Tips on Counseling for Supervisors: Part 2 – The Counseling Session

Are you aware of best practices on how to conduct a counseling session with an employee? The author shares some tips on how to improve your counseling as a supervisor.

If you haven’t read Tips on Counseling for Supervisors Part 1, I recommend you do so before reading on.

Part 1 provided introductory information about counseling, to include what counseling is, why counseling can be a useful tool for supervisors, and when to conduct a counseling session. If you recall, sooner is almost always better than later.

Today I’m addressing two important areas: some thoughts on how to conduct a counseling session and who should attend. Part 3, coming later, will provide guidance on deciding if a counseling memo should be prepared, and if yes, some ideas on how to write it. So let’s get started.

How to Conduct a Counseling Session

When conducting a counseling session, there are several guidelines I recommend you follow in order to minimize the potential conflict.

Most importantly, you should not view the session as an opportunity to admonish the employee or as a means to threaten the employee with disciplinary action. Your purpose should not be to punish, but rather to find out the cause of the circumstances about which you are concerned.

Some supervisors view counseling as a problem solving exercise. For example, if an employee can’t seem to get to work on time, what prevents the employee from arriving on time? What can the employee do to fix the problem? Does the employee understand the impact of being late (or missing deadlines, not returning phone calls, or other issues of concern) has on the office?

Keep in mind that you, the supervisor, set the tone of the meeting. It can be a shouting match full of accusations and blame, or you can put the employee at ease through the tone you set.

Certainly, where an employee’s performance has repeatedly fallen below your expectations and you have had previous discussions or even counseling sessions with the employee, it may be necessary for you to advise the employee that failure to improve or respond to the counseling may result in some type of performance or conduct based action.

Counseling Guidelines

Additionally, there are a number of guidelines that you may find helpful when counseling employees:

Be prepared

Spend some time reviewing the facts and mentally define your objective for the session.

Counseling sessions should always be conducted in private

If you have an office, perhaps that is the best place to hold the meetings. If not, you should consider another private room away from the employee’s co-workers or clients. Failure to provide a private surrounding is likely to create unnecessary humiliation which could work against the purpose of the meeting.

Never schedule a counseling session with an employee when you are rushed with other duties

Doing so could leave the impression that your concern is minimal if you are frequently interrupted, are constantly looking at your watch, or you rush the employee out before the discussion is complete.

When an employee enters your office, act in a manner consistent with your normal demeanor

When you are normally relaxed with an employee, be yourself. If you act high strung or unusually formal the result may unwittingly raise what I call the bar of conflict. If your goal is to resolve the underlying problem which gave cause to the meeting as well as open lines of communications with the employees, try your best to be your normal self.

Be direct and candid

After greeting and making the employee comfortable, go directly to the reason for the meeting. There’s no need to engage in idle chitchat unrelated to the purpose of the meeting.

In broaching the issue(s) you should explain the exact nature of your concern, making clear what has been observed and why it is important

For example, you might say “I received a report today that yesterday you were rude with Mr. Smith, one of our most important customers. Obviously, the report concerns me because customer service is our bread and butter. Here’s a copy of the report. What happened? I’d like to get your side of the story.

If the employee is cooperative and forthcoming, your job may be confined to determining the employee’s view of what happened and why

For example, if the employee responded by saying, “I suppose you could say I was rude to Mr. Smith.” And your follow-up, “Tell me what happened from your point of view.”

Some employees may be hostile or uncooperative

If that is the case, you should remain calm and speak as you normally do.   Because an employee yells at you, for example, does not mean you must yell back. You are the supervisor. To control the meeting you should control your emotions and reactions – I’m not saying that is easy to do. Rather than reacting to hostility with hostility, try returning the employee’s attention to your concern: “What did you say to Mr. Smith? Why did you say it? How can we fix this? Do you have any suggestions? How can we make sure this does not happen again? If the employee continues to act in a hostile or abusive manner toward you, you should calmly advise the employee that such behavior is unacceptable and if it continues may result in disciplinary action. If the behavior continues, you should end the session and discuss the matter with your supervisor or someone in Human Resources.

Focus on the behavior of the employee, not the employee’s character or morality

An employee is more likely to understand that he or she behaved incorrectly than to accept a supervisor’s assertion that he or she is an unacceptable person. For example, wouldn’t it be better to say “your behavior with Mr. Smith on such and such a day was rude” rather than to say “You are a rude person?”

Be a good listener

Give the employee the opportunity to explain, hopefully without interruption, his or her version of the incident. Sometimes it might be helpful to remind yourself why you have one mouth and two ears. As my wife reminds me from time to time.

Keep an open mind during the counseling session

If the discussion reveals your information was incorrect, or the employee’s explanation is satisfactory, say so to the employee. Even where the employee’s explanation is not satisfactory, the employee is less likely to accept your judgment if you have not given him or her the opportunity to explain.

After hearing the employee’s explanation, you must decide whether other actions may be appropriate in addition to reinforcing to the employee what the rules and expectations are

In listening to the employee’s version of the incident, a number of possible explanations may emerge. For example, the employee may need training or closer supervision for a period of time.   Don’t feel obligated to rush to a decision during the meeting as you may need additional time to think it through.

If the employee indicates the problem is personal

If you have some indication that the problem is other than work related, advise the employee about available assistance such as an Employee Assistance Program.

Reach an understanding on the corrective action that will be taken, if any, and set a follow-up date

Concluding of the counseling session

You should thank the employee for seeing you and extend yourself to the employee should further problems of this nature arise. You want to employee to know you are available to assist in solving such problems before they erupt into the types of incidents that prompted the counseling session.

If you intend to confirm the session in writing, advise the employee that you intend to do so

Who Should Attend the Counseling Session

The short answer, the one that will apply in most situations, is you and the employee. The presence of additional parties is likely to increase the formality of the meeting and decrease the likelihood for open and constructive discussion.

End of Part 2

As I said at the end of Part 1 to this series, “Employee counseling is a way to address concerns about performance or work related behaviors in a positive and constructive manner if done correctly.” Let me highlight IF DONE CORRECTLY. It’s like public speaking; the more you do it, the better you get.

You can expect to see Part 3 within the next two weeks. That will close out the series with a discussion of the counseling memo, whether you should or should not prepare one, and some ideas on how to write it.

I continue to invite readers to share their success stories as well as lessons learned from their experiences with counseling.

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.