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Resource Center for Addressing and Resolving Poor Performance

Counseling Employees About Performance Problems

Additional guidance is presented below on preparing for and conducting counseling sessions.

Preparing for a Counseling Session

  1. Once you recognize that a performance problem exists, find out about what guidance the employee has been given on performance. Nine times out of ten, that guidance exists only in performance standards that were issued early. But you may also have some applicable operating manuals or guides, so take a look at everything.

  2. Read the performance standards. If they don't really describe what you want from the employee, take the time to fix them. If your organization uses generic standards that cannot be modified, think through the types of things that you will say to the employee to further explain what it is you expect. Write these notes down.

  3. Even though you may never need to go any further than an oral counseling session to get this employee to improve, take the time to contact the human resources office and find out what your technical advisor would say if you do need to take formal action later. Ask that specialist to review the performance standards to ensure that there aren't any problems with them.

  4. If you do have operating manuals, guides, or other tools that all employees use, take a look at them and see how these could be used to help the employee improve. Try to read them as objectively as possible to look for areas that may not be clear. Remember, you know this job (probably better than almost everybody else), but there is some part of the job that is not making sense or becoming clear to this employee. If you have to, break it down into parts and explain it from the bottom up.

  5. Remember your goal is to improve the employee's performance, not to win an argument with the employee. To prepare for a counseling session with an employee, write out and then practice saying what acceptable performance in the job would mean. Listen to yourself. If it doesn't make any sense to you, it won't make any sense to the employee. Be as specific as possible.

  6. Have some specific examples of poor performance in your mind (or your notes) so that you can respond to the inevitable, "What do you mean?" Do not emphasize past poor performance, though; instead, seek to clarify future good performance.

Conducting the Counseling Session

  1. Counselor and employee In scheduling a meeting to discuss a performance issue, make sure you allow adequate time for your comments and any feedback from the employee. Whenever possible, conduct the meeting in a private place where the employee will not be embarrassed if the conversation is overheard by coworkers.

  2. Choose your time based on your knowledge of the employee. Is this someone who needs to have a meeting like this on Friday so he or she can sort things out over the weekend? Or is this a person who will feel like you are dumping on him or her and then leaving no opportunity to respond for 2 days? Use the same thought process for deciding how information is best given. Although you will be meeting to have a discussion, would this employee like to read through some written notes before talking? Would a verbal discussion with a commitment to follow up with something in writing be more in the style of the employee?

  3. Set and maintain a constructive tone: be calm, professional, and focused.

  4. Seek cooperation, not confrontation, by focusing on how the employee's performance fits into the performance of the total organization.

  5. Unless you think the employee will attempt to take control of the discussion, choose several points throughout your comments where you can stop and get confirmation from the employee that he or she understands the problems and your expectations. Providing opportunities for him or her to respond will allow the employee to be active in the discussion and may lessen the negative connotation of a "lecture" from the boss.

  6. At the conclusion of the meeting, end on a positive note by emphasizing that improving the employee's performance is a mutually beneficial goal. Offer a written summary then or to be given to the employee later. Having a written summary is particularly valuable if you will be trying something new or changing any work assignment routine.

  7. Keep notes for yourself documenting the date of the discussion and any specific agreements you reached with the employee regarding changes to the way work is assigned or structured.

  8. Follow up! If the employee shows improvement, let him or her know it immediately! If the employee appears to be still struggling, go back and talk again.

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