Many years ago, when I took my first paramedic training program, the instructor offered words of wisdom regarding documentation of patient care. He said, "If you don't write it down, it didn't happen."
For example, if you performed CPR on a patient who later died, but didn’t note the CPR on the proper form, a lawyer representing that person’s family may contend you didn’t do CPR at all, which could be difficult to disprove. The point that I am making is that documentation is vital in any matter that may become contentious down the road.
Your word or theirs
Has the following scenario happened to you? One of your staff members is chronically late. Numerous times you have spoken to him or her about the importance of arriving at work on time to conduct a proper pre-trip inspection and arrive at children’s bus stops on time, all to no avail.
You finally run out of options and want to refer the person to the district office for disciplinary action, such as suspension. You meet with your supervisors, your tardy employee and union representatives, only to be smacked down because the employee claims to have never been warned about being tardy. Unfortunately, you have nothing other than your word and the look of frustration on your face to serve as proof that you have met with the employee Ñ many times. At this point, without any written documentation, the employee will probably walk away with only a slap on the wrist. If this sounds familiar to you, then understanding how to write and use a counseling memo is something you should know.
Counseling vs. written warnings
Many sections of civil service law and union contracts spell out exactly how oral and written warnings can be used when dealing with employees. The counseling memo should not be confused with a written warning, although if you read between the lines, the memo can lead to more definitive action in accordance with collective bargaining agreements and laws. The primary purpose of the counseling memo is to document that you and the employee in question have spoken about a specific behavioral, procedural or safety matter.
To take things a bit further, the counseling memo can also reinforce policy or best practices so the waters are not so muddy.
Meet in person
When an issue arises that you feel is important enough to mention to the employee, you should arrange to speak with the person in your office or at another appropriate location. Airing concerns in public that could become disciplinary or sitting in the employee break room to discuss personnel matters is a poor practice. The mood should always be friendly and positive. Remember: This is not personal. You are simply restating policy or procedures for the employee.
If the employee belongs to a union, offer him or her the option of having union representation present. If they are not, keep your office door open to ensure that a disgruntled employee does not accuse you of saying anything inappropriate or threatening.
Present the facts as you know them. Be direct and honest and allow the employee to ask questions. If you have a policy manual or a state laws and regulations book that supports the issue, have them ready to show the employee. Poring through pages of books trying to find the section you are referencing while the employee is sitting there only makes you appear disorganized and can frustrate all parties involved. Besides, take it from me, I can never find a section of law or policy while people are sitting in my office. The specific page needed always seems to disappear until they’re gone!
Any dialogue during a meeting or counseling session should be a two-way conversation. Give the employee the chance to address the points you are making. Even if the employee does not agree with you, the policy, law or procedure, he or his representatives should have the chance to present his opinion and version of the events that led up to your meeting.
Don’t put things off
We are all busy people in the pupil transportation business. However, do not let much time lag between the meeting and your counseling memo. The memo will be your proof of the meeting having been held, of what was discussed and possibly of how you want changes implemented. Allowing time to lag may send a message that the issue was not really as important as you made it out to be. Also, delaying the memo may allow the employee to continue his behavior until the memo is received.
Specify course of action
Let me make it clear that the memo must always be referred to as a counseling memo. There is nothing wrong with confirming and documenting the topic of a conversation. However, if the letter is a “warning,” labor unions may have issues with it.
The memo should clearly state the reason(s) that you are writing it. Including the employee’s responses in the memo is appropriate, but don’t dedicate the largest portion of the memo to his response. Remember: Your goal is to restate your policy or procedure.
It is very important to specify what you want the employee to do to correct or modify behavior. This prevents the employee from saying in the future, “I was never told that.” It should be clearly stated that failure to follow the course of action or improvement called for during your face-to-face meeting and specified in the memo “may” lead to actual disciplinary action. Be sure to use the word “may,” because the counseling memo is not a disciplinary action.
Also, many supervisors cannot arbitrarily hand out discipline without going through other channels or proceedings. Don’t make threats you can’t deliver on.
Counseling memos should be treated as personnel matters and therefore are confidential. Make every effort to clearly mark on the memo that it is personal and confidential. Copies should only be provided to the employee and his union representatives, if any. One copy should be maintained in the employee’s personnel file. Again: There is nothing wrong with keeping proof of a conversation and/or meeting in a personnel file, but you should also check with your operation’s union stewards. They may require a provision that allows the employee to staple a written statement or response to the memo before it is filed.
Keep in mind that your goal with the memo is to correct behavior or instruct on policy not to discipline or punish.
Avoid wording errors
You are writing a counseling memo and, in most cases, counseling memos are exempt from the rules that pertain to written warnings. You should never use wording in a counseling memo that refers to a reprimand or formal written notice. An employee should never be accused of insubordination, incompetence, misconduct or neglect of duty. These are all very serious phrases and should only be used during official disciplinary proceedings.
It is also my hope that you as supervisors and transportation managers are able to enter meetings better prepared with the documentation you need to achieve the results you desire.
If you would like a sample of a counseling memo in Microsoft Word format, request one via e-mail to [email protected].
Michael P. Dallessandro is the transportation supervisor at Lake Shore (N.Y.) Central School District and a frequent contributor at SCHOOL BUS FLEET.