There are different types of counselling according to the context. We have all heard of someone being 'counselled' following a traumatic event. That is one type of counselling - the provision of professional assistance to help someone deal with psychological problems.

In the the workplace counselling has a rather different meaning. Here it involves a competent person discussing a behavioural problem with an individual in order to prevent a recurrence. This begs a few questions:


When should it be used?

Is it effective?

Who does it?

How does it work?

When to counsel

Counseling is generally underused in the workplace. The principal reasons being:

1) The term itself - counselling evokes the idea of emotional problems, when in reality counselling is a simply a discussion designed to address a problem to do with conduct. There may be an emotional problem behind the inappropriate conduct, or it may be a simple lack of consideration for others. Either way a discussion needs to take place to stop it happening.

2) A tendency to confront issues of conduct with 'training'. We saw in the section titled The Bedrock of Great Leadership that behaviours tend to be a function of your beliefs. It follows therefore that if you want to change those behaviours, you had better address the beliefs. That requires counselling, not training! Training is for imparting skill. Counselling is for addressing issues of behaviour (and therefore beliefs).

3) A lack of confidence on the part of managers when it comes to counselling. Hopefully this section will help to address that as counselling is not difficult if you follow a sequence and use the techniques regularly. As ever, the more you do it, the better you get.

The biggest challenge around counselling is that it is so often presented as a monumental and complicated attempt at addressing some deep rooted psychological problem. In reality however workplace counselling is a discussion designed to address an issue of behaviour or conduct. It may be a big deal, but much of the time it may be a relatively simple problem that needs 'nipping in the bud'. Prompt action should help to prevent a simple issue becoming a complex one, so counsel early!

If you have children, you may well find yourself 'counselling' them rather frequently! It's a discussion designed to address  behaviour. Nothing more and nothing less!

Let's talk graphic

Copyright: <a href=''>toonartist / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Workplace counselling is essentially a structured discussion with the objective of changing behaviours

Does counselling work?

Counselling is the best way of changing conduct. There are few alternatives - doing nothing is not a good idea and training is not appropriate. If you view counselling as a discussion with a clear purpose then you can see that there really is no alternative! How effective the counselling is will clearly depend in part on the skills of the person conducting the discussion, but it has to be better than doing nothing!

Who should conduct the counselling session?

There are a few options here. It is quite usual for someone from HR to be given the task, or perhaps a respected and wise person with a good reputation in the organisation. If the latter, just be careful that there is no breach of confidentiality - the respected person should likely be a manager in order to avoid any such issues.

But the best option is that the discussion is conducted by the individual's manager! After all, what is the point of a manager if he or she is unable or unwilling to tackle an issue of conduct on the part of his or her people? Such discussions should become a regular part of the activities of a manager - whether a brief intervention to address a minor but relevant issue; or a more thorough discussion to tackle a more significant behavioural problem.

To that end all managers should have the basic skills to hold such a discussion. This site is a great place to start.

Counselling discussion

Copyright: <a href=''>highwaystarz / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

How does counselling work?

Fortunately, and as with most management activities, there is a sequence that should be followed. This sequence is designed for when a manager needs to address a behavioural issue with an employee. It may not be entirely appropriate for dealing with those with serious psychological problems!

Step1: Prepare. Make good notes that correspond with the sequence set out here. Use the sheet attached to help you.

Step 2: Advise the employee that you want a private discussion. Book a time and a room where you will not be disturbed. Make it soon - no-one likes a mystery issue hanging around!

Step 3: At the start of the discussion explain to the employee that you want to discuss an issue of conduct or behaviour that you believe is inappropriate. Explain that the employee will have a full and thorough opportunity to ask questions and comment once the issue has been presented to him/her.

Step 4: Explain the problematic behaviour as you have observed it, or as others have explained it to you. Do not get into possible reasons- stick with the behaviour at this stage. Explain why the behaviour is inappropriate and that it must stop. Ask the individual for his or her thoughts as to what he or she can do to stop the inappropriate behaviour and ask what help you and/or the organisation can provide.

Step 5: Listen carefully to what you hear.

Step 6: If the individual agrees that he or she has demonstrated the inappropriate behaviour as presented, thank him/her for their candour and move on to discussing reasons and solutions. Take your time, but keep the discussion moving towards simple and uncomplicated solutions - what he or she is going to do differently. If it appears that there is a more complex psychological problem that is beyond the ability of the two of you to overcome, then you should discuss the need for outside help. Involve your HR function if you have one or agree with the individual that he/she should see their doctor about getting professional help. You will need to follow up on this point.

Step 7: If the individual denies or fails to recognise the behaviour, then you must repeat the 'evidence' that you presented in step 4 and explain that despite the difference of opinion such behaviour is unacceptable and must stop. Ask for solutions and try and get agreement to them. If the individual continues to deny the problem, then you have little option but to warn the individual that any repetition of the behaviour will result in further discussions that could lead to disciplinary action.


As above, if you believe that there is a more complex psychological problem that is beyond the ability of the two of you to overcome, then you should discuss the need for outside help. Involve your HR function if you have one or make it clear to the individual that he/she should see their doctor about getting professional help. You will need to follow up on this point. You may want to talk to a qualified employment expert if you have no in house HR support.

Step 8: when the discussion comes to an end, thank the individual and promise to get a confidential note of the discussion and outcomes (including solutions where agreed) distributed to both parties within 24 hours. In the case of a failed discussion you should involve HR without delay and before you send the discussion summary.

Counselling discussion checklist

If you have trained someone to do something and they are not doing it, don't retrain them, counsel them

Conclusions - workplace counselling

Many relatively minor behavioural or conduct issues in the workplace are allowed to fester and get worse because the manager concerned lacks the confidence to tackle them. Addressing such issues early has a number of benefits:


  • You demonstrate to your people that issues of poor conduct will not be tolerated, so raising standards for all.

  • You avoid frustration on the part of your people who know that 'x' is behaving badly and that he is getting away with it.

  • The sooner you confront conduct issues the more likely you are to resolve them.

  • If unaddressed, a modest problem today could very easily grow into a big one down the line.

The conclusion - take action now!