Counseling a Staff Member

In a Nutshell
        What's the best way to handle an employee with an attitude or motivation problem?  Managerial counseling is normally the best first step.
        When a valued employee is having problems with his or her attitude, motivation or personal affairs, managers can often help them make the necessary changes through counseling.  This is not to say that managerial counseling always solves employees' problems.  Nor do I mean to suggest that managers are always the best ones to provide the counseling.  However, even when managerial counseling is not sufficient for dealing with the problem, it is a good precursor to (a) referral to professional counseling or (b) termination.

In This Issue

You Have to Really Care and Really Listen
        I don't think you can counsel your employees effectively if you don't truly care about them, because effective counseling can be hard work.  A major way in which human resources differ from the other resources you control as a manager is that humans have emotions.  We profit from the positive emotions like excitement and inspiration, but we also have to accept and manage effectively the negative emotions such as anger and frustration.  It takes work to deal with the negative side of employees' emotions.  Managerial counseling requires listening effectively and supportive communication.  It's a lot easier to just be a hard-nosed, "my way or the highway" manager.  But, managers who can counsel their employees get the most out of them in difficult circumstances.

Counseling Doesn't Mean Lowering Standards!
        Whether you are counseling or coaching in response to poor performance, the goal is the same--to get that poorly performing employee's performance back up to standards (or back into conformance with the rules).  I know that every now and then you may come across a subordinate who is manipulative or full of malarkey.  I still think that unless those employees have done something that justifies immediate termination, the best way to deal with them is to listen to their story at least once.  Listening to their story and validating their feelings doesn't mean that you accept their poor performance.  After you've listened to their story and empathized, come up with a plan for improving performance.  That's always the goal.

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Managers Aren't Therapists
        I strongly recommend that you avoid asking pointed questions or making assumptions about your employees' personal lives.  Legally and ethically, employees have a variety of privacy rights.  When counseling, focus on the work-related problem.  The work-related problem is often (perhaps usually) the symptom of a personal problem, but only discuss the personal issues if the employee you're counseling raises them, and refer the employee to professional counseling for anything of a serious nature.  For example, here's what I'm suggesting.
                    You seem distracted at work and your productivity has fallen
                    off.  I really need you to be more productive.  Is there anything
                    I can help you with?
                    Are you having marital problems?
                    I think your drinking in the evenings is interfering
                    with your job performance.
You can only comment on what you observe employees actually doing or the actual results they achieve.  Making assumptions about personal problems is very risky and sometimes unfair.  For instance, diabetics have occasionally been mistaken for alcoholics.  You wouldn't want to make a mistake like that!

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Practicing This Management Skill

Prior to meeting with the employee Ö

  1. Clarify exactly what the work-related problem is.  Be as specific and task-related as possible.
  2. Determine what you think the cause is.
  3. Know whether and how you can refer employees to your firm's employee assistance program (EAP) or other resources for help with personal problems.
When meeting with the employee Ö
  1. Be pleasant and put the employee at ease as much as possible under the circumstances.
  2. Describe the behaviors or aspects of job performance that are insufficient or unacceptable.
  3. Ask the employee what he or she thinks is causing the problem.
  4. Listen actively and communicate supportively.
  5. Once the employee has had time to tell his or her story, ask the employee how he or she will correct the performance problem.
  6. Help the employee make a realistic plan to solve the problem.
  7. Jointly create and sign an FOSA agreement.
  8. Plan a follow-up meeting to assess whether the FOSA agreement's objectives were met.
  9. Explain that a follow-up report will be attached to the FOSA, so he or she will get credit for correcting the problem.
  10. Have the follow-up meeting, and deliver the agreed upon consequences.
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        Minter, R. L. & Thomas, E. G.  (2000).  Employee development through coaching, mentoring and counseling: A multidimensional approach.  Review of Business, 21(1/2): 43-47.
        Salters, L.  (1997).  Coaching and counseling for peak performance.  Business and Economic Review, 44(1): 26-28.
        Stone, F. M.  (1999). Coaching, counseling & mentoring: How to choose & use the right technique to boost employee performance.  New York: AMACOM.

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About the Newsletter and Subscriptions
        The LeaderLetter is written by Dr. Scott Williams, Department of Management, Raj Soin College of Business, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.  It is a supplement to my MBA 751 - Managing People in Organizations class.  It is intended to reinforce the course concepts and maintain communication among my former MBA 751 students, but anyone is welcome to subscribe.  In addition, subscribers are welcome to forward this newsletter to anyone who they believe would have an interest in it.  To subscribe, simply send an e-mail message to me requesting subscription.  Of course, subscriptions to the newsletter are free.  To unsubscribe, e-mail a reply indicating that you would like to unsubscribe.

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E-mail Your Comments
        Whether you are one of my former students or not, I invite you to share any insights or concerns you have regarding the topic of this newsletter or any other topic relating to management skills.  Please e-mail them to me.  Our interactions have been invaluable.  Let's keep the conversation going.

Good, Clean Joke (or, at least a clean one)

Instructions for giving a cat a pill.

  1. Pick cat up and cradle it in the crook of your left arm as if holding a baby. Position right forefinger and thumb on either side of cat's mouth and gently apply pressure to cheeks while holding pill in right hand. As cat opens mouth, pop pill into mouth. Allow cat to close mouth and swallow.
  2. Retrieve pill from floor and cat from behind sofa. Cradle cat in left arm and repeat process.
  3. Retrieve cat from bedroom and throw soggy pill away.  Take new pill from foil wrap, cradle cat in left arm holding rear paws tightly with left hand. Force jaws open and push pill to back of mouth with right forefinger. Hold mouth shut for a count of ten.
  4. Retrieve pill from goldfish bowl and cat from top of wardrobe. Call spouse from garden. Kneel on floor with cat wedged firmly between knees. Hold front and rear paws firmly. Ignore low growls emitted by cat. Get spouse to hold head firmly with one hand while forcing wooden ruler into mouth. Drop pill down ruler and rub cat's throat vigorously.
  5. Retrieve cat from curtain rail. Get another pill from foil wrap. Make note to buy new ruler and repair curtains. Carefully sweep shattered Doulton figures from hearth and set to one side for gluing later.  Wrap cat in large towel and get spouse to stretch out flat on top of cat with head just visible from below armpit. Put pill in end of drinking straw. Force mouth open with pencil and blow down drinking straw.
  6. Check label to make sure pill is not harmful to humans. Drink glass of water to take taste away. Apply Band-Aid to spouse's forearm and remove blood from carpet with cold water and soap. Retrieve cat from neighbor's shed. Get another pill. Place cat in cupboard and close door onto neck to leave head showing. Force mouth open with dessert spoon. Flick pill down throat with elastic band.
  7. Fetch screwdriver from garage and put door back on hinges. Apply cold compress to cheek and check records for date of your last tetanus shot. Throw tee shirt away and fetch new one from bedroom. Call fire department to retrieve cat from tree across the road. Apologize to neighbor who crashed into fence while swerving to avoid cat. Take last pill from foil-wrap. Tie cat's front paws to rear paws with garden twine and bind tightly to leg of dining table. Find heavy-duty pruning gloves from shed, force cat's mouth open with small spanner. Push pill into mouth followed by large piece of filet steak. Hold head vertically and pour pint of water down throat to wash pill down.
  8. Get spouse to drive you to the emergency room. Sit quietly while doctor stitches fingers and forearm and removes pill remnants from right eye. Stop by the furniture store on way home to order new table.
  9. Arrange for SPCA to find a new home for cat and call local pet shop to see if they have any dogs.
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