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CCA Series: Having the “STU” Conversation

Coaching & Corrective Action Series

Having the “STU” Conversation

(Part 2 of 3 Part Series)

By Sarah Zasso, SHRM-SCP, SPHR

What is the STU?

This article discusses the STU (Seek to Understand) Conversation element of the Coaching & Corrective Action (CCA) process.  The STU is the conversation that you have with an employee regarding a performance or conduct issue – with the goal to uncover WHY the employee is not meeting expectations and/or violated a policy.  The STU helps determine the proper course of corrective action, if any.  Regarding performance, some questions to answer are: Did the employee know what to do and how to do it?  Did the employee get enough training?  Regarding conduct: Does the employee know and understand the policy?  Did the employee know what they did was wrong? Was it the employee’s fault?  The STU helps find the answers to those questions.  This part of the CCA process is critical because it helps you hold your employees accountable accurately and consistently.

How does it work?

Let’s say you manage an Emergency Room.  Per company policy, all staff must treat patients while wearing protective gloves.  You notice that Nancy Nurse did not wear gloves while working with her last patient, which is a serious policy violation.  Do you write her up?  You could.  Or you could have a Seek to Understand conversation.  Why is she not wearing her gloves?  Is it possible that the gloves were not stocked?  If they were not stocked, why?  Who was supposed to?  Does Nancy Nurse and the rest of the staff have access to the gloves if they are not stocked?  What is the priority – save a patient or search for gloves?  If the gloves were not stocked and Nancy Nurse did not have access, should she be written up?  Would that be fair? Is this an employee error or a company error?  I hope you see that my point is, without having the STU conversation, you may hold an employee accountable for something that was not in their control.  (and to be clear – No, Nancy Nurse should not receive corrective action for a policy violation that was not her fault or in her control)

Another example could be attendance.  Wally Worker suddenly starts arriving to work late, enough incidents to warrant CCA.  The first conversation should be the STU.  “Wally, I’ve noticed that in the past month you have been 30 minutes late to work 6 times.  This is not like you, is everything ok?”  This approach accomplishes a few things:  This demonstrates to Wally that you are not making assumptions, you care, allows the conversation to be less confrontational, and – most importantly – helps determine the root cause of the behavior.  Wally may say that his car broke down and he has been relying on public transportation.

Why and What’s Next?

The STU allows the leader an opportunity to support the employee and help find a solution.  With Wally, maybe his start time can be adjusted temporarily until the situation is resolved.  I would still recommend that Wally receive the appropriate level of corrective action (must be consistent), but the STU may have helped resolve the behavior.  With Nancy, you can uncover and resolve the root cause of the inaccessible gloves.  Regardless of the reason for the poor performance or misconduct, the STU and coaching starts the corrective action process.  You have notified the employee of the problem and the results of the STU help determine the next steps.  Fix the problem internally (if that is the case) or move forward with the CCA process.

Final Thought

When I work with clients and they ask me if they can start the CCA process (typically the question is “Can I write them up for this?!”), I usually ask them three questions:

  1. Have you done all you can to help the employee be successful?
  2. Have you treated other employees similarly in a comparable situation?
  3. If you had to explain or defend your actions in front of a jury, would you make the same decision?

If you can truthfully say yes to those questions, then you should feel comfortable moving forward with the CCA process.  (Hint:  The STU helps you with those questions)

To be clear, I am not discouraging holding employees accountable.  In fact, I encourage you to hold your employees accountable.  However, it’s important to gain the STU knowledge in order to hold employee’s accountable accurately, fairly, and consistently.

The Seek to Understand (STU) is intended to protect the employer and the employee.  Too often, we make inaccurate assumptions, when all we have to do is start with “Why?”

Next month, look for Part 3 in the CCA Series – Documenting CCA.


This article is for general information purposes only.  I am not an attorney; accordingly, the information presented is not legal advice, and is not to be acted on as such.

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