Tips for Counseling Employees

These six steps can help supervisors become more effective at counseling their employees.

In my experience, supervisors do not correct employee behavior too often, but rather too infrequently, as well as too late. Some supervisors find it easy to show appreciation but more difficult to tackle performance issues. Others find it easy to correct bad behavior but difficult to praise and reward good behavior. By showing appreciation without ever communicating corrections, a supervisor with unexpressed concerns can lead an employee to believe that everything is fine. Employees often say that they believed they were performing at an adequate level, until suddenly receiving a poor performance rating. 

When teaching supervisory training classes, I advise supervisors to counsel early and often when it comes to conduct and performance issues. Many supervisors dread counseling their employees. Counseling has a negative connotation when considered a precursor to disciplinary actions. However, counseling that is done well and taken seriously by the employee will actually negate the need for further action.

If supervisors want to become effective counselors, they must be prepared for the task. Counseling should not occur in the form of an impromptu discussion. The following six steps will help to enhance counseling sessions with individual employees: 

1. Identify the problem.

What problems require correction? Is the employee frequently tardy? Is the employee missing deadlines on a regular basis? Determine what problem or problems need to be discussed before initiating the meeting. The root causes of the problem should be a central topic. The purpose of the counseling is to try to find out why the problem is occurring and what can be done to cure the problem.

 2. Plan, coordinate, and organize the session.

Location is important. Ideally, aim for a confidential discussion that will not be overhead by others. Counseling meetings are not intended to embarrass employees. If the objective is to enforce a conduct rule, then the discussion should take place in the supervisor’s office, with the supervisor sitting at his or her desk. If the meeting is designed as a collaborative problem-solving exercise, then the discussion should be held in a neutral location, such as a conference room where the supervisor and employee can sit side-by-side, if they prefer. As the supervisor, develop a mental plan for the meeting and know ahead of time what is to be accomplished. Do not be tempted to wing it and see how things go. An agenda will help keep the meeting on track, so that the goals are accomplished without running the risk of the employee or you monopolizing the meeting.

3. Be sincere and compassionate, but remain firm and in control.

Yelling at an employee may make you feel better in the moment, but will rarely lead to an employee altering his or her behavior in the future. Instead, raising one’s voice often creates even higher barriers. If a supervisor is angry with an employee, or if the employee is angry with a supervisor, it is not the right time to conduct a counseling session. It is not unusual for an employee to replicate a supervisor’s demeanor during a meeting. Anger will usually only create more anger and/or resentment. The supervisor must take responsibility for setting the meeting’s tone. Sincerity, compassion, and kindness are appropriate when dealing with employee conduct issues. The purpose of counseling is to motivate behavioral changes, and not to create enemies. Try to create an atmosphere in which the employee wants to contribute to the discussion, but remember to remain in control of the session. Utilizing an agenda can help with this, but demeanor is essential as well. As mentioned, there should always be ground rules for a counseling session. One of the most important rules is that counseling should always be conducted in a civil manner.

4. Analyze the forces influencing the behavior. 

During the session, determine what the employee believes to be the cause of the counterproductive behavior. Try to understand what will be required to change the behavior. Is the employee late for work because they cannot get out of bed on time? Or are they late because of heavy traffic on the way to their child’s daycare center? A counseling session is an opportunity both for the supervisor to explain concerns and for the employee to explain their side of the story. The employee should feel that their supervisor is listening when the employee explains their situation.

5. Decide whether to use directive or non-directive counseling.

Try to decide when to use directive or non-directive counseling techniques. Directive counseling involves telling the employee what is expected of them. Non-directive counseling is used when a supervisor enlists an employee’s suggestions for ways to improve. An example of directive counseling would be telling an employee who is consistently tardy that work starts at 9:00 a.m., and that arriving after that time will lead to disciplinary action. Nondirective counseling would be asking the employee why they are always late for work. In this approach, the supervisor should be prepared to define appropriate behaviors, while still engaging the employee in brainstorming ways to improve.

6. Use the facts to decide and explain what actions are required. 

No counseling session should end without the supervisor and the employee firmly understanding what decision has been made. The meeting should conclude with the supervisor summarizing any guidance and direction concerning the employee’s future conduct or performance. The supervisor must clearly define what is expected and what will happen if these expectations are not met. The employee should then be allowed to ask questions in order to clarify the supervisor’s meaning.

Case Study and Exercise: Late Again

Amy has arrived late to five client meetings within the past month. Her clients think highly of her and have not yet complained to Jonathan, Amy’s direct supervisor. However, Jonathan recently heard about Amy’s behavior from other employees. He has counseled her twice in the past about her tardiness and unscheduled absences. At one of those meetings, Amy became extremely upset and accused Jonathan of unfair treatment. She reminded Jonathan that she had received exceptional customer reviews from her clients. Jonathan remains concerned about Amy’s behavior and wants to address this continuing problem as soon as possible. For this reason, he has asked Amy to join him for a meeting. Jonathan prides himself on providing excellent customer service; however, Amy’s attitude reflects poorly on the company. On the morning of their meeting, Amy arrives late to the office for her session with Jonathan. 

Using the six steps outlined above, plan for this counseling meeting as if you were in Jonathan’s role by asking the following questions:

  1. What problem is Jonathan trying to correct? Is it Amy’s tardiness to client meetings, her disregard for prior counseling, or her new infraction of arriving late to this session? How should Jonathan handle the fact that Amy has arrived late to the counseling session
  2. Where should Jonathan hold the meeting in order to ensure that Amy understands the seriousness of the issue? 
  3. Should Jonathan take a directive counseling approach and make it clear to Amy what the rules are regarding repeat tardiness? Is the goal of the meeting to be firm about Amy not being tardy? Or is the meeting an opportunity to work together and find a solution to her tardiness? Depending on the approach you choose, decide what questions one would ask Amy and what directions she should be given.
  4. How should Jonathan begin the discussion? Depending on the goals and approach selected, what tone should he use in speaking with Amy in order to make it clear that the supervisor, not the employee, is conducting the meeting? 
  5. What directions should Jonathan give Amy? How should expectations for Amy’s behavior be summarized? Counseling is an opportunity to provide employees with direction in terms of their conduct and performance. Counseling is not just something that happens but is instead something that must be carefully planned to achieve maximum advantages for all participants. 

Remember that counseling should be done early and often. Waiting until bad habits have already become entrenched can make it much more difficult to correct behavior at a later date. 

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email [email protected] or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.

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