Counselling in the workplace can be a tremendously powerful tool or it can be a waste of time, depending on the circumstances and the parties involved. Often, companies will build counselling in as an official step in their disciplinary process — as a part of the principle of progressive discipline. This is not, in my opinion, correct, for two reasons.
Firstly, as stated, there are certain circumstances when counselling may be the best type of intervention that you can take as a manager or a supervisor, whereas at other times, it may be a waste of time that is simply going to frustrate the parties. Secondly, counselling is a tool that is oftentimes coupled with a disciplinary sanction in the form of a warning, a suspension or even a demotion. For example, a manager may wish to provide counselling to an employee who has arrived at work under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Here the purpose of the counselling may be to establish whether the employee struggles with a dependency problem and if so, the counselling may be used to assist the employee to overcome the problem. Viewed from this perspective, you can see that counselling here does not constitute disciplinary action in the form of corrective action per se, but is used to assist the employee with a dependency problem and therefore maximise the chances of the employee recovering from the problem. However, in this circumstance, the manager would also seek to protect the employer in the form of also issuing a formal warning (perhaps a final written warning) to prevent the employee from repeating the offence.
Counselling can be informal or formal, depending on the circumstances. However, my advice is to always keep some sort of record that the counselling session has taken place and this record should be kept on the employees file. Keeping accurate records of corrective action taken against employees is always advisable. An example of informal counselling is where an employee arrives at work late, without an acceptable reason. The misconduct (yes, arriving at work late without good reason is misconduct!) is not serious and if it is the first time that the employee commits the offence, his/her manager may feel that all that is necessary to correct the employee’s actions is an informal discussion or counselling session where the manager establishes the reason for the late coming, decides whether the employee needs any assistance and impresses upon the employee the importance of arriving at work on time (it’s a good idea to explain the commitments created for the parties in the contract of employment, for example). An example of more formal counselling may be where an employee has arrived at work under the influence of alcohol and has admitted to struggling with a dependency problem. Here, the employer is guided by the Schedule 8 of the Labour Relations Act to provide assistance to the employee to help him or her deal with the dependency problem. The counselling here should be on the record and detailed, so that in the event that the employee repeats the offence and is ultimately dismissed, it can be shown that the assistance was provided before dismissal was exercised as an option of last resort.
Managers and supervisors are encouraged to exercise their discretion with regards to the application of counselling in the workplace. It is a skill well worth developing and will create a great working relationship between the leader and the subordinates in the workplace if applied correctly.