18 – Soft Skills for Employee Relations – Employee Relations Management

Chapter Eighteen

Soft Skills for Employee Relations

India has a large pool of qualified persons, but there is a serious shortage of employable persons. The shortage is largely on account of deficient soft skills. In the area of employee relations, these skills assume greater significance since the role mainly envisages interface with a cross-section of employees which, in turn, requires people skills.

CHAPTER OUTLINE
LEARNING OBJECTIVES

After going through this, chapter you will be able to:

  • Understand what “soft skills” means

  • Understand the meaning of emotional intelligence and what constitutes emotional intelligence

  • Design a “framework” or an approach for identifying detailed soft-skill requirements

  • Identify the typical “soft skills” that are essential for the specialized role of employee relations/HR manager

From Engineer to HR Manager

Ravinder Luthra, a B. Tech. (industrial engineering), on obtaining his degree in 2004, joined an organization manufacturing optical devices as Graduate Engineer Trainee.

On completion of general orientation and “on-the-job” training, Ravinder was posted as Assistant Manager in the Production Planning and Control Department of the plant. He was a quick learner and very soon, he was noticed by the top management for his excellent analytical inputs. His industrial engineering background landed him a special assignment of carrying out job analysis and job evaluation for the entire operations area. Ravinder completed the assignment within the assigned time, and his report was appreciated for its analytical depth. Ravinder was a hard task master, and expected his team members to maintain the same standards of performance as his own. Based on his performance, he was offered a posting in the HR department as Deputy Manager (HRM). It was a tricky decision for him.

After a discussion with the Head of HRM, Ravinder decided to take the offer. With his technical background, good grasping power and analytical mind, he should not face any problem. Moreover, HR was a generalist profile and it should not take him much time learning the ropes.

About eight months after joining the HR department, the HR Manager called Ravinder to ask how things were going. Ravinder replied that everything was under control and that he had been able to streamline the HRIS in record time. There was no unrest on the shop floor and that he had been able to support the Line Manager in maintaining tight discipline. The HR Manager asked Ravinder to sit down and then told him that there appeared to be some gap. There were serious complaints against him from the shop-floor workmen, alleging that Ravinder did not have time to listen to their grievances— that he was forever busy with his PC and no one was supposed to meet him during this time; that he had very little patience to listen to problems of workmen and asked them to mail their grievances to him. The Shift In-charge has alleged that Ravinder was good at analytical work but of no use to him in people management.

Employee relations, like any other function dealing with the management of people, besides requiring “technical skills”, also requires certain “other” skills. In some measure, these “other” skills are common to all functions. However, because the employee relations manager is to concern himself mainly with people-related issues, the relative importance of these skills become even more. For want of any universally accepted set of skills, all such skills are clubbed under an umbrella term called “soft skills”, essentially distinct from the technical or “hard skills” required for a job. This chapter tries to define “soft skills” and develop a “framework” for the identification of these skills.

18.1 What are Soft Skills?

It is hard to find a universally accepted and rigorous definition of “soft skills”. As a “construct”, “soft skills” is not well-defined. Although we “understand” it, this understanding is expressed in loose terms. The following definition is a creditable attempt to define “soft skills” with precision. Even though it appears complex, at least the boundaries of the term have been traced and supplemented with examples.

“Soft skills tend to be skills by which the individual interacts with, interprets, structures, coordinates or otherwise informs the social and physical environments within which physical, societal and or personal product may be generated”1.

Soft skills are deployed for efficient use of hard or technical skills as well as for the achievement of personal and interpersonal goals. These skills are difficult to define, observe, quantify or measure. These skills largely relate to how people understand themselves and how they relate to others. Unlike technical skills which are acquired through formal education, soft skills are largely learnt from life experiences. These are difficult to change later unless one becomes aware of deficit in specific areas and works towards reducing the deficit.

Examples of soft skills would include listening, influencing, communicating, negotiating, counselling, empathizing, asserting, teaming, resolving conflicts, solving problems, managing emotions (in self and others), etc.

In a practising manager's term, “soft skills” are those skills that are needed on the job, in addition to the technical skills required. These “skills” are said to be the differentiator between effective and not-so-effective managers.

Managers whose roles require excessive interaction with people may need one set of “soft skills” whereas those in roles that require interface, largely in the technological domain, may require another set of soft skills. A few soft skills may be common across roles, for example, the ability to motivate oneself.

18.2 Emotional Intelligence and Competence

Daniel Goleman, in his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence,2 cites the findings of a national survey of American employers, which indicated that employers are now looking for entry-level workers, with specific technical skills less important than the underlying ability to learn on the job. The employers listed the following skills as desirable in employees:

Soft Skills

Soft skills tend to be skills by which the individual interacts with, interprets, structures, coordinates or otherwise informs the social and physical environments within which physical, societal and/or personal product may be generated.

  1. Listening and oral communication
  2. Adaptability and creative responses to setbacks and obstacles
  3. Personal management, confidence, motivation to work toward goals, a sense of wanting to develop one's career and take pride in accomplishments
  4. Group and interpersonal effectiveness, cooperativeness and teamwork, skills at negotiating disagreements
  5. Effectiveness in the organization, wanting to make a contribution, leadership potential

Of the five desired traits, just one was academic: competence in reading, writing, and math.

The model introduced by Daniel Goleman focuses on emotional intelligence as a wide array of competencies and skills that drive leadership performance. Goleman's model outlines five main pillars of emotional intelligence:

Self-Awareness: The ability to read one's emotions—recognizing a feeling as it happens. The ability to monitor feelings from moment to moment is crucial to psychological insight and self-understanding. People with greater certainty about their feelings are better pilots of their lives.

 

Skills that employers look for in new hires:

Listening and oral communication

  • Adaptability and creative responses to setbacks and obstacles

  • Personal management, confidence, motivation to work toward goals, a sense of wanting to develop one's career and take pride in accomplishments

  • Group and interpersonal effectiveness, cooperativeness and teamwork, skills at negotiating disagreements

  • Effectiveness in the organization, wanting to make a contribution, leadership potential

BOX 18.1   FOR CLASS DISCUSSION

Suditi Bhadauria, the Training and Development Manager for Genesis Technological Services Limited (a 4,000 strong BPO), was looking at a mail from the VP (Operations), wherein he had asked her to probe and find out specific areas where there may be need for building competence of the team leaders. His concern was an increasing discontent amongst the team members and a very high rate of attrition. The exit interviews had indicated that the leaving employees were satisfied with the systems and policies of the company and that the working conditions were better than what prevailed in the industry. Genesis' compensation was above the industry average. Most of the employees, however, pointed out disappointment with the environment within teams. Lack of perceived equity in job allocation, shift rotation, recognition criteria, performance evaluation, incentives, etc. were mentioned as the main reasons for the decision to quit. What the VP was telling Suditi was that the “systemic” factors could be ruled out. The “problem” most likely was with people handling skills at the TL level. Suditi was to probe and pin-point the specific areas where training and development interventions could help build the required competencies.

Suditi proceeded with the job systematically. She studied the job analysis of the TLs, talked to the team members, process leads (to whom TLs reported) through semi-structured interviews. She could identify various deficient competencies, which she proceeded to map into a “framework” that placed these skills from the “basics” to “advanced” or from “simple” to “complex”. The next logical step for her was to design suitable “interventions” for the people whose primary task was to manage “people”.

Will Suditi succeed? Did she follow the correct approach? Don't you think a short duration “General Management” module would have helped? Isn't “people management” an inborn trait? Aren't some people naturally competent in managing people? Can people be “trained” in these difficult-to-identify-and-define competencies?

Managing Emotions: Handling feelings so that they are appropriate is an ability that builds on self-awareness. Mere self-awareness is not enough; the ability to handle it and use it to advantage is another distinct ability. The awareness of anger and what to do with that anger are both necessary, although, often, an awareness of the emotion itself provides a handle on the emotion.

Motivating Oneself: Marshalling emotions in the service of a goal is essential for paying attention, for self-motivation, for mastery and for creativity. Emotional self-control—delaying gratification and stifling impulsiveness—underlies accomplishment of every sort.

Recognizing Emotions in Others (Empathy): The ability that builds on emotional self-awareness is the fundamental “people skill”.

Handling Relationships: The art of relationships, for the mot part, involves the skill in managing emotions in others.3

 

Five pillars of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness

  • Managing emotions

  • Motivating oneself

  • Empathy

  • Handling relationship

Goleman includes a set of emotional competencies within each construct of EI. Emotional competencies are not innate talents, but rather learned capabilities that must be worked on and developed to achieve outstanding performance. He posits that individuals are born with a general emotional intelligence that determines their potential for learning emotional competencies4.

Although criticized by a few as mere pop-psychology, Goleman's framework is an excellent guide for aspiring managers and managers to look at comprehensive range of “soft skills”. This is because these emotional competencies are the building blocks of what we call “soft skills”. And, once again, the good news is that these competencies can be learned. Goleman has made broad brush strokes, covering all walks of life (including that of an ER manager), but we need to get a closer look at the specific requirements from the role of an ER manager.

18.3 A “Framework”

There are scores of “soft skills” loosely defined. If we try to randomly list down the soft-skill requirements for a position, we may get hopelessly lost and may end up with a list with which we can do little. A rational approach could be to look at the requirements of each role and then break it down into technical and other skill requirements. Many of the “soft skills” are a combination of one or more “basic” skills. We are using “skill” here in this text to cover all the KSA (knowledge, skills, abilities) requirement of a role. The detailed mapping would lie in the realm of job analysis or training-needs identification. Our approach here is to just suggest an approach and to identify the soft skills required for an HR/ER role.

Broadly, we can say that communication may be a crucial skill for an HR role (as also for many other roles). Now communication is such a broad area that unless we break it down further, it may not be of any practical use. Table 18.1 illustrates how we can deconstruct communication into its constituents, especially from the point of view of an HR/ER role. As is evident, proficiency at the basic level is essential to learn the skills of the next two levels. For each of the soft skills, therefore, we can identify the constituent building blocks and then identify customized intervention to build up the deficient component, with the objective of building competence in communication for the HR role. For an HR role, written communication may not be as crucial as verbal and non-verbal communication. It is beyond the scope of this text book to cover all the skills up to the basic level. What we will, therefore, do is to suggest an approach (to identify skills by breaking down a larger grouping into actionable skills) and then list the major soft-skills requirement for this role. Breaking these skills down into the constituent components as suggested in Table 18.1 is an analytical method which would help break down skills other than communication into actionable parts.

 

Table 18.1 The constituent component of soft skills.

18.4 The Role of an ER Manager/Professional

Soft-skills (or any other skills) requirement will flow from the role requirements. While the role of an ER manager may vary from organization to organization, there would be certain aspects that would be common to all. We will look at the role in a unionized organization and a non-unionized organization.

  • Communication

    Structured Communication

    Planning a meeting

    Ability to hold productive meetings

    Ability to prioritize agenda

    Sensitivity in choosing points for discussion

    Articulation of points in a “sensitive” manner

    Ability to steer discussion on controversial topics

    Manage to handle emotional outbursts of others

    Using one's own emotional expressions to advantage

    Persuasive Presentations

    Unstructured Communication

    One-to-One Communication

    Ability to listen as per situational requirements (empathetic, task-oriented, evaluative)

    Ability to paraphrase and summarize

    Steering a conversation in the desired direction

    Two-Way Communication

    Ability to fulfil emotional and substantive concerns of the group

    Summarize the outcome

    Facilitate consensus (if required)

    Handle undue pressure

    Handling “difficult” members

  • Relationships

    Ability to give and receive feedback

    Fostering “trust” in relationships

    Ability to define and maintain boundaries

  • Line Managers

    Ability to give “factual” assessment of state of the affairs

    Maintain professional integrity

    Withstand pressure

    Creating an alliance and commonality of objectives

    Ability to establish professional credibility

  • Staff

    Sensing communication requirements (in terms of frequency, content and feelings)

  • Union Office Bearers

    Ability to maintain neutrality in multi-union situation

    Conveying professional competence

    Ability to withstand undue pressure

    Determination of the level of transparency with dealings

    Ability to assess inter- and intra-union dynamics and power play

    Ability to assess essential and tradable demands

    Intelligence gathering

    Building coalitions within unions

    Negotiations

  • Discipline

    Ability to convey (through words and through Acts) the non-negotiability of discipline

    Ability to convey explicitly the transparency and equity in the administration of discipline

  • Systems Information

    Ability to assess information requirement of all stakeholders

    Ability to decide the “need to know” and the “nice to know” requirements

    Ability to assess vital and sensitive information and the establishment of information integrity

  • PMS

    Skill of persuasion, ensuring a “buy in” to the system

    Coaching, counselling skills

    Giving and receiving feedback

    Training managers and staff in the process

    Ability to prevent distortions in process and outcomes

  • Image of the Self

    An HR or ER manager is always watched by the employees and fellow managers. It is absolutely critical for this manager to be able to see how others perceive him. Caesar's wife, after all, must be above all suspicion! The HR/ER manager, must never, ever, indulge in acts that are less than 100 per cent honest, short-circuit systems, take advantage of systems or processes or help themselves to something extra. This goes a long way in establishing credibility and, in our opinion; this skill/sensitivity goes on to enhance the image of the HR/ER manager more than any other skill. This is non-negotiable.

18.5 Conclusion

We can go on adding to this list since this is not an exhaustive one. In fact, there can never be one that covers all the roles and all situations. However, we have tried to draw on our long years of experience in industry to map the essential skills that may be required. We have tried to draw the requirements from what the HR or ER manager actually does rather than approach it from the generic skills, for example, inter-personal skills and communication skills. In our opinion, the above approach is based on common sense and can be applied to specific situations to yield a very accurate list of requirements. From the discussion presented in this chapter, it may appear as though the terms “skills” and “tasks” have been mixed. While this may be true in the present context, a painstaking exercise to distinguish and deconstruct these terms would yield the same end result.

SUMMARY

  • “Soft skills” is not a very precise construct and has been defined variously depending on the point of view adopted to explain the term.
  • In a practising manager's term, soft skills are those skills that are needed on the job, in addition to the technical skills required. These skills are said to be the differentiator between successful and not-so-successful managers. Examples of soft skills could include planning, preparing, organizing, communicating, observing, describing, identifying, empathizing, learning, intuition, sense of timing, attitude, tool development, skill transfer, process development, creativity, ingenuity, design, sense of aesthetics, endurance, etc.
  • Daniel Goleman has defined five pillars of emotional intelligence, which, in turn, are made up of emotional competencies. These “pillars” are: self-awareness, the ability to manage emotions, empathy, self-motivation and the ability to handle relationships.
  • The emotional competencies that constitute emotional intelligence are called soft skills. Surveys of employers have found that soft skills are the most important competencies that they desire in employees.
  • A systematic way of identifying the soft-skills requirement for the role of an ER or HR manager could be made if we moved backwards from the role requirements to the different levels of soft skills. Using this framework, the soft-skills requirements (up to the first level) of an HR/ER manager has been identified.

KEY TERMS

  • emotional intelligence
  • empathy
  • self-awareness
  • soft skills
  • structured communication
  • unstructured communication

REVIEW QUESTIONS

  1. What is your understanding of soft skills? List down your own soft-skills requirements (even though you may be a student).
  2. What is emotional intelligence? What is emotional competence? What are the pillars of emotional intelligence as described by Daniel Goleman?
  3. Describe an approach to map the exact soft-skills requirements of a particular role. Use an example to explain the approach.
  4. List down the role requirement of an HR executive (in a non-union environment). Break down the requirements to identify the advanced-level soft skills required for the role.

QUESTIONS FOR CRITICAL THINKING

  1. People are born with their soft skills. What, then, would be the use of training people in these skills? Give your arguments in support, with appropriate examples.
  2. Soft-skills requirements are common across all jobs. All jobs need communication, motivation, etc. Do you agree with this view? Why or why not?

DEBATE

  1. Soft skills do not really matter as much as it is made out to. Unless a person fulfils the functional or technical requirements of a job, he/she will not be hired. A scientist, after all, does not need soft skills to make progress in their research.
  2. “Employee relations” is more about instincts than about skills or knowledge. The more experience you have in dealing with people, the better your instincts.

CASE ANALYSIS

Problematic Pay-slip

Anil Sharma is the manager of the ammonium sulphate plant in a fertilizer company. The shop employs about 500 people. The manager of the shop reports to Deputy General Manager (Operations). The manager of the shop is the disciplinary authority for all the workmen under his control.

One day, while going through the production reports in the morning, Anil heard loud noises outside his office. He tried to ignore it for a while but the noise only became louder. When he stepped out of his room to locate the source of the commotion, he saw that all the workmen had stopped work to gather around Bhrigav, a fitter, who was shouting at the top of his voice. Chandan, the HR officer, and Dileep, the Section Officer, were standing closest to Bhrigav, trying to restrain him at which his voice got even louder. It appeared that Bhrigav was agitated about some acts of people in the time office on account of which he had faced problems with his pay-slip for three months in a row.

Anil called Bhrigav and Chandan inside his room and asked for an explanation of the scene that he had witnessed. Chandan said that despite sending Bhrigav's leave regularization to the time office through regular monthly attendance statements, Bhrigav was marked absent as reflected in Bhrigav's pay-slip for the month. At this point, Bhrigav intervened to shout loudly that the people in the time office belonged to the rival union and not updating his leave regularization was just another way of deliberately harassing him. At this point, Bhrigav suddenly grabbed hold of Chandan's collar and threatened him, saying, “I think you are also involved in this game. Your actions always tend to favour the other union. If this thing is not sorted out within two days, there will be hell to pay!” With this Bhrigav stormed out of the room in a huff.

Questions

  1. As Anil, what will be your immediate action and why?
  2. What skills will Anil need to get to the root of the problem quickly?
  3. How will Anil ensure that not only is justice done but also “seen to be done”? Do you think it is important? Why?
  4. Why does Bhrigav have a negative opinion of Chandan? What could have led to such an opinion? Do you think Chandan himself was responsible for his image? What could he have done to prevent this?

HR Challenges at Infosys

The globalization is truly globalizing the employment practices in India, like many other functions. The downturn in global economy in 2008 affected the Indian industry in no time. One of the greatest challenges during these times is for the HR or ER professional, when he has to navigate his way through the opposing needs of the business and the employee. Here is an excerpt from an interview given by Nandita Gurjar, Head of HR at Infosys Technologies5:

How do priorities for an employee-friendly organization change during a downturn when compared to an upturn?

Whether in good times or downturns, it's never “cool” for HR. There is always enough work, though there are some shifting priorities. As an organization, employees are our utmost concern and at Infosys, during a downturn or an upturn, the larger realities remain the same; i.e., keeping the employee engaged. The focus is now shifting from recruitment to allocation of benched employees and ensuring that they are not on the bench for too long.

What are the new HR strategies aimed at coming to terms with the situation?

Instead of reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to what business wants, we are of the opinion that the principle of HR cannot change. We are not a hiring and firing organization. The management has come up with the philosophy of keeping the flock together for the next two years. We should also ensure that people who stay back don't feel like trapped employees.

  1. What should be the soft-skill requirement for an ER manager during such downturns?
  2. Can you use the “framework” to map out a few of the soft skills required during such times?

SUGGESTED READING

Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1996).

Stys, Yvonne and Shelley L. Brown, “Literature and Implications for Corrections”, Research Branch Correctional Service of Canada, March 2004.