He is the brightest person you've ever met. She's always there on time. He can repair anything without breaking a sweat. They've never missed a moment of work and don't ever seem to have a bad day. And your customers love them! You ask yourself, "Who are these people? And how can I get them to work for me?"

These people are our dream employees and, at one point, they did work for you. But somehow they didn't last. The dream ended and you were left with employees who became your biggest nightmare. So what happened and where did the good ones go?

Actually, they didn't go anywhere. They're still right there where you left them. And, they really want to do a good job. But over time the message of how to do a good job has become unclear and foggy until your dream employee has drifted farther and farther away.


Here's a typical scenario. See if it sounds familiar? We do a good job finding, hiring, and training. We let our employees know what's expected and tell them all the rules. They listen to what we say, and they watch their managers for the all important signals that tell them that they are doing a good job. Things go well for a while. Work gets done and customers are satisfied.

As time goes by we notice a little loss of productivity here and a little less enthusiasm there, but we have so many demands on our time, and finding good employees is so hard, that taking any action is just not easy. Then one day we look up and realize our dream employee is gone and we're left with someone who is making mistakes, not getting to work on time, and has just made our best customer mad. To make matters worse, our best employee has just threatened to leave if we don't take care of the problem.

At this point, the average manager will take one of two tracks. The manager will either ignore the problem because a poorly performing employee is better than no employee; or the manager gets angry and says something threatening to the problem employee. The outcome of either track is a confused and sometimes angry employee, not to mention a frustrated manager.

The employee is confused because they just assumed what they were doing was correct. The manager is frustrated because he needs quality performance.

This reaction can trigger a number of negative outcomes; the problem employee leaves because they are upset at the change of treatment or the manager fires them because they didn't improve or worse yet, your nightmare employee continues on, oblivious to any problems, and your best employee leaves because of the favoritism shown to this poor performer. Regardless of the final outcome, everyone loses - you, the employee, the company, and your customers.

But it doesn't have to be that way. There is a cure and the cure is simple. The cure is called progressive counseling and results can be a long-term winning solution for everybody.


The purpose of progressive counseling is to cause positive changes by shifting responsibility. Counseling is a process of getting what you want by giving your employees an opportunity to improve. Progressive counseling is not a one-time event that immediately fixes the problem, but as its name implies, a progressive, step-by-step approach that requires conversation, followup and documentation. How do you do this?

The first step is to identify and accurately define the problem without attacking the person doing the job. Attacking the problem and not the person gives everyone a safe vantage point from which to start. Giving your employee a detailed account of what is going wrong and what needs to be done to improve sets the stage for a productive counseling conversation.

A counseling conversation should be a planned event. Schedule a time and place that will be interruption-free. Never enter into a counseling conversation when you are angry or unprepared. If the situation is one that requires immediate action, do only what is necessary to maintain a safe and productive workplace.

If needed, send the employee home and schedule the meeting for a later time. If this is not possible, move yourself and the employee to a private location. The cardinal rule of progressive counseling is never to act in anger and never to act alone.

When you schedule a counseling conversation, it is always best to conduct the meeting with a witness present. Generally speaking the third person should be another member of management who is acting in the capacity of "fair witness." If your employee asks if they can bring someone with them, seek legal counsel before responding. Remember this meeting is a conversation and is not intended to be confrontational. As the manager, you are in control and set the pace of the counseling conversation.

During the counseling conversation you must let the employee know what corrective action needs to be taken in order to achieve a successful outcome. Be sure all obstacles are removed and that the employee has the tools they need to do the job. They must also know how their success will be measured. By letting the employee know what needs to be done and how success is measured, you've placed the responsibility in the employee's hands.

Once you've ensured the employee understands and accepts the responsibility, your final steps are providing the time frames for improvement and outlining the consequences - both positive and negative. Employees need to have a clear picture of what is required, how much time they have to achieve the goal and what will happen as a result. Armed with this information and your words of guidance, the employee has everything needed to be successful. And your job is done.

Well, not exactly.

Although we'd like to think that once we've taken all these steps, our job is done, the reality is, it's just starting. If you want this employee or any other employee to succeed, you must monitor the work, follow up, and keep the process going. Progressive counseling is about small steps, frank and straightforward conversations, and continuous improvement.

By giving your nightmare employees the needed attention, they have the opportunity to be returned to the dream employees we envisioned when we hired them. However, the dream doesn't return overnight and it doesn't happen without effort on your part.

Carol Westberry, SPHR, is president of The Westberry Group Inc., a human resources consultant, and can be contacted at 813-677-1335, e-mail at thewestberrygroup@verizon.net, or www.thewestberrygroup.com.

Publication date: 01/30/2006