Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human-resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society.
The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.
Question: I am a high school English teacher with 20 years in the trenches. As the age of technology and social media progresses, my fellow teachers and I are aware of a growing gap in our students’ communication skills, both written and spoken. What do you see as the greatest deficits of the younger generations’ communication skills as they enter the workforce? – Robin
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Communication skills are among the top abilities missing in workers today. While this skill gap can be seen in other generations, it is a real concern for those now entering the workforce.
Business leaders I’ve talked to say that, with the widespread use of social media and texting, members of younger generations seem to be losing the ability to converse with others and are adopting the language of abbreviations and acronyms – “text speak.”
What does this mean for the workplace? Text speak leads to poor grammar, spelling and punctuation, as well as the use of casual phrases not appropriate in a professional setting. Some younger workers don’t use or understand formal business language.
We can’t spend enough time teaching our children the elements of good writing and public speaking.
Don’t get me wrong. The technological capability of our younger generations is a clear advantage in the workplace. But poor communications skills limit young professionals’ ability to make presentations, manage, represent the company in business transactions, direct projects and lead teams.
Employers are looking for workers who can do today’s jobs as well as grow into tomorrow’s jobs that don’t yet exist. Employees with poor communication skills will be at a disadvantage if they are labeled as unprofessional or ineffective.
And there’s an additional issue to those I’ve already mentioned. Thanks to technology and social media, everyone has a voice, and they use it. With so much chatter going on, what’s often missing is the ability to listen.
Active listening is a valued “soft skill,” along with problem-solving, interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and dealing with complexity and ambiguity. When employees lack these skills, companies see more internal conflicts, customer service issues and higher employee turnover.
Active listening skills can be acquired, but many other soft skills are difficult for educators to teach and employers to screen for. The truth is, many schools and universities aren’t building out these skills as part of their curriculum.
More than half of HR professionals say our education systems have done little or nothing to help address skills shortages.
So, how can we ensure that those entering the workforce are prepared for work and a career? We are counting on dedicated teachers like you.
It’s important to note, however, that educators and employers play equally critical roles in the development of our workforce. As such, we want them talking to each other and working as an effective team to address skills lapses.
Employers need to be clear about what they need from education, starting with kindergarten curriculum. And they must complement our education systems with investments in internships, apprenticeships and other learning opportunities, along with mentoring on invaluable workplace skills like communication.
Jury duty: Can I be fired for missing work to serve on a jury? Ask HR
Moving up: What’s the best way to ask for a job promotion? Ask HR
Q: When you have unused vacation and sick-time hours and you leave a job, is the company legally obligated to pay you for the time? – R.
Taylor: Possibly. Since there is no federal statute obliging companies to pay employees for their accrued and unused paid time off (PTO), the answer will depend on the laws of your state and the policies of your employer.
Keep in mind that the rules around the payout of PTO are state-specific. Some states mandate it, while others don’t.
For example, California law essentially says that once PTO is accrued, you own it and cannot be deprived of it by your employer – regardless of whether you quit or get fired. In contrast, Virginia has no specific law.
Most state laws, however, lie somewhere in between, often requiring the payout of unused leave when an employment contract or company policy exists.
If you are considering a job offer elsewhere, it’s wise to be aware of your company’s policy. Check your employee handbook or ask HR.