How to… counsel colleagues

The aim of counselling
is to give an individual the confidence to take responsibility for any problems
they may have and to find their own solution by exploring it from a fresh
angle. As a manager, you should be able to exercise the skills used by
counsellors to address the issues affecting staff performance.

Why is it important?

It is unlikely your department will always run as smoothly as
it should, and counselling is an essential requirement for effective people
management. It can range from dealing with the fallout from a personality
clash, to the ‘pick-up’ counselling required after redundancies.

Many skills associated with counselling apply equally in
everyday HR activities, such as asking the right questions and interpreting
body language during selection interviews and team-building, and are also
widely used in coaching.

There is a great deal of evidence to show that formal
counselling can markedly reduce stress and absenteeism levels, and also has
positive effects on job commitment and satisfaction.

A study for the British Association for Counselling and
Psychotherapy, Counselling the Workplace, shows that workplace counselling
reduced stress levels by 50 per cent and sickness and absence levels by between
25-50 per cent.

While this study pertains to every kind of counselling, it’s
safe to assume that effective counselling, even at a basic level, can pay

Where do I start?

As soon as a problem becomes evident, you must intervene. Set up
an initial meeting and locate a suitable area, ideally in an informal setting,
where you won’t be interrupted. Set aside time for the counselling and tell
your colleague how long you can spend with them – between 45 minutes and an
hour is normally sufficient. Avoid bringing things to an abrupt or hurried
close, as this will devalue the exercise. Keep an eye on the time and make sure
you leave 10-15 minutes to summarise, suggesting a follow-up meeting if

Establishing ground rules at the start of the meeting is also a
must. Reassure the colleague that anything said will be confidential unless
otherwise agreed.

Don’t take responsibility for the problem – it’s not helpful
for the worker, and having taken on someone else’s stresses and strains, you
might end up as the one needing counselling.

What skills do I need?

As a conscientious HR professional, you’re probably equipped
with most of them already, with a high emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) to

You must be able to listen, empathise, explore and challenge
while treating the colleague with respect. Be supportive, but make sure you ask
questions that will help to build a fuller understanding of the situation, and
interpret their body language. Empathising will encourage them to open up.

Don’t offer advice or be directive, but instead encourage your
colleague to reappraise their situation. The root of the problem may be
blindingly obvious, but coaxing them to reach it by themselves is the desired

Know when to call in professional help

The consequences of inadequately dealing with issues such as
alcoholism, substance misuse or trauma are too far-reaching not to seek
fully-trained and qualified counselling support, so be heedful of your own
limitations. This may also be appropriate where you have the training and
experience to deal with the problem, but feel uncomfortable about becoming
involved with a colleague over such delicate matters.

Where can I get more info?


– Counselling for Managers
Nigel MacLennan, Gower Publishing, £26.50,
ISBN 0566080923

– Counselling for Toads
Robert De Board, Taylor & Francis Routledge, £9.99,
ISBN 0415174295

– Counselling Skills and Theory
Margaret Hough, Hodder & Stoughton Educational,
£17.99, ISBN 034070179X


If you’re thinking of counselling as a second career, the
Training in Counselling and Psychotherapy Directory lists courses and providers.

D Chayton, British Association for Counselling,
£18, ISBN 0946181616


– Counselling in the Workplace: The Facts – A Systematic Study
of the Research Evidence
Professor John McLeod, British Association for Counselling and
Psychotherapy (2003),


– Employee Assistance Professional Association
The online home of the representative body for EAPs includes news and a list of
providers and events

– British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

– British Psychological Society
Allows a search of the directory and register of chartered psychologists. It
also has a useful FAQ section on the practicalities of using one.

If you only do five things…

1 Intervene as soon as a problem
comes to light

2 Establish ground rules from the outset

3 Don’t offer advice or be directive

4 Avoid taking on the employee’s emotional burden

5 Be aware of your limitations

Expert’s view: Kevin Friery on counselling colleagues

Kevin Friery is director of counselling at employee wellbeing specialist
Right Corecare

Do HR professionals give enough credence to counselling, and have
attitudes to counselling changed?

HR professionals are moving into a strategic field, whereas they once
combined more of a personnel and welfare role. Public attitudes to emotional
wellbeing have changed dramatically, and counselling has become more accepted
as a mainstream source of help. There is sometimes a funding tension between HR
and budget holders, and this can prevent effective counselling from being

Do HR professionals make for natural counsellors, and what key skills are

The only necessary attribute for a natural counsellor is a genuine desire to
help, and many HR professionals would fit into this category. The key skills
beyond this can all be learned, and can be summed up as a willingness to
listen, suspend judgement, be genuine, and willing to confront difficult

What are the common failings of counselling?

Two of the most common failings, especially in under-trained counsellors,
are to talk about the counsellor’s experiences rather than the employee’s, and
to offer advice based on the counsellor’s perspective. It is not enough to be
merely empathetic and supportive, however, because nothing will change for the

To be effective, counselling needs to help the employee move forward, which
often requires a degree of challenge in the relationship – but it is important
to remember that counselling is done with, rather than to, an employee.

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