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Employee Counseling – are we ready for it?

Many firms today realize the importance of attracting and retaining highly skilled, quality employees as a necessary component of their competitive advantage. One of the reasons that a quality workforce along with innovative tools for attracting and retaining has become so important is because previous sources of competitive advantage have become less important overtime.

For example, previously, a firm’s success was attributed to an emphasis on product and process technology, access to financial markets, developing economies of scale & learning curves, patents, protected and regulated markets & individual attractiveness. Recently, however, some scholars have noted that these traditional sources of success are less important than in the past and emphasize that the selection and management of a quality workforce has become an increasingly critical factor to organizational success. Today, HR practitioners are busy developing new and innovative tools to attract and retain quality workforce.

One such tool that soon is likely to gain popularity in the corporate world is Employee Counselling. Employee Counselling is a service offered by companies to their employees. Organizations that care for their employees are perceived as more meaningful and purposeful. Every organization has economic and social goals. Here, it is worthwhile to note some observations made by the Chairman of Infosys in this regard. He states, “The task of leadership is to make people believe in themselves, the organization, in the aggressive targets the organization sets. Belief comes from trust: the trust that this organization isn’t about making one set of stakeholders better off; it is about making every one of us better off….”

A firm may gain competitive advantages from Employee Counselling activities especially if its reputation and image is valuable, rare and not easily imitated. Employee Counselling therefore is a very powerful tool in the hands of companies in attracting and retaining quality workforce.

Although Counselling is known by many names like 'therapy' or 'helping' it is by and large, an attempt to encourage change. The counselle’s problems could be so complex that it might be difficult to see any system of help as an elegant solution. But, Counselling has shown some effectiveness over the years, as a process of helping people come through with their troubles.

Counselling is a process of helping people to learn how to solve certain interpersonal, emotional and decision problems. Counsellors help their counselles to ‘learn’. The criterion for success in any Counselling is real changes in behaviour on the part of the counselle. Counsellors are concerned that their counselles become independent problem solvers. Continued dependence on the counsellor as well as others is discouraged. Counsellors are concerned with habit changes that increase peoples' satisfaction with themselves. It could be anything from helping people choose a career option, becoming appropriately assertive or communicating more harmoniously with team members. Largely, Counselling has been a 'remedial approach'. But recently there has been a slight change in emphasis, from remedial to 'preventive'.

It is rightly said, ‘half knowledge is dangerous’. People often harbour myths about the counseling process. Some false beliefs about counseling are as follows:

(source: Magazine - Dignity Dialogue, 31July 2001)

No human being is perfect and we all constantly fight our own inadequacies in our own ways. Working in any organization requires an individual to be geared up to face the challenges of work-life. This does not mean he/she can escape the duties and responsibilities of family life, whether married or unmarried. Not every individual is competent enough to take and manage the stress of a hectic life style. Thus, we cannot deny the fact that every individual has intra and inter-personal problems whether at work or at home. The HR function of any organization has the most important challenging job of "making the most" of their Human Resource. An employee can give his best to the organization only if he is in a positive "frame of mind". A mentally preoccupied or troubled individual will be in a position to give very little to his company.

No successful organization will ever be free from stress among its employees. Organization should be able to deal with stress on individuals at all levels. Here the role of Counselling comes in, where people can talk and attempt to solve their personal and work related worries. Need for employee counselling arises due to various causes in addition to stress. These causes include: to deal effectively with one’s own emotions, interpersonal problems and lack of team spirit at workplace, inability to meet job demands, over work-load, confrontation with authority, responsibility and accountability, conflicts with superiors, subordinates and management and various family problems, health problems, career problems, etc. Counselling is a process of helping an individual to help himself.

Counselling, basically aims at helping individuals take charge of their lives. For this, individuals need two types of skills: ability to make decisions wisely and altering one's own behaviour to yield desirable consequences. A counsellor's job, then, becomes one of arranging appropriate learning experiences so that people develop these skills. Counsellors avoid giving speeches about what should be done, but ideas for action are developed with the active co-operation of the counselle. The Counsellor does not try to talk the client into feeling that the situation is hopeless. Instead, he/she encourages the client to begin taking action, the successful consequences of which would encourage the client to continue.

According to Eisenberg & Delaney, the aims of counselling are as follows:

1. Understanding self

2. Making impersonal decisions

3. Setting achievable goals which enhance growth

4. Planning in the present to bring about desired future

5. Effective solutions to personal and interpersonal problems.

6. Coping with difficult situations

7. Controlling self defeating emotions

8. Acquiring effective transaction skills.

9. Acquiring 'positive self-regard' and a sense of optimism about one's own ability to satisfy one's basic needs.

Counselling is discussion of an employee’s problem that usually has an emotional content to it, in order to help the employee cope with the situation better. Counselling seeks to improve employee’s mental health. People feel comfortable about themselves and about other people and are able to meet the demands of life when they are in good mental health.

Counselling and ‘Psychological Counselling’ are different from each other. Counselling in the form of advising, consoling and sharing happens in all spheres of life and does not need a specialized counsellor. Even in organizations, this kind of Counselling usually happens at all levels. This is informal or friendly form of Counselling. Psychological Counselling is a process that emphasizes a formal relationship between the counselle and the counselor. The focus of the relationship is achieving specific goals, that is, solving the problems as disclosed by the clients. The help is confined to specific times and days and the relationship ends when the objectives are achieved. The counselor has specialized training and applies the principles of psychology to help clients. There are several institutes, which provide courses in counseling. These courses train postgraduate students of psychology in the specialized field of Counselling. These professionally trained counselors are well equipped to help individuals needing assistance. They are trained to maintain confidentiality, to maintain objectivity and minimize biases or prejudices.

In order to establish a helpful relationship, the counsellor may acquire certain attitudes and certain skills. The set of attitudes required for an efficient counsellor are:

• Respect i.e. High esteem for human dignity, recognition of a person's freedom & rights and faith in human potential to grow.

• Sincerity, authenticity.

• Understanding

• Non-judgemental approach towards the counselle.

The set of skills required for an efficient counsellor are:

• Decency skills i.e. social etiquettes, warm manners

• Excellent communication skills which also include non-verbal communication and listening skills

• Objectivity

• Maintaining confidentiality

• Empathy

Through these attitudes and skills the counsellor creates a positive feeling in the counselle, and a hope that the counsellor will be of some help. The establishment of this rapport marks the start of treatment.

There are seven core techniques given by Rogers, Carkheff and Patterson, which assist the counsellor to apply appropriate core counselling conditions. They are as follows:

☺ Structuring

☺ Active Listening

☺ Silence

☺ Responding

☺ Reflection

☺ Questioning

☺ Interpretation

Models for human development like mentoring, coaching and counselling are no longer confined to the non-corporate world. These systems are today a part of Human Resource Management of the corporate sector. Inspite of counselling being an upcoming HR system like coaching and mentoring, few companies recognize the significance of Counselling and that their employees will benefit from such a service but may not employ a full time counselor. Awareness need to be created not only at the individual employee level but also at the industry level about Employee Counselling. This is clearly brought out by the primary research conducted by the author herself.

A primary research was carried out in the year 2002 at a manufacturing company based in Mumbai, India. This public limited company has five manufacturing sites across the country and four sales divisions. This research aimed at investigating the (felt) need for employee counseling in the organization. The design of this research study was exploratory in nature. The primary source of data collection was structured interviews, the sample being one hundred and ten (110) employees which is 20 % of the employee strength – five hundred and fifty three (553) of the corporate office of the company. The interview schedule comprised of both closed and open ended questions. A random sampling technique was used. The employee sample was 20 % of each of the divisions operating from the corporate office and was a perfect mix of managerial level employees, staff level employees and worker level employees.

Some important conclusions that were derived from the research study are:

• Majority of the employees of the company (61% of the sample) were unaware of the concept of Employee Counselling. Those employees who had a partially correct idea (25 % of the sample) about employee counseling knew that it was related to helping an employee in distress, advising, creating self-awareness and personality development. The remaining 14 % had an incorrect understanding about the concept.

• After the researcher had explained what employee counselling was all about, 69 % of the sample agreed that there was a (perceived) need for employee counseling in the company. The reasons were many, most common ones being to assist employees solve their personal and/or work related problems and to improve the employee relationships and overall culture of the workplace. Among the 31 % who were of the viewpoint that employee counseling as an institutionalized process was not needed in the company, 57 % of this group felt that the company had a family culture and the informal relationships between the employees could be leveraged upon.

• Only 22 % of the sample disagreed on the importance of employee counseling as a part of HR –systems while 78 % of the employees felt that counseling is an important HR function.

• 83 % of the employees were unaware of the companies practicing Employee Counselling in India (this could also be because the sample was a mix of managerial employees, staff level and workers)

The research results indicate that majority of the sample under study responded positively to the hypothesis i.e. a need for Employee Counselling was felt and that it would benefit the organization. However, the awareness about the concept of counselling and employee counselling, particularly so was found to be exceptionally low.

Psychological counseling is of various types. Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy by Dr Albert Ellis popularly known as REBT is most widely applied.

Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (Source: Albert Ellis Institute, New York)

REBT is a practical, action-oriented approach to coping with problems and enhancing personal growth. REBT places a good deal of its focus on the present: on currently-held attitudes, painful emotions and maladaptive behaviors that can sabotage a fuller experience of life. REBT then provides a variety of methods to help people reformulate their dysfunctional beliefs into more sensible, realistic and helpful ones by employing the powerful REBT technique called "disputing." Ultimately, REBT helps people to develop a philosophy and approach to living that can increase their effectiveness and happiness at work, in living successfully with others, in parenting and educational settings, in making our community and environment healthier, and in enhancing their own health and personal welfare.

REBT is based on a few simple principles having profound implications:

1. You are responsible for your own emotions and actions,

2. Your harmful emotions and dysfunctional behaviors are the product of your irrational thinking,

3. You can learn more realistic views and, with practice, make them a part of you,

4. You'll experience a deeper acceptance of yourself and greater satisfactions in life by developing a reality-based perspective.

REBT distinguishes clearly between two very different types of difficulties: practical problems and emotional problems. Your flawed behavior, unfair treatment by others, and undesirable situations, represent practical problems. Regrettably, your human tendency is to

upset yourself about these practical problems, thereby unnecessarily creating a second order of problems--emotional suffering.

Some other types of counseling processes are Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Therapy; Carl Roger’s Client Centered Therapy; Carkhuff Model of Personal Counselling; Gestalt approach to counselling; Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy by Albert Ellis. Freud’s Psychoanalytic Therapy is based on the power of the unconscious mind. According to Freud, who is the Father of Psychology the human mind is like an iceberg. As only the tip of the iceberg is seen by the naked eye so is only one tenth of the human mind known to us. Psychoanalytic therapy taps this semi and unconscious mind through different techniques like dream analysis, etc. It was Carl Roger who supported a view that counselles should be addressed as ‘clients’ and unlike Freud’s psychoanalytic therapy where a counselle plays a passive role, in Client centered therapy the client plays a more active role as compared to the counselor. Hence the name Client Centered Therapy”. Carkhuff model of personal counseling is an offshoot of Roger’s Client Centered Therapy. It focuses on attending, responding, personalizing and initiating action as indispensable counselor skills. Gestalt approach to counseling focuses on looking at human beings from a ‘holistic’ perspective. The word ‘gestalt’ means “a whole being”.

Whatever type of therapy the counselor has expertise in, whether it be Client Centered Therapy or REBT or any other, institutionalizing an employee counseling system in an organization is a different ball game all together. Right from getting top management approvals and budgetary sanctions to getting trained counselors on the rolls or on part time basis all are equally challenging. Preparing the employees for counselling is another yet important areas. One of the biggest fears that prevent employees from using the services of a counselor is the social and professional stigma attached to counselling.

If a system is being introduced in an organization for the first time, it is advisable to do a pilot. For example, the company in which the author has done primary research on employee counseling – an institutionalized set-up for counseling can be initiated at a particular division/location on an experimentation basis. If this process succeeds overtime, the same model can perhaps be replicated throughout the company. However for this, the process should be predictable, repeatable and measurable. Some criteria to gauge the impact of employee counseling are feedbacks, dip-stick surveys, focus groups, indirect or direct effect on absenteeism, employee turnover, work performance and productivity, motivation levels of employee’s et al.

For introducing and sustaining any new system, the following four steps prove handy – create awareness, educate the employees, then motivate them and finally all this will lead to (expected or required) actions.

1. Creating awareness:

The starting point to introducing any new system in an organization is creating awareness. Infact in the above mentioned research, 75 % of the sample population was not aware about a trained counsellor in the company (please note the counsellor is not officially designated the position of a ‘counsellor’ but is occupying some other ‘post’). Awareness can be created by various means the most common ones being posters and notice boards.

2. Education:

“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet” – Aristotle

Educating the employees implies some formal training about the new process to be introduced or leveraging on informal channels. However, a systematic and planned formal approach is usually preferred.

3. Motivation:

After creating awareness and educating the employees, it is imperative to motivate them with the right set of attitudes and values as required for the process. Especially for a process like employee counseling, the mind-set of the employees plays a crucial role in influencing the success or failure.

4. Action:

As is commonly known, actions speak louder than words. If the above three steps are methodically followed, it generally leads to positive results.

Introducing a system is not more challenging than sustaining a newly introduced system. To ensure sustainability of a new system, whether it is employee counseling or any other, the parameters to determine success need to be well defined. For any system to sustain itself, the process should be crystal clear.

The way the corporate sector has opened up to the world economy, it is now high time for organizations to open up for employee-orientated HR processes like counseling, coaching and mentoring. The corporate world is changing and so are the Human Resource Management practices. It is imperative that we adapt the changing styles to manage our people better. It is not just for the benefit of the employees but in the interest of the organization to show that ‘we care’ about this important segment of our stakeholders.

From India, Gurgaon
Ramakrishna Tanikella
Director - Chief Facilitator

Ramakrishna Tanikella

Dear Fellow Professional, just now gone through your article on counseling. It is simply superb and helpful to each and every HR professional Ramakrishna Tanikella
From India, Hyderabad
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