Richard Ressurreccion; California State University, Long Beach.
Counseling is a skill closely related to coaching: in fact some consider counseling part of the coaching processes. For purposes of this chapter, coaching and counseling will be considered as different yet allied methods of working with co-workers and learners. This is the approach taken by Azzaretto (1984) when he stated:
Counseling is a less frequently used skill [than coaching], but one that is just as important to the successful operation of your work team. If you sense that one of your workers is personally troubled, unhappy in the job, or just not performing up to standards, some counseling may be in order. (p.125)
In this chapter, unless specifically indicated, counseling refers to a "heart-to-heart," structured discussion aimed at (a) understanding an apparent environmental impediment to learning or job-related performance, and (b) developing a strategy to eliminate or reduce the impact of that impediment. It is not the purpose of the "heart-to-heart" counseling session to provide the type of counseling that requires specialized professional training in such fields as psychology, marriage and family counseling, substance abuse counseling, debt counseling, and legal counseling. Rather the T&D/HRD specialist must focus on helping the co-worker/learner clear the pathway to effective job performance or effective learning or both.
Effective counseling does not begin the day of the counseling session; rather, it starts the day the co-worker/learner is hired, enters a training program, or begins school. Counseling becomes most effective when management, including T&D/HRD personnel, recognize that the whole process of maintaining an employee/learner's performance is an on-going, never-ending process of teaching, evaluating, coaching, and counseling that must take place in a positive, supportive environment. The process of establishing this positive, supportive environment is illusive for many T&D/HRD personnel, yet the concept is simple enough if it is taken in steps.
The "heart-to-heart" counseling session may be broken down into eight functional steps. Each step is designed to ensure that continuous communication and, thus, learning take place.
The process begins with the "sandwich technique." Basically, the ''sandwich technique" is a manager level approach in which the manager, or instructor opens (i.e., Step 1) and closes (i.e., Step 8) the counseling session on positive notes. The remaining six steps are "sandwiched" in between the positive notes.
In conducting the counseling session, the manager/instructor must maintain exemplary professional bearing. Professional bearing includes such characteristics as good body posture; appropriate eye contact; calm, yet deliberate voice patterns; good listening skills; and a general air of confidence and sensitive concern.
Step 1: Friendly greeting by the manager/instructor.
The first step in the counseling session is to inconspicuously invite the co-worker/learner into the office or other appropriate location where the conversation will not be overheard. It might begin like this: "Joe, grab a cup of coffee and come on in for a few minutes." The manager/instructor's tone of voice would be low key and friendly.
Inappropriate, unprofessional opening behavior on the part of the manager/instructor might include loud yelling, swearing, derogatory statements, and body language that indicates anger. Here is an example of inappropriate behavior. Au instructor yells across the automotive laboratory so all of the students can hear: "Hey Joe, get in here. I'm going to ream you out for another one of your stupid mistakes!"
It is important to note that a positive opening has the tendency to reduce the probability that a co-worker's or learner's anxiety will reach a level that may hinder open communication.
Step 2: Manager/Instructor Briefly States Facts.
The concern for employee/learner openness will continue into Step 2. In this step the goal is to begin the problem identification process by briefly stating factual observations. Noting that a learner during the last two weeks (ten class meetings) has been late to class eight times, and that this tardiness has ranged from 5 to 20 minutes, is a factual observation. However, it would not be a factual observation if the instructor characterized the learner as a "lazy person." The latter is a conclusion that probably will evoke a defensive posture in the co-worker/learner. If the co-worker/learner becomes defensive, open communication will be significantly inhibited; likewise, an accurate definition of the underlying cause of the learner's tardiness may be difficult to define. Keeping Step 2 as brief as possible also has a tendency to hold the co-worker/learner's anxiety to a manageable level.
Step 3: Co-Worker/Learner Explains
The third step begins with the manager/instructor asking the co-worker/learner to explain the facts presented in Step 2. The statement might be like this: "Joe, can you please explain to me why you have been late for class so much in the last couple of weeks?"
As soon as the co-worker/learner begins to respond, the manager/instructor becomes a careful listener. This attitude of careful listening promotes open communication. It also helps set the ground rule that when one person talks the other person listens; thus, there should never be a situation in which both people are talking at the same time and neither party is listening. Of course, if necessary, the manager/instructor should not hesitate to prompt or cue the co-worker/learner if the explanation lacks sufficient substance or bogs down. Prompting might be like this: "Is there anything else you can tell me?" Or, "I’m not sure I understand what you are saying; could you give more detail?"
When the co-worker/learner makes a statement such as "that’s about it," it may be appropriate to move to Step 4. This type of statement, combined with the co-worker/learner's tendency to repeat him/herself, lends more support to move on to Step 4.
Step 4: The Manager/instructor Explains.
Step 4 begins with the manager/instructor reviewing the main points presented by the
co-worker/learner in Step 3. This review is important to ensure that the two parties understand the key aspects of the problem the same way. The manager/instructor might want to add an interpretation after reviewing the main points. If the manager/instructor senses that this interpretation has opened an avenue for new information, he/she may want to recycle back to Step 3.
Here is how a Step 4 review might be presented: "Joe, let me see if I understand what you have said. You have been on time for every class until two weeks ago, when the baby sitter for your two children was hospitalized. Now you are having to use relatives as temporary baby sitters and they live a great distance from your home, your wife's work, and our school. Am I correct, that is why you have been late eight times in the last two weeks?"
Once again, good eye contact and a calm presence are fundamental. The manager/instructor should speak only when the co-worker/learner is paying attention. It is important to note that, if at any time the co-worker/learner begins to reveal deep-seated emotional problems, the manager/instructor should not attempt to assume the role of a therapist. This point will be discussed in greater detail in Step 6.
Step 5: Presentation of Rules, Regulations, and Laws.
After the manager/instructor and co-worker/learner come to a initial understanding of the problem, the next step is to review appropriate job-related rules, regulations, standard operating procedures (SOPs), policies, instructions, laws, and executive orders. This step also includes laws and executive orders affecting job discrimination, for example, the Americans with Disabilities Act and sexual harassment
Managers and instructors must possess a good understanding of their organizations' rules, regulations, and SOPs; they must also be well aware of the ever-increasing federal and state laws, as well as executive orders affecting the work environment and employee rights. Managers and instructors Should also understand those aspects of collective bargaining agreements that may have implications when advising co-workers involved in organizational T&D/HRD programs.
One of the serious mistakes often made by managers and instructors is to tell the co-worker/learner that they disagree with the organization's or school's policy. Some truly disagree, while others say they disagree simply to get closer to the co-worker/learner. Managers and instructors rarely gain any advantage by stating that they disagree with rules, regulations, SOPs, and laws; in fact, they are likely to erode the respect the co-workers/learners may hold for them. Managers and instructors must remember that they represent their organizations and institutions, and they are responsible for fulfilling their assigned duties. Ensuring that co-workers/learners adhere to rules and other standards is part of their job.
In the fifth step, the manager/instructor states the rules, regulations, SOPs, laws, and executive orders that relate to the co-worker/learner's job-related performance. The "heart-to-heart" counseling method is specifically designed to catch problems early before they become serious, necessitating more formal disciplinary action. This is particularly true in cases involving safety, substance abuse, and discrimination.
Here is an example of how a manager/instructor might conduct Step 5: "Joe, as you may recall, on the first day of instruction we reviewed in detail our school's rules and regulations. Two days later you passed a written test on those rules and regulations. Being on time is particularly important because we have on-going health and safety instruction at the beginning of each class and periodic quizzes. Thus, we cannot make exceptions to this important rule. Do you understand?"
If the co-worker/learner understands the organization’s rules and other standards, then the manager/instructor moves quickly on to Step 6, the action plan.
Step 6: The Action Plan.
Many times the problem is solved by the time the manager/instructor and
co-worker/learner complete Step 5. These situations often occur because most people want to be responsible for their actions, and the "heart-to-heart" counseling session becomes a reminder of their job or school responsibilities. However, there are times when an action plan should or must be established. These instances occur in cases requiring professional counseling, retraining, or follow-up.
To implement many action plans, the manager/instructor must be aware of the resources at their disposal. These resources include the organization's employee assistance program (EAP), the T&D/HRD department, and the school's testing office, counseling center, health center, and disabled students' center. Often another co-worker or student may be used as a coach or role model.
In the case of Joe's tardiness, the plan of action might go like this: "Joe, why don’t you take this weekend and work out your child care problem. It appears that you are going from one relative to another and you may not be aware of your driving time and traffic problems. With a little planning this weekend, you should be able to work out this temporary problem. Okay? Just before class on Monday come by my office and let me know how you solved the problem."
You will note that the instructor in this case established a follow-up meeting. A follow-up plan with specific milestones (e.g., dates and times) is important in many cases. (Follow-up plans are sometimes called administrative controls.) The follow-up plan is important to ensure that the co-worker/learner makes appropriate progress. If the co-workers/learners fail to meet standards such as rules, laws, or competencies stipulated in a policy manual, job
description, or other appropriate document, the action plan (including administrative controls) provides support that may lead to progressive disciplinary meetings. Preparing and providing an action plan is evidence suggesting a "good faith effort" to help a
co-worker/learner meet standards.
Here is an example of how managers/instructors might use another person as a resource. "Mary, I am going to ask Bao Tran to work with you to meet our company's standards for doing a self-contained breathing apparatus. Bao has been with us for a long time; in fact, he taught our breathing apparatus course when Juan Torres was on vacation. We can begin tomorrow morning at the start of work and you can work with him for about a half an hour each day. Then on Friday I'll check to see if you can meet the company's standards as spelled out in the safety-training manual. How does that sound to you?"
In this case, the manager has used a qualified co-worker to coach a relatively new employee through the learning of an important task. It is important to note how the manager has established administrative control, e.g., specific training times and a date for a performance review.
Step 7: Review of the Counseling Session.
Now that the problem has been identified and an action plan established, the manager/instructor can turn to a quick review of the counseling session. The quick review is to double check that the manager/ instructor and the co-worker/learner have a common understanding of what has been covered and agreed upon. In a sense, it is like the summary at the end of a lesson. It might begin like this: "Joe, let's recap what we have talked about today".
Step 8: Positive, Supportive Closing.
The "heart-to-heart" counseling session ends with a positive, supportive closing. It should be brief and to the point. Step 8 might be met with a statement such as this: "Mary, learning how to don a breathing apparatus can take a little time. If you put the time in on drilling to master this task, we will be there to work with you. Thanks for coming to see me.
Learning to Counsel
Counseling takes time to learn, but it must be learned for a manager of human resources to be effective. Unfortunately it is not a competency for which managers are formally prepared, including managers of learning environments. Most of the time, industries and schools expect their managers and instructors to pick it up "as they go along." Sometimes a flier comes across their desks for a workshop on handling the difficult employee. Other times they learn the hard way when an employee or student is injured unnecessarily. Some managers and instructors learn when they are giving a deposition in preparation for litigation.
The eight steps presented here are a model. Some managers/instructors might use other models to achieve the same end. The key point is that managers need to work with employees and students so they become productive workers.
Perhaps the best way to become proficient at "heart-to-heart" counseling is to maintain an open-door policy and have co-workers/learners in your office often talking about the positive aspects of their performance. The "sandwich technique" can be applied even when there are areas for improvement to discuss. Establishing and maintaining good body language, especially eye contact, are essential. In the case of young adults, the eight-step method can be practiced when they have small problems. Eventually, movement from one step to the next should flow smoothly.
Attending seminars and workshops dealing with such topics as employee assistance programs, identifying substance abuse, discrimination in the work place, progressive discipline, labor relations, and evaluation methods can be useful. These workshops are often taught by veteran human resource managers and labor attorneys. Remember, a person can never learn enough about how to work more effectively with people. The objective in attending these courses is not to become a therapist, substance abuse counselor, labor relations specialist, or an attorney. Managers/instructors must learn to work within the scope of their job description and refer the more serious problem cases to the appropriate resources, e.g., a supervisor or EAP.
Coaching and "heart-to-heart" counseling are two methods of teaching that will become more and more important in the Information Age that requires life-long learning. Managers and instructors will assume greater and greater teaching responsibilities that go beyond the traditional lecture, lecture-discussion, and demonstration methods. The learning environment will, by necessity, extend beyond the classroom into settings such as the workstation and the managers/instructors' offices. Coaching and counseling have two things in common. First, they are job related. Second, they operate best when a positive, supportive work environment is established and maintained.