Tips on Counseling for Supervisors: Part 1 – What is Counseling?

Counseling employees is an important part of every supervisor’s job. The author provides some fundamentals of counseling and how to use it in a supervisory role.

So why am I writing this article? I’m writing it for supervisors with the goal of generating renewed interest in the power of face-to-face counseling sessions with employees.

I suspect some of you are highly skilled at counseling, use it as a tool whenever necessary, and take great pride in the performance of individual employees as well as your organization as a whole.

I also suspect an equal or greater number of readers are not so skilled. Maybe they never had training or feel inadequate or uncomfortable. Maybe they fear a complaint so step back and hope the situation will work itself out without their personal involvement. Maybe this. Maybe that. Maybe isn’t good enough.

Counseling is a fundamental part of every supervisor’s job. Yes, I’m advocating more counseling. I can’t help but recall the time I was on a HQ HR inspection team at a field activity and at an evening meeting one of the team members reported to the group that what is needed here is more good old fashioned counseling. In my opinion, that’s what is still needed, but I’m not so sure about the “old fashioned” style.

Your leadership ability has a direct influence on the individual and collective performance of those under your supervision. You have the daily challenge of recognizing and building the strengths of employees and the responsibility to point out and address opportunities for improvement.

Employee counseling is a way to address concerns about performance or work related behaviors in a positive and constructive manner if done correctly. I am hoping this series of articles will provide you with the necessary knowledge and information to use counseling as an effective supervisory tool.

What is Counseling?

Among the many definitions of counseling is one which says that counseling has, as one of its goals, to guide individuals to a better understanding of their problems and potentialities. In the workplace, counseling is a discussion between a supervisor and an employee about performance or conduct. The discussion may focus on a specific incident, a particular aspect of an employee’s performance which the supervisor identified as needing improvement, or in some instances the employee’s overall performance or behavior.

The purposes of the discussions are: to communicate the supervisor’s concerns to the employee, to determine the cause or causes of the employee’s actions, to identify avenues for improvement or development, and of course to ultimately improve the employee’s performance.

Counseling is a positive and constructive supervisory tool.   Because it involves face-to-face communication between the supervisor and employee, it is the most direct and efficient means available to have a positive impact on the performance or conduct of an employee. Is a successful outcome always guaranteed? Of course not. But what is guaranteed is that if the supervisor sidesteps counseling, there will be no change in performance or conduct.

Unfortunately, the terms counseling and counseling memo have become sensitive terms that stimulate strong reactions in both supervisors and employees. One reason for this is that counseling is often mistaken for a form of discipline.

Counseling is not discipline. The main difference between counseling and discipline is that counseling attempts to modify performance through face-to-face communication and problem solving, while discipline attempts to do so through imposing a penalty.

For most types of performance shortcomings, a supervisor should attempt to deal with the issue through counseling. Certainly, there are circumstances that require immediate disciplinary action. Examples include, but are not limited to, illegal, unethical, dishonest or highly inappropriate activities such as sexual harassment, verbal or physical assault, insubordination, or theft or destruction of government property. Supervisors facing such serious violations should immediately consult with their human resource staff or other designated staff offices.

The Counseling Session

Supervisors sometimes avoid conducting counseling sessions with employees because they anticipate, sometimes correctly, that the session will be personally unpleasant. Many individuals simply do not enjoy confronting others with judgments about performance.

As is true of most people, supervisors have a need to be liked by members of the social groups with which they are associated. Counseling can disrupt the personal relationships that such groups represent.

Sometimes supervisors anticipate this will occur, imagining that an employee will react to the session with hostility, or withdraw during the session and thereafter ignore the supervisor’s presence except when given direct orders. Such reactions by employees do happen, and, in fear of that, supervisors may avoid the discussion altogether.

Avoiding the discussion, however, will only result in the problem and potential confrontation becoming worse. Counseling is an important part of a supervisor’s job. When accomplished effectively, it can resolve problems in a positive manner which often includes strengthening the relationship between the supervisor and employee.

I can certainly provide my own testimony. I was called into my boss’s office while still a “fed” and was tactfully informed that I was spending too much time on one part of my job (the part I enjoyed) and needed to spend more effort on another major part of my job. We discussed the whys and expectations and I thanked my boss for telling me – because I had no reason to believe he was concerned. I have to admit it was a pleasant and worthwhile meeting and caused me to have greater respect for my boss.

When to Conduct a Counseling Session

The short answer is sooner rather than later.   There is no hard and fast rule as to when counseling is appropriate. As a general rule counseling is appropriate when a concern with performance or conduct is first noticed.   However, the supervisor must exercise judgment and discretion when determining whether, and at what point, to counsel.

Certain types of behavior might be a problem after one incident, while others might not become a problem until a pattern develops. For example, an employee who had excellent attendance for several years may not require counseling due to one day’s tardiness. In such situations, premature attempts at counseling run the risk of creating a defensive attitude on the part of the employee. In other circumstances, however, the severity or nature of a situation might warrant counseling following one incident, regardless of the employee’s work history.

The first step in deciding if counseling is appropriate is to carefully review the facts. Factors the supervisor should consider include the severity of the incident or behavior and the impact it has on the workplace, the employee’s work history, and, if available, the circumstances surrounding the incident or behavior. If after a review and analysis of available information, the supervisor continues to be concerned or have question about the employee’s performance or behavior, counseling is both necessary and appropriate.

Once the supervisor determines that counseling is appropriate, it should be conducted promptly – meaning as soon as possible.

This is important for several reasons. First, it is best to discuss an incident when it is still fresh in the mind of the supervisor and the employee. If the discussion is delayed, specific details of the incident may fade from memory and result in the discussion focusing only on what happened, rather than on why it happened and what corrective measures will be taken.

Second, failure to act promptly may give tacit approval to the employee’s behavior, thereby encouraging the behavior to continue.

And finally, an employee is more likely to question the importance of the matter if the counseling session is conducted long after the incident. In addition to minimizing the effectiveness of the counseling, this may cause the employee to be suspicious of the supervisor’s motive in conducting the counseling and increase the potential for conflict.

End of Part I

Well, I hope my bias in favor of counseling came through loud and clear. If not I’ll try harder in Part II, which will address how to conduct a counseling session. I’ll close out the series in Part III which will cover who should attend the session, when a counseling memo may be appropriate and tips for writing the memo. These will be posted on in the near future.

I invite readers to share their success stories as well as lessons learned from their experiences with counseling in the comments below.

All opinions expressed above are mine only and do not reflect those of FedSmith, any clients, or other person I know. If you want to contact me my email address is

Dennis Hermann retired from the government after a 30 year career in employee and labor relations. He worked for several companies before starting his own VOSB in 2014. You may recognize some of his trainers: Bob Gilson, Don Musacchio and Bob Dietrich.