Counseling – Part 3: Conducting a Successful Counseling Session

Leadership-MattersTo once again review, in Part 1 of this series, I shared the purpose of counseling and in Part 2, the focus was on the things that you need to consider to prepare for the counseling session.

Now that you have a clear understanding of the problem, have gathered the facts, determined the kind of counseling session you will be conducting and prepared yourself mentally, you are now ready to conduct the counseling. To ensure your counseling session is productive, consider these points.

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  • Set a time for the counseling. Contact the person you wish to counsel to schedule the time so that you are not in conflict with another appointment on their calendar. This is a courtesy that will set a positive tone for the counseling session. If they ask the purpose for the meeting, be honest and tell them that you would like to discuss a problem that has come to light (you may even mention the problem – they have a right to know before the meeting). If they start to discuss the problem, ask them nicely to please wait so we can discuss this in private. Contact Human Resources (HR) and ensure they can provide a person to attend the counseling session. If they are unavailable, a fellow manager should be contacted to attend the counseling. You will always want a witness to observe the counseling so that you have an objective third party available to substantiate the conduct and content of the counseling session should it become necessary at a later date. This protects the person being counseled, the organization, and yourself.
  • Prepare the room and if necessary, the appropriate paperwork. Each counseling session has its own character so you need to prepare the room for your counseling. Let me share my approach to each of the different types of counseling sessions.
    • Informal Counseling – I try to set a very relaxed atmosphere. If possible, I like to have two chairs in a corner of the room with a small table between them. I use the corner because it allows that chairs to be positioned for a very natural conversation. I may have a beverage available to offer to set a relaxed tone. The object is to make your team member feel at ease so that you can have a conversation with them that is encouraging and productive. I type up a summary of what I will be discussing (this comes from your preparation phase).
    • Formal Counseling – Again, I want to encourage two way conversations so I would use the same set up as the Informal Counseling. I would have a summary of the counseling typed up in memo form or if your organization has an official form for counseling, I would have that form completed. This paperwork will have a place for the employee to sign and date that acknowledges the counseling and the content of the counseling.
    • Formal Counseling with Corrective Action – Since this counseling follows the Formal Counseling session and indicates that the employee has resisted efforts to correct the problem, I prepare my office in a more formal manner. I will place a chair directly in front of my desk for the employee and I will sit behind my desk to counsel the employee. This sets the tone that the employee needs to take the situation more seriously and that they will be encouraged to consider the importance of working on improving. The same paperwork will be completed as during the Formal Counseling session with the employee signing the completed form.
    • Termination – I set my office the same way as for the Formal Counseling with Corrective Action. The employee will sign the appropriate termination forms for your company so these should be completed in advance of the session.
  • Conduct the Counseling Session. Now you are ready for the actual counseling session. So, these steps will help you stay focused and make the time spent on this important corrective action productive.
    • Start by explaining the presence of HR. Let the employee know that this is for their benefit so that there are no misunderstandings as to what was covered and to assure the employee that the organization’s policies have been reviewed to ensure fairness in the process.
    • Outline the problem. Be direct but fair in your assessment and explanation.
    • Now listen. Allow the employee to voice their side of the story. I have actually refused to terminate an employee once I heard all the facts (see my article, “Does Your Leadership Reflect Justice<>”). This is your chance to really get it right by giving your employee a voice in the process. (However, if this is a termination session and you have no cause for not terminating, you are now done with the counseling session. Have them sign any termination paperwork, collect property owned by the organization, and ask them to quietly obtain their personal possessions and leave.)
    • Once you have listened, outline the corrective action you desire the employee to take to correct the problem. Be prepared to address the actions taken with the feedback you heard from the employee in mind. This will let them know that you were actually listening and will help them feel positive about the counseling.
    • If there are resources available to help the employee correct the problem, provide them with these resources. This means you have to be aware of all the employee assistance programs that your organization offers. This is your responsibility and not an HR function. So ensuring you are up to date on these areas should be part of your preparation. In Part 1<> of this series I provided an example of how this can work.
    • Now listen and ask questions related to what you have discussed so far. You want to get feedback from the employee to ensure they have understood your intent and are sure of the action you are expecting them to take to get back on track.
    • Now set a date and time to conduct a follow-up session to see how they are progressing. If the problem is behavioral in nature, you must set a reasonable time that you expect to not see a repeat of the offense. For example, if an employee is constantly late getting to work, you can set a date six months in the future where you will be ensuring the behavior has been corrected. Once this time has lapsed without a recurrence, you must start the counseling process all over again should the bad behavior become apparent again.
    • Now is the time for the paperwork to be discussed. First, based upon your discussion with your employee, you may wish to make some hand written changes to the paperwork you prepared in advance. This is perfectly acceptable and again shows the employee that you are doing everything you can to ensure fairness is part of the process. In the Informal Counseling session, you should provide a copy of the discussion points to the employee and let them know that you will be keeping this in your personal file. All the other sessions require the employee to sign the counseling sheet because it acknowledges that they have been counseled and that they know it will be going into their employee file. If they refuse to sign (a common tactic because they wrongly believe it will not count if they do not sign), calmly write the words “Employee refused to sign”, have your witness sign that they refused to sign and then have the witness sign that they did indeed observe the counseling session. You should then sign and excuse yourself to make a copy of the form for the employee and for your records. The original goes to HR for inclusion in the employee’s record.
    • Now listen. Once again, give the employee a chance to talk. They may have nothing to say at this point, but at least give them the opportunity.
    • Finally, thank them for allowing you to address the problem and provide a word of encouragement that reinforces the date you will see them to discuss their progress. Shake their hand if they are so inclined. Make this part of the process a signal that you are on their side and really want them to succeed. [/message][su_spacer]

Effective corrective counseling is a great way to help your employees grow and become valued members of your team. The final tip I will leave you with should be obvious but I will state it to be on the safe side. Once the employee has corrected the problem, as long as it is never repeated, you must never mention it again. This really is a case where you forgive and forget.

If you are going to be an exemplary leader, you need to learn to use the tool of counseling effectively as a team building process.


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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