Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | May 1, 2012

HR Concepts: Clarity: The Elements of a Clear Message

HR Concepts
Clarity: The Elements of a Clear Message
by Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA

The California Supreme Court issued the Brinker decision on April 12, 2012. By now, you have heard about it, read about it, and attended a PIHRA sponsored presentation about it. It is all good – right? Well, maybe – maybe except for the voice whispering in your ear about how to explain it to executives, managers, supervisors, and employees.

Brinker is a perfect example of an important HR Concept called clarity. Like many legal decisions, benefit plan changes, and management actions, Brinker places a spotlight on HR. Everyone knows about it. Everyone expects HR to explain it – to bring clarity to it. They expect HR to make sense out of sometimes nonsensical information. They expect HR to provide simple answers to complex questions that involve ever changing variables.

“Clarity” is not listed in the index of an HR textbook. There are no HR workshops on it (maybe there should be). You learn about clarity through planning and practice, trial and error, practice and rehearsal, and listening and learning.

Credible Activist: Clarity starts with being sure that you know what you are talking about before you begin talking about it. Dave Ulrich refers to it as being a “Credible Activist” (Competencies for HR Professionals • The RBL Group • – an HR professional who is grounded and confident through their education, experience, and knowledge, and, at the same time, willing and able to stand their ground against those who challenge their HR competence.

Planning: The “professional” in an HR Professional approaches an important event like Brinker with a goal of creating clarity for workplace leaders and employees. They start by making sure they know what the decision is and how it affects their organization before they begin talking about it. They tell people who want instantaneous, uninformed answers that they are working quickly to understand the decision and how it impacts their organization.

An HR professional learns about a situation like Brinker from a reliable source. They download a copy of the decision and find a quiet place to read all 63 pages of it. They attend a thorough presentation by a respected legal professional. They review existing policies, procedures, and practices to determine the impact of the decision.

They plan, develop, prepare, and practice an elevator speech for anyone who asks, a formal presentation for the executive team, a seminar for managers and supervisors, and a speech for employee meetings. Then and only then, the “professional” in HR Professional communicates a significant event like Brinker to the organization.

These practices are not new to an HR Professional. They are habits. They are part and parcel of their everyday approach to Brinker-like situations. Make no mistake, in our nanosecond world, an HR Professional often goes through these steps with lightning speed or over long nights preparing for early morning meetings.

Language: Clarity depends on more than planning. It requires a unique ability to communicate a message in the language of the recipient. In other words, an HR Professional understands that the message sent is far less important than the message received. Each audience to an HR message sees HR issues and business management from its own perspective. Executives speak the language of finance, marketing, strategy, and risk management. Line supervisors speak the language of people management. Employees speak the language of personal impact. An effective HR professional creates clarity by moving between each language seamlessly. They know through experience and practice how to frame the same message in unique and different ways for each group.

Positive: Clarity grows best from a positive message. A positive message provides focus on the future. It tells people what to do rather than what not to do. Explaining a message in terms of what not to do (negative) complicates the message of what to do (positive). In Brinker, for example, the negative message to supervisors is, “You do not have to make employees go to lunch anymore.” The positive message, and the one you want supervisors to remember is, “You do have to make a meal period available to each hourly employee.” The negative statement leaves many questions unanswered. It creates confusion. The positive statement provides a focus for the future. It generates questions about how to move forward. It creates clarity.

Change: Finally, HR clarity comes from respecting the fundamental principles of change management. Change involves stopping an old behavior. It involves adopting a new behavior. Most importantly, however, it involves a period of great discomfort between the two. The discomfort comes from no longer being able to do what was “normal” and having to start doing something that is new, but not fully explained or understood. An effective HR Professional understands that explaining the new policy, procedure, or practice is not enough. They know that managers and employees alike need help and support giving up their old “normal” in favor of the expected new “normal.” They recognize that much of the discomfort of adjusting to change involves developing new relationships between people. It involves learning how to talk about new things in new ways. It requires time, patience, and practice for the new “normal” to make sense. It involves helping people learn through their mistakes and misunderstandings to help them get comfortable with the new “normal” no matter how temporary it might be.

Clarity is an HR Concept. It is an important HR tool. When used effectively it contributes to the efficient and effective use of human talent to achieve organizational goals. It increases the credibility of an HR Professional who learns to use it wisely.

As an HR Professional, you are often in a position of delivering a message about a new court decision, a new law, a benefit change, or a management action. It is tempting to begin delivering the message before you really know what you are talking about and why you need to talk about it. You must begin every HR message with a clear goal of creating clarity. Your message must be crafted from a strong foundation of HR knowledge. You must plan it and practice it for delivery in a variety of settings in the unique language of each recipient group. Your message must be stated in positive terms to provide a focus on what needs to be done to move forward. And, importantly, you must recognize that effective change management involves more than delivering a message. It involves helping people adjust to giving up their old “normal” in favor of a new “normal” by providing opportunities for learning, asking questions, developing new relationships and getting comfortable with the new “normal.”

Mike Deblieux, SPHR-CA, designs and presents on-site seminars and workshops for front-line workplace leaders. He provides coaching support for supervisors and supports HR professionals through special projects to help their organizations achieve strategic goals. Mike writes HR Concepts to help HR professionals better understand and use fundamental HR principles. Share your feedback on this article with Mike at


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