Effective Counseling Meetings Require Careful Planning

If you are a federal manager or supervisor, you will have to learn how to counsel employees about a problem. Most people find that planning such a meeting causes apprehension and, if not done correctly, it can create more problems than it will solve. Here are tips for properly handling such a meeting.

Every supervisor and manager sooner or later faces the need to counsel an employee. Once the decision is made that counseling is necessary, most managers find themselves feeling apprehensive about the prospect. What do I say? How do I hit the right note? How do I get improvement without creating resentment? How do I open the meeting? How do I wrap it up?

Where to Start

The best place to start is with the behavior that’s causing you problems. Developing a clear written statement of the problem will help you focus. That’s right, a written statement that identifies the EXACT unacceptable behavior and explains the effect the behavior is having on the work, other employees, customers or you. Spend some time on this statement. Make sure it’s readable, clear and complete. If you’re having difficulty writing down a problem and its effects, you may want to reconsider the idea of counseling. If you can’t describe a problem, there probably isn’t one. On the other hand, if writing out the problem and its effect is fairly simple, you’re well on your way to a solution.

Figure Out What You Want

Before you meet with anyone, decide exactly what behavior you want to see from the person that solves the problem. Writing that down helps too. If the behavior you want is situational, describe the most common situations and the correct behavior to address each.

Get Your Writing Right and the Meeting Will Go Well

This is writing by you and for you. Use it to clarify your thinking and to focus your efforts. The clearer it is to you, the clearer it will be to the employee. As you can probably tell by now, this will form the basis of your plan for the meeting. After all, the meeting is fairly simple in concept if more complex in execution:

  • Lay out the problem
  • Get the employee’s take on it
  • Make it clear what you want them to do
  • Explain why it’s important
  • &Thank them in advance for their cooperation
  • Send them back to work

Clear the Decks

Have you ever been with someone in a meeting on an issue that you thought was important to both of you? A phone rings and the other person leaps to answer it and proceeds to enter a discussion while you twiddle your thumbs. Here’s the bad news. The person doesn’t give a damn about you. My advice: leave when they pick up the phone. If they answered it, you are not important to them. Now I know there are people who will claim my position is dead wrong. Heck with ‘em.

You can create the exact same perception and reaction by one of your employees unless they know they have your undivided attention. This requires private space, no interruptions, the phone on hold, and so on. Do it and they’ll more likely take you seriously, don’t do it and they’ll think you’re going through the motions. Your call.

What to Tell the Employee Beforehand

Tell the person why you want to meet with them. Don’t email them or call them. Tell them face to face you want to get together and talk about some concerns you’re having. Do this privately as well but don’t have the discussion until the meeting. It’s your nickel, spend when you’re ready.

Opening the Meeting

Get to the point. Go right to your problem statement and lay it out. If the employee is in denial, give examples. If they’re still in denial, move on to the behavior you want to see from them. Don’t argue. You don’t have to. You’re the supervisor, you’ve identified the problem. Make it clear that it’s their job to act appropriately in a situation. Be clear about why it’s a problem. Specify the effects. Tell them how you want it fixed i.e., exactly what you want done. Listen to what they say, be empathetic, but be firm.

What if the Person Has a Point?

So you’re in the meeting. You’re describing the problem and your employee gives you information you don’t have, tells a credible story about why they’re acting the way they are or otherwise gets your attention. Smart move? Listen to what they’re saying, then end the meeting by telling them you want to think about what they’ve said. Check it all out. If they have a point deal with it. If not, reconvene the meeting and pick up where you left off.

Closing the Meeting

Make sure the person is clear on your expectations. Getting agreement that there’s a problem would be wonderful. Getting compliance with your expectations is the bottom line. Make sure to tell the person that you are available to help them deal with problems before they become overwhelming. Thank them for coming , listening and for their cooperation.

Following Up

Send a same day memo memorializing the counseling. The memo should say that you met and discussed the problem. It should also list the expected behavior and thank them for their cooperation.

If you think they haven’t heard you or If you don’t see results immediately, write them a guidance and instruction memorandum. (See The Best Tool in Your Managerial Toolbox, Part I)

Any opinion expressed above is mine and mine alone.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.