanted to go back to coding.

In the end, we all admitted the answer was, “No, the outcome isn’t realistic given how much more time and effort we want to invest.”

  1. How confident are you that this will yield the outcome you want?

We felt unanimous about this: we had no confidence that the amount of time and effort we could afford would get us the outcome we wanted.

Thus, I terminated Jack that morning with 4-weeks severance pay.

It was a short, painful discussion. More painful for Jack, but it sucked for us too.

Learn from my mistakes

You might suspect that I learned something. A few things, in fact.

First, I learned that the kindest thing I could have done was speak frankly with Jack as soon as I saw problems.

I still might have fired him, but it wouldn’t have come as a shock.

Second, I learned that once you’ve lost confidence in someone, it’s probably time to fire them.

You’ll probably use the PIP to “manage them out,” rather than using it to help them improve.

And if they do improve, you may still want to fire them, because you’re so over it.

So, it’s a bad situation for everyone.

Those five questions aren’t the place to start thinking about performance problems, but they can help you reason about what actions to take next.

Of course, if I told this story from Jack’s perspective, it would be completely different.

But I suspect you see that already.

Take care,


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