5 Tips for Successful Performance Counseling

Counseling a struggling employee is one of the toughest challenges a manager can face, but when done correctly, the associate, the team and the whole organization benefit from the effort.

Coaching, of course, is a standard part of any manager’s job with any (and every) employee; counseling, on the other hand, kicks in when coaching does not result in improvement or when the employee’s behavior is not changing.

How do you know what to do and when to do it? Karen Crone and McKenzie Marx, two of Paycor’s HR experts, offer their wisdom on five ways to make counseling a successful, albeit rare, part of performance management.

1. Don’t wait too long

It can be tempting to believe a new employee’s struggles will be overcome with time or that a more tenured employee is simply going through a rough patch. But when poor performance or negative behavior persists, it’s important to act decisively, for the good of the employee and the organization.

First, identify shortfalls through your observations. Assess whether the company might bear some fault for certain issues, such as a lack of training or a bad job-person match.

Next, meet with the employee to clarify expectations for satisfactory performance. Coach the associate toward improvement through weekly one-on-one meetings. If nothing has changed after 2-4 weeks, it might be time to move to counseling.

2. Follow a process

A three-level process can make counseling more productive and successful. Remember—the goal is to change the employee’s behavior or outcomes such that everyone wins! Along the way, be sure to document each step of the process, follow up on action steps and use support available to you through your HR team or other resources. Here’s a look at the three levels:

* Level I: At this point, meeting records stay with the manager, who should summarize prior coaching, address performance and outline a timeframe for change. The manager and employee should agree on the performance issues in question, as well as the action steps. The manager should create a summary document capturing shortfalls and improvements needed, and both manager and employee should sign this paperwork. At this point, there is no need for HR involvement.

* Level II: If there is no improvement over the course of a month, counseling moves to Level II. In this stage, documentation needs to state the consequences of failure to improve and should become part of the employee’s record. The manager should reiterate expected changes and use the same or similar wording to the original, less formal documentation. Reinforce next steps if improvement does not occur, specify a timeframe for change and that it must be sustained and ongoing, and have both parties sign the document that goes to HR.

* Level III: If after another 30 days the employee is not achieving or demonstrating the desired outcomes, counseling moves to Level III. Again, the manager needs to draft a formal document, this time clearly stating that failure to improve and meet standards will result in termination of employment, specifying a timeframe with no extension and co-signing the document with the employee to be included in the employee’s file.

3. Keep it timely

Different performance issues require different timeframes for change. Here are some common standards:

* Tardiness, missed meetings, unscheduled absences—No change in 1-2 weeks might be long enough to move to the next level.
* Controlling negativity or adapting to change—This might require more time for the manager to observe and monitor that change is taking place and is sustained. Generally 30 days is a good place to start.
* Demonstrating ability to meet job standards—Generally one month is enough for most situations, but you can assure sustained change by extending a level for an additional time period.

4. Drive employee ownership

From the beginning of the counseling process, ask your employee to summarize the discussion and recap the action plan to you. This helps you gauge the desire to change and reinforces that the individual has a choice to improve.

5. Recognize success

After a period of time, write a note to the associate—and include it in his or her HR file—to recognize that counseling was completed successfully, progress has been sustained and the individual is performing to standards. Incorporate successful completion into annual feedback.


Want to learn more? Take 30 minutes to have a cup of coffee with one of our recent Coffee Break webinars, Key Strategies for Effective Performance Coaching.

The preceding tips aren’t the only things that can help make performance management easier and more productive: Paycor’s HR solution provides a user-friendly interface for employees and supervisors to manage performance reviews, access employee documents in one location and foster open communication. Learn more by speaking with a Paycor representative.