Stop weaponizing PIPs against Black Professionals!

A lack of governance and vague organizational policies around performance management inevitably creates an environment that racist people managers can exploit with impunity. Performance Improvement Plans (PIP for short) are commonly weaponized to deliberately push out Black professionals. I believe subjecting any employee to a PIP in and of itself is torturous, but add in the fact that this action may be rooted in racial bias and you have a formula for injustice in the workplace. Managers administering a PIP are often the sole judge, jury and executioner with HR sitting idly by.

A Google search about PIPs will produce a number of results and binge worthy Reddit threads detailing why performance improvement plans are rarely ever about performance or improvement. I could not locate any data around the usage of PIPs in the workplace (that’s alarming) but I do have the scars from my lived experience.

Imagine, you have been in your role for a year, you are an engaged employee who actively participates in company initiatives and is on the leadership team for an employee resource group. Performance review season comes around and you receive an essentially perfect review. There are a few notes from your manager but nothing you’d consider “negative.”

A few months later, during your first ever one-on-one (yes, the 1st one in over a year) you’re informed you will be placed on a PIP. You push back and win on the grounds that your manager had never discussed performance with you prior, plus a documented history of racially insensitive comments. Either way, this is the remorseless confirmation that it’s time to find another job, even though you had not given any thought to leaving the company prior.

While that’s the short version of my personal experience (the full story is closer to a horror novel), this story is not unique in the circles of Black professionals.

I have Black colleagues that work or have worked at all your favorite tech companies, I promise you, the playbook is identical; which i’d guess was copied & pasted from corporate America at large. The details and employer may change but the plot is always some version of:

  1. Black employee steps “out of line” in the eyes of their manager
  2. Suddenly they’re having “performance issues”
  3. Pressured into signing a document with unreasonable expectations to meet/deliver by arbitrary date
  4. Unless they resign first, without a doubt their employment will be terminated

Black professionals I know who have been through this experience never once told me they thought their performance was a real factor in the decision. In their opinions, this was not about anything other than trying to “safely” terminate their employment or coerce them into quitting.

If an employee does have the courage to push back, HR often defers the onus of providing the proof of their innocence to the employee instead of requiring the manager demonstrate the employee was in fact having performance issues. A 2019 Forbes article, It’s Time We Finally Do Away With Performance Improvement Plans argues,

“despite the best intentions of a PIP, it often fails as a means of enabling or helping employees, but rather, a paper trail to justify punitive measures.”

People managers before you decide to place a Black employee on a PIP ask yourself:

  • Have I checked my personal biases?
  • Have I discussed the issue(s) with the employee prior to deciding to take this action?
  • Do I have a consistent method of measuring performance for all of my team members in the first place?
  • How will I commit to supporting this employee’s success with this plan?

We all want and deserve managers we believe have our best interest. Sadly for Black professionals these managers may be far & few between. Some people managers lawlessly wield this weapon to discard Black professionals without any consideration for the Black livelihoods, Black careers and Black families their impacting.

The responsibility of managing another person’s career should under no circumstances be taken lightly. People managers who do not understand that their role is centered on how they support the success of their people are especially menacing. And to be clear, just because someone was a good individual contributor does not automatically mean they will become a good people manager, especially not at first.

There’s no shortage of books and articles on people management and leadership, unfortunately not many are specific to managing Black employees but if you truly need to address performance issues with a Black member of your team a PIP should never be the first step. Instead, may I suggest at the very least:

  • Be a human: This should always be above all else, treating all your employees respectfully and like human beings is the minimum!
  • Communicate: Offer timely and actionable feedback separate from formal performance reviews, the employee should not be the last to know if they are in fact having performance issues
  • Don’t assume: Properly assess the situation and make sure you have all the facts before attempting to hold the employee accountable
  • Do your part: Make sure performance expectations are clear for all members of your team(s) and you have the systems in place to support everyone’s success

Frankly, if this all sounds too hard, then you should not be or become a people manager.

Every employee’s performance has the potential to fluctuate from time to time and that should be expected. However, if you’re a people manager who fails to hold your white employees to the same standards of performance as your Black ones you’re perpetuating the systemic racism Black folks encounter in and out of the workplace everyday.

“If you want the cooperation of humans around you, you must make them feel they are important and you do that by being genuine and humble. Nelson Mandela

P.S. HR folks, if a manager asks to place a Black employee or anyone for that matter on a PIP; you have a responsibility to do your own due diligence otherwise you’re every bit as complicit.

All opinions expressed are my own and do not represent my employer past, present or future.

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Securely, Shamika

Securely, Shamika

🖤 Joyful Black woman ♊️ Gemini | INFP 🌻 Oakland girl 👽 Cybersecurity enthusiast...I write, usually when I’m compelled by rage 🙃 Opinions are my own etc…