Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human-resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society.
The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.
Question: I was put on a performance action plan at work. I did everything to improve. However, my manager keeps adding more goals to the plan. Because of that, I believe they are setting me up for termination. When an employee is put on a performance improvement plan, isn’t the employer expected to stick with the original plan and not keep adding to it? – Anonymous
Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: A performance improvement plan is intended to help an employee improve or correct his or her behavior and performance. It should be clear and agreed to by both the employee and the employer.
Such a plan is generally a set of defined, short-term improvements that must be met by a specific date. But that doesn’t mean there is only one level. Sometimes an employee’s performance gap is big enough that gradually increased goals with steps or benchmarks are required.
That said, an employer is not building trust with an employee if information is not effectively communicated and new or higher goals are being added continuously.
Without trust, it’s unlikely the employee will ever have a high level of engagement or performance, and the impact will be felt beyond the individual employee. Other employees will be affected, and so will the workplace culture as a whole.
Given what you shared, it’s possible your employer or manager is not using a performance improvement plan as it was intended, or a case is being made to support your termination.
In either case, you should first separate effort and activity from results and achievement. You say you “did everything to improve,” which indicates you’re trying. But a performance improvement plan doesn’t measure trying. It measures improvement. Focus on improving your performance to produce the desired results.
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Also consider whether your manager is truly adding objectives in areas that need significant improvement, or if what is outlined are goals to be pursued and accomplished. Your manager could be combining performance improvement needs and goals and isn’t clear on the difference.
If you are meeting performance targets but new goals keep being added, ask for a meeting with your manager and an HR representative to clarify their intent.
Are the expectations for near-term improvement, or do they intend to set continually moving targets? If near-term improvement is the focus, you can return to a normal cadence of setting routine goals and priorities with your manager once you complete the plan. However, if the performance targets will continue to change, it might be time to start looking for another position.
Q: I want to work part time and not completely retire. My company won’t allow that. It wants employees to formally retire for a few months and then come back part time. Why? – Denise
Taylor: It’s hard to know for certain, based on what you have shared. But there are several reasons why this might be.
One reason could be staffing and your employer’s preference not to have a part-time workforce.
The practice also could have to do with the specifics of your company’s retirement saving plans.
A third possibility could lie with the IRS and rules about drawing retirement benefits while working.
I’ll explain more about that. But first, I suggest you talk with the HR department to better understand the policy. This will help you decide how to proceed.
Now, about the IRS: Many organizations, both public and private, require individuals to have a break in employment for three to six months before they are rehired. That’s because an employer’s defined benefit pension and 401(k) plans might lose their tax-deferred status otherwise.
If that happened, it could cost the employer – and employees – plenty in penalties and extra taxes.
In an opinion on a specific case, the IRS said it’s not really retirement when employees stop working with the expectation of being rehired shortly after. Thus, they aren’t eligible for early retirement benefits, and, if they are paid, the defined benefit plan could be disqualified.
The IRS also addressed a related issue involving 401(k) plans and voiced the same opinion.
In other words, you can’t collect retirement benefits when you’re not retired.
So, to protect the qualified, tax-deferred status of defined benefit and 401(k) plans, many employers require workers to terminate their employment and have a formal break before being rehired.
As you consider what’s ahead, you might explore a reduced work schedule. Such a phased retirement would allow you to continue employment while reducing your workload.
There’s a benefit for your employer, too. In a transition phase, you could share your work-related skills and knowledge mentoring others – until it’s time for your full retirement.