Ellen Warden, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
WorkPlace Synergy, LLC
Atlanta, GA

What should a firm leader do with employees lacking in “soft skills”? Fire them? Just put up with them?



Why not help them develop the skills!  The term “soft skills” refers to skills like collaboration, problem solving, conflict resolution and communication. These have more to do with how you act than what you know.  Much of the time, these soft skills have to be seen “in action” and can be difficult to objectively measure (unlike hard skills or technical qualifications, there are no exams to prove that you can do them).

When you look around your own office, however, it is usually easy to spot those employees lacking in soft skills, especially workplace communication.  Whether it is their personality, their communication style, their delivery method or their overall understanding of the language, some employees will struggle to communicate with their peers, managers and clients. Add in technology such as email, texting and social media and a poor communicator’s impact on your business can be compounded.

Building effective communication skills takes discipline and practice but it can be done.  Here are some tips on how to fill that soft skills gap in your team:

  1. Be a role model

According to social learning theory your employees will pattern their communication styles after their superiors. As the leader, you set the tone for your firm by demonstrating how you want your employees to communicate.  Take an inventory of your personal communication habits and consistently provide a model of professional, respectful communication.

  1. Start out right

Help new hires focus on improving their communication skills from the get-go, as part of their employee onboarding.  Set expectations for what communication skills employees will need to demonstrate and talk about where the new hire might need help.

  1. Include communication skills in employee training programs

Bring in a trainer or send employees to courses.  Teach employees the fundamentals of good communication, including listening skills, non-verbal communication, overcoming barriers to communication and online communication challenges.

  1. Include in performance appraisals

Set personal goals for developing communication skills and include in their performance appraisals.

  1. Provide a mentor

Pair the employee with a good mentor, someone who has communications skills you want the employee to embody.  Role play.  Offers scripts for business situations, ranging from conversation starters to tweets for connecting with decision-makers.

  1. Meet face-to-face

To clarify content and assure comprehension and agreement there is no substitute for looking someone in the eye and seeing their reaction to your conversation.  Without the context of a physical presence the meaning and intent of a message is often misunderstood, and can lead to confusion and conflict.  Face-to-face conversations with your employees give you the opportunity to model and detect non-verbal communication cues including tone of voice, facial expressions and other body language.

  1. Develop team-building exercises to strengthen intra-office communication

Provide activities that require employees to work together.  High-performance team members learn the best ways to communicate with each other through experience.

Naturally it would be ideal if you hired employees with solid communication skills. But when that is not the case, improving employee communication skills through training exercises and behavior modeling can give your firm a competitive edge.

Ellen Warden
Ellen Warden