Can my boss set unrealistic work goals?

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(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

I work in a production area where the goals are intentionally set too high. (One supervisor once said, "They're going to go up on the goal because too many people are meeting it.") Employees who are deemed troublesome (or perhaps too expensive) are placed on Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) and ushered out the door a few months later.

My own production goal is going up to 150 percent of the current goal, without any known data that would justify the increase. No one else doing the same work is reaching nearly that high a number.

Two questions: 1) Is this kind of environment legal? 2) How does an employee best defend against being unfairly placed on a PIP?

To answer the first question, yes, it's legal. And thank heavens that it is. Think about your encounters with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Do you really want a government bureaucrat determining workplace goals for everyone else? Or worse, what if Congress took it up on themselves to decide what is reasonable? Would there by anything more frightening than the thought of Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner sitting down together and writing your goals for the year? Or determining who should be on a PIP? (Other than them, of course.) Shudder.

No, good management is not required by law. But business owners generally do try to do what they think is best for the business. That is, they aren't generally mean and nasty to their employees just because they like to be mean and nasty. There must be some thought process that is telling them this is a good way to manage. (Not saying that this is an example of good management, just that there must be some rational thought that is going into this.)

For example, as a general rule you should be able to expect that some people perform better than others. You would expect that some people would be, for instance, faster than others. If every single employee is meeting production goals, then it is quite reasonable to assume that goals are being set too low, just as if every single employee was not meeting the goals, you'd think they were too high. Is it reasonable to increase the goal to 150 percent of the previous goal? Perhaps. A good manager may well have good reasons for wanting to do this.

As to the PIPs, it also seems pretty bizarre to put people on PIPs for anything that isn't absolutely necessary. Administering a performance improvement plan is a pain, and it seems that there needs to be a logical reason for going to that bother in the first place. The clue is in your phrase "too expensive." Are different people paid different amounts? Is it based on seniority? Because if everyone is meeting performance goals and a group of people are being paid more than others, it makes sense to get rid of the highly paid employees, since they aren't performing at a higher level than their coworkers.

Regardless, you want to stay off a PIP. How can you do that? Well, the easiest way is to do whatever your manager is asking of you. That means coming in on time, meeting your production goals, being nice, not taking excessive (or unauthorized) breaks, or doing anything that the boss might find objectionable. Your only legal recourse for being placed on a PIP is if you are placed on one for an illegal reason, such as because of your race or gender. If it's just because your boss doesn't like you, it's legal. Stupid, but legal.

My advice to you is that you try to figure out the logical reasons for your managers' behaviors. Once you understand the logic behind it, then you can make an informed choice about whether or not you want to work in this environment. If you want to stay, then you know the rules and you do your best to comply. If you don't, then you know the rules and you do your best to comply -- while you look for a new job.

Unfortunately, I can't just jump in and say, "What are you thinking????" to your managers. (Although, if they want to email me themselves, I'd be happy to hear why they are doing what they are doing.) You need to figure it out and then decide if it works for you. Just make sure that you don't quit (or behave stupidly and get fired) until you have a new job lined up.

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