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Human resources : On a more formal note

Every Issue

Cite as: (2003) 77(9) LIJ, p.90

Formal counselling is generally initiated when informal attempts to resolve performance or misconduct issues have failed.

Formal counselling is initiated when the possibilities of informal problem solving and coaching have been exhausted. By this stage, the employee will be fully aware of their objectives or key behaviours, and the level of their performance against them.

Before the formal counselling begins you should:

  • prepare a draft of the file note with details of the poor performance as measured against objectives or key behaviours. This file note can then be used to structure the meeting. After the discussion, amendments can be made to the file note;
  • request that the employee attend the counselling and explain that a third party will also be attending; and
  • provide adequate notice of the meeting (at least 24 hours).

The following people are required to attend any formal counselling:

  • the employee involved;
  • the manager of the employee who will conduct the session and be responsible for documenting the session and pursuing any action to be taken as a result of the meeting; and
  • a third party nominated by your business (usually the human resources manager). The role of the third party is to remain neutral and to record the employee’s comments and all the facts discussed.

Formal counselling is used to highlight deficiencies and to encourage improvement in performance. Some tips on effective counselling follow:

  • provide feedback on areas of below standard performance at the time of occurrence and include specific examples. This feedback should not be a surprise to the employee during the counselling;
  • examine all the facts – do not pass judgment;
  • ensure privacy during counselling;
  • ensure confidentiality of information throughout the process;
  • be fair, equitable and consistent in your approach to assessment of the issues and in making the decision to counsel an employee;
  • inform the employee honestly and openly why formal counselling is being undertaken and the possible future consequences;
  • encourage the employee in the areas of their performance that they are performing well in or have improved in;
  • allow and encourage the employee to comment and ask questions. Remember the performance being displayed may be the result of any number of reasons internal and/or external to the organisation.

Providing accurate feedback is critical, given the goal of improving the employee’s performance. Positive feedback is important in motivating the employee while negative feedback is necessary to bring a performance gap to the employee’s attention so they can take steps to lift their performance.

When providing either positive or negative feedback ensure it is:

  • specific – provide on-the-job examples of behaviours;
  • timely – feedback should be provided soon after the behaviour has occurred and within agreed timeframes, where applicable;
  • frequent – effective management of employees includes providing constructive and continuous feedback. Once a year or even quarterly appraisal sessions should be complemented by regular informal feedback;
  • factual – support your statement with fact; avoid making inferences from which the employee may become defensive and argumentative; and
  • has impact – make the important aspects stand out. Do not overload the employee with information.

File notes should be as detailed as possible and tailored to the individual employee and their circumstances. This ensures that the organisation has an adequate record and that the employee can clearly determine the areas of their performance that they need to improve and the ramifications should this not happen.

The file notes should detail the agreed plan of action, establishing and articulating the needs of both the manager and the staff member.

It is also important that a timeframe to achieve the agreed goals and to review the success of the strategy is established.

The timeframes between formal counselling sessions can be determined by taking various factors into consideration.

Is it low level, basic or operational, or is it high level autonomous work? With lower level work, improvement may be achievable and observable in shorter timeframes than in managerial level work which involves more complex tasks.

Greater time may be afforded to an employee who has been with the organisation for a substantial length of time and who has previously been performing effectively. An employee who has been in a role for some time and who has been fully trained may be afforded less time than someone new to the role.

If an employee is having an adverse effect on the business, for example, if they are incurring large losses, shorter timeframes would be considered.

If a person’s conduct or work performance does not improve in response to formal counselling, there are a number of options available. These include:

  • re-arranging the person’s duties;
  • movement to an area where a person’s skills may be better used;
  • formal warning; or
  • misconduct procedures.

DIANNE UNDERWOOD is the Law Institute’s human resources manager.


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