Counseling: Part 1 – Understanding the Basics

Leadership-MattersIf you are a leader, at some point in your career, you will have to deal with a team member who is not performing the requirements of the job or who is behaving in a manner that is disruptive to the team. As difficult as this situation is, you must handle it quickly to prevent a major disruption to the team and to ensure the success of your organization. But before you do, you must know why counseling is an effective tool, what you are trying to accomplish, and finally, what are the steps for ensuring your counseling withstands a legal challenge?

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#FFFFFF” end_color=”#FFFFFF” border=”#fb7200″ color=”# fb7200″]First, let me address why counseling is an effective tool. Counseling is not your opportunity to vent your frustration with a problem employee or to exert your authority as the boss. Corrective counseling is a tool leaders use to help a team member grow and change so that he/she can be a value to the organization and its success. Your counseling sessions should be times of encouragement and should be a valuable team building experience. If you approach each counseling session with this attitude, your counseling sessions will be a positive experience for both parties.[/message][su_spacer]

So, as you prepare to talk to your team member, you must understand that the purpose of any corrective counseling session is to identify the problem, outline the expected corrective action, set goals for achieving the corrective action and finally, to set an appointment for reviewing the employee’s progress. I will go into greater detail on exactly what needs to be accomplished is preparing for the counseling session in part two of this series. For now, just keep these goals in mind.

Of course, there are two main reasons leaders dread the counseling process. First, they are afraid that the employee will get mad at them. Even with the best counseling techniques, this is always a possibility. But it is not a valid excuse for not conducting the counseling session. You are not in control of the other person’s emotions but you are in control of the work environment and as such are subject to legal action if you allow inappropriate behavior to continue. So, take a deep breath and get over your fear. You are a leader so you have this obligation.

The second reason that people in leadership positions dread counseling is the fact that it may lead to the termination of an individual. This is never the desired results but it is a possibility and because of that, ensuring your techniques will stand up under official review is a must. When I am counseling, I use the following progressive sessions so that I afford the team member every opportunity to correct the problem before I have to terminate them (I will discuss in detail how to conduct each of these counseling sessions and how to document them in part three of this series). Depending on the reason for the counseling, you may determine to go right to the more formal counseling sessions and skip the informal session.

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  • Executive-Coaching-counseling-evaluation-leadershipInformal Counseling – In this session, I lay out my concern and then give the team member an opportunity to tell me what is going on that may be causing the problem. The goal in this session is to discuss the problem and solutions in a non-threatening manner so that the team member can recognize the need to change is becomes part of the solution. The reason I call this an informal counseling is because I will not be placing anything in the employee’s official employment file – but this session will be documented.
  • Formal Counseling – This is the follow-up session to the Informal Counseling if the problem is still adversely affecting the work environment. During this session, I readdress the problem, indicate if I have noted any areas of improvement (to start on a positive note if possible), outline the areas that are still not meeting the required results, and lay out actions that will need to be taken to correct the problem. I willingly listen to the employee as they make their case as to why they have not shown more improvement but I a firm about the need for the change to be implemented. This counseling will be documented and entered into the employee’s official record.
  • Formal Counseling with Corrective Action – This is the follow-up session to the Formal Counseling and it means that the employee continues to miss corrective goals and does not seem willing to improve their performance or amend their behavior. So, I will once again outline the problem, what improvements have been noted and what goals have been missed. I will allow the employee to explain but I will let them know that I feel they need time away from the work environment to contemplate their future with the team. I will impose a one to three-day suspension from work without pay (the length of time should fit with the offense being considered and the attitude of the employee during this session). Again, this counseling is documented in the employee’s official record.
  • Termination – Of course, this is the place I am hoping to avoid but I realize that sometimes, it is the necessary action to take when the employee is not willing to change or improve their performance. You must take this step for the good of the institution. As uncomfortable as these sessions can be, as a leader, you must face it with absolute professionalism while showing dignity and respect to the person you are terminating.[/message][su_spacer]

Again, in Parts 2 – Preparing for Counseling and Part 3 – Conducting a Successful Counseling Session, I will go into detail on each of these steps that should enable you to be a successful leader who uses counseling as a tool to keep the team successful and working together.

So, let me end with a very simple success story. I had a good employee who suddenly became short-tempered and very irritable. His behavior was escalating and causing the other team member to avoid working with him. Performance of the entire department was being adversely affected because of the critical position this person was holding in the organization. I knew I needed to take corrective action quickly if this department was going to every start working together again. I arranged for the manager to join me for an informal talk in my office. I let him know I was concerned because his fellow employees and I had notice a big change in his demeanor and that this was causing problems. He quickly apologized and told me he was trying to quit smoking cold turkey, He stated that it was much harder than he thought it would be and he was not having much success. Knowing this, I could provide him insight as to what I went through when I quit smoking and shared some tips on how to overcome the adverse side effects. I was even aware of a person who was a former smoker who conducted “stop smoking” classes at the local hospital and that the classes may be covered by insurance. He was grateful for my candor and helpful advice. He sought help to meet his goal of being a non-smoker and it was not long before we had our “old” employee back again.

If you are going to be an exemplary leader, then learn to master the tool we call counseling.


Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

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  1. Len… the information in this article is priceless! Workplace conflict between employees can often be resolved when the root core is discovered. Especially when behavior changes take place and the person seems out of character. I applaud you for recognizing the need to be pro-active in taking the steps to course correct the issue and bring balance back to the environment. It is not an easy task to take on and it requires confidence in one’s ability to face the challenge with the intention to find the cause. Great foundation tips in your article for any manager or superior who finds himself/herself in an experience that affects the whole.

    • Eileen – So glad you enjoyed this. I wrote this series because so many leaders today think if they ignore problems, they will go away. Unfortunately, they never do and then they explode. The fall out is terrible. Thanks for taking the time to read this and providing your comments.