Counseling – Part 2: Preparing For Counseling

Leadership-MattersIn Part 1 of this series, “Understanding the Basics”, I shared that 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 and 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.

To achieve this purpose, we first have to determine if counseling is the correct action to take. To do this, focus on the reason for counseling – identify the problem. Get a piece of paper and write down exactly what you think the problem is that needs to be addressed. Now comes the important time of assessment.

If the problem is a performance issue, are you absolutely sure that the employee has all the tools they need to successfully complete the requirements of the job? Does he/she have the necessary training they need to know how to do the job? If the answer to these questions is “no”, than counseling will not be the answer to the perceived poor performance – you have let your employee fail. Get them the equipment/tools they need and the necessary training and then see if there is an improvement. If the problem is poor performance and the employee has everything they need to be successful, then counseling is the tool by which you should address the issue. If the problem is one of bad behavior, than counseling is always the tool that is used to correct the problem.

So, once you know you will need to counsel the employee, here are the steps to take to ensure you will be able to meet all the objectives of the counseling session.

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  • Executive-Coaching-counseling-evaluation-leadershipGather the facts – performance. If poor performance is the problem, obtain a copy of the job description for the employee and highlight the exact areas of deficiency. With the exact areas that need improvement identified, write down a clear definition of what constitutes success and the exact reasons why the employee’s performance is not meeting this goal. Then outline the exact actions that need to be taken to bring their performance up to the set goals and what help is available from fellow employees or from yourself that will enhance their performance. Finally, formulate a reasonable timeframe by which the employee can be expected to correct their performance to meet the goals. You now have the information you need to begin helping your employee achieve success.
  • Gather the facts – behavioral problems. If the problem you have with your employee is one of inappropriate behavior, begin by obtaining a copy of any written policies that deal with the behavior. If you do not have copies of the policies, your Human Resources manager should be able to help with this. (NOTE: You may find that a written policy does not exist and you will have to modify your intended action until a written policy is in place. I had a case where a department head was having an inappropriate relationship with one of his employees. I was told to dismiss him on the grounds he violated our policy against fraternization. However, there was no written policy against the behavior and our lawyers advised us against termination to prevent a possible law suit. So, I had to change my actions and our policies had to be updated to prevent this problem in the future.) Of course, not all bad behavior requires a written policy to back it up but it sure makes it defendable should you have to go through a formal hearing as a result of a termination should the behavior continue to that point. (EXAMPLE: An employee who refuses to work with other team members if his/her ideas are not used becomes disruptive and can be counseled without a policy that says you must act like an adult. If necessary, this type of behavior can be classified as creating an uncomfortable or hostile working environment and a written policy that is general in its wording can be all-encompassing for these types of bad behavior. In any case where a specific behavior is not address, please ensure you work with your HR department to get a policy in place.) You may also have written statements from fellow employees or customers that provide specific incidents of the inappropriate behavior. Review these and highlight supporting information that will benefit the employee in their understanding of why their behavior has had an adverse effect on his/her fellow employees, the organization, and/or its customers. Now that you have your written support, follow the same steps as outlined above. Highlight the parts of the policy that relate to the unprofessional behavior, write down a clear example of what constitutes professional behavior in this area and how the employee’s behavior does not meet the standards, outline the corrective action and in most cases, let them know that he/she is expected to change their behavior immediately. Finally, decide exactly how long it will be when you will follow-up with the employee to discuss their progress. This timeframe should be as short as logically possible to ensure you see a pattern that indicates the employee has corrected the problem behavior. You also need to determine how long you will monitor this situation to ensure the behavior does not re-occur immediately after the follow-up counseling. I recommend six (6) months.
  • Determine the Counseling Session to use. After you have your facts, you must now determine which level of counseling you feel is needed based upon the offense. Always start with the lowest possible session. Reviewing from Part 1, your choices are:
    • Informal Counseling – A chance to discuss the problem in an informal, comfortable setting that enables you to stress you are giving the employee a change to change without a formal record of the discussion in their employee file.
    • Formal Counseling – Again, a chance to discuss the problem in an informal setting but the employee will know at the end of the session that a record of this counseling will be placed in their employee folder.
    • Formal Counseling with Corrective Action – A more structured and serious counseling session where the employee will be required to take some time off without pay to think about their actions and how they can change to meet the requirements placed on them. This counseling is also documented in the employee’s official folder.
    • Termination – This is the most formal counseling session because at the end of this session, the employee is terminated and asked to remove themselves from the property as quickly as possible.
  • Mentally prepare. Once I have completed my gathering of facts and outlining my counseling requirements, I take the time to mentally prepare for the counseling session. I play out in my head all the different reactions I can expect based upon my knowledge of the employee and some unexpected reactions with which I may have to deal. I try to come up with anticipated questions that will be asked and their answers. I try to outline the best approach to discuss the problem and all the possible solutions that will make the counseling lead to getting the employee back on the team and to make them feel good about the process. I make notes to myself during this preparation time until I am sure I am mentally ready to meet this important challenge in a manner that will result in a productive counseling session.[/message][su_spacer]

So, let’s put it all together. I had an employee who was caught stealing from the organization for which I worked. I was responsible for all corrective counseling to include terminations for the organization. I had in my possession a copy of a statement from the department head who had a citizen call and express a concern that lead to an undercover investigation by our sheriff, the statement of the undercover officer who conducted the sting, a copy of the employee’s account closeout statement showing no cash had been taken in that day, a photo copy of marked bills that were used to pay for a product and were found on the employee after he had closed out his account and reported no cash collected, and a copy of the search warrant that authorized a deputy to search the employee and his vehicle had he not willingly consented to the searches so the deputy could see if the bills were in the possession of the employee.

Since theft of this nature was clearly grounds for dismissal and that was covered in the employee manual of which I had a copy, I would be conducting a termination session. I had the department head bring the employee to my office and had instructed him to stay as a witness to the termination along with the HR Director. I had a chair placed in front of my desk for the employee to sit in while I outlined our reason for the termination. I knew from talking to the department head the night before that the employee had anger issues and was already bragging that he would sue the organization and me personally if I tried to fire him. So, I was prepared for my session both physically and mentally.

I got right to the point and told the employee that because he had stolen money from us, he was being terminated effective immediately. With those words, he stood up and because cursing me and telling me how he was going to sue the organization and me personally. He talked about how nice it was going to be to see me lose my home because I had “picked on the wrong person.” While he as ranting, I very quietly picked up my phone and called the Sheriff who I had on standby just for this occasion. I placed the phone in speaker mode and asked the sheriff if he could come to my office and arrest the employee for theft from our agency. I told him that I would hold him in my office until he arrived. As the sheriff was saying, “Sure thing”, the employee began saying, “Now wait one minute. What do you mean arrest?”

With a stare that cut right through him, I said, “You have been stealing from this organization which has put our reputation and our good employees at risk. Since you are planning on suing, I will need a conviction to protect the organization and me. So, I have decided to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law to ensure we have a clear defense for the actions taken here today.”

“No need for that,” he said, “I was just kidding. I won’t sue. Just tell me where to sign and I will be out of your hair in no time.”

I told the Sheriff he would not be needed after all. With that the employee signed the termination paperwork, shook my hand as I wished him well, and left without incident.

If you are going to be an exemplary leader, you need to be prepared when the occasion calls for you to counsel an employee.


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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