Viewpoint: How HR Can Help Restore Interactive Communication

By David Beck July 12, 2018
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In this tight job market, HR professionals are grappling with the unending quest for talent―but not just any talent. Quality standards must be met, and they demand candidates with excellent, targeted skills. Among the capabilities hardest to find: interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively across all levels of the organization.

HR is the center of gravity for most organizations as managers seek new talent and try to ensure that the existing workforce has the skills needed to carry out the company's mission. In turn, HR managers must communicate the return on investment for the policies they recommend and the training and development effort they seek to fund.

That should not be hard to achieve, said Allan H. Church, Ph.D., senior vice president of global talent assessment and development at New York-based PepsiCo. He pointed to recently published benchmark research with 80 top companies, which shows that 52 percent are focused on assessing and developing self-awareness among their employees, while 40 percent are focused on communication/verbal skills. This indicates that at a minimum, these "soft" skills are critical in today's business world and represent capabilities that companies value at all levels.

It could very well be that Church, a longtime HR professional, is concerned with the impact the digital age is having on new talent. He, like many other HR managers, wonders if new recruits will communicate with fellow humans as well as they do with gadgets and devices.

"The psychologist in me has to ask, 'How will they handle conflict, influence others and manage others when they have learned much of it only through technology-based relationships?' " he said. "That is assuming, of course, that people actually work together in the future."

HR managers often take notice when an employee whose workspace is down the hall sends an e-mail message on a vital issue instead of arranging to speak firsthand with someone from HR, a common experience at many firms. Lisa Perez, most recently vice president of talent management at Buffalo Wild Wings and previously vice president of organizational development at Kohl's Corp., maintains that we are losing the communications skill set because of our obsession with smartphones, texting and e-mail.

So what can HR do? After all, HR isn't responsible for the widespread use of technology in society. HR managers see their role as framers of policy and defenders who keep their organization out of legal trouble. But they also recognize a responsibility to oversee the talent pool. The HR person in each firm must set an example and demonstrate that he or she not only can interact well with his or her own team but communicate with all employees and with management at all levels, say industry experts.

"I think people expect HR executives to be better at [communicating]. People expect HR to have this skill set," said Peter Cappelli, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia and director of its Center for Human Resources.

Certainly, HR plays a key role in assessing the talent of a new generation of future leaders. In fact, many senior executives at firms large and small regard HR as central to these evaluations. But they also call upon HR to devise ideas on how to overcome any skill deficiencies in future and current talent.

A major concern are the Millennials and Generation Z who have been populating the workforce. HR is asking, "Do these future leaders, raised in a technology-based society, have the interpersonal skills to be future leaders? Do they value these skills?"

Traditional Performance Reviews Not the Answer

One way to measure these skills is through regular performance reviews. But many HR managers will tell you that review forms have become outdated and generally do not adequately gauge interactive skills.

Instead, they are recommending regular dialogue and feedback meetings where coaching and communication are stressed. HR is huddling with company leaders to advise them on when and how to structure these vital sessions.

"We've done studies and collected data from managers," said Christopher Collins, associate professor of human resources and director of the Center for Advanced Human Resources Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "This generation deeply values conversation with their leaders—they want to get to know their leaders. And even though they are digital, they value face-to-face communication, particularly around lots of feedback from their managers."

Collins affirms that HR has a bigger role than ever in coaching and guiding the new generation of workers to become better leaders. "HR needs to understand the employees' career goals and ambitions," he said.

One of the informal functions of an HR professional is to advise senior managers and see to it that the ability to communicate is ingrained in the company's culture. Savvy HR executives are not shy about recommending to top executives what they need to do to develop and safeguard talent.

Some HR experts report that restoring the lost art of interactive communication begins in the interviewing process. They often see managers being groomed for promotion into high positions, but when it's time for the assessment, the hiring leader finds that his or her "anointed" manager cannot communicate at the level necessary to run a major project or launch a new product. Somehow, this major shortcoming was not uncovered until it was almost too late.

Perez is one HR executive who is determined to revive the art of interaction, even if it means taking her case to the entire management team. She asserted that if the organization as a whole and the executive team do not value these interpersonal skills or do not focus on them, interaction will not happen. And, she pointed out, they should be linked to the competencies required to fulfill the organization's strategy. "Indeed, communication and interaction are tied to the success of the company," she said.

Church at PepsiCo is another leader in HR's continuing mission to regain companies' strong intercommunication skills. "We believe strongly, and it's imbedded in both our Performance with Purpose strategy and corporate values as well, that interpersonal skills, such as how you connect, collaborate and work with others, are critical for the continued success of our business," he said.

Progressive firms like PepsiCo make the distinction between business and people results. Interestingly, both can be measured using separate sets of annual objectives, he said. 

HR's Leadership Role

To be effective in restoring interactive communication as a top skill set, HR must take a leadership role and assert itself to top management. Industry experts say that HR leaders must form partnerships with senior executives, including the CEO, to formulate plans that both see to the needs of current employees and make the company culture attractive to new employees, thanks to HR's focus on communication.

Lionsgate Television Group has pushed "go" on enhancing communication, and HR has been the leader in this effort. For example, the company did away with annual performance reviews and instituted "quarterly conversations."  Every manager sits with his or her direct reports to discuss how the employees are doing. The result is that HR leads in promoting intracompany communication, said Lionsgate President Sandra Stern. HR has conducted numerous employee feedback surveys in which communication was shown to be an employee concern and served as a catalyst for Stern and her management team to promote feedback.

For example, Stern leads "ask me anything" sessions once a month.

"Employees want to know about management policy, rumors they have heard," she said. "It is a way to gain insight on what the company and industry are doing, what I think about mega-mergers and how they affect our company, what's on people's minds."

Communication and working collaboratively with others are always high on the list of skills necessary to succeed at Lionsgate, regardless of the job, and HR is at the forefront of the firm's communication efforts. "The head of HR attends all division meetings and is involved in everything," Stern said.

Many business observers continue to worry that effective and valuable face-to-face communication capabilities may be going the way of typewriters and fax machines. It's HR's special task to see to it that these skills not only do not disappear but are restored to their proper place in the organizational, human capital value chain.

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­­­­David Beck is a communications and leadership consultant and principal of Global Conference Advisors. He can be reached at d2beck@outlook.com.

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