Making A Difficult Meeting More Effective

Is there any one “right way” to counsel a misbehaving employee? These are some techniques to help managers with counseling meetings.

I was an English major in college. In a class on 18th century poetry I leaned that it was Alexander Pope who wrote the famous line, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Errors are usually accidental or unintentional. If that’s the case, forgiveness comes easier.

A darker subject is how we deal (or fail to deal) with employees who choose to do the wrong thing. In those cases, compassion and clemency are normally reserved until we see a change. 

The human approach

Over decades as a trainer in on topics involving federal labor/employee relations, I’ve learned that supervisors and managers are seldom taught the disciplinary options prescribed by their agencies to deal with willful outliers. To complicate matters, HR specialists (my former job) commonly look to formulaic approaches like reprimands and suspensions when advising supervisors who want to deal with problems of lying, cheating and stealing. Adult behavior issues, however, are clearly complex and (in the estimation of Mr. Pope) human.

If a supervisor’s job centers on motivating employees to do their best, common wisdom points to the use of either carrots or sticks. The carrot approach is more common and includes compliments, encouragement, awards, etc. They are important and too often deferred/neglected. Even the casual acknowledgement of good/hard work can make a difference. Good employees often leave a job for lack of positive feedback.

Turning back to the sticks, our federal systems for dealing with immature/irresponsible employees have remained static for many decades. They involve an ever-more complex system of memoranda and escalating sanctions. Where the offending behavior is more annoying than serious, the process of progressive discipline often begins with verbal/oral “counseling”.

The unscripted option

While reprimands and suspensions follow predetermined formats, there is no universal understanding of how disciplinary counselings should be done. Different agencies may refer to these encounters as an oral admonishments, verbal warnings, informal reprimands, or some other terminology for what, in essence, is a lecture.

If disciplinary counseling is seen as a lecture, a few things need to be acknowledged. Every parent on your block lectured their kids differently than your own. Some may have done so with saccharine sweetness while others yelled and berated. All had the same objective – stop doing that! 

Given the diversity among supervisors and managers, there is no “right way” to lecture or counsel a misbehaving employee. There are, however, techniques that might increase the effectiveness of the meeting. What follows are a few suggestions for anyone who supervises/manages to consider.

  1. Confronting another adult concerning their conduct/behavior is uncomfortable. Most of us avoid such encounters, imagining how things can go wrong. People don’t like being told their actions are wrong or bad. The supervisor who works up the nerve to assume this parental role should anticipate defensive responses, attempts to turn the table, and similar distractions. The job at hand is to say what needs to be said and document the meeting. Go slowly, look for distracting reactions and move past them.
  2. A lecture is not an investigation. If the supervisor is not asking questions to learn what the employee did/didn’t do and why, there’s no requirement for union representation… even if the employee requests one. Whether you’re “reading the riot act” or gently reminding the employee of coworker sensitivities, counseling is not a two-way street. The “Weingarten right” doesn’t apply to a lecture.
  3. Counseling an employee should have objectives. In my estimation, principal among these is to correct the problem and/or change the behavior. If you want an employee to do the right thing (or stop doing the wrong), keep your objective(s) in mind. Again, distractions come easily to all of us, so be prepared and stay focused.
  4. The supervisor probably needs to cite or describe the circumstances that led to the counseling and why things need to change. Once that’s done, the less said about past events the better. Debates over facts and perceptions can easily dominate the meeting. The counseling isn’t intended to establish innocence or guilt so pivoting from the past to the future is important.
  5. Attorneys and judges consider effective disciplinary counseling as putting the employee on “clear notice”. Imagine your mother telling you not to look into her purse without permission. Now if you’re caught doing it again, the willfulness of your conduct is clear. Being “on notice” or “warned” is an important Douglas factor should the behavior persist.
  6. Disciplinary counselings have two likely outcomes – the employee changes for the better or they don’t. That leads to documentation. It can easily be typed and emailed after the counseling is done and will be easier to compose if the supervisor had talking points outlined at the beginning. Another option is having a notetaker (someone who is used to keeping such matters private) in the room. Make it clear that both the meeting and the notes are confidential. Supervisory intentions can be clarified by offering to share any notes taken with the employee after the meeting concludes.
  7. Unlike typed warnings, cautions or reprimands, the notes from a disciplinary counseling have no shelf life or expiration tied to them, unless a (rare) collective bargaining agreement provision says otherwise. The expungement of disciplinary memos is an HR policy that should be undone, but it exists in all of the agencies with which I’m familiar. Saving documentation of the meeting is only important if the employee’s misconduct persists. Let’s hope it doesn’t.
  8. If possible, conclude on a positive note. The supervisor would do well to consider the employee’s best attributes (popularity, skill set, experience, etc.) and let them know they are valued. Imagine how things might be if the behavior issues were behind the two of you and what your working relationship could be. If you can imagine a positive future, share it.

Counseling vs. traditional discipline

Only a few among us live as perpetual adolescents – never admitting our own mistakes, forever challenging authority, and resisting the constraints of a federal workplace/bureaucracy. For them, counseling may prove the first of many escalating disciplinary steps leading toward removal.

Most of us, however, would rather not test “the system” or do battle with agency leadership. We’ve all made bad choices and most of us learned to curb our worst behaviors when they were reflected back at us. Preparing for the worst is smart. Imagining the best is too. If the objective of discipline (including this early step) is to instigate a change in another person’s behavior, I hope the counseling works and the future is positive.

The government’s systems for dealing with misconduct with reprimands and suspensions date back more than 60 years without significant change. Memoranda like letters of warning and reprimand may have been very impactful in the days before personal computers and smart phones. In today’s world, a face-to-face confrontation may have a greater impact than pre-formatted HR memos. 

Here’s hoping counseling has its intended effect and that forgiveness follows.

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to