“Excellent communication skills” are a joke


I’m writing a job description for a new opening in my team.  While reviewing a draft, I realized that one of the requirements was meaningless, and bordered on being silly.

Why do job qualifications list, “excellent communication skills?”

This knee-jerk requirement is in every description I see.  And I’m guilty of putting it in my JD’s over the years, too.

It’s meaningless for at least two reasons.

  1. It’s a large blanket requirement that can’t be quantified. I don’t know how to do it, and I bet you don’t, either. I sense when someone will be hard to communicate with, but it’s instinctual and is based on a nigh-infinite number of (often subtle) reasons.
  2. Even though I can’t quantify it, I agree it’s important.  The problem is, it’s important to every job on the planet.  Every employee needs to be able to communicate “well,” be it in e-mail, memos, presentations, group meetings, 1-on-1, to subordinates, to colleagues, and to superiors.  I’ve never seen a job description ask for “mediocre communication skills,” or state that “poor mumbling is considered a strong plus.”

It could be argued that the “ECS” requirement lets you legally reject a candidate who cannot communicate well. Otherwise, you’re liable to be sued. But if so, then why not list, “must not pick nose or eat ear wax,” or, “must not punch interviewer in the face?” Those behaviors would disqualify a candidate, too.

If a job needs particular communication skills — say, a web producer job entails a lot of writing — then the description should call it out.  For example, “three or more years experience with writing lively business stories.” But we shouldn’t waste time listing something that’s a common yet unmeasurable requirement for every job on the planet.

I’m going to write this description without listing “excellent communication skills.”  I wonder if it will pass the HR sniff test.

13 comments
  1. I see two flaws in your argument. The first is that communication skills, excellent or otherwise, are not in fact required for every job, and the second is that they are in fact quantifiable.

    Does a night watchman need to have “excellent communication skills”? How about a gravedigger? A bricklayer? Your statement that every job on the planet requires excellent communication skills betrays your white-collar bias.

    Furthermore, there are also plenty of white-collar jobs that do not require communication skills. I bet there are plenty of brilliant mathematicians working at the NSA who couldn’t put together a coherent sentence to save their lives. I’m sure I could think of other examples, but I think the point is made.

    On the question of whether excellent communication skills are something you can measure, I will first note that you shouldn’t discount the value of the gut feeling you get during an interview with a candidate. The whole point of having face-to-face interviews rather than doing the entire process in writing or on the phone is to enable the potential employer to get such impressions from the candidate. It’s usually quite obvious whether a candidate communicates well during an interview.

    Having said that, when oral communication skills are extremely important for a position, then have the candidate do a presentation to the team. When written communication skills are important, have the candidate do some writing on some topic while in the office for the interview. If you can’t judge accurately whether a candidate communicates well during a presentation or in on-the-spot writing, then you’re not qualified to be doing the interviewing for a position for which communication skills are important.

  2. John said:

    @Jonathan:

    You nailed me. You’re right. I do have a white-collar bias.

    I’d argue that a bricklayer, perhaps, needs some communication skills, because it’s very rarely a solo occupation, unlike a night watchman or grave digger. (You can argue that a night watchman is part of a security team, but I’d argue that everything about the job is solitary.) A brick wall, chimney, patio, etc. has to connect to, and work with, a larger structure. But that’s a quibble — I acknowledge that an awful lot of bricks can probably be laid without a heck of a lot of communication skills.

    I’m still mulling over your mathematician example. In any rule or guideline involving people, there are bound to be corner cases. Blue-collar jobs aren’t a corner case, but a mumbling NSA mathematician is.

    Perhaps communication skills are one of the defining characteristics of white-collar jobs. I still may hold on to my position, just for white-collar jobs. I need to cogitate on this a bit more, before I write about it again. 🙂

    Regarding quantifiability, let me be clearer. I agree that “excellent communication skills” can be quantified for any white-collar job, given enough paper. But they never are, except for jobs like news reporters, writers, tour guides, etc. “Excellent communication skills” can be quantified for, say, a mechanical engineer, but doing so would be so unwieldy as to be be unusable. So what’s the point in listing them? If it comes down to intuition and subtlety for white-collar jobs, as you seem to agree, then why now replace the requirement with, “You must seem like an OK person to work with?” It amounts to the same thing.

  3. I’m going to have to disagree with you again.

    My company makes candidates fill out a written questionnaire, and the quality of the writing vis a vis communication skills is certainly one of the things we evaluate when we review the completed questionnaire.

    I’ve been involved in interviews from the hiring end where the candidates were asked for the second round of interviews to give a presentation to the interview team on a particular topic, and the whole point of that presentation was of course to evaluate the candidates’ communication skills.

    In short, I do not at all agree that communication skills are “never” quantified. There are plenty of interviewers who consciously and methodically evaluate communication skills for the candidates they interview.

    The point of a job description is to let the candidate know what skills s/he is expected to have. If excellent communication skills are required for the job, and as I’ve already noted they aren’t required for every job, then it should be mentioned in the job description to give potential candidates an opportunity to evaluate whether they fit the mold. A candidate who knows that he sucks at writing, collapses into a puddle on the floor when asked to give a presentation, never responds to email, and/or has a bad habit of getting into email flame wars with coworkers, may very well decide that it wouldn’t be such a good idea to apply to a job which lists “excellent communication skills” as a requirement.

  4. John said:

    @Jonathan:

    We’ll have to agree to disagree, at least for white-collar jobs. I still believe that the vast preponderance of them want “excellent communication skills,” nobody every advertises for mediocre or average communication skills, and exactly what “excellent” means is never quantified. (“Never” means, again, the vast preponderance. I’m not claiming to have examined every JD on the planet.)

    John

  5. syinly said:

    That’s true poor communication skills are not wanted.

  6. Bricklayers need excellent communication skills. For example, they need to communicate where a stack of bricks is going to set down, or not to set it down, effectively and in real time, or people end up with crushed toes or worse.

    “Communication” like “intelligence” is a multi-faceted beast. (Gardner is the canonical reference on multiple intelligences.) The brick layer example also shows how to quantify the communication you need – operationalize it. Transferring what information, in what parts of the job, to which people, perhaps even using which vehicles? The bricklayers manage to communicate which piles of bricks are going where quickly and effectively successfully without a single PowerPoint presentation.

    You might actually be cleaner with HR with operationalized “communication” requirements. You’ll certainly do better with your hiring.

  7. tony said:

    I have met gravediggers and construction workers that can speak better that Bush…and he is our President. I think this requirement it should not be a “must” but desirable.

    Enough said…

  8. John said:

    @tony: Here’s your snarky comment of the day: Speaking better than George Bush is a very low bar to pass. 🙂

  9. Hassan said:

    Well I will just jot down some hints and queries.

    Job 1: Speaking/Listening….excellent
    Reading ……good
    writing………N/A

    Job2: Speaking ……good
    writing/reading……..excellent
    listening……face to face….good
    listening over the phone……excellent
    Job 3: Listening/speaking…….excellent
    reading/writing……..N/A
    body language………good
    confidence to communicate…..excellent
    People with low confidence are not eligible for any of the position advertised above because we need excellent communication skills.
    Can a person lacking confidence be an excellent communicator???????
    Have you ever seen a person who lacks confidence demonstrating excellent communication skills???
    Body language is not required for most of the customer services roles or for telephony roles. Is it correct? What if one says the communication is 65% body language even when talking over the phone? Do you think a person with intermediate spoken language but excellent body language is not better than the vice versa?
    If yes do we need excellent communication skills in all sorts of jobs?
    Can we assume that people doing jobs are excellent communicators?
    Communication is considered to have failed when a message is not conveyed or interpreted in the sense it was basically intended.
    Can any one guarantee that an excellent communicator can communicate better to all sorts of people? Should common sense and a sharp analytical bent of mind be considered a must for an excellent communicator? Do all excellent communicators possess common sense and analytical mind?.

  10. laila said:

    Excellent communication skills means we do not like to hire foreign born professionals who have accents.
    It means if you have a foreign accent, do not apply

  11. Steve said:

    I still not quite understand what is the meaning of “excellent communication skills”?

    Is this discrimination against shy people?

    Can’t have any person “excellent communication skills” in his native language?
    What if English is not my mother tongue?

    And what if a person is technically superb at work but not in oral communication?

    I guess a poor bricklayer rarely makes presentations to the board of a multi-national company but still has to understand clients` needs and communicate to them and with his colleagues effectively.

    Why not say “10 years provable experience in similar position is essential”?
    But then again what can e.g. a graduate do applying for an entry position? Or someone would like to change career? Nobody was born with 10 years experience or as a confident communicator in every area of life…

  12. laila said:

    Usually, non native speakers don’t have excellent communications skills, so when I read an ad saying excellent communications skills it means immigrants should not apply.

  13. chuck said:

    I have to disagree with the “brick layer” job. I am a brick layer, have been doing it for 10 years. We have to have excellent communication skills not just so no one gets a brick to the head but if we are not communicating then your house would look like the leaning tower of Pisa, or you would have a stack of bricks in front of the door! What are you suppose to do with them? The hod tender needs to know how many cuts to make to go up the window or you run out of brick because he cut 200 extra. It does bother me because tho because the illegal Mexicans come over here with NO communication skills period and we are suppose to talk to them? WTF? I do believe that “excellent communication skills” is something that is very quantified.

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