Because everyone should dig their job

The Importance of Employee Counseling

By Dan Bobinski

The following scenario is true, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty).

This past February, Randy made an error in the shop where he works. The error wasn’t caught until Randy’s shift was over and he had gone home. Although the work had to be redone by the second shift, the department supervisor, Mark, said nothing about the error to Randy.

A few months later, Billy, a social leader in a tight clique group—and one of Mark’s favorite employees—began leaving extra work for Randy to do. Those in Billy’s clique filled their workday with easy tasks and got a kick out of leaving the difficult jobs for Randy. Then they had the nerve to joke about Randy as the guy who couldn’t handle the workload.

Come July, six months after the never-mentioned error, Randy sat down in Mark’s office for his annual performance review.  Mark’s criticisms of Randy’s inability to carry the load, his bad attitude, and his February mistake caught Randy off guard. Nothing had ever been said to Randy about this laundry list of problems, and he felt completely blind-sided.

To make matters worse, Randy was put on probation and demoted from “lead worker” status.

Maybe you’ve seen this type of unreasonable evaluation before. Maybe it’s happened to you. Or worse yet, maybe you’ve done it to someone else.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that Randy is a victim here, set up for failure by non-existent employee counseling.

In healthy working environments, a difference exists between employee counseling and employee evaluation. Think about it: It’s not fair that a person receive a negative evaluation in his permanent file if he has never been informed that his behavior is unacceptable.

Let’s consider the idea of counseling for a moment. It can be formal or informal, but it’s much more effective if it’s separate from a formal evaluation. This means managers should take time to offer “mid-course corrections” as they see their employees making errors.  Letting mistakes or procedural errors go unmentioned creates tension—either consciously or subconsciously—within a manager, and the ripple-effect of this is rarely good.

It’s better to put problems on the table for open evaluation, so long as an employee knows the manager wants the employee to succeed. (Managers, take note: You have to communicate to employees your desire for their success, too.)

Counseling should include what an employee did wrong, what the correct procedure is, and use an open dialog to make sure the employee understands what is expected.

If an employee continues to make the same error, or errors that fall into a similar category, it may be that the employee needs more formalized training.

With few exceptions, it’s also unfair to write up employees for committing errors if they are unaware of what is expected.  Better to hold an informal counseling session and address the matter discreetly.  If mistakes are serious, employees can be informed that subsequent violations may lead to formal documentation.

The purpose here is to develop employees, not tear them down or punish them without due process.

Similarly, employee counseling also applies to developing career paths.  And, just like in the situation above, managers can blow it here, too.  For example, Karen (last name withheld) was working seasonally for a state agency with about 100 employees on site.  Over the course of five years Karen had worked in just about every department.

Somewhere along the way Karen decided she wanted to work full time. She applied for every full-time job that became available, but other employees were always chosen.  Finally, Karen approached the person who oversaw hiring and asked why she wasn’t being selected.

“Well, you’re just not qualified,” came the weaseled response.

“But I’ve worked in every department and I know all the work as well as anybody. How do I get qualified?” Karen asked.

“I don’t know,” was the only reply given.

When I heard this story from Karen I could only shake my head. It would have been easy for a manager to spend a few minutes counseling Karen on what she needed to learn. Instead, just like Randy, Karen felt blindsided by a manager who didn’t care about developing an employee.

Performance appraisals are for evaluating employee behavior against what they know to do. But if they don’t know what to do, employees should receive counseling. It’s a proven, valuable, effective way to develop a better workforce.