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Employee Discipline

Topic Areas

  1. Overview
  2. Prevention
  3. Addressing Conduct Problems


An employee may be disciplined for misconduct that adversely affects the efficiency of the Federal Service. Conduct problems typically stem from employees who fail to comply with the written and unwritten rules of the workplace such as coming to work on time, obeying orders, protecting government property, and in general supporting, not interfering, with the efficiency of the Federal Government. Examples of employee misconduct for which discipline might be appropriate include such offenses as absence from work without approved leave, misuse of government equipment, failure to obey a direct order, and negligence.

Employees may also exhibit problems with their performance that may stem from the lack of knowledge, skill, or ability (KSA's) to successfully perform the duties of their position. These types of problems are typically handled through a unique set of procedures as outlined in 5 Code of Federal Regulations Part 432 and will be addressed separately. These procedures involve providing the employee an opportunity to improve his or her performance, typically through the use of a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).

Disciplinary action is the most appropriate avenue in which to address misconduct directly related to the performance of assigned duties. If an employee has demonstrated that he/she has the KSAs necessary to perform the full range of duties of the job, and the employee commits an act of negligence, disregard, or carelessness, counseling or discipline (not a PIP) is warranted. Disciplinary action can be taken for the offenses such as: negligent or careless work performance; failure or delay in carrying out assignments; and, concealing or attempting to conceal defective work. PIPs are best reserved for those employees who attempt to adequately perform the job but fall short of acceptable performance due to a lack or deficiency in their KSAs.

Keep in mind that the goal of discipline is to correct misconduct and modify unacceptable behavior, rather than to punish the employee. Discipline, if imposed, should be progressive, beginning with the minimum discipline necessary to correct the offense. In addition, penalties should be reasonably consistent with those imposed on other employees for similar offenses. The USDA Table of Penalties


Hopefully, certain actions by supervisors can serve to prevent employee misconduct from ever occurring. Managers may help to prevent the necessity for disciplinary action by recognizing the fundamental worth and dignity of the individual employee and by communicating their belief that all employees want to strive for and can reach their highest potential. Some examples of ways in which supervisors may be able to prevent employee problems include:

  • Setting an example by their own conduct, maintaining high professional and ethical standards.
  • Providing a high-quality work environment that is conducive to innovation and increased productivity. This includes providing challenging assignments, as well as adequate equipment, facilities, and workspace. Creativity should be encouraged and authority and responsibility should be delegated to the maximum extent practicable.
  • Establishing and communicating clear guidelines concerning their expectations for the operation of their office. For example, clearly stating how employees are to request and receive approval for leave.
  • Establishing objective, understandable, obtainable, and measurable performance standards and communicating them clearly to employees.
  • Monitoring performance and giving frequent feedback.
  • Holding employees accountable for results and recognizing and rewarding good performance.
  • Providing opportunities for individual growth and development, including formal and on-the-job training, mentors, and role models for employees.
  • Utilizing the resources at USDA that are designed to assist both the supervisor and employee to address problems. These resources include OHRM's Labor/Employee Relations and Litigation Branch (LERLB), the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), USDA's Work/Life Programs and Services, and the Conflict Resolution and Prevention Center's Alternative Dispute Resolution Program.


If an employee is exhibiting conduct problems, there are many steps that a supervisor may take, short of official disciplinary action, to help that employee to improve. For example:

  1. Discuss any misconduct or performance problems directly with the employee. Use specific examples. Give the employee an opportunity to provide an explanation, and carefully listen to and consider what the employee has to say.
  2. Clearly explain expectations to the employee and review any rules, regulations or policies in the area where the employee is exhibiting problems. Provide the employee an opportunity to ask any questions and offer assistance in complying with your expectations.
  3. If applicable, develop a plan with the employee directed at helping to improve his/her misconduct. If possible, set time limits for improvement and be very clear about the consequences.
  4. Give the employee periodic and specific feedback. Compare any problems with the expectations you have articulated and/or against any applicable regulations, policies, or rules. This feedback should occur as soon as possible after any incident of misconduct. Be firm and clear about what improvement you expect to occur. Tell the employee that you may have to take further steps if behavior does not improve.
  5. In the event the employee raises or alleges to any personal issues that may be affecting his or her conduct or performance, provide the employee written information concerning the USDA Employee Assistance Program. If the employee raises a medical issue and/or requests accommodation for a medical condition, you may request, in writing, that the employee submit medical information to the LERLB for review. The USDA Medical Officer can help determine if the medical condition alleged by the employee is supported by the documentation submitted and, if so, the nature/extent of any functional restrictions as well as the type of accommodation that may be warranted.
  6. Provide any accommodations that are warranted and reasonable to allow the employee to effectively function in his or her position.
  7. If misconduct continues, the supervisor may choose to orally admonish the employee, providing a strong message that further incidents of similar misconduct may lead to more formal action. An oral admonishment may be followed by a written admonishment should the employee fail to improve. If after all informal attempts have failed, the misconduct continues, the supervisor, following consultation with the HR Office, may decide to formally discipline the employee.