Do Employees Need Guidance Counselors?

Not everyone, or every work group, at even a great company, is going to be pleasant. The team may be productive and reach its goals, but that doesn’t mean every member of the work team is going to find the experience enjoyable. Add into that specific challenges with managers and co-workers, and you have a recipe for an employee who quickly takes flight.

A recent article in Fast Company by Barry S. Saltzman, How to Survive a Toxic Workplace, makes me wonder whether employees should have in-house resources for counseling, and whether part of their training should include coping strategies.

One of the first tips the article offers is “Don’t fight fire with fire.” That means, essentially, that if a co-worker or manager is unpleasant or unfair, you should just turn the other cheek, and concentrate on getting your job done, rather than responding in kind. What’s hard is doing this without becoming a doormat. At my first full-time job, my manager was unfriendly (among other issues) with me, so I quickly stopped smiling and saying hello to her. I felt dumb and phony continuing to greet her pleasantly, when nearly every time, she just raised her eyebrows and looked me up and down competitively in response. Should I not have done that?

Another tip in the article is to “use HR to your advantage.” I’ve heard that many who go into HR have psychology degrees. I’d love to be able to put those degrees to use, and turn at least one or two of a company’s HR employees into the professional version of high school guidance counselors—people you can talk to about professional, and maybe even personal, issues affecting your job. Do you think your company could offer psychological counseling or guidance to employees in distress? Or would you have to refer them to a practicing psychologist for liability reasons?

The way I envision it working is when an employee is hired, he or she would be assigned an HR counselor, similar to how you are assigned a guidance counselor in high school, or an advisor in college. That way, you would know you have someone inside the company you could speak with, and who could advocate on your behalf.

The article also advises that “if severe action is needed, take it.” The author explains that toxic behavior shouldn’t be worked around. So you shouldn’t just ask your manager or the department head for a workaround to cope with the undesired behavior; the problem (i.e., the person) should be eliminated. What do you do when the problem is your manager? Do you gamble and go to the head of the department with your concerns, or do you hold your tongue, and just endure long enough to find a new job? It’s a shame to leave a position you’re excelling at just because your manager is giving you grief. If you’re part of a work group, this task becomes easier because of safety in numbers. Five employees visiting the head of a department together to discuss the problems they’re having with their boss is hard to ignore or discount. On the other hand, a single employee, with no one to back up her story, is likely to be brushed off in favor of the concept of “trusting your managers.”

Is there a way to balance the trust and autonomy given to managers with the needs of the employee? If the issue in question is illegal behavior, such as any of form of harassment, a department head has to listen seriously to the employee, but what about when the problem behaviors cited are not illegal, but, nonetheless, destructive? Some would say that the department head would need evidence, such as saved e-mails or voicemails. The problem is many sub-par managers are just competent enough to know not to put any of their bad behavior in writing or in a recording.

One thing is clear: A high-performing employee who is in duress should be taken seriously. You may find it is the manager that’s the problem. It would be a shame to retain the problem and lose an employee who may have the potential to provide you with important solutions.

How do you support employees through the psychological duress that can occur in the workplace due to interpersonal struggle?


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