I read with great interest the bold experiment launched by Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks to encourage his young baristas to trigger conversations on complex issues like race. In this particular campaign the barista was expected to write the words “race together” on customer cups – a trigger to initiate a conversation on the contentious issue. Needless to say the campaign ran into some rough weather.
Reading this triggered an entirely different thought in my mind – a thought around coffee and conversations, not by baristas but HR professionals. Young HR professionals who are responsible for employee engagement and people partnership are often expected to have one-on-ones or coffee conversations with employees. I have often seen that many of these professionals feel quite challenged having these conversations. They feel challenged for two reasons – they may not know enough about the subject to carry on a great conversation or more importantly they may just lack the conversation skills.
Back to Starbucks, I am wondering whether they had spent time training their baristas on the art of conversation and about the subject of race. I would imagine that it is only the exceptionally gifted ones who can have such conversations without training or preparation.
HR professionals are often required to have conversations around company policies, careers, the performance rating system, bad managerial styles, perceived unfairness, pay increases and such like. To be able to engage in such conversations with empathy and understanding without feeling compelled to offer solutions or defend oneself or convince the other person is indeed a fine art – something that even the most seasoned Coaches sometimes struggle with.
However, the idea to me is extremely exciting. Imagine the difference it can make if hundreds of young HR professionals were able to pull off great conversations with employees on contentious issues for which there are no right answers. Imagine the difference it will make to the employee’s perceptions of reality, if HR professionals could have conversations which lead not just to inquiry but also change.
That would be the day!