Counselling – The Listening SkillTuesday, January 10th, 2012
If an employee fails in some way to perform to a required standard you need to take prompt corrective action, and you will have a disciplinary process for doing so fairly and consistently. What you do depends upon whether you find the problem is one of the employee’s conduct or capability. In other words is it a case of “won’t do” or “can’t do”? The distinction is important because, if you apply the wrong solution, you are unlikely to get a good result and will have wasted your time and your organisation’s money. If the employee for whatever reason is unwilling to behave properly or is not bothered about doing the job properly, no amount of training will improve matters. Conversely if the employee does not understand the rules or does not know exactly how to perform certain tasks, shouting or threats will not produce the results required. On the contrary, the employee will be more likely to hide mistakes or to take safer but inappropriate action in order to avoid your hostility.
If therefore you have a problem with an employee, you must initially take time to determine its cause by carrying out an investigation. If the problem does indeed lie within the control of the employee, you should carry out a counselling session. Indeed counselling should be the first stage of any disciplinary process. Counselling is any action aimed at securing an improvement in the employee’s performance or behaviour that does not include a threat, something that you may well do several times in the course of a day. If you point out that an employee is recording work incorrectly, is processing an order in the wrong way or is talking too much, you are counselling. You regularly correct employees’ small mistakes in this way. You spot the problem, put it right, and nobody feels offended or threatened. ACAS describes counselling as putting “the right word, at the right time and in the right way”. It is a non-confrontational and highly efficient way of rectifying problems.
Sometimes a quick word is not enough so you need to adopt a more comprehensive form of counselling, beginning by exploring the cause of the problem with the employee. Clarify the required standard, then compare the employee’s performance against it so that the performance or behaviour gap may be highlighted. This may be sufficient to resolve the problem because often employees themselves are not aware that they are performing below standard. If however this does not resolve the issue you will need to dig deeper with the employee, though urging him or her to play an active role in the investigation. Ask why there is a problem and what might be causing it. This gives opportunity for the employee to recognise any obstacles that stand in the way of him or her doing the job well, for example appropriate training was not given or the software keeps failing. The remedy for these two examples would seem to be in your hands. However, if the remedy lies within the power of the employee, he or she should be made to accept ownership of both the problem and its solution. Comments such as “my car keeps letting me down”, “I can’t get the hang of this system” or “I can’t stop colleagues who keep talking to me” are, in many cases, an attempt by the employee to relinquish ownership of the problem. They don’t consciously set out to avoid responsibility, it is the way they have been conditioned, and you should take opportunity of reconditioning them! In all three of these examples your sound response should be “So what are you going to do about it?”. Refuse to accept ownership of the problem if it really belongs to the employee.
You may have to offer help where the employee is not in a position to get it unaided, for example by arranging training or ordering IT support, but whenever possible urge him or her to work towards a solution. For example “Have you thought about other ways of getting to work?” or “How do you feel you can get to grips with the system?”. If appropriate help the employee identify options for action such as changing the car, getting a lift with a colleague or coming on the bus. But at the end of the meeting you should press the employee to decide which solution to adopt. When you have reached agreement on this, write it down, have the employee sign it, then give a copy to him or her. As a result the employee will have made a clear commitment and you have an agreed standard against which to measure improvement. These signed commitments have a powerful and positive influence on employees.
If this does not work you will have to move to your formal disciplinary procedure, but experience suggests that, if you use counselling before moving to threats, you will have greater and earlier success in getting the performance you require from your employees.