Discipline vs. Performance – Spotting the Differences and Finding Solutions

April 4, 2018      By Kate Bischoff

poor performanceFrom time to time, we invite guest contributors to provide their personal perspectives about trending HCM topics. The views, opinions, and comments expressed below are solely those of the author and do not represent Ultimate Software. This post was commissioned by Ultimate Software and the author has or will receive compensation for their work.

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.

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.

Tagged with:

Related Posts

Talent Management

Wrap Up from #UltiConnect 2012 – Talent Management is a Journey not a Destination


Have you Future Proofed your Company?

social collaboration

Implementing Social Collaboration Tools in Your Organization

fortune teller

Future-Proofing Your Business: Expect the Unexpected!


  1. Avatar Louis Pounds on April 9, 2018 at 11:21 am

    I agree for the most part, however, repeated performance issues must be addressed and at times, result in corrective action, up to, and including termination. Please remember that repeatedly acknowledge poor performance with additional chances also de-motivates your star performers, decreases moral and a host of other negative impacts.

  2. Avatar John on September 16, 2019 at 6:50 am

    In fact, it is all is done to measure the performance of individuals and organizations, to prevent problems that may arise, to increase the control of employees on the system and to keep business satisfaction at the forefront. In this sense, Kolay has compiled information on the increasingly important performance evaluation.

  3. Avatar Mike on October 9, 2019 at 3:12 am

    Nice Blog. I really liked it. Thanks for sharing with us and keep sharing.

  4. Avatar Johnny Small on November 5, 2019 at 8:02 am

    The success of every organization depends on the performance of its hired helps. Poor performance at work is one of the main causes why a firm goes down within a few years of establishment. In running a venture, staff performance management is an indispensable skill. In my opinion, the chairperson should have the potency to understand the reasons for poor productivity as well as the ability to reframe the necessary tactics to deal with the poor performance at work.

    • Karina Schultheis Karina Schultheis on November 15, 2019 at 9:58 am

      I couldn’t agree more, Johnny! The strength of an organization boils down to the strength of its people – if chronic underperformance is an issue, it needs to be addressed. Like you said, strong managers/employers should realize that there may be many reasons for poor performance – it’s important to get to the bottom of what’s going on so the employee can be helped appropriately.

  5. Avatar M Umakanthan on February 20, 2020 at 8:32 pm

    In my close and continuous observation, some Indian employers engaged in certain type of industries resort to constructive dismissal on alleged poor performance when they find the replacement cost being very cheap.

    • Karina Schultheis Karina Schultheis on February 21, 2020 at 11:20 am

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I imagine cultural norms certainly play a role in hiring, firing & disciplinarian trends — though from what you’re describing, with “constructive dismissal” and “alleged poor performance”, sounds like it would lead to significant uncertainty and negatively impact employee experience and, ultimately, business performance.

Leave a Comment