Effective Communication in the Workplace

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A student in a management program at a local university contacted me recently to ask my opinion on Human Resources communications. Many of her questions were far broader than HR communications and actually related to all corporate communications.

One question she asked was “What constitutes effective communication in the workplace?”

Here was my answer:

Communication must at all times be accurate and courteous. It doesn’t matter if it’s between supervisor and subordinate, between co-workers, between employees and HR, between leadership and employees, or between insiders and outsiders. At all times, in all communications, written and oral, employees at all levels must state the situation accurately and clearly, and they must be civil in the language and tone they use.

I always have told people that every communication should be stated or written as if the CEO, a newspaper reporter, and your mother were all hearing or seeing it. It is even more true today than it used to be that anything you say or write or do can and will be used against you. So be careful.

Obviously, some communications are less formal than others. But the rules of accuracy and civility should always be followed.

Readers, what do you think? What should I have added?

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Tearing Down the HR Silos

HR signI’ve worked in human resources for twenty years and was associated with professionals in the field for another fifteen. My involvement with HR dates back to the days when the function was called “Personnel.”

For the past quarter century, the profession has talked about the need to become more strategic and less siloed and about its desire to have “a seat at the table.” Yet there are still articles written on how to get HR out of its silo (see here and here).

Of course, the same is said of many other corporate support functions, including IT, Legal, and Public Relations. Every group wants a seat at the table, if only to insure its relevance. Although the plaint is true for all support functions, this post focuses on HR. How can HR become more strategic and less siloed?

Here are four suggestions:

1. Business Acumen — Both Financial and Specific

HR first needs to understand the impact of corporate policies and decisions on the bottom line. Every HR employee must be able to talk the business language of its business. Reading financial statements and budgets is a part of understanding the business, but only part.

Beyond familiarity with financial statements, HR employees also must understand the business drivers of their particular segment of the business. So, for example, if you support a production plant, you should know what drives productivity and quality. If you support a marketing group, you need to know the marketing cycle and critical events within it. If you support a law firm, you must understand both billable hours and alternative fee structures.

In other words, HR professionals need to worry about the same issues that your business partners worry about.

2. Communication and Engagement

Beyond understanding the business drivers, HR has to be prepared to help corporate leadership communicate with employees about the business. HR can offer expertise in employee engagement. But it is important for HR to focus on employee engagement from a business perspective, and not as social director or traffic cop.

The best way to increase employee engagement is to increase employee understanding of the business and of their role in it. HR should involve itself in educating employees about the business’s needs both today and in the future. HR provides the most value when it helps to shape the story that leaders tell in ways that employees can understand and internalize.

3. Collaboration Across the Company

HR can’t be the division that always says “no.” Along with employment lawyers, HR does have particular expertise in employment laws and regulations, which impact workforce management in every respect from hiring to compensation to firing. Sometimes those laws and regulations suggest that managers shouldn’t do what they want to do.

But the best way for HR to be strategic is to ask leadership “what is the outcome you want?” and then figure out how to get there. Risk assessment is a part of any field; HR is no exception. Pointing out the risks of various courses of action is a part of getting to the desired result. But just because risk exists does not mean the desired action should not be undertaken. And many times the same desired outcome can be achieved with slight changes to the plan.

Rather than focusing on what can’t or shouldn’t be done, HR can also help business leaders translate corporate strategies into workforce requirements. What talent will it take to make good on the strategic plans the business has developed? HR must step up to partnering with managers to hire, develop, and retain the best talent for the challenges ahead of the particular business.

4. Integration Within HR and a Customer Service Attitude

In addition to the perception of HR as naysayer, there is also a perception that HR is overly complex and compartmentalized. The great HR guru John Sullivan wrote back in 2006 about the need to knock down silos within HR. In many companies, this is still true today.

Human Resources

While specialization of some functions is important, HR should appear seamless to outsiders. Every HR employee can adopt the military attitude when asked a question—if you don’t know the answer or it’s not in your job description, you can say “I don’t know, sir, but I’ll find out.” No hand-offs from one HR department to the next. No visible arguments between HR business partners and functional specialists—the arguments need to be resolved within HR, not in front of the client.

If HR doesn’t have a cohesive sense of itself, then it cannot present a cohesive picture of people management to the rest of the company. And cohesion is key to any strategy.


HR has been saying throughout my career that employees are the biggest differentiator between companies. If that is true, HR has a critical role as partner in the success of the business—by helping to manage the people who work there.

The first step is getting out of the HR silo and assuming the seat at the table. Don’t wait to be invited. Provide the value, and the seat will be yours.

When have you seen HR professionals work outside their silos as a successful strategic partner?

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Let’s Get Serious About What We Want Out of Government

vote-stars1In just a few short days, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will be making their choices on who they want to see as President for the next four years. Soon, voters in other states will follow.

I have been open about the concerns I’ve had during President Obama’s time in office. But the choices before us do not look like solutions. Both major parties are a mess.

On the Republican side, we have two bullies as front runners, and the rest of the pack runs far behind. Most candidates are rushing to the right.

Where are the candidates who recognize that we must manage the millions of illegal immigrants already in our society, that we must deal rationally with a dangerous world, and that we must substitute well-grounded plans for the government excesses of the last eight years?

On the Democrat side, we have one candidate who comes with heavy baggage and whom many distrust and another who professes socialism. They are rushing to the left.

Where are the candidates who understand that our nation’s fiscal problems cannot be solved by taxing only those making over $250,000 a year, that we must engage in the difficult task of reducing the cost of government, and that entitlement reform is needed to free up funds for other priorities?

And voters in both parties are seeking the anti-candidate, the one with the least experience in working in government. I believe this is one of the worst criteria to use in selecting our future leaders.

We want someone who has never dealt with politics before??? We think our leaders should stay above the fray rather than engaging in compromise??? We trust someone who has never demonstrated an ability to make things happen in Washington??? Who thinks that by declaring “this is what I want” it will happen???

Declaring “this is what I want” does not work in business, and it doesn’t even work in the military where hierarchy is clear. It certainly will not get the job done in our federal government.

It’s time for voters to get serious.

If voters want to debate policy concerns, that’s fine. There can be a debate over the issues of immigration and entitlement and foreign policy.

And if voters want to consider integrity or likability in making their choices, I’d agree those are factors in selecting a good leader.

But we shouldn’t choose a candidate because he or she has never governed before. And if we do, let’s not be surprised when we get someone who can’t govern.

As for me, I’m looking for someone who can work the system, not someone who despises the system. I’m not looking for someone who promises to blow up the system we have now, or who disregards the checks and balances that have served us well for over two hundred years. I’m looking for someone who understands and can articulate the decisions before us and their preferred course of action.

Beyond that, yes, I’m looking for conservative policies and regulations. I’m looking for someone who will support business growth, who believes what I believe, and who is electable. I’m looking for someone who develops rational solutions, who doesn’t always tell voters (including me) what they want to hear.

To date, I haven’t landed on any of the current candidates as someone I would support without qualification. But I have ruled out a few as people I could never support.

What do you look for in a political leader? And what are you doing to help elect such a person?

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Favorite Firing: Working While Intoxicated

417px-Interlocking_USC_Logo.svgA few months ago the University of Southern California fired its head football coach for showing up to work drunk. Then in December 2015, the coach sued USC, which shouldn’t surprise anyone with employment law experience.

Most cases in which alcoholism impacts the workplace are not so public, but this one offers lessons for both employees and employers.

The Facts: The facts of this case are disputed, because it is still in litigation. Here’s the version I’ve gleaned from the media:

Head Coach Steve Sarkisian allegedly attended a number of events while under the influence of alcohol and/or medications in the months before he was fired. In August 2015 he showed up to a USC event apparently under the influence, which provoked media headlines, and he later apologized. At a game in late September 2015 his staff suspected that he was under the influence.

And in October 2015, Coach Sarkisian “appeared not normal” at an event, according to one news source. A player said after that occasion that the coach “showed up lit to meetings again today.” His manager, Pat Haden, Athletic Director for USC, said it was “clear to me that he was not healthy,” as quoted on ESPN.com. Coach Sarkisian was instructed to leave, and he was asked to take an indefinite leave of absence.

A few days later, Mr. Haden announced that he had fired Coach Sarkisian. Coach Sarkisian entered a rehabilitation program.

Then in December 2015, the coach sued USC for breach of contract and disability discrimination. That lawsuit is in its very early stages.

The Moral: It appears that this situation has been a long time in the making, as are most situations involving substance abuse of any kind that impact the workplace. And how much of the behavioral problems are due to alcoholism and how much they should be excused will be issues in the lawsuit, as such issues typically are in cases involving substance abuse.

Alcoholism is a disability protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but having a disability does not protect an employee from the consequences of his or her behavior.

An employer may still maintain a policy prohibiting using drugs or alcohol during working hours and/or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while at work. Employees can be fired for violating those policies, or for any other breaches of company behavioral policies (such as rudeness to customers or other employees), even if the employee is an alcoholic or addict and his or her bad conduct occurred while under the influence. Employees with addictions can also be held to the same performance standards as other employees.

As the EEOC states:

“The ADA specifically permits employers to prohibit the use of alcohol or the illegal use of drugs in the workplace. Consequently, an employee who violates such policies, even if the conduct stems from alcoholism or drug addiction, may face the same discipline as any other employee. The ADA also permits employers to require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol or the illegal use of drugs in the workplace.”


“employers may require an employee who is an alcoholic or who engages in the illegal use of drugs to meet the same standards of performance and behavior as other employees. This means that poor job performance or unsatisfactory behavior – such as absenteeism, tardiness, insubordination, or on-the-job accidents – related to an employee’s alcoholism or illegal use of drugs need not be tolerated if similar performance or conduct would not be acceptable for other employees.”

The moral here is that employers need to have firm policies defining acceptable and unacceptable conduct. And they need to enforce those policies consistently. It won’t do for employers to permit non-addict curmudgeonly managers to yell at their subordinates, yet fire alcoholics who engage in the same behavior.

It is a good practice for employers to refer employees they suspect of having substance abuse problems to an employee assistance program, but having such programs is not required. And an employer can still enforce discipline, even if the employee seeks assistance, which appears to be what happened in the USC case.

Only time and litigation will disclose what happened in the USC case. Only the lawsuit or a settlement will now resolve the matter.

But this unfortunate situation is an opportunity for employers to review their policies and practices around substance abuse. And to train managers in how to handle future problems consistently with other performance and behavioral issues.

When have you had to deal with substance abuse problems in the workplace?

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Good Managers Know Macro Trends Have Micro Impacts

Although there are signs of an improving economy and the U.S. economy appears to be in better shape than much of the world, we still have not shaken the doldrums left over after the Great Recession. The U.S. economy has only grown at two percent per year since the recession ended. The Congressional Budget Office projects productivity gains of only 2.2% for years to come. Median household income in 2014 was $4,000 LESS than in 2000. We live in difficult times, and the economic policies and results of recent years have not helped middle Americans.

When I consider these economic statistics, I think about how the economy impacts people I know. Many are just fine. But some friends have been left without jobs. Others scrimp where before they were comfortable. People work longer hours than they want, or wish they could work longer hours to make more money.

performance-reviewMany years ago, before the past decade of economic woes, I managed a department in a business facing hard times. The macro economy was doing well at the time, though our business was in trouble. We used the same management tools that many companies use today—reductions in staff, tight merit increase pools, and less training that we really needed. We were thankful that we had a safety valve in the good economy on the outside. We lost some good employees, but they had places to go.

One of the more difficult decisions I faced as a manager was dividing up a small merit increase pool among my staff of very good performers. Obviously, some employees performed better than others, as is always true. But there was only one person in my group of thirty or so who was not performing at least to the standards the company set.

Should I divide the two percent merit pool evenly, or should I try to reward the higher performers? Senior management in the company told me to differentiate among my staff based on performance. So I did.

But that meant that some very good performers only received a two percent raise. At the time, that’s about what inflation was. They might not be losing ground, but they certainly weren’t making headway. Those were difficult conversations.

In today’s macroeconomic trends, many managers are working their way through difficult times in their businesses. Because of the uncertain economy, there is less of an escape valve than there was when my company had to tighten its belt. The macro and micro trends are headed in the same direction.

Often, leaders have no good choices in managing their businesses. They can give larger increases to their staffs, they can even raise costs faster than revenue. But that reduces profit and disappoints investors.

Or they can limit wage increases and negotiate tough deals with suppliers. These measures control costs at the expense of the employees and suppliers who rely on them for income.

It’s a balancing act, and managers make decisions in one direction or the other every day.

No one said managing would be easy. But the best managers recognize the human impact of the choices they make. They still make the hard choices, some of which hurt people they respect and value. And they stand ready to explain the decisions they made, even when the conversations are difficult.

As a manager, when have you had to make a tough decision that hurt your employees?

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When Your Service to Customers Fails, What Do You Do?

I have written before about customer service (see here and here). This post is written from the point of view of a customer, but is intended to make service providers think about their systems.

crying-on-the-phone-300x225For the past year, I have been responsible for managing the estates of a relative who died and his spouse. I have dealt with a number of banks, brokerage firms, real estate offices, benefit providers, government offices, and utilities. Some have been remarkably helpful and efficient. Others have been case studies in frustration.

On the good side, one real estate company canceled a contract and returned a large deposit the decedent had made shortly before his death. A cable company made it easy to cancel service without having to return equipment that was a long distance from my home. Another service provider readily reversed a pre-payment when the service was no longer needed. I had feared contacting these companies, thinking they would argue with me, but they were courteous and prompt in addressing my concerns.

On the bad side, a large national bank stymied me at getting access to the decedent’s funds at every step of the way for several weeks. The funds in one of the decedent’s accounts could not be transferred to the account I set up for the estate for over three weeks after the death. Another account did not get transferred to my name due to a clerical error. And a large deposit I made into the estate account was kept from me for an entire week, because the funds were from an out-of-state bank.

Now mind you, this is a bank where I have multiple personal accounts that were valued at well over the amount of funds I was trying to get into the decedent’s account. Any bank employee looking at the big picture would realize I was not a risk.

Young Man with His Hand on His ForeheadThe worst example of poor customer service I encountered involved the administrator of the decedent’s health reimbursement account. This firm is the subsidiary of a large international consulting firm. Yet their representatives made errors at every step of the claims process, including recording the wrong date of death, losing the documents that proved I was the executor of the estate, making reimbursements for premiums I never claimed, sending checks to a dead person at the wrong address, and sending overpayment notices despite assuring me that the account had been resolved and I would not see any overpayment notices despite their errors.

I have experience managing departments responsible for customer service. I know what good customer service looks like. What it looks like is getting the right result for the customer, regardless of what needs to happen internally.

For example, in the case of the bank, it meant looking beyond their policies to realize that I was not a credit risk nor likely to defraud the bank if they loosened their week-long delay on the deposit of out-of-state checks. (They could have called the check-writer to verify the payment.) It also meant permitting me to use funds in the account where their clerical mistake had delayed my access. As I pointed out in an earlier post, customer-facing employees need some discretion to resolve disputes expeditiously.

In the case of the health reimbursement account, it meant looking at the account holistically and determining the correct end result, rather than processing each set of premiums reimbursements separately (half of which they got wrong). It meant cutting through the red tape to get me a check quickly, even if the company’s internal accounts were wrong because of their errors in processing claims. It also meant putting a flag on the account so that routine notices would not be sent in the future, even after their representatives had acknowledged their errors.

I point out these examples so that all readers involved in customer service can think about what might go wrong within your systems and determine in advance what you could do about it.

Most customer service organizations want to make a good impression. But it takes vigilance to do so. It also takes periodic re-examination of systems designed to benefit your organization rather than the customer. You might need the protections of these systems, but someone in your company ought to be authorized to override the system when you have clearly erred. (The senior customer service specialist at the health reimbursement account administrator told me she was “the best they had” to help me, yet she had no authority to go around their system, nor did she ever involve anyone else at the firm who could.)

Your customer is not always right, but your company can be wrong. You need to acknowledge when you are wrong and react accordingly. And you need to change your systems to do better in the future. Don’t let your company become a case study in customer frustration, as the bank and health reimbursement account administrator were for me.

I hope I am preaching to the choir to my readers with this post, but I’m sure you have all experienced times when your systems got in the way of doing the right thing. Don’t let it happen again!

When have you experienced poor customer service? What did it teach you?

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Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in 2016

Because this blog gets few hits during the holidays, I will not be posting again until Monday, January 4, 2016.

In the meantime, please visit some of the top-rated posts, including:

Situational Leadership Theory: It’s Just Common Sense

Analyzing the Causes of Disputes With the Circle of Conflict

Why Have an Independent Board of Directors in a Privately Held Corporation?

How Do You Deal with Conflict? Use of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory in Mediation

Change the Organization’s Design to Get Different Results; But Be Careful . . . You Will Get What You Design

And for those of you working on performance reviews, see the links about performance management in last year’s holiday post.

Best wishes for the holidays,


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