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Generation Work

The crucial skill new hires lack

About the author

Ronald is a freelance writer and editor and the author of eight books, including his latest, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. Previously, Ronald had a long career as an editor and columnist at the Wall Street Journal.

Many millennials would rather text than pick up the phone - or communicate face-to-face

(Thinkstock)

Millennials would rather send an instant message than walk a few feet to speak directly to a colleague. They spend hours texting and playing games on smartphones, but regard voice calls as intrusive wastes of time. Connecting through social networks is usually preferable to chatting over coffee. And even their student clubs “meet” online rather than in person.

Because of such extensive reliance on online communication, many millennials — the generation born during the 1980s and 1990s — have missed out on valuable face-to-face interactions and failed to learn how to speak in a polished manner, listen attentively and read other people’s expressions and body language.

As a result, employers are finding that their young hires are awkward in their interpersonal interactions and ill-prepared to collaborate effectively with teammates and develop relationships with clients.

“Speaking and writing are the number one set of skills that our advisory board and recruiters say need more work,” said Mark Zupan, dean of the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester, in New York state, which is putting more emphasis on interpersonal communication.

Simon’s MBA core curriculum includes a “Communicating Business Decisions” sequence, and the school has made classroom participation an integral part of a student’s grade in all required courses. The career management office also recently created a four-person professional development team to offer programmes on leadership and communication.

There are other business schools trying to turn millennial students into confident, articulate communicators as well. The management school at the University at Buffalo, also in New York, started a leadership certification programme called LeaderCORE, which enables students to assess themselves on a variety of skills, including communication and interpersonal relationships, and then develop a customised development plan for the two-year MBA programme.

Schools on notice

The recent recession prompted some companies to cut back on training programmes, so they’re counting more than ever on schools to get students up to speed before they start work.

“Employers have put business schools on notice that collaboration is the norm and they don’t want to hire people who can’t talk,” said Wendy Bedwell, an assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of South Florida and co-author of a research study on teaching interpersonal skills to MBA students.

Ideally, schools should incorporate interpersonal development in a variety of classes — from finance to operations — not just in a few stand-alone communication courses. Few are pursuing that strategy, but among the exceptions is Insead, a business school with campuses in France, Abu Dhabi and Singapore.

 In addition to such courses as the Art of Communication and Communication and Leadership, Insead is blending communication lessons into marketing, entrepreneurship, organizational behaviour and other management classes.

In Professor Ian Woodward’s classes on communication and leadership, he includes video training on body language and voice expression. He also presents examples of similar conversations conducted in person, over Skype or in a teleconference to illustrate differences in verbal and non-verbal interpretation and meaning.          

Insead and other schools are finding students surprisingly receptive to communication courses. “I am hearing very clearly from our MBA students that they want the leadership communications class extended. This is a first,” said Lisa Feldman, executive director of the MBA career management office at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “In the past, students felt this class was too fluffy. Now, they understand that it is essential.”

‘Fall apart and cry’

Undergraduates typically need more help with their communications skills than older, more experienced MBAs. They may lack confidence when meeting alumni or recruiters, and some haven’t learned how to react appropriately to rejection or critical feedback.

“Where we really see interpersonal issues is where students have to self-regulate themselves when they’re told no. They often don’t know how to interact appropriately or how to negotiate on their own behalf,” said Erika Walker, executive director of the undergraduate program at Berkeley’s Haas School. “They may fall apart and cry because someone at the school won’t grant them an exception. Some of that comes from their feeling that they’re the best and they deserve it.”

Before a recent roundtable event for women students, Walker and her colleagues spent time coaching attendees on how to network effectively with alumni. “Some students will say, ‘Hi, I’m Erika,’ and then don’t know how to carry that forward,” she said. “We talked about how to be proactive and put yourself out there and take some risks.”

Perhaps the most common complaint about millennials’ communication style is their casual approach. Many young people have become so accustomed to the informal, curt nature of texts and tweets that they often use the same tone with both their buddies and their bosses. Millennials also tend to be very candid and chummy on social networks with people they barely know, including authority figures, and they often carry that approach over to emails and in-person conversations. The judges at one business school’s case competition were taken aback when students addressed them as, “you guys”.

“Students can be a little too open and too friendly and that makes recruiters concerned about how they will handle things when they work with clients,” said Michael Meredith, assistant professor of management and corporate communication at the Kenan-Flager Business School at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

He says he emphasises the importance of knowing one’s audience and understanding rules and etiquette of good communication. “When presenting for a client or trying to get a job”, he said, “a lot of communication boils down to trust: Do I trust that you’ll work well with others?”

As he interviews students, Dan Black, the Americas director of recruiting at the international professional services firm Ernst & Young, has begun to see positive results from business schools’ communication programs. But the accounting firm still works with promising candidates and young hires to enhance oral and written communication, collaboration, business relationship and other interpersonal skills.

Black attributes millennials’ communication deficiencies partly to their youth. But unlike previous generations, millennials “grew up with technology and modes of communication like tweeting, social media and texting,” which encouraged what he called “a complete disregard of the English language.”

Ernst & Young encourages some students to take writing courses, teaches them presentation skills and helps them figure out when to respond by phone or in person rather than with an email or text. “Sometimes I place a call and leave a message for a student, but get an email or text back,” Black said. “That can come off as the person isn’t comfortable.”

Employers have put business schools on notice ... they don’t want to hire people who can’t talk. — Wendy Bedwell

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