Discipline vs. Performance: Spotting the Differences and Finding Solutions

Discipline vs. Performance – Spotting the Differences and Finding Solutions

Being able to tell misconduct apart from poor performance isn’t necessarily rocket science. But the differences often confuse managers, and that can cause missteps when they’re addressed. Managers might put someone who is late a lot on a performance improvement plan (PIP), or — as is usually the case — discipline an employee for poor performance. However, when an employee is disciplined for poor performance, he’s often left on his own to figure out what went wrong, or even left thinking he’s bound to fail. That’s not helping anyone improve. 


Misconduct differs from poor performance. Misconduct involves intentional or negligent conduct (such as not caring enough to be on time to work), whereas poor performance is actually doing the job poorly. Being late isn’t doing the job. Lying to a manager isn’t doing the job. While it may impact the work, misconduct is separate and apart from the actual work. 

Here’s a simple way to spot the difference: you may be able to train away poor performance, but you can’t train an employee to get to work on time, not lie to you, or not steal from you. 

Misconduct requires discipline. Simply put, we have to discipline when employee misconduct warrants it. Managers dislike having disciplinary conversations. However, failure to discipline will result in poor morale overall and, ultimately, poor productivity and employee engagement. 

Discipline for misconduct includes, in escalating order of severity: verbal warning, written warning, suspension, and termination. Except where a union has bargained otherwise, an employer gets to choose what level of discipline it will apply in a particular situation. An employee who is late four times might get a verbal warning and may get a written warning if she continues to be late. An employee who steals a truck usually gets fired. Imagine discipline issues as the concepts we learned in kindergarten — don’t hit people, clean up your messes, don’t take things that aren’t yours, tell the truth, and so on. 

Poor Performance

Poor performance also looks different than misconduct. Poor performance is the inability to get a job done or done to the employer’s expectations. For performance issues, we expect that employees will get the chance to improve. Fairness also tells us that employees should get that chance. 

Employers often address poor performance with a PIP, which typically has three parts: it explains why the performance is subpar; what the employee can do to improve his performance; and what tools, training, or other support the employee can expect to receive throughout the process. This is really what sets discipline apart from performance management — performance management requires the employer do something to help improve the performance. 

Handling Discipline and Improving Performance

Here are just a few things managers can do to help improve performance:

  1. Coach. Managers have an opportunity to coach employees to improve performance. Whether it is spending more time with the employee, shadowing, providing encouragement, or simply providing more hands-on training, coaching is a great way to show how to do something correctly. 
  2. Assign a partner. If there is another team member who does the job well, match that individual with the employee whose performance misses the mark.  If both have a good attitude, performance will improve. 
  3. Provide more training. If available, additional training on the technology used, the process, or product could improve performance. 
  4. Finally, don’t forget to check in. Performance is not something organizations can afford to ignore. When it is poor and improving performance, spending the extra time for a one-on-one or quick chat will go far in improving and monitoring performance. 

We as HR professionals have to teach managers how to properly address an employee issue. When we treat a discipline issue as a performance issue, we take on too much. When we discipline a performance issue, we don’t give the employee the tools she needs to succeed.