Bite-sized people management 2: The process of counselling

This is the second of a two-part Bite-Sized Management article on Counselling. “Bite-Sized” refers to brief, half- to one-hour discussions with busy managers reminding them of, or introducing, the basics of people management.The first article [see here] looked at the rationale behind and preparation for counselling. This article discusses the steps in the counselling process.

A two-way conversation
Counselling is not a one-way conversation. It’s not about the boss telling employees what they did wrong and what they must do to fix it. It is about helping employees take ownership of their shortcomings and of the development process. If your employees don’t take ownership you will never be free of having to micro manage them.

The following letter was sent to an employee after “counselling”.

You didn’t come to work on Monday and you didn’t phone me.  You asked me on Friday if you could have Monday off and I told you that I couldn’t spare you on that day and you took it off anyway.  That is not acceptable and this letter is going into your file as a written warning.

There are various problems with the letter, but for now the obvious ones are:

This was far too serious (unauthorised leave and insubordina­tion) for a mere letter; it needed disciplinary action and probably more than a written warning.

It’s all one way.  It’s the manager dumping on the employee. One of the key rules of employment law is the audi alteram partem rule—hear the other side.  There is no evidence of listening here and no response recorded.

There is no reference to what rule or policy the employee contravened, or standard the person failed to achieve.

Counselling steps
Counselling Steps TableAfter investigating and deciding that counselling is the way forward, the counselling process itself is a cycle, which can be broken into five steps:

1.  Present the problem
Explain exactly what the problem is and why it is a problem.

Be specific. Avoid, “You’re not making the grade” or “You’re not doing the job properly” or worse, “You’ve got a bad attitude.” What is he or she doing or not doing? What is the target that they are missing? Give as much detail as possible.

It is not enough simply to tell the employee what the problem is.  Why is it a problem?

The employee knows that he is coming late to work or that she is not meeting her sales targets, but in the employee’s mind it’s not a problem, because it’s not their fault. As far as they are concerned, there’s nothing they can do about it, and you should be more understanding.

Why is this target, this standard, this rule so important?  And “Because I said so” is not a reason. Help the employee understand the business imperatives.

An employee is more than one incident or one aspect of his or her job.  You want to improve performance, not destroy the relationship.  Put the problem in context:

“I want to talk with you about your late coming, but I want also to acknowledge that you really seem to have picked up the work very quickly.  That has saved me a lot of time.”


“I want to discuss one aspect of the job you seem to be struggling with, but I’m really pleased at how you have fitted into the team so well.”

2.  Clarify
Ask why the employee failed to meet the target or acted as they did. Give the employee a meaningful opportunity to respond to the allegations raised. You might reject the employee’s explanation, but it cannot simply be ignored.  The law is adamant on this point.

In Fraser vs Caxton Publishers the CCMA arbitrator agreed that the employee was guilty of the conduct for which she had been dismissed and that dismissal was a reasonable sanction. However, the dismissal was found to be unfair because the employee had not been given a chance to defend herself against the charges. The employer was ordered to compensate the employee with four months’ pay.

Always dig deeper—ask questions such as:

Did you know that you were supposed to, or not supposed to…?
Why did you/didn’t you?

Don’t fill gaps with your own assumptions.  Ask questions until you have the full picture in the employee’s words, not yours.

3.  Agree
Discuss and agree on the next step. Note this is about agreement, not forcing your own decisions. If you can’t get the employee to agree to a meaningful programme, the employee will not take ownership of the process.

Discuss what is going to be done next by whom and by when? Again, be specific. Not: “From now on you’d better pull up your socks” or, “Get your act together.” Agree on a follow-up date and time and keep the appointment.

4.  Record the discussion
All three of the previous steps, including the employee’s responses, must go into the counselling letter or minutes of the discussion.  This is a record for any outside arbitrator to read and to assess the steps that you followed.

Returning to the letter we looked at earlier; if such a letter were to be appropriate, it should look more like this:

You asked me on Friday (date) if you could have Monday (date) off and I told you that I couldn’t spare you on that day because….

You didn’t come to work on Monday (date) and you didn’t phone me to tell me you would not be at work.  This constitutes unauthorised leave and failure to follow company procedures.

When I asked you why you did not come to work on Monday and why you did not phone you said….

I told you that this was unacceptable because….

You agreed that in future you would….

I also explained to you that if this were to happen again disciplinary action would be taken.

According to company policy, this letter constitutes a written warning valid for six months and will be recorded in your employee file.

5.  Follow up
Monitor and keep a record of progress (good and bad) so that when the follow-up date arrives you can discuss progress using real evidence.

Any comments that will help our learning process would be welcomed. If you would like me to present this or other people management training (from half-an-hour to full-day workshops) to your managers or staff, please contact me.

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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