Those of you who manage people have undoubtedly had situations where someone is not performing up to expectations. And, you probably have some rules in place to handle situations that are more clear-cut disciplinary. For example, if you find that someone stole a calf from your operation, you would probably dismiss the employee. The same thing may apply if an employee shows up drunk or is having a fist fight. How this is handled varies from dairy to dairy.

There are other situations where it is a little less black-and-white. For example, the person showed up late for work the last three days. What do you do? 

Many dairies have instituted a warning system for disciplinary instances. Often, the penalties become more severe if the employee continues to commit infractions.

  • Verbal warning. The first time someone is warned, it is done verbally, and the manager or supervisor records the event in the employee’s personnel file.
  • Written warning. The second time someone is warned, it is done in a written manner. The note is given to the employee to sign, acknowledging he is at fault and will obey next time. The paperwork goes into the employee’s file.
  • Dismissal. This may occur if the employee doesn’t make the requested improvements to address the situation immediately. 

A system like this is popular with managers and supervisors because it is easy, it can get quick results, and it establishes who is in charge. But it can miss some of the subtleties involved when an employee flagrantly violates the rules (requiring discipline) versus when the employee simply doesn’t perform up to expectations because of unforeseen circumstances.  

The other day on a 5,000-cow dairy, a very competent employee, Luis, was left in charge of treating all of the hospital cows for 10 days while Daniel (the person normally in charge) went on vacation.  Someone else covered Luis’ regular job while this occurred. At the end of the 10 days, the dairy manager concluded that Luis did a good job of providing relief for Daniel. Once back in his regular job, Luis seemed very tired and his performance suffered. The dairy manager figured it must be the impact of intensive work in the hospital while covering for Daniel, but later found that Luis also had personal problems with family at the same time. The parlor supervisor wanted to use a warning system. The manager didn’t.

So, what do you do here?

The example with Luis is NOT disciplinary, since he is doing his work and following orders. It is a performance issue, and someone needs to work with him to improve his performance and get him back on track.

But how do we define performance here? The performance expected of a milker is to treat animals with care, to know and carry out the milking procedure fully so milk can be harvested from cows on a timely manner, detect and separate cows with mastitis, and so on. It is the duty of managers to assure that work is carried out according to the dairy’s specifications. But, do ALL workers perform always at 100 percent of what is expected? Probably not, and the reasons are numerous, such as lack of proper management, motivation of employees, the work environment, policies, mismatch of people and jobs and competencies.

We MUST NOT confuse a situation where discipline is lacking — someone is not following orders or has broken company rules — with a situation where a worker or group of workers has lower performance than expected for various  reasons.  A disciplinary system is a short-cut, the easy way out for performance problems.  Lower performance problems need time and attention from managers and supervisors, deeper conversations, and feedback for employees to be empowered to turn their performance around.

Jorge Estrada is an organizational development consultant and leadership coach with Leadership Coaching International, Inc. He can be reached at (360) 481-0133 or