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I was put on a PIP at a top tech company. It was a much-needed kick in the butt and I was determined to overcome it.

Robin Madell   

I was put on a PIP at a top tech company. It was a much-needed kick in the butt and I was determined to overcome it.
  • A former program manager was placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP) at a major tech company.
  • It was an unexpected wake-up call, but they did experience friction with a new manager beforehand.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with a 36-year-old former program manager-turned-entrepreneur in San Francisco. The source's name and employment history are known to Business Insider but are not named to protect their privacy.

I worked at a large, household-name tech company in San Francisco for three years in two different roles — first in an HR function and then as a program manager on a team of five people.

Two years into my second role, I was placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP).

It was a wake-up call and very unexpected, but it became a turning point in my career.

Working at a top-tier tech company was amazing

Working for that company wasn't something I'd always envisioned for myself, but my roles felt purpose-driven and aligned with my goals, which were to be a catalyst for diversity and inclusion and to open doors into tech for communities of color.

The company has a very direct, results-oriented culture — excuses are not tolerated and excellence is the standard. This, combined with flawless execution at such a scale, created a unique vibe that I was drawn to and made it an honor to be part of the team.

Before I was placed on a PIP, I saw the warning signs

After returning from a conference, I was told that a senior leader wasn't happy with my demeanor. I felt out of place at the event while others were bonding, and it was hard for me to fake my emotions. No one shared feedback with me at the conference, but I knew that I hadn't been present mentally.

The company's workplace culture wasn't at its best at the time, and team morale was lower than it had been in previous months. I felt disconnected from the work and my team's mission.

An HR leader suggested I prepare my résumé, which I interpreted as meaning I could get fired. Instead, in a meeting soon after, my manager told me I was being placed on a performance improvement plan and requested that I document all my work moving forward, including weekly action items, meetings, and interactions in a weekly report tied to my next big conference project.

Fear and shame were my initial reactions. Taking responsibility for my mistakes was easy; the hard part was not dwelling on my disappointment or beating myself up over it.

Once the shock subsided, I gave myself an honest self-assessment. I decided to focus on what I could control and use this as an opportunity to improve my communication, focus, and work style.

I tried to view the PIP as an opportunity

I started working with a career coach to assess my work habits and uncover blind spots that were limiting my productivity — especially overcoming procrastination and understanding my communication style.

We crafted a plan around SMART goals and setting healthy boundaries, did exercises to help me navigate confrontation, and discussed ways I could improve task management.

As outlined in the PIP, I documented my progress and tracked my wins. I found it helpful to journal as much as I could each day and write down things I was proud of to help reinforce my confidence and sense of self-worth.

I also prioritized networking and building relationships. I volunteered for projects, participated in committees, and met with colleagues in different departments and peers at different companies. I told certain peers I was close with — and a few senior colleagues that I trusted — about my PIP.

My PIP was a much-needed kick in the butt, and I came out on top

I was on the PIP for about two months. I treated it like a challenge I was determined to overcome, but the anxiety caused significant weight loss. It was a mentally, emotionally, and physically demanding experience. My partner at the time noticed and was concerned for my well-being.

In the end, I wasn't terminated. After I completed the project, my manager gave me positive feedback.

Although I accept responsibility, I think a significant factor in my getting put on the PIP in the first place was miscommunication and a lack of alignment with my new manager, whom I began working under less than two years into my time at the company.

I struggled to adapt to department restructuring and didn't feel adequately supported. I really missed my original manager, who was a great mentor and someone I trusted.

Friction with my new manager was difficult to overcome

My new manager and I had different work styles, which sometimes led to friction. The turnaround times for my new manager's deadlines were aggressive to me, and I missed a couple in the early stages of them joining the team, which didn't set the right impression.

The team was pretty lean at this point, and we had a lot of internal organizations that needed stakeholder management. My manager instructed that I take on the added workload in addition to my other projects, and I didn't feel equipped to do this effectively. It felt like my scope was rapidly increasing, and my performance was being rigorously tied to a new set of key metrics overnight.

I learned that this is what can happen when new leadership comes in and sets a new tone for a team. I wasn't prepared for the abrupt shift in pace.

To cope, I leaned more on my side hustle, which fueled me creatively but also impacted my work performance at times. Tapping more into my side business while enduring the rocky workplace culture made me less motivated to go the extra mile at my job.

Looking back now, I understand and appreciate my new manager's changes even though they were uncomfortable at the time. Our dynamic after the PIP was pleasant, but the circumstances left me feeling confused and more guarded than I wanted to feel when reporting to someone.

My PIP experience ultimately left me feeling disheartened

Being put on a PIP solidified the reality that employees are expendable. I left the company on my own terms about two months after my PIP ended. The PIP wasn't the sole reason, but it did accelerate my thinking.

I got a new job at another company as a program manager. My PIP didn't come up in my interview and wasn't a factor, even with the references I gave.

The PIP made me realize the importance of prioritizing mental health and personal development

After going through the initial trauma of the PIP, I learned to confront the areas of my life that needed improvement so I could perform at the highest level possible. It wasn't a pleasant experience, but it gave me a clear road map for improvement and lessons I can share with others.

My PIP experience also solidified the importance of having multiple income streams by highlighting the vulnerability of relying solely on a salaried position. I continued to develop my side hustle, which eventually became my current full-time venture.

Today, I navigate conflict with tenacity and a more positive mindset. Instead of dwelling on the negatives when things go sideways, I focus on the skills I can develop to lead to a better outcome.


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